Off in the wilderness, out in the woods, beneath the stars, only a few feet away from the remains of a smoldering campfire, behind the zipped doors of a musty tent and crowded into one sleeping bag together, Mr. Hooten’s cautious caring came unraveled. His “little buddy,” his Tom-Bo, became his toy. His protection became perversion. His acceptance of me became his using me. I went into the tent puffed up, euphoric, and longing for the next day’s outdoor adventure, my mind crowded with memories of Yellowstone adventures of the past. I came out broken, confused, and longing for home. The comfortable reassuring closeness of movie night, which he had used to reel me in, was replaced by the rough manipulation of a strong man accustomed to making people do things, and accept his doing things to them. He did as he wished and I did as he wanted. He was, after all, the master.
“Do exactly what I tell you to do or I’ll . . .” I had never heard words like that before, spoken in a tone that made it clear I had placed myself where I could no longer choose my actions. It would be the first time I had done so; the first moment of giving away control, an involuntary step onto the edge of an, invisible slippery slope, a re-defining of what was right, a challenge to all reason. I found myself, even at 8, rationalizing to prevent rejection.
Just as I would not weep years later when tossed in a holding cell as a result of my own actions, I would not weep that morning as I emerged into the clearing where the campfire’s ashes lay cold under the dawning sky. Not here; not with these boys.
Mr. Hooten was a sick man with a twisted mind and a way of making evil look and feel like love. I had a deep need for an adult man worthy of my trust and admiration. I was ignorant and innocent and eager to be accepted, wanting and wandering, ready to be molded, as he said repeatedly, into a little man. And he took it upon himself to reshape my life. With sadistic precision, he filled in the gaps left by the loss of my father’s love with his predatory sickness. With a false smile and a corrupted touch, he slowly and skillfully and malevolently took my childhood simplicity and innocence and pleasured himself, turning it into premature guilt and confusion, which I buried deep inside so as not to disappoint him. He took the gentle psyche of an innocent boy in his perverted hands and twisted it so hard that he left a permanent imprint on the future shape of my life. And from this, he gained his wicked satisfaction.
Back in Denton, in my shame, I was silent. For a time, I curled up in the quiet with my comic books and plastic soldiers and the pain, both physical and mental, slipped away as I found justification for his intentions. I resented myself for the sullenness I had shown in the last day of the camp-out, for the hurt feelings he must have had as I shied away, which had made him mad and had lead to his ignoring me all that final day. I felt guilt—not for his actions in the dark, but for my reactions in the daylight—and I was ready to tell him I was sorry.
In only a few days, I was longing for movie night. I needed Mr. Hooten to be nice again, to curl up on the floor of the big room full of boys and pull me—only me—up in front of him and hold me, touch me; make me feel special. To remind me that I had been chosen. I decided he had not really meant to hurt me in the tent, that I had just been stupid and not like other boys, who would have been glad to have been given such attention. I had been mean and ungrateful and I wanted to make it up to him so he would keep me in his troop.
Mike and I were only a few minutes late to movie night, but the lights were already down low. I scouted the room from far in the back and finally saw Mr. Hooten, there in the darkest spot in the middle behind the projector and I started picking my way around and between the sprawled bodies of the scouts. And then I stopped. Mr. Hooten and another burr-headed boy were curled up together in the dark. A smaller boy, maybe only 6, someone else’s little brother, had taken my place. My week of fading remorse had resulted in a jarring rejection. I found myself a spot alone far out on the edge of the room. I don’t remember the movie.
After Mr. Hooten traded me in, I retreated into a shell, custom-built a safer world around me, and became very selective about who would enter. It was only a brief “relationship,” but like all children preyed upon by sick adults, I did not escape undamaged.
When I was cast aside by Mr. Hooten and able to think more clearly, it didn’t take me long to know how wrong it had all been. Feeling real guilt for the first time in my life, I went to a couple of people I thought I could trust. I was embarrassed and frightened, but I took a risk and told. I sought real rescue.
“I’ve been doing something terrible. Can I tell you about it?” I remember asking. It did not occur to me that it was he—Mr. Hooten—who had done something terrible.
“Yes,” I was told by each. “You can tell me anything.”
And I did. And I thought they were listening. And I thought they would help me.
“Don’t you ever repeat a word of this to anyone,” one said angrily. “People will call you a liar . . . and a lot of other things. There’s no excuse for making things up just to get attention.”
One even punctuated his shocked response with a hard punch to my shoulder, as if the pain would reinforce his warning to never speak of this again.
I tried to tell a few others, but it was too difficult for them to hear. Pretty soon I learned that there are things you just don’t tell people. Things that people do to you; things you yourself do. Secrets that slowly become a part of you. Deeds that do indeed shape your manhood, but with contaminated clumps of clay. In Mr. Hooten’s menacing shadow, my voice had been too small.
I don’t know what eventually became of Mr. Hooten. I have lain awake at night wondering about the hurt and damage he inflicted on other little boys. Sexual abuse is slick and tricky and well-disguised. It slips into a child’s world with a smile and a laugh, a chuckle and a touch, and doesn’t leave until childhood purity has been stolen away and destroyed, and along with it, the ability to trust.
I don’t know if Mr. Hooten was gay or straight, because it was not really about sex at all. It was sport and selfishness and an unending search to fill a perverted emptiness. It was the conquest of a child, power over innocent prey, the sad satisfaction of a selfish soul at the expense of another, and the crumpling and tossing aside of a person perceived as less significant. There was no love, no care, just power and presence preceding emptiness and rejection from both to each.
And shame. I know there was great shame on my part or I would have told my father. I wonder—would he have risen from his own self-absorption to rescue me?
I’ve not been one for excuses. I know what statistics show—that a great majority of grownups with sexual identity problems were abused as children or abandoned by their fathers, or both—but I believe that, despite all that, the responsibility for my actions lies with me. What I became later and what I did in the desperate acts of self-destruction rest on my shoulders, not on Daddy’s or Mr. Hooten’s, both really only transitory visitors to my life. But I do know that in the mix of the me I came to be are the shaping memories of trains along Texas Street, a small boat on a star-lit pond, a grimy Continental Trailways bus racing down the road to Fort Worth, dark movies, camping tents, and a punch on the shoulder. Things that add up.
Some of us keep our secrets too long, thinking it is our burden to bear, unaware that we share it with others in our very actions, in the way we live as we hide and dodge and hurt the ones we love, even as we destroy the goodness of our selves.
In the span of a year I had lost my father, found Mr. Hooten, and lost him also.
The accepted “side effects” of childhood sexual abuse are many: guilt, shame, fear, anxiety, self-blame, a feeling of powerlessness, an inability to say no to others in relationships, difficulty nurturing self, a lack of trust in your own feelings, an emotional shut down or “numbing,” an inability to see your positive aspects, a desire for perfectionism, a need to control at all costs, a feeling of being invisible or of being a non-person, problems giving or receiving affection, difficulty relying on others. Each of these side effects can produce a new wave of guilt, an inner question that goes unanswered: “Why can’t I just get over it?”
The question is punctuated by the advice of others: “Get over it.”
The anger the adult feels at himself for acting out on something that happened to him as a child is furious and frustrating. We are allowing that person to maintain control long after he has moved on. Depression is familiar.
Some of the children abused by Mr. Hooten and the other predators may emerge, through the grace of God, to lead completely normal lives, unfazed by their brush with evil. Others may not survive at all, driven by self-doubts to self-destruction, seeking solace in things that lead them no-where and merely compound their lostness until they can no longer find themselves at all. Others may move into some form of sexual abuse themselves, seeking power over spouses or repeating the misdeeds done to them. Others may just retreat into themselves and live behind a wall.
I appreciate the fact God made each of us “wondrously.” I just wish people would leave His work alone so it can manifest itself in the way He intended. That little boy who wandered into the community room dreamed of being like his dad, only better. Even 8-year-olds can look beyond rockets and rifles to being daddies. I was going to do it perfectly. And in my perfect world, I would be the best Daddy. There would be no end to the zoo trips, the campouts, the fishing, the storytelling, the listening. I would rescue. I would have had nothing to hide; my children would never have been confused.
If only we could see what lies ahead. If only there were not so many twists and turns and hills and valleys obscured. We could carve out a road to overcoming instead of laying down stones for a pathway to succumbing. We would know we were being swallowed up before we plummeted so far into the depths of the struggle that all our energy goes into flailing instead of climbing.
It would take many years and a great deal of pain before someone would lead me down the better path of forgiveness for both Daddy and Mr. Hooten . . . and myself. Forgiveness would be the only way to begin to unzip the dark tent and emerge into the clearing.