Dan Leonard: “There are guys out there who are dying inside…”
Original pub date April 26, 2012
Dan Leonard will speak Saturday at The Clean Slate Diaries, a gathering for survivors of domestic violence and sexual abuse at the May Memorial Universalist Society in Syracuse. Leonard understands he will address only one small part of that community. The survivors at Clean Slate are those who’ve sought help for what was done to them. Countless others, as Leonard puts it, are still “carrying their secret.”
Events in recent weeks reaffirm the importance of his message. Regional consciousness of childhood sexual abuse was elevated last year after four men made allegations against Bernie Fine, who, soon after, was fired as an assistant men’s basketball coach at Syracuse University. Two of the accusers — Floyd VanHooser and Zach Tomaselli — later said they lied in their stories about Fine, who maintains he is innocent.
“They’ve set things back. It’s unfortunate,” Leonard said of VanHooser and Tomaselli, who cast a shadow on all the truth-telling survivors who come forward. Leonard, 54, also worries about a decision by Bobby Davis and Mike Lang — the stepbrothers who first brought public accusations of abuse against Fine — to hire high-profile lawyer Gloria Allred to represent them in a defamation lawsuit against Syracuse University and head basketball coach Jim Boeheim.
Leonard said he appreciates the frustration that caused Lang and Davis to seek redress in court. The statute of limitations for child abuse in New York can leave victims feeling as if they have no way to defend their name, Leonard said. Yet he also realizes that defenders of Fine, or of anyone accused of abuse, often do what Boeheim did initially: They’ll claim victims who go public are liars, only in it for the money.
In that sense, Leonard worries that Lang and Davis — whose allegations Leonard believes are true — may subtly reinforce some damaging perceptions, even if they win their case.
“Now it’s going after money,” Leonard said, “and I don’t believe that’s why Bobby Davis told his story to begin with.”
Leonard guesses that he and Davis spoke out for the same reason: Their secrets finally became too much to bear. Leonard, who now lives in Manlius, said he was abused many times as a child by a Pittsburgh-area youth football coach. The incidents began 43 years ago, when Leonard was 11. The coach had selected Leonard’s older brothers for a travel football team, but the man turned his attention toward the little boy.
The coach ingratiated himself to Leonard and his family. He became a regular guest at the family home, a guy who seemingly had gone out of his way by giving the older brothers coveted places on the team. Then the coach began pouring special favors onto Leonard, the awestruck child. One day the coach took Leonard to his house, where he gave the child some beer and told him it would be their secret. The coach asked for help in washing his sports car …
And he said the boy would need a shower before going home.
“Then it happened,” said Leonard, who remembers feeling trapped, frightened and ashamed. The abuse would continue for two years, until Leonard became a teen, at which point the coach — now long dead — seemed to lose interest. While Leonard assumes the older man went looking for younger victims, the boy he left behind was deeply wounded. Leonard went on to play football at Cornell University. He got married and raised a family, but a part of him was still 11, trapped inside the coach’s house.
Leonard said he began to drink too much. He often felt removed from his family. Finally, in his 30s, he shared the truth with a therapist. The moment was transformative. Leonard, who rarely cries, wept convulsively. He was liberated to tell his wife and eventually his children, although he waited until he felt his kids were old enough to cope. Beyond all else, Leonard felt a sense of mission: Studies show millions of Americans withhold stories of abuse. One of every six males, Leonard said, will become a target.
“One in six,” repeated Leonard, who hopes his talks might convince others to come forward. “I always count up everyone in a room before I give a speech, and tell people: Look around. I tell you what, there are guys out there who are dying inside … guys trying to hold onto their secrets. They’re yelling more, they’re arguing with their wives more, they’re kicking the dog more, they’re drinking more because they’re trying to hang onto it.”
Much easier, said Leonard, just to let those stories out. But the only way to arrive at that threshold is when someone else — often someone who’s lived through the same thing — provides new meaning for two words long equated with betrayal:
Once that happens, finally, the boy breaks free.
Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Post-Standard.
Photo: Michelle Gabel/The Post-Standard
Originally published here on Syracuse.com.