More than just a photograph

Chris and myself are doing a 30-day challenge that focuses on letting go of material items in effort to free ourselves from clutter, whether it be physical or emotional. Today brought up some emotions for me that I felt were worth expanding on.

One of my items today is very personal. Years ago, I was at a trauma conference and came across a photographer whose work affected me greatly. She took photographs of the female form and cross-processed them with other images. One in particular was of a woman’s naked body covered in flames. I was immediately drawn to it, and purchased it from her. Through conversation, I learned that the woman in the picture was the photographer herself.  Her self-portraits were a way of reclaiming her body after years spent in an abusive relationship. When she was finally able to leave her abuser, she burned the mattress that he’d raped her on and photographed it. The two photos together were a way to express her pain and release it; to literally burn it away. It’s a compelling image with an even more powerful message.

When I met this woman I was very early in my own recovery, traveling around the country and in the thick of trauma work. I would surround myself with visual reminders that I was not alone, that my pain could not be silenced. I felt like I needed people to see it, to talk about it, to acknowledge it’s existence, my existence.

Today, while I was searching for my items to purge, I came across the photograph in a pile of old pictures and commemorative plaques of the past. It made me both sad and grateful. It’s still a beautiful picture, it stills has meaning. I realize now that I no longer need it in my life as a reminder of how far I have come, or my experience passed. I don’t relate to it in the same way, and I feel that by letting it go, I’m taking one more step towards healing.

Maybe by letting it go, someone else will find it and walk a similar path. Which to me, makes gifting it….invaluable.

photo(90)

I Came Forward…On Oprah.

 

She turned to the teleprompter, looked out into the sea of men in the audience.  Each of us held a large childhood picture in our arms.  “It’s hard to see all of your pictures,” she told us as she wiped the tears from her eyes.

Then taping began…

For the next three hours I grieved amongst a group of 200 men who were all survivors of child abuse.  Some at the hands of strangers, most by adults we knew and trusted.  Most of the men here today, and Oprah, were abused by more than one adult.  Some were abused by other children, and some went on to be abused into adulthood.

Many of our abusers lived complete lives, free from incarceration.  Free from having to answer for their horrific acts.   They live in your communities.

When I wasn’t crying I was trying to stay present, in this moment.  But I often did what I do whenever my trauma approaches.  I disassociate.  I felt myself watching the studio of men from a safe distance even as I was sitting in the middle of it.

Oprah began the discussion with Tyler Perry, a film producer who recently disclosed his personal history of abuse.  I could see this audience of 200 men collectively unhinge itself.  I saw men all around me crying and exhibiting incredibly pained expressions of grief.  I felt like I was at a funeral for a close friend.  I saw old men crying inconsolably, just like the little boys who died in their hearts.

There was a man sitting across from me.  His face was bunched up so tightly and he hunched over again and again sobbing.  All I wanted to do was walk across this studio and give this boy some reassurance.

I looked down at the picture sitting on my lap, then turned it face down.  It was too painful to see that boy’s false smile.  Like a pulse, the words of Tyler Perry kept slicing through my heart.  “I felt like I died as a child.”

If Oprah would have allowed us to hold up a picture of any child I wouldn’t have held up my own.  I’m still alive.  I can look into the eyes of my baby daughter.  I have a beautiful and supportive wife waiting for me at home.  No, I would have held up a picture of my best friend Eddie.  When he died, the police report indicated that he hung himself with a bed sheet.  They said he “suffered from depression” or that “drug use contributed” to his death.  The newspaper never says “he died from child abuse.”

Eddie had a beautiful daughter of his own.  She was just a child when he passed.  Now we are both the caretakers of his memory.  I will never have the priviledge of having his quick wit and infectious laughter fill up my soul with life.  We were once just two abused kids, just trying to make it through.  Now he is gone and I am here.

The studio was filled with lights and cameras.  The film crews shuffled around, doing many things all at the same time.  Oprah was the calming presence in the middle of it.  She looked us in the eye and in her eyes I could see an underlying message to all of us men.  Just stay with me a little longer.

I struggled to keep my eyes open.  The exhaustion was so great my body was shutting down.

Twin brothers, about my age, got up from the front row and joined Oprah in the center.  They began to disclose the story of their abuse.  Molested by priests for 13 years.  I felt this anger and rage fill my body, every hair rising up.  I looked around at the other men in the audience and saw a reflection of outrage.  These boys told their mother, but they weren’t believed.  So the abuse continued.

I looked up, from time to time, at the cameras around me.  One camera stood directly at me for the entire taping.  I wondered if my face would be broadcast.  I wondered about all the people in my life who didn’t know.  Imagine the shock if you just turned the channel on the Oprah Show one day and saw your son, brother, nephew, friend, or uncle sitting in that audience.  Would you mourn for him?  Would you wonder who his abuser was?  Would you believe him?  Would you reach out to him and offer support?  What if you were his abuser?

Towards the end Oprah opened it up to questions.  My body became a tangle of pins and needles.  I had something to say.  We all had something to say.  I saw a man in his 50’s stand up to speak and wondered how many decades he had waited to finally say something here.  There would never be a moment like this again for any of us.

We filmed two shows that day and were only barely scratching the surface of all that went on.  I think Oprah saw this so she let us speak.  The Q&A session was never aired.  I’m not sure that it mattered.

Before I knew it I was in a bus heading to the airport.  There were so many guys I wanted to say goodbye to but never got the chance.  But I had nothing left to muster.  So I buried my head into a pillow on the flight back.

From flying to Chicago, filming two episodes of The Oprah Show, and flying back to Seattle, it had all happened in less than 48 hours.  Even now, i’m still recovering from that short and great impact on my life.

One thing I realized is that when we hold secrets we hold back a piece of ourselves.  We deprive our friends, family, and spouses from the true joy in our hearts.  They can never know our stories unless we tell it.  So many men and women went to their graves having never told anyone.

So I think of all the people in the past who weren’t given the opportunity to grieve.  I think of my abuser.

I am not sure what happened to him.  I don’t think he will ever tell us.  I know what he took away from me.  There were men his age in that audience.  These men were born from a generation even further entrenched in the silence.  Their presence brought me hope.

I do believe that men who tell are the exception, not the rule.  That is what made this Oprah special a very unique experience.  We have always been told that boys don’t cry.  Yet they always do.

These men stood together, in front of millions, despite our society.

These men stood with a powerful female advocate.

I am not sure of the long term impact of these shows, but what I do know is the extraordinary effect the show had on the lives of the men.  We are telling our family and friends for the first time.  We are confronting our abusers.  We have started campaigns to combat abuse.  We are going into therapy.  We are telling our stories.

200 of Oprah’s Men.  I am proud to call myself one of them.  They say that one motivated soul can affect change on an entire society.  Imagine what 200 can do.  Imagine if we all finally woke up and began to really talk for the first time.

My Name Is Project Update

We’ve had great interest in the My Name Is Project and are waiting with much anticipation for you to submit your survivor video stories in support of this project.

Recently I had the priviledge of participating in the Oprah two-part event on male survivors of child abuse.  The first show aired last Friday and began with an emotional opening where the entire audience of 200 male survivors held up pictures of themselves at the age when they were first abused.

It was a powerful moment, standing amongst all those men, holding up a picture of who I was before my life changed so traumatically.

(Wo)Men Speak Out has an idea based on that powerful moment on Oprah.  We are working on a new video montage which will hopefully include pictures of all of you.  We all have our individual stories.  But we have a collective story of abuse that is worth telling to everyone who has felt trauma in their lives, and to those who haven’t.

So this is a call out to ALL SURVIVORS.  If you are interested in participating in this montage, send us a high resolution picture of you holding a picture of yourself at the age of your abuse under your chin.  Also, include the age of abuse and you can optionally include your name as well.  We will collect all of the submissions and create a video montage telling a shared story of abuse.

We need as many submissions as we can because we want this to show the magnitude of abuse and at the same time the human face of survivorship.

Also, keep your personal video submissions coming in.  We need to create our video community of survivor stories to inspire all of our brothers and sisters who are right now suffering in silence.  The only way we can do it is with your stories.

Thank you for participating in this project.  Break the silence.  To live.

Chris de Serres

christopher@womenspeakoutnow.com

WSO

My Name Is Project


It’s been a few years since I first posted the video My Name is Chris on Youtube.  I wanted to create a snapshot of my life.  I have been silent about my abuse for over 2 decades and this video is my admission that it has affected almost everything about me.  I wanted that happy childhood dream.  But I finally knew that there was nothing I could do to take my childhood back, to wipe away the abuse.  I couldn’t even pretend anymore that the abuse didn’t exist.

So I made My Name is Chris, and I cry just a little every time I watch it.  Recently I had the privilege of taking part in a two-part Oprah special on male survivors of child abuse.  Oprah wanted an audience of 200 male survivors to show a face to the millions of men who are abused and never talk about it.

Shortly after the filming I received an email from Jarrod Marcum Noftsger.  He was among the 200 men.  He wanted to let me know that My Name is Chris helped his recovery.  In fact, he made is own version of the video, called My Name is Jarrod, as a way of coming to terms with his own horrific abuse.

There are millions of survivors out there who want to tell their stories.  Yet, we feel isolated and unable to express the deepest pain in our lives.  The My Name Is Project is there to provide a survivor a way to express it.

So our project is simple:

1.  Create your own My Name is… video. There are many programs to make nice montages.  I made My Name is Chris with One True Media.  If you have any production questions feel free to email me at christopher@womenspeakoutnow.com.  I’m no video wizard but i’ll do my best to help.  I want your video to be as representative of your voice as much as possible.

2.  Post your video on Youtube as a “response” to My Name is Chris. Our video can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MYBkMzQrknk. This way, we stay connected and others can see all of the videos in the project stream. 

Click here for a quick tutorial for those who aren’t sure how to add a video in response to ours.

3.  Feel free to incorporate what elements you want from My Name is Chris, but your video should have the taste of your personal experience to it. We want to learn about your personal adversity and growth.  It can be happy, it can be sad.  As long as it is real we want it to be a part of this project.

4.  Email Chris along the way with your thoughts, experiences, and questions and to let us know that you have contributed to the “My Name is…” project.

Our goal is to create a community of “My Name is…” videos which tell the collective stories of abuse and trauma in our communities.  The short term goal is 50 before the end of 2010.  50 videos.  Men and Women. Together. Starting with My Name is Chris and My Name is Jarrod.  We need 48 more before January of 2011.  We can only do it with your voice.

Sharing your story is the greatest gift you can give to another survivor.  When I made My Name is Chris I was only trying to heal from my pain.  Imagine the impact our collective montage of stories will have on survivors who need to hear that they are not alone and that their pain matters.

We can only do this with your help.

Chris de Serres

WSO

 

Watch Me Burn: Domestic Violence Made Personal

Just gonna stand there and watch me burn
Well that’s all right because I like the way it hurts
Just gonna stand there and hear me cry
Well that’s all right because I love the way you lie
I love the way you lie

Videos have always been a very powerful medium for me. I have read hundreds of books on trauma.  I’ve attended countless conferences and worked in the field of abuse for almost 10 years. But nothing says “this is your life” like seeing an abusive relationship played out on camera. Eminem and Rihanna collaborated in a music video called “Love the Way You Lie.”  It is an amazingly accurate portrayal of the cycle of violence that exists in abusive relationships.  It mirrored so closely to my own past experiences that I needed to walk away from it the first time I watched it.

A paradox is a situation which defies intuition and presents a seeming contradiction. To me, love and domestic violence is one such paradox. I can count the intimate relationships I have been in that have been abusive. Relationships where I fell in love with partners who continually abused me. Growing up in a family that was emotionally, physically and sexually abusive, it’s not surprising that I would find myself living what I learned to be “normal”. Somehow though, contrary to my actions, I always knew that “normal” shouldn’t include suffering.

I fell fast for a man who, from the first day I met him, treated me like I was disposable. He had an extremely violent past with jail time to prove it. Everyone viewed him in his circle as unpredictable and dangerous. One day he was the most loving, funny, charismatic and romantic man I’d ever dated.  Like the flick of a switch he could be a womanizing, drug using, alcoholic, male chauvinist.

I can’t tell you what it really is, I can only tell you what it feels like
And right now it’s a steel knife in my windpipe
I can’t breathe but I still fight while I can fight
As long as the wrong feels right it’s like I’m in flight
High off her love, drunk from my hate, it’s like I’m huffin’ paint
And I love it the more I suffer, I suffocate
And right before I’m about to drown, she resuscitates me, she f**kin’ hates me
And I love it, “wait, where you goin’?”
“I’m leavin’ you,” “no you ain’t come back”
We’re runnin’ right back, here we go again
So insane, cause when it’s goin’ good it’s goin’ great
I’m superman with the wind in his back, she’s Lois Lane
But when it’s bad it’s awful, I feel so ashamed I snap
Whose that dude? I don’t even know his name
I laid hands on her
I never stoop so low again
I guess I don’t know my own strength

I was attracted to the “bad boy.” The guy who would both protect me but inadvertently would become more and more obsessive over me. The label of “abusive” and “obsessive” did not exist in my reality however, not until later. This is because on some level I believed all the things he said to me about who I was and how I affected the relationship negatively. Each violent outburst was a direct consequence of something that I had done to invoke it. That’s the cycle of domestic violence.  Ever escalating. Manipulative. Demoralizing.

You ever love somebody so much you can barely breathe
When you’re with ’em
You meet and neither one of you even knows what hit ’em
Got that warm fuzzy feeling
Yeah, them those chills you used to get ’em
Now you’re getting fucking sick of looking at ’em
You swore you’d never hit ’em; never do nothing to hurt ’em
Now you’re in each other’s face spewing venom in your words when you spit them
You push pull each other’s hair, scratch claw hit ’em
Throw ’em down pin ’em
So lost in the moments when you’re in them
It’s the rage that took over it controls you both
So they say you’re best to go your separate ways
Guess if they don’t know you ’cause today that was yesterday
Yesterday is over, it’s a different day
Sound like broken records playing over but you promised her
Next time you show restraint
You don’t get another chance
Life is no Nintendo game
But you lied again
Now you get to watch her leave out the window
I guess that’s why they call it window pane

There was a moment in the relationship that, to me, was the beginning of the end. We had gone out for a night of drinking and dancing with friends. At the end of the evening, I playfully threw a pretzel at him as he walked away from me. Before I knew what was happening, he turned and lunged at my face with his fist. I knew in that moment that if he would be that violent in front of others, there was no line he wouldn’t cross behind closed doors. The violence had in that moment become unmanageable and I knew I had to get out.

There are people who would ask why I didn’t leave at the first sign of violence. Why it took him becoming violent in public for me to decide I had enough. Pointing out that violence whether in private or public is unacceptable. It’s true.  It seems so black and white, but it’s not. For me, abusive behavior was intertwined with love. The first man in my life, my father, was a violent man. His behaviors laid for me an understanding that love and violence were normal. My mother herself was abused. I saw this day after day in my home. That all was forgiven and forgotten until the next time that it was forgiven and forgotten.

Now I know we said things, did things that we didn’t mean
And we fall back into the same patterns, same routine
But your temper’s just as bad as mine is
You’re the same as me
But when it comes to love you’re just as blinded
Baby, please come back
It wasn’t you, baby it was me
Maybe our relationship isn’t as crazy as it seems
Maybe that’s what happens when a tornado meets a volcano
All I know is I love you too much to walk away though
Come inside, pick up your bags off the sidewalk
Don’t you hear sincerity in my voice when I talk
I told you this is my fault
Look me in the eyeball
Next time I’m pissed, I’ll aim my fist at the drywall
Next time. There won’t be no next time

I apologize even though I know its lies

I had been in relationships that were non-violent but could never function properly in them. I didn’t love myself, didn’t believe I deserved to be loved and couldn’t receive that which I know now to be real love.  I did everything I could to get out of those relationships, to hurt before getting hurt myself. Though I didn’t know it at the time, it’s these relationships that reminded me that there was something better out there.

Abuse doesn’t just start the first day you meet someone.  It is a gradual, ever changing pattern of events that are rationalized and forgiven until the next time and the next and the next. Until one day, you find yourself so entrenched in the pattern, so emotionally dejected, that by the time you realize you are in a domestic violence situation, you feel powerless to leave. Hopeless.

I wish I could tell you that after that experience,  I never again found myself in another abusive relationship.  Years later, I would find myself in another pattern of emotional abuse. I recognized it, I excused it. It repeated itself. This time though I reached out to friends and when I did, I was able to get the help I needed to start a path to healing myself and open up to healthier relationships.

It saddens me to think that I wasn’t strong enough to see through the piles of teddy bears and chocolate the second time around. That I didn’t love myself enough to demand respect. That I rationalized again and again for behaviors that were completely unacceptable. Despite these feelings, I know now that I was not responsible for their behaviors and that none of what happened was my fault. Because I reached out for help I didn’t stay as long the last time, recognizing more readily what was happening to me. I left and made a promise to myself that I would never again be in a relationship with anyone who would treat me that way.

If you are in an abusive relationship it is important to know that you are not alone and that the abuse is not your fault. There is a better life waiting for you. One free of suffering.

No one deserves to be abused. Get the help you need and deserve. You are not alone.

National Domestic Violence Hotline 1−800−799−SAFE(7233) or TTY 1−800−787−3224

Not In Our Community

It’s always a measure of a real community when they hear about news of abuse.  How will they respond when they learn their community may not be as safe as they thought?  Will they react defensively then eventually begin the real discussion?  Or will they never have that real discussion?  Ideal communities consist of well-intentioned individuals who advocate their way of life and will address safety issues directly and productively.  But we know that not all communities are ideal, so we must work with what we have.

As a public speaker I am never truly surprised with the mixed reaction I sometimes receive in the communities I have spoken in throughout the years.  Whether it be at a church.  Or a college.  Or a corporation.  There are always some who wonder “why are you here, speaking to us about abuse?  This doesn’t happen in my backyard.”

Yet it does.

If abuse didn’t occur in your community I would be doing something else.  I would be rock climbing.  If I had my choice I could retire early and rock climb for the rest of my life.  But I work in abuse for two reasons:  I am a male survivor of childhood abuse and because IT’S HAPPENING in your community.  When abuse, and all attempts to hide it’s presence, in our communities ceases to exist, then I will happily retire and move on to a happier profession.  Until then, you can guess where I’ll be and what I’ll be doing.

The tendency of the ‘not in our community’ types is to attack the messenger.  To scrutinize their every word.  To attempt to break them down and discredit them and all they say.  WSO has been under scrutiny more than a few times.  We come to expect it.  This is the defensive reaction.  Yet, it’s our hope that the real discussion takes place at some point.  Maybe not when I come to your town to talk about abuse.  Maybe later that day.  Maybe a week later.  Maybe a year.

But at some point if we can get you talking about abuse in your community then we are happy.

Growing up as a boy, nobody talked about abuse in my community.  Actually that’s wrong.  No parents or adults talked about abuse in my community.  My childhood best friend was one of the few souls who told me that he was abused.  He was 16 years old at the time.  Oh, and my classmate and his little brother who lived next door told me of their sexual abuse.  They were 10 and 6 years old respectively at the time.  Also, my other friend who was beaten bloody when he was 5.  He was 15 years old when he told me.

Adults don’t want to talk about abuse.  Kids do.  But they are too scared.  They don’t have a safe person to tell.  They don’t have a safe place to go to tell it.  For those children who haven’t been touched by the scourge of abuse you, as an adult, are doing a grave disservice to them by pretending it doesn’t happen in all communities, all societies, all cultures, and among all religious faiths.

For all intents and purposes, my family was what one would consider a model family, with model parents, in a model community of people who cared for their children.  That model community was a complete illusion.

As an adult, I went back there, to that model community.  I spoke with many of my old friends from model families.  I told them that I survived abuse.  It was only then that I learned of their abuse.  At the hands of their fathers, mothers, uncles, neighbors, and teachers.  Admissions from the most shocking places and from so many who I never would have suspected.  We were all harboring that secret, and our community wasn’t talking.

As a speaker, I rarely set foot in a venue filled completely with ‘not in our community’ types.  Usually there is one survivor in the audience.  Often in our Q&A sessions we will get skeptics who don’t believe in our message, who don’t believe in our statistics, who can’t stand our presence because talking about abuse in their community is felt as an indictment on them.  Then a friend of there’s stands up and announces that they are a member of this community and they were abused.  All it takes is one to quiet a room.  One courageous soul.

So if you believe that abuse doesn’t happen or is too overblown or too minuscule to really matter in your community, invite me to come speak.  I have a feeling you may be in for a surprise.

Chris de Serres

christopher @ womenspeakoutnow.com

Say Something

The most common question I get asked after our speaking events is “what can I do?” Or “how can I become an advocate?” There are many ways of answering a question like that.  But then it got me thinking while I was having lunch at the local pizza place.

I walked up to the server, took one look at the oil drenched offerings and told him I wanted two of the pepperoni.  Now it was clear that the slices had been sitting on the counter for a while.  Normally the server takes the slices, puts them in the heater, and passes it along.  This time he didn’t.  He put the pizza on a plate and passed it to the cashier.

Excuse me, can you heat those up for me?”

He knew he should have put them in the heater.  I knew he should have.  But he didn’t.  So I had to put my advocate hat on so that I would get what I was about to pay for.  That’s essentially what advocacy is.  It’s the difference between what is happening and what should be happening.  Depending on what the issue is it can be a monumental difference.  It could be the difference between life and death.

A survivor of abuse may have handled that scenario a little differently.  She may have taken those two slices as is.  I mean, if you don’t think that you amount to much or that you are deserving of respect, then why would that change at the pizza counter?  We don’t always get the slices we deserve.

You are the person behind her saying, “hey, don’t you think you ought to heat those up for her?  You want hot slices right ma’am?”

When it comes down to the fundamentals our job is the same, from the counter to the streets to the courtrooms and on.

When I first began speaking about my abuse I did it for a number of reasons.  I only realized after a man once told me that when I spoke he felt like I was speaking for him.  I was speaking the words that he had been meaning to say.  I felt grateful to hear that my story had this effect on him.  You never truly know until people tell you.

It made me think of the second part of the pizza story.

“Thanks, I really wanted them hot, but I didn’t think to say anything.”

Advocacy?  It’s a snap.  All you got to do is say something.