In 1970 I ended up in jail in St. Louis. I spent the late sixties running away from my neglectful mom, then my abusive dad. When the police raided my last, sordid crash pad and found felony narcotics—speed, acid, pills, pot—I was abandoned as incorrigible, an IV drug user. I was 14 years old.
In Missouri at that time, there were last gasp facilities for the hopeless, impaired, and violent. Not rehabilitative, they were way-stations where boys eight to 18 awaited sentencing to the infamous Boonville correctional facility. A place with a surreal tolerance of violence, later called, when investigations closed it forever, the “most hellish forty acres in America.”
I was there for almost seven weeks. Two weeks before my hearing I was placed for five days in a special cell with three violent, depraved boys.
When it comes to rape, boys don’t tell. It was even truer then, but remains the standard, in and out of facilities. Those older boys and the corrupt staff who protected them depended on our shame and silence. Several guards colluded, the rest were indifferent to what happened to us, the youngest, weakest, and prettiest boys.
I am 61. It took me 44 years to speak of it, first to my wife, then a few friends, then regularly to a therapist who learned alongside me how one sorts out severe, long-suppressed trauma.
Last year I spent four days at a Garrison Institute workshop with the acknowledged modern expert on trauma, Bessel van der Kolk. He brought theater and music therapists, too, and the event was a turning point for me. There were a couple of dozen survivors, but most of the attendees were clinicians, specialists in trauma. I was the only male survivor, as far as I know. We met as equals and brave seekers.
A few months later I spent a long day at New York State’s first-ever workshop/conference on male sexual trauma, and again about one-fourth of the 120 attendees were survivors, but three of the four workshop leaders were survivors, too. I was finally in the presence of men like me, men who stood up and were broken, visible, and true. Most had been molested, but several had experienced terrible violence, like me. It was as if I could breathe with my entire lungs, at last. I was not alone.
This is not an essay with lurid details. It is important to understand, however, what severe means for boys and men in lock-up, or anywhere if you are to understand what we overcome, and how traditional definitions of wholeness and closure do not apply. (We engage in healing behavior; we are not healed, ever.) During my five days, I was raped repeatedly, tortured and humiliated, and made to participate in my own degradation. After begging for rescue on the third day, I fought back that evening, thinking help was on the way. It was not, and things became more violent. I required corrective surgery, including a partial anusectomy.
Men don’t tell. I buried it, but had no hidden self, and I never forgot. I tried my best to follow everyone’s advice and “let it go.” There was no context of PTSD or rape victim’s rights in 1970. Decade after decade I became a skilled actor, convincing myself I was okay. I raised my first daughter alone, then remarried and had two more daughters. I succeeded in life up to a point, with career and home. All three of my daughters are ferociously funny, successful, smart, and strong.
My late-in-life deterioration was typical, I’ve learned. I could not maintain my stoic, heroic self-identity forever because it was built on a lie. I was “great dad” when they were young, but a frantic, anxious, withdrawn father when they reached adolescence, the age I was when things went so wrong. I struggled to not continue the cycle of abuse, and succeeded, but barely.
There are myths and assumptions about men who have been abused. Most, contrary to Hollywood and television stories, do not become offenders themselves, but we live in terror that we will, are secretly evil, dangerous, and prone to terrible error against loved ones. We internalize it, eat ourselves up with obsessive self-correction, or long hours of work, or compulsive self-sacrifice. We turn to drink and drugs, eat too much, and die early, just like our female counterparts who were abused and raped.men
There is another misconception, about incarcerated men and boys, in particular, a vile and pernicious one. I hear it among left- and right-wing friends equally, and in almost every movie and program. It goes like this: bad guy gets caught, at last; good guy makes a joke how Bubba in the bad guy’s cell will make him his bitch. For some of us, this throwaway remark is a horror. Boys and men assaulted in facilities do not deserve it. They are not getting rough justice; it’s rape, and a civilized society would not allow it. The victims of rape in jail are the weak, defenseless, and young. Remember this whenever you hear this so-called joke. Remember this when you blithely wish rape on a convicted rapist. Would you permit an extrajudicial system of violent assault against the weak, just so it might at times add extra punishment to a bad man?
Our culture refuses to “pamper” those in prison. We remain a Puritan, punitive culture, that thinks they get what they deserve. We have barely begun to address what is aptly called rape culture for women generally; men and women in facilities are ignored.
Centuries from now this era will be known primarily for our tolerance of rape. The PREA Act was passed in 2003 to address sexual assault in jails and prisons, but the number of reported rapes has risen every year nonetheless, and estimates suggest the actual number, given the lack of oversight in private prisons, to be as many as 200,000 per year. Besides the 70,000 children in government facilities, and up to 100,000 in private facilities of different kinds, there are as many as 10,000 children in adult lockup on any given day. Remember them. The most conservative estimate is that 15,000 children—one every 35 minutes—are raped and assaulted each year in all these facilities. The reported, confirmed number is under 1,200. Boys don’t tell.
Men don’t tell. It took me 44 years. I blurt now, am inappropriate at times—when and where, exactly, is the right time and place to tell what happened? People look away, don’t know what to say. But I will never be silent again. After I was moved to a different cell, I saw the boy who came after me out in the yard, in the day room. He was 10, at most, and destroyed, like me. I could not protect myself or him or any of them; how could I, in that place, at 14? But rape lasts forever, and I will always believe I should have died trying.
Photo: Original art courtesy of author / Getty Images (top)