Sorting through a stack of boxes in a rare attempt to organize my life, I stumble across a decades-old photograph stuck to the back of a college textbook. I haven’t seen this photo in years. The colors have faded with age, but time has not dimmed the wattage of the little boy’s bright smile.
I stare, transfixed, at his image captured on film so many years ago—all chubby cheeks, pudgy arms, and little boy belly. I want to reach into the photo and give him a squeeze, but I can’t. No one can because the little boy in the photo no longer exists. He died a long time ago, not in body, but in spirit. A few years after this photo was taken, perversion, in the guise of a “trusted family friend,” pulled the boy into the quiet of an attic room for the first of several times —and snuffed out the light in his soul.
The boy was my friend for many years, a happy, outgoing boy who would let his sisters spin him like a top until he collapsed on the ground in a dizzied, giggling heap. But the attic changed all of that. The smiling, outgoing boy became withdrawn and somber. Looking back through my adult eyes, I find it inconceivable that not one of his protectors questioned—or even seemed to notice—the dramatic change in him, but they didn’t.
He became the keeper of his terrible secret and the shame he felt—deep, profound and crippling—grew along with him from childhood to manhood. He did the only thing he knew to do to survive—push the shame down deeper and deeper until he convinced himself it was gone. Of course, it wasn’t gone at all. It became the hidden rudder that steered him onto a path of self-destructive behavior, from drug use to dropping out of school, and anyone who tried to get close to him became collateral damage.
I was the first to learn his secret, mostly by accident, more than thirty years ago. Exhausted from trying to reconcile the two sides of his personality—the kind, helpful guy and the angry, hurtful one—and exasperated from trying to predict which would show up from day to day, I blurted out, “What is wrong with you? Did you suffer some horrible trauma as a child?”
Never did I expect the response that I got. The whole story came tumbling out, the first time his dark secret had seen the light of day. Suddenly, everything about his behavior made so much more sense to me—his mood swings, his pattern of self-sabotage and his constant shifting from seeking everyone’s approval to thumbing his nose at them for imagined slights.
I was overcome with sympathy, but also with a sense of responsibility. If I were the first and only person he’d disclosed to—even if he hadn’t quite planned on it—I wanted to support his recovery journey. Unfortunately, I was more invested in that journey than he was. Over the course of the next few years, I did everything I could to encourage him. I acted as his protector, comforter, and cheerleader. Time and time again, I sought out excellent therapists for him, all of whom he either rejected out of hand or went to a few times before declaring himself “fine,” which of course he never was.
Admittedly, I’m a bit of a “fixer,” but I felt I couldn’t give up on my friend when I knew the “truth” about him. I saw, as did others, his increasingly manipulative, sometimes ruthless treatment of others, but I also saw—or believed I did—the aching child inside. Eventually, as lie upon lie and broken promise upon broken promise piled up, I had to walk away.
I always hoped he would get the help he needed, but the trail of broken marriages, abandoned children, and lost jobs he has left in his wake tells me that he likely never did. He has hurt so many people that it is almost impossible for me to reconcile the image of the betrayed, victimized child with the grown man who routinely betrays and victimizes others (although not sexually, thank goodness). The innocent child, no matter how sympathetic a figure, cannot justify the grown man’s refusal to take responsibility for himself and the tremendous damage he has caused.
So, I put the photo back in the box and try to put the complicated feelings I have about him away as well. No one can say how my friend’s life would have turned out if he’d never been pulled into that attic. Human behavior is infinitely complex and not so neatly defined or predicted. But I do know that more than one victim was created in that attic. My friend’s undressed wounds poisoned his heart, and he passed the resulting hurt and anger on to many others.
Tragically, I’m sure there are many other “attic boys” out there. Even in our enlightened age, it is still difficult for men to speak up about having been abused. That secret is a very heavy load to shoulder alone, and it gets heavier and more disabling the longer you carry it. If you are among the walking wounded, I encourage you to reach out for the support and care you need. Don’t let shame and embarrassment stop you because you deserve to be healed, happy and whole.
Photo: Flickr/ Brett Davies