I was speaking with some beloved colleagues last week about the whole #metoo phenomenon and how many people have facebooked #metoo, how the “People of the Year” are those who first courageously told their stories, and how this has overflowed into more people having the courage, to tell the truth about abuse currently happening. Even though I could add my name, I told them, I hadn’t for I felt like my story was already told in more than one place, and couldn’t see the purpose of adding another story to the list. But one of them said,
“You know, Brian, that’s true. But I also think we need more voices that speak out against the kind of toxic masculinity that creates and is involved in abuse. For you to speak would help do that.”
The other colleague agreed. So, because of that conversation, I’m blogging part of my story, it is a part of the “Camino” of this life that I continue to walk. The actions of one man did mar my soul, rip at my heart, caused me to lose touch with my identity, and left me in a wasteland for years, decades even. But Jesus knows all about wandering in deserts. He sought me out, even had an escape route planned.
For years I had had this image that would come to my mind. When I felt ashamed of something I had said or done, when I felt like a failure, when I felt afraid of something, when I felt abandoned, again and again, this was the image in my mind’s eye. It was the image of a dark room with a small boy curled up as tightly as he could in the far corner. He looked asleep and immensely sad. I’d see this and would beat myself up for this image, thinking I was giving into self-pity, just being stupid, thinking I had created this image just to feel sorry for myself.
In 2011, after a really tough church situation, when someone had betrayed me, lied about me, gathered allies against me and belittled me, I was left raw, hurting, determined to pack up my books and life and quit the ministry in which I had been involved for years. Instead, I spoke with my then DS Lowell Greathouse and he said,
“Next time you feel this bad and want to quit, send me a note and tell me, ‘It feels that bad.’ But, don’t quit. What I want you to do this time is discover why this hurts as deeply as it does.”
His request made sense, so, I went to see my counselor and in the opening part of the conversation, she had a hunch and asked,
“Have you ever prayed through the actual memories of the abuse?”
“Never,” I said. “We’ve talked about it as a fact (for decades). I’ve done a ton of recovery work, and have prayed with countless people for their healings, and seen that happen, but I have never had anything more than the one flashback, back in 1988, or so. I really don’t think I could access them.”
“Do you want to see if Jesus wants to show you more today?” she asked. “I have a feeling this experience at church has cut that deep.”
“I am open to trying,” I told her, desperate for help.
I got comfortable, she prayed asking Jesus to use the pain I had experienced to open my eyes. I closed my eyes and immediately I saw that image of that little boy in the corner of the room.
But this time I didn’t fight against it, and the memory began to play, like a video before my eyes. I saw what he had just endured. Tears came to my eyes and I said,
“It’s working. I guess it’s time…”
That day we prayed through four of these heinous memories, with Jesus meeting me in each, pulling me out, healing my heart, taking me to a safe place and helping me forgive. The following week, we prayed through a myriad of memories, image after image after image, and the whole story unpacked. I remembered and as I remembered I could forgive, I could release this boatload of anger, allow Jesus to touch and heal the place in my heart so long hidden.
So, as my #metoo here’s what I discovered.
I arrived Palm Sunday, March 22nd, 1959, the youngest of four kids, five years behind my next older brother, John. Ours was not the easiest home life, and that will be another story. My Mom loved the new pastor who arrived in late 1960 Dr. Frank H. They connected. She was struggling on many levels emotionally and psychologically mostly with her relationship with her mom. So she went to him a few times for counseling, then, after the church hired an assistant pastor, in March 1964, Rev. Sherwood W., she began to go to Frank for counseling every two weeks. Sherwood offered to watch me for the hour or so while she was in with Frank. It was convenient and Sherwood was a nice, charismatic, seemingly safe person.
When that first appointment came, the month I turned 5, Sherwood held me on his lap at his desk. He would run his fingers through my blond hair. He would kiss the top of my head. He would hold me to him. I liked the attention and he would let me use his markers and pens, read me stories and play there. That’s all it was. I enjoyed the time. It made my heart feel warm. I looked forward to going back. It was always special. I felt really cared for, loved even.
The visits with Sherwood continued, then, he said one day, after mom was in her session, “I want to show you something really special.” I was excited. The things he showed me had always been so cool.
We went to the education wing of the church to the nursery room, and there, he unzipped his pants pulling free his erection and encouraged me to touch him. And that day, I experienced what I later learned was oral sex. At first strange, and I liked that he liked it, but involving tastes, smells and feelings I didn’t expect. My stomach hurt. My head hurt. It felt all wrong somehow, guilt washed over me. Yet, feelings too. My chest filled with butterflies and nervousness. I was bad, I knew, and shame came. Confusion. Fear. And after it was over, I felt exhausted. And he said, “You did great, Brian. Why don’t you lie here and rest? This is our little secret now.”
That confused me more. A secret? Adults didn’t usually say such things. And when he left, it was like he was connected to me, but then, the connection snapped and I felt he had abandoned and rejected me. The pain inside me intensified and I cried and then slept. I wanted him close, and, I never wanted to see him again. Both. I wanted to throw him up. But, instead, I fell asleep in the corner of the room, with that taste of him in my mouth. Next thing I remember was mom coming to get me with Sherwood, who winked as she picked me up and left.
Week by week our routine was to begin by sitting at his desk, coloring, then, we would go to the nursery and play. First, we actually would play, so he could always tell the truth about what we had done, and then again, we did the same thing as on the first day. I didn’t like the pain I felt inside me afterward. I didn’t like the way he would touch my legs and rub me. That sent strange feelings through me. I began to not want to do that anymore. He began to hold my head harder against him. It hurt. I choked. It scared me. But when I would cry, he would tell me harshly, “This is special. I’m doing something special for you. Don’t ruin it by crying.” He was scary when he spoke like that.
Adults can be mean.
I began to be afraid to go back. By not wanting to go, I was trying to tell mom that something was wrong. But this was a signal that my mom didn’t know how to interpret. She was getting helped. She would get mad at me for trying to take her away from what was helping her. Still, I would struggle to go some days, but then Sherwood would reward me for coming. Every week he had something special for me – a piece of candy, a book, or another present like new markers. And then I knew we would go to the nursery room. The counseling was helping her cope with her life, process her pain at her mom, and come to grips more and more with how to be the woman she was called to be in this season of her life. But with the abuse, inside, I was dying.
That summer on August 29th, 1964, the movie Mary Poppins was released. It was the first movie that I got to go see in the theater. I was so excited, even though I didn’t know anything about it. My mom took Bruce G., who was my age and the son of her best friend Sylvia, and me to see it at the big State Theater in Modesto, CA.
When we got there the line wound all the way around the back of the theater. We got into line, standing in the alley, behind the theater in this long line of people that continued in front and soon lined up behind us. I had never seen a line that long. All those people were waiting to see that one movie. That was the era when there was only one movie shown at a time at a theater. And the State Theater was this huge square building made of brick that took up a prominent place on that city block. Mom was not certain we would even get to the box office before they sold out.
Bruce began to cry standing there on the black, coarse pavement in that alley by the two-story high windowless wall of the brick theater. He was afraid that we wouldn’t make it. For some reason, that day, I was so confident and therefore encouraged him, saying,
“You’ll see. We will get in. It will be alright and all work out.”
I don’t know why I believed that. But I think I had a Holy Spirit inspired confidence. There was a place in me and God was whispering, “I have something special for you.” And this something actually was special; it was good, unlike what was happening with Sherwood.
We did get into the packed theater. We got three of the last seats in the very front row. My mom said her neck hurt for days afterward from staring nearly straight up at the screen. As we sat down, the curtains parted, and the opening credits and music began. And there was soon Mary Poppins sitting on a cloud with her talking umbrella.
That movie was so incredible to me– about kids who had a great adventure; about kids not being hurt by adults; about adults who were magical and safe; about kids protected from their dad’s anger and abuse; about the dad discovering how valuable his children were and seeing them as important. For my little 5-year-old heart, it was a movie about hope. That movie astounded and thrilled me. It became this immensely important movie in my life. I would sing the songs. I would act it out. Years later, when I played piano, I learned the piano score associated with it.
This year in May 2017, I was remembering this memory of seeing that movie, and making the connections to it. I looked to see where Jesus had been in my memory. And I saw him there: I was sitting on his lap. He was holding me as I watched that movie in the theater. He was laughing and singing with me and letting me know how special I was to him. That day He reminded me of another memory that had occurred when I was 28.
It was in the summer of 1987 when I while standing in the side room of a small church in Louisiana, praying with a group of pastors associated with a good friend from seminary, David D., who was pastoring in that community.
One of the pastors in the group, as we prayed, abruptly stopped praying and spoke to me saying: “God began to call you into the ministry at age 5. ” He said a few other things, but that was the gist of what I remembered. At that point, in 1987, I had not remembered the abuse and had no memories of my childhood, or age 5, particularly, so didn’t know how remarkable his statement was. I thought I had been 23 not 5 when God began to call me.
When I first knew I had been abused at 29, and realized that even though a pastor had abused me, still I harbored no ill will toward the church or pastors in general, I knew God had worked. But I had not known how Jesus had done that, until this year, when I understood the timing of the movie Mary Poppins. That movie was an experience with Jesus that was safe. It laid the foundation of a call to keep kids safe, to love well, to do no harm, to lead others to such a haven. It was an early call to make a difference presented in color, with power and song. It was a message about hope, for me, and therefore about Jesus, with Mary Poppins and Bert being the saving figures, and about God in the middle of my dark time. And someplace deep within I heard it, from that front row of that darkened theater as I listened to the story, “Child, you will bring life and joy to My people.”
The abuse continued time after time while my mom received counsel, but expanded to other times whenever Sherwood managed to get me alone. Since he was so trusted, this was easily accomplished. One time was when I was with my older siblings on the youth snow trip into the mountains. I was there because my parents went as chaperones, and all three of my older siblings were on the trip.
Looking back, I’m not certain how, but I remember he got me alone. Back home, Sherwood just would make some excuse to get me alone. “Brian is going to show me the tree house,” he would say, and while we were there, we’d do something else as well. As he controlled the times more and more, his treatment became accompanied by threats. One day in the tree house, when I was 7, after hitting my shoulder, again and again, he said, “You ever tell and I will kill your dog.”
By then I had my own, favorite, big dog Benjamin, who had come to us as a pup when I was 5 and in a year had grown into this big, lumbering, black and white English lab. Sherwood knew how much I loved Benjamin. In my world, only Benjamin believed me. Benjamin knew what was happening. I had told him. Benjamin would sleep with a paw on my leg. That threat seared into my heart: “Never tell,” and I stopped trying to do so. Sherwood had me under his control.
The older I got, the more extensive the abuse got until oral sex became anal sex. It was painful. I hated it and felt the pleasure of it, and was buried under the shame of it. Shame and guilt filled my world. Just a small comment in other situations would crush me. I wanted it more. I didn’t want it at all. And I didn’t know of an escape. Sherwood ridiculed me and shamed me for my little boy’s body. He made fun of my gut. His words mattered and seared into my thinking the idea that I had to have a certain shape to be accepted, a shape I have never had! I don’t know how this would have continued had Sherwood stayed.
It was 1967. In March I turned 8 and Sherwood moved to another Presbyterian Church. Not long after Sherwood had moved, on a Sunday, I was at church already. Mom was at home still ready to leave for church to join us, when she heard a car skidding and a thud. She ran out and found Benjamin lying dead in the road.
Benjamin had been hit and killed by a car. She was grief-stricken and couldn’t come to church. The driver helped get Benjamin off the road. She stayed home wondering how to tell me. At church, we wondered where she was. As I arrived home, I knew something horrible had happened. She and I sat on the front steps that my dad had built, her arm around me, tears streaming down her cheeks, and told me how Benjamin had died that day. I sobbed and sobbed, shouting, “No! No! No!” I was devastated. Not only had my friend died, my true confidante, but also I knew and knew deep in my heart, it was my fault Benjamin had died. I must have told. I felt responsible for Benjamin’s death. The secret I held about what Sherwood had done got buried deeper in my heart that day. I recorded this message: “Don’t tell anyone. Don’t talk about it. Don’t remember.”
Along with Benjamin, my childhood memories, my first years of life got buried that afternoon for years. But eventually, those memories returned. 21 years later the first flashback and PTSD type experience returned when triggered and suddenly was 7 again. And then again in 2011 and in the years between, a long, long walk learning to grow up and see the light, find the hope, experience the joy.
This past March marked 50 years since the abuse ended. Seriously this has been a long Camino. And I am still walking it. But that’s the truth about a Camino – you really need to keep walking it day after day, one step at a time.
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