Content warning: the following story contains references to sexual assault, alcoholism, and depression, which may be triggering for some readers.
“Boy Afraid,” David Cave
I was maybe 10 or 11 the first time John held me up against a wall with the force of his body and rubbed me up and down, kissing my neck. His hot breath made me shiver, I felt violated, disgusted and impossibly tainted, paralyzed by fear and shock. Over the next few years, this would happen nearly every Sunday at the Baptist church my family attended three times a week. As I got older, I grew resistant to John's physical prowess over me, threatening to tell on him. I never did, I still haven't told anyone of consequence what he did to me. Every time I threatened him with action, refusing to play the docile deer-in-his-headlights he threatened me with violence, or threatened to do the same to my brother, instilling a terror that casts a long shadow over my life. In the same turn he would add more time to the clock that he counted out in his head while he felt me up violently and kissed my neck by the storage shed behind the church, often arbitrarily adding time to my sentence for the slightest transgression. I quickly tried to get out of going to church as much as I could, faking illness and trying to maximize time around the friends I knew I was safe around that might provide protection (because John's fear of being found out trumped his violent sexual urges).
John was often referred to as my friend, as we were constantly around each other, and eventually I bought into this lie (the truth was he wouldn't let me far out of his sight, terrorizing me every second he could just through his oppressive presence). He would refer to my brother and I as "pretty boys," something which my mother realizes the true gravity of in retrospect, but at the time came off merely as jealousy at my family's middle class existence. What he was really saying was that we were worthless and unlovable, just like him. I can't recall what eventually led to the end of John's reign of terror on my life, my memory of those years is hazy and missing large chunks likely due to the trauma inflicted on me. I understand this phenomenon as the activation of defense mechanisms within my mind shutting off sections to protect me, like sailors closing off bulkheads to keep water from spreading to different areas of a ship, threatening to sink them all.
It wasn't until my late twenties that I learned my brother, two years my junior, had been John's de facto victim when I wasn't around. My family eventually moved on from that church when we moved to a new neighborhood on the North side of Denver, but I heard that John, one year younger than me, had gone to juvenile court for assaulting his cousin. The story as I recall was that his cousin had been sitting on his shoulders and he had "accidentally" reached up her skirt and grabbed her inappropriately. Inherent in this was the insinuation and insistence that it had been an accident, that it was harmless and there's no way John could have committed such an act. I didn't speak up. I felt ashamed, I was speechless, and I knew exactly what he'd done immediately. I froze, and couldn't say anything.
There were rumblings around the time my family joined the church (that I would hear until years later) that John's grandfather, the former pastor of the church, had physically and sexually abused his grandchildren. This fact was rarely brought up, not even as an explanation for John's actions, but it has provided me some much needed context with which to frame my experiences. Hurt people hurt people. I guess. It doesn't excuse what he did, but it helps me to understand and maybe begin to empathize a bit. Is this how Stockholm Syndrome begins?
Regardless of this, it's clear the church and the community systematically failed us. The patriarch of the church abused his grandchildren (and very likely other people in his family), with no repercussions and no one did anything to stop him. He was even fondly remembered by his family, who I've been told knew what he did. How can someone look back at their abuser and feel fondness? Although I understand he too likely underwent his own abuse at the hands of someone, I find it hard looking back at that period of my life with any sort of fondness for John or even his family for that matter.
For years I kept these events locked up in the furthest recesses of my memory, threw away the key and refused to look at them. I found solace in video games, places that I could feel powerful, worlds where no one really got hurt (Pokemon Red was a favorite of mine around age 12, a joyful cartoony escape from what I endured outside the game). I took solace in punk rock, shouting along to all the words of Black Flag, Minor Threat, and Descendents. The pain, frustration, and boredom of suburban white teenage boys raised in stifled, emotionally closed off environments appealed to my internal need to be be heard but paradoxically not knowing how to vocalize how I felt. I was angry at my parents and the church for not protecting me. I was angry at society for the mere existence of people like John. Most of all I was angry at myself for not telling anyone and not stopping the cycle of sexual violence John perpetrated on me and countless others. I got it stuck in my head that it was my fault, that somehow I was culpable. I believed I was broken, damaged, I was a piece of shit. Henry Rollins was the only person who knew how I felt, so I drowned out the pain with Greg Ginn's wailing guitars and alcohol.
The ensuing years went on, I didn't think about John or what happened to me, it was locked up deep inside and it never came up in my thoughts. It was almost like it'd never happened. Almost. Looking back now, it's easy to see that at least to some extent it helped fuel my alcoholism, my depression, my unending loneliness as I sought to find a real connection with other people (but failing miserably at every turn). I manipulated people I was in relationship with when they disagreed with me, when I felt insecure and afraid they would leave me alone with myself. These were tactics I didn't learn from my parents, they were maladaptive behaviors I learned through my abuse. Even when I got sober at age 20 the fact that years of abuse could have influenced my behaviors or my alcoholism hadn't occurred to me until I got to my fourth step inventory in Alcoholics Anonymous. I was working on my inventory, in which I chronicled my resentments, what had happened, my part in what happened, etc. John just flowed out of me and onto the page, along with all the parts I blamed myself for- not saying anything for years, not stopping him, not protecting my brother or anyone else he assaulted. I shared this with my sponsor, who remains until now the only person I've ever told at length about what happened to me. It was also the first time someone told me it wasn't my fault. Something in me broke open, and memories came flooding back. My emotional reaction was still muted, still disconnected, but I wasn't living with the trauma just under the surface anymore. Maybe I could live with it. Maybe I could be vulnerable without fear of being hurt. For the first time the possibility that I could be fixed occurred to me.
I spent years as part archeologist, and part palmist- examining what I remember of who I was before John, how what he did changed me throughout the years, trying to remember changes in my personality and moods; also trying to trace the lines of trauma in my daily life, who I am now, what I want, how I can be more like my original childhood self, and what sort of psycho-sexual effect the abuse has had on my long-term development. I was processing, trying to find the answer why so I could fix myself. I still don't like people being forceful with me in intimate settings for obvious reasons, but there seemed some possibility the complete eradication of agency in my life at a young age jumpstarted the depression and anxiety I've struggled with as a teenager and adult. If only I could think my way through it hard enough, I might solve my problems. Now I understand how futile an endeavor this was, no amount of thinking could undo what was done to me. It wasn't going to make me healthier or more adaptive in my daily life. I had to find a new way to exist, but what thinking did help me do was process.
I'm still at a loss for what I do with this now, I've had this horrible hex put on me by someone else, yet when I try to follow in the footsteps of notable men who've undergone sexual harassment and abuse like Terry Crews or Brendan Fraser, I'm often met with incredulity that a straight, white, able-bodied cishet man such as myself could have an experience many associate with women. I even had a woman in a multicultural social work class tell me that my experience was invalid because as a man I "don't experience things like that every day," as though the frequency at which I experience assault is a qualifier for being a victim. I talked about it in a journal paper that I had to turn in to my professor in hopes that maybe she might bring it up in class to show that in the social work field we can't make assumptions, but was met with silence. I was left wondering why I even bothered to share my experience in the first place, despite my professor prompting the discussion about sexual assault on men. Now I understand first-hand what it's like to have your experience invalidated by those around you, shutting down uncomfortable discussion with pointless qualifiers and platitudes that "it could always be worse." As though human suffering is quantifiable. All I seek is validation, a seat at a table where I can be vulnerable with others who've gone through similar experiences that I can learn how to heal from.
I've never felt I had a place in this world as a victim or a "normal man". I still don't know where I belong, as Jacob Bannon sings in the Converge song "Last Light":
"I need a purpose and I need a reason
I need to know there is trophy and meaning
to all we lose and all we fight for
to all our loves and our wars
keep pushing on
keep shining on
this is for the hearts still beating"
With tears in my eyes for the things I've lost, and resolve in my heart, I keep pushing on.
About the art:
David is one of my new best friends - we met in September and quickly hit it off. Since then, we’ve shared so much of ourselves in learning how to have a healthy male relationship. David is one of the most knowledgeable and insightful people I’ve ever met. For a story like this to come from David was a pretty big surprise for me.
When I first read his story, my heart sank - I hated learning about a struggle he’s lived with throughout his life. While he has this experience, I know this piece took a lot for him to write, but I’m so thankful he did because I know this piece will help many people heal.
So for the art, I went off his affinity for Converge’s “Last Light,” matched the colors from the artwork, wrote all of the lyrics in the background and focused on the last two lines as a symbol of motivation for David.