Male Sexual Abuse: My Forty Years in the Wilderness
by: Mark Douglass
The media’s focus on the plight of kidnapped children is sometimes overly dramatic. The question of male sexual abuse should be addressed more broadly. Yes, kidnapping is what every parent fears most. We all know this. The media knows this. Television shows in which kidnapping is a central element provide painfully gripping drama. We all ponder why kidnapped children sometimes become quite docile and compliant. We wonder why they don’t escape their captors. We also speculate about whether and to what extent they have been sexually abused. Were they raped?
The larger issue is imprisonment. Not so much of the body, but of the mind. My mind and my psyche were kidnapped and imprisoned during the summer of 1963, a few months before President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. A close friend of our family had been a day-care charge of my maternal grandmother’s during the late 1920s and early 1930s. His mother was a newly divorced school teacher who needed care for him from the time of his birth until he went into first grade. My grandmother was like a second mother to him. He was, in effect, was my mother’s and her sisters’ little brother, the only boy in a family of five girls. “Steve”, as he insisted upon being called in an era when all adults were normally addressed by children as Mister, Miss or Missus, spent the summer of 1963 taking me to movies, to the state fair, on fishing trips and all manner of outings. He lavished me with attention, gifts and spending money. He had my parents’ compete trust. He gained mine.
Because I was 12 years old and just about to enter seventh grade, I thought I knew everything. I also knew with great certainty my parents were stupid, old-fashioned, and unreasonably restrictive. I was a typical contrary teenager. My molester, Steve, has long since died. But, looking back, I now realize he was a sociopath, with a highly polished knack for fanning the flames of my teen-aged rebellion while simultaneously convincing my parents he was the best fire department available. As a solution, he would take care of me, or at least act as a go-between for me and my parents. My parents were willing to let him do so. I was not kidnapped. I still lived at home with my family, but beginning that summer I spent more and more time with Steve. At first, I did odd jobs around his home. As I got older, I worked at his service station, which in a time before franchised fast food outlets on every street corner, was one of the few places for a teenager to get work. Later still, I became a handy-man and a sort of apprentice property manager of some apartment buildings Steve owned. Of course, the longer I worked for him, the more he told me I was like a son to him and that one day all of his worldly possessions would become mine. Also, the longer I associated with him, he managed to slowly and surely isolate me from my family and friends. I came to depend on him, solely.
Just as I was entering seventh grade, Steve and I were watching television at his home one Saturday evening. I think it was an episode of Bonanza, during which the country doctor remarked to Ben Cartwright he had just attended a difficult birth elsewhere in the county—a breech birth. I asked Steve, “What’s a breech birth?” Seeing this as the opportunity he needed, he said, “Haven’t your parents told you anything about the birds and the bees? What kind of parents are they? I am going to have a good talk with them. If they won’t tell you about the facts of life, I guess I’ll have too.” Of course, I felt ashamed about my lack of knowledge, and doubly ashamed my parents hadn’t told me. The effect was just as Steve intended.
The next Saturday evening, he, no doubt, lied to me when he told me my parents asked him to explain the facts of life to me. In the course of this important instruction, and his demonstrating and touching, my pubescent body responded. He played with my body. I felt embarrassed, but I started to feel pleasure. What followed was new and both surprising and troubling to me. My childhood innocence came to an end, not gently and voluntarily given up to a peer, as is the case of most normal teenagers. My childhood innocence was stolen from me at the end of months of carefully planned seduction at the hands of a man thrice my age.
I was never violently raped. But the relationship that developed was filled with violence. Steve, a man of about 300 pounds, and a former weight lifter, loved to “wrestle” with me, my brother, some of my cousins, and other young men that worked for him from time to time. As teenagers we never stood a chance of winning against Steve. That was the message he intended to convey. When “wrestling” I would always end up on the floor with my arm pushed behind my back by Steve and in significant pain. Ironically, I would have to say “Uncle!”.
Steve had a large dog, a boxer named King. King would get out of Steve’s yard, and run away, usually ending up in a dog fight with a neighborhood dog. Steve would go chasing after him, often with a long cattle prod powered by several D-cell batteries. He would use the high voltage shock of the cattle prod to get King to stop fighting with another dog. Once he broke up the fight he would leash King and bring him home. When not using the cattle prod in this way, Steve, with a half menacing, half-teasing manner sometimes used the cattle prod on me. It only happened a few times, but believe me, once was more than I wished to bear. When I cried with pain and humiliation, Steve would claim it was an accident. Or, he would ask, “Why are you crying? Can’t you take a joke?” Can anyone take a joke when receiving several hundreds or thousand of volts of electricity.
Often, when watching a television show in which a murder was a central story element. Steve would boast, he knew someone, who for a few hundred dollars, would kill another person of Steve’s choice, and Steve would never be connected to the murder. To top it all off, Steve would frequently say, “I never get mad. I get even!” What was I to conclude about my chances of safely breaking away from this man’s control?
In the first year of this twisted relationship, one of Steve’s power and my helplessness, I tried my best to resist. When I saw him drive up to our family home in his Lincoln Continental sedan, I would hide beneath our basement stairs, or in our garage attic, or I would run out the back door and go over to a friend’s house. In part, I felt guilt and shame about the sexual aspect of our relationship. I also knew if I got into his car he would take me on an isolating drive of several hours’ duration. During such drives he would talk with me or lecture to me, all the while probing my mind and twisting ideas and facts to indoctrinate me. Fed up with this at one point, I even sat down with him and tried to talk with him “man to man”, explaining that I no longer wanted his attentions. I thought I made a persuasive case and he had understood my concerns. I was wrong.
He carefully and skillfully enlisted the help of my parents. My mother would serve me oatmeal in the morning before sending me off to school, while asking me, “What in God’s name did you do that has so offended Steve that he is giving everybody in our family the cold shoulder?” What could I have possibly said in 1963 at age 12? “Well, Mom, I am tired of being a sexual plaything for this man you so revere and trust?” The closest thing I heard from my parents about sexual abuse was overhearing a couple years before my mother trying to warn my younger sister she should avoid strange men in the park who had a habit of wandering about with their pants flies unzipped and their private parts exposed. In my pre-Steve innocence, I remember thinking, “Why would anybody walk about in public with their “barn-door” open?”
Steve also enlisted my older brother in forcing me back into Steve’s control. One day, he and my brother drove me twenty or so miles out into the country. Steve told me I had a bad attitude and needed to learn a lesson. He threw me out of his car, drove off, and told me to walk home. I was confident enough about finding my way home, so I set out walking. (As I look back in time I realize I never thought of calling my parents or securing the help of a policeman or other adult.) Steve and my brother tried to keep me in sight as they drove about, but they lost track of me. Steve, no doubt, then realized he would have a lot of explaining to do to my parents if I were to walk all the way back home. Searching and searching, he finally found me walking across a field, he and my brother got out of the car, chased after me, and forcefully dragged me back to Steve’s car.
With such tactics, finally, Steve prevailed. He was so successful in marshaling my family against me, I stopped fighting and embraced the oppressor. Sadly, I became almost a devoted slave. I was his sexual plaything from the time I was 12 years old until my early twenties. As a legal matter, I certainly could not have given my consent to this conduct until I was 16. Therefore, I was raped between two and three times a week between the age of 12 and 16. Thereafter, as a psychological matter, did I give consent? When did I become mature enough to give my consent?
All through middle school, high school and college I feared I was gay, even though I had a few girlfriends. My orientation was heterosexual, yet I was involved with this man. At Harvard College I was involved in several theater productions. One year I worked with the Hasty Pudding Theatricals the producer of an annual, campy, drag show. I knew and was friends with several gay men, yet I wasn’t attracted to them sexually. I was completely closeted about my relationship with Steve. What took me a long time to sort out was that all pedophiles are not gay, and all gay people were not pedophiles.
In my senior year of high school, Steve manufactured a crisis between me and my mother. I moved out of my family’s home to Steve’s home which was only a mile or so away from my family home. Except for my time away at college, I lived at his home until I was 29 years old. In 1980, I moved out of his home to live with my fiance and soon to be wife. We married in 1981 and have been married, now, for over 25 years.
From age 12 until pre-marital counseling at age 29, I never mentioned my being sexually abused to anyone. On the surface, I did not appear terribly troubled. In fact, if you were to look at me, I was a model teen-ager and an up and coming young man. I didn’t smoke or drink. I didn’t use drugs. I had excellent grades. I was on the student council year in and year out. I was in the senior class play. I was the president of my senior class. My class voted me “most likely to succeed”. I was an Eagle Scout. I attended and graduated from Harvard College with honors, and as a varsity athlete. I graduated from Hamline University School of Law and became an attorney. Yet, I was a prisoner of my own silence and of Steve’s control.
Beginning in 1976 and throughout law school, I began to see Steve for what he was. Yet I remained silent about so many things. Finally, In 1980, I first began breaking the bonds of my enslavement——my seventeen years of silence. Prior to our marriage, my fiance and I took part in pre-marital counseling. The minister suggested I had some family problems I should resolve before marrying. He suggested I consult a psychologist. At a time when nobody believed the problem of the sexual abuse of boys was a problem, let alone the wide spread problem we now know it to be, I first opened up to that psychologist. I remember fearing making any disclosure at all until I was assured he would not write anything in his notes, not record our conversation, nor ever mention my abuse to any other person. Simply stated, I was terrified. But I opened up.
In the first years of our marriage, I disclosed to my wife that in the past I had had a sexual encounter with a man—one man, but I refused to identify the man. I also refused to discuss whether it was only once, or whether it was many incidents. At the time of this disclosure, I had not been sexual with Steve for several years. But I could not disclose any more details because of my shame and because Steve was still a respected part of my extended family. At least, my parents still held him in high esteem.
My silence about Steve ended in about 1982. My wife and I held a dinner party at our apartment. The guests were my parents, a visiting aunt from out of town, and Steve. During the course of the dinner party’s conversations, Steve jokingly, but pointedly announced to all present—while looking directly at me at the other end of the dinner table, “I know so much about Mark, I could easily blackmail him!”
“What the hell did that mean?” I thought. I immediately realized he was blackmailing me by his very boast. He was trying to enforce my continued silence. After the guests left, I called a friend and mentor, my favorite law professor at Hamline University School of Law, Richard T. Oakes. I then made a lengthy disclosure to him and subsequently to a classmate, James W. Kerr, who became my attorney in a civil suit against Steve. I fully expected to lose because the statute of limitations at that time would have barred my suit. James W. Kerr did a masterful job of keeping the suit alive. Throughout the suit, Professor Oakes kept my spirits up. With their help and support, I sued Steve for civil damages in Hennepin County, Fourth Judicial District Court of Minnesota. I began unburdening myself to my wife, and anyone who would listen, about all the shameful details of my childhood. That unburdening took many years and many tears.
In 1988, a jury awarded me a judgment of over $1,000,000 against Steve. Being the sociopath that he was, I never was able to find or collect any of that judgment. But I disrobed him, in a manner of speaking; the case was front page news in the Minneapolis Star. It was on the local television news. I appeared on a local talk show and a national talk show—the “Sally Jesse Raphael Show”. I even helped get the Minnesota Legislature to extend our statute of limitations for suits based upon childhood sexual abuse. During my “fifteen minutes of fame”, I was elated. I knew, or hoped, my example would encourage other men and boys to come forward and break their silence. I knew there were many like me, but I never expected so many survivors to step forward. Nevertheless in so many ways, I remained imprisoned, not by silence, but by feelings of shame and inadequacy.
For years prior to and after my successful lawsuit, I suffered from career dissatisfaction and an ongoing battle with depression, a fight that began when I was in seventh grade. Funny thing, that! I sought help from several psychologists and one psychiatrist over the years since 1980. From time to time I needed anti-depressants in order to endure. I received good care from these people, but I never was able to free my mind from Steve’s possession—-even after his death. I only sought professional help in order to deal with intermittent crises of depression. I never stuck with my therapy long enough to fully resolve my issues.
There were other sexual abuse victims of Steve’s. During a highly publicized kidnapping of the young Jacob Wetterling here in Minnesota, certain details were published in the news. In particularly, the kidnapper drove off with Jacob in a large sedan such as a Lincoln Continental. I called the FBI office investigating the case to suggest Steve fit the published profile. The agent informed me my call was not the first call they had received. Like the kidnapper in Missouri Steve seemed focused upon boys who were just on the cusp of puberty. As I grew older, Steve looked favorably upon other youths.
Sadly, Steve was only one of many mean-spirited, evil men, and sometimes women, in this world who gain satisfaction and pleasure in sexually and psychologically dominating children. Over the years, I have met many other men who survived childhood sexual abuse. I have met them in group therapy. I have represented a few during my years as a practicing attorney. I have met them at the Minneapolis Men’s Center. I have met them at a convention of male survivors of sexual abuse held here in Minneapolis a couple years ago. I have read many similar on-line accounts of abuse (MaleSurvivor). To one degree or another each of these men was still in chains.
In a twist of fate straight out of a Greek tragedy, the actions of one sociopath freed me from the chains of the earlier, long dead, sociopath, Steve. A few years ago, my then 13 year old daughter and I were traveling in the Netherlands. On the first day of our vacation, we stumbled upon, or rather were overtaken by the armed kidnapping of two major Amsterdam drug dealers. In the course of this kidnapping 5 or 6 shots were fired by one of the kidnappers at one of the drug dealers as he fled past us on an otherwise charming and peaceful street. One bullet struck a car next to where my daughter and I were walking, missing us by only three feet. I forced my daughter to the ground and covered her with my body in order to protect her from any more gunfire. The gunman lost the man he was chasing, he doubled back and stood near us, cleared his jammed machine gun, reloaded, paused for a moment, and mercifully commanded us, “Stay down!” before running away. For that brief moment, our lives were in the balance.
Throughout the remainder of our vacation, and for at least a year after returning to the United States, I suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I thought of the shooting incident every waking hour of every day, wondering if I had done the right things and if I acted like a man, bravely. With the help of a retired police officer turned psychologist, Dennis Conroy, Ph.d., I was able to sort through the issues of the gunman’s power and my powerlessness, as well as the issues of Steve’s earlier power over me and my childhood powerlessness. The paramount significance of these two events for me was when I was raped by my family’s closest friend, my parents stood by and did nothing. At best, they were too trusting and naive. At worst they failed as parents. In contrast, when my daughter’s life was threatened in Amsterdam, I protected her, even at the risk of my own life.
The time between my abuse and this shooting incident was a little more than forty years. During many of those forty years, I was lost in the wilderness just as the Moses and the Jews were so many centuries ago. But now, as I reach my mid-Fifties, I can see the promised land of milk and honey. For me it is a land of psychological peace. I have been led besides the ‘still waters’ promised by the Psalms.
Yet so many boys and men are still in Pharaoh’s chains, stuck in their own separate, lonely and painful Egypts, the landscapes of which differ from mine only in separate detail and dramatic narrative. Some of these boys and men have risen up and broken their chains, yet they still wander in the wilderness. A few have reached the promised land, of milk and honey, of peace and forgiveness. But how many have, or will perish in the wilderness marked by depression, alcoholism, drug addiction, workaholism, under achievement, and inability to safely bond with another human being?
We need to help and understand abused boys throughout our country. We also need to help and understand the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of boys and men who still are wandering in a wilderness of despair.