Donald D’Haene was on ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show’—twice—as a survivor of sexual abuse, not a victim.
November 5 was momentous as the eve of a very important US election.
Two years to the day it was also an important date for 199 men I know. Let me explain.
That was Oprah Winfrey’s greeting as she popped in unannounced in stocking feet holding spike-heeled pumps even Sex and the City‘s Carrie Bradshaw would envy.
“I only wear these things when we film.” After much laughter, she continued: “Thank YOU so much for being willing to be part of this historic program—one of the most important in our 25-year history. It took a lot of courage for all of you to come here and I appreciate it so much. When I watched the pre-interview footage, I told my producers, I can’t do this in one episode. That’s why we are going to film two episodes with you all today. Hope you enjoyed your breakfast because you’ll be getting lunch as well.”
That was the first of many off-camera moments that contributed to my two-day surreal visit to the land of Harpo.
What? Not only was I invited to one episode of her final year, but two!
The Oprah Winfrey Show had been working for months on a show specifically for men who were sexually abused as children. Their aim was to address the issue in a way that no one had ever done before. She flew 200 male survivors (32 Canadians, the rest American) to Chicago to help the world understand the pain, shame and stigma that goes along with being molested. She stated she hoped thousands of young males watching the show would disclose their abuse.
That was no pipe dream. Her show aired in 150 countries and she and her team publicized it in a big and controlled way. I had written a column about the show that was ready to go to print and her team had me pull it. I didn’t want to but I didn’t want to jinx my trip especially this time … .
You know the idiom, “Always a bridesmaid, never a bride?” I had been contacted by Oprah producers four previous times over the past decade. Once, I was flying in a plane to a northern area of Canada without cell phone reception and by the time I picked up the message two days later, the producers had gone in a different direction.
Nevertheless, I had always had a feeling a visit to The Oprah Winfrey Show was inevitable. For me, it was the Holy Grail of talk shows. I had been interviewed by hundreds of journalists in 30 years through ever angle imaginable. To say I was a bit jaded by the totality of that experience is an understatement. The more interviews I gave, the more control I wanted over every aspect of my story. It was my personal motto never to do anything sensational with my story. “It will never be made into a ‘Father Dearest’ film,” was my refrain. But I wouldn’t stop there. I’d add, “I wouldn’t go on Jerry Springer for a million bucks!” My partner, Maurice, he’d answer back, “Ahh, go on for $100,000!!!!”
Both of us weren’t kidding.
So just how did I finally get to the altar, so to speak?
Early in 2010, I went on oprah.com to view what shows she was planning and I saw the shout out to male survivors. I could only email 1000-typed characters. I sent it off and forgot about it.
As is the way, several weeks later, running late, the phone rang on a busy Wednesday in August.
“I’m a producer for The Oprah…”
Holding my hand on the receiver and rolling my eyes, I told my mother and visiting sister, “Shush, I’ve got to talk about ‘you know what’ again.” They knew ‘what’ all too well and they know that I do not want to talk about it. Surprised? Writing is one thing; talking—well, you figure it out. And for the fifth time: Oprah!!
No doubt my attitude came across on the phone. In fact every time I steered the conversation in the direction of ‘now’, the producer would go to back to ‘then’. Sure I could have pulled out all the stops with stories that would have shocked him but I chose not to. (This proved to be an omen of sorts). I actually got the caller to laugh which I knew surprised him: “I’ve never felt so normal in my life or happier! I’ve cried more times watching Oprah than for my whole life combined … heck, I even cried when she gave away those cars.”
And so when I found out I was one of the chosen, I’ll be honest and state I was not surprised. But as the email updates with travel and hotel information arrived, I kept expecting someone to inform me they were going in another direction. Every time I said, “I’m going on Oprah,” I felt I was lying. Especially when a producer did a follow up call making sure we Canadians didn’t have a criminal record. As I mouthed the word “No!” my mind played tricks on me. Did I pay that ticket from twenty-plus years ago? I couldn’t quite escape the feelings. When is someone going to call and say the jig is up!
Right up until Ms. Oprah walked in with her pumps!
But it wasn’t a dream.
Oprah had me at hello, but the reality hit me when I watched my brothers—all 200 of us—holding up in front of us blow up photos of us as children—that was one of the most moving experiences of my entire life.
Soon enough, guests were telling their heart-wrenching stories. I watched the men around me being empowered by the sharing of experiences.
I know it’s hard to believe but my private thoughts morphed from, ‘Am I really here?’ to ‘Just why am I here?’
I went public with my story before Oprah did (’81). I’d already been empowered listening to hundreds of males in the past three decades. I’ve done the work. I didn’t learn anything I didn’t know.
In fact, I could have stood up and remained standing until Oprah called on me, but you know what I would have said? “God, I wish this were one of your My Favourite Things shows!” (How odd that Ms. Winfrey has said that this two-part episode was one of her three favourite shows in her 25-year history.) I remember sitting there thinking there would have been two reactions to such an outburst: some would laugh and others might have wanted to pounce on me for wasting air time. And then it hit me. I was invited here to be there for them. I didn’t need to share my story. No, this was their time and I supported them wholeheartedly.
Sometimes silence is an important choice.
And thank goodness I was there when one survivor right in front of me in the line as we entered the studio persisted in encouraging another to forgive his rapist and I played peacemaker; when I spotted a quiet survivor who would probably go the entire weekend not initiating a conversation and so I did; and when another needed to see something of Chicago besides a hotel room or studio and I simply said, please join us.
I made some wonderful new friendships—Brian, Don and Jeff from Florida—even a last-minute one in the line-up at O’Hare airport saying goodbye to one of my new “brothers,” Todd. Not bad for the one time I decided to shut up and listen!
Towards the end of the second episode, Oprah asked us, “What more can I do?”
I would have replied, “Nothing! You’ve done it… ”
Remember I said earlier I’m a bit jaded by the sincerity of the media? Oprah Winfrey was hands down the best interviewer I’ve ever witnessed. Authentic. Engaged. Passionate. The epitome of “being there”… .
“…Thanks for ‘being here, Ms. Oprah!'”
Earlier a therapist said during the taping that molesters spot potential victims. Well, when I was on the plane, at the airport, on the bus, at the hotel, even at dinner, I played ‘spot the victim’ and I couldn’t. We are no longer victims.
You hear that, molesters? Just try and spot us now!
Read more by Donald D’Haene on talking about abuse to the media: Take Care of Yourself and Your Soul
Image courtesy of the author