Please Note: This post contains graphic details of sexual assault. If this type of content is upsetting to you or may be unhealthy for you to read, please don’t. You will still benefit from picking up in future posts on this topic.
What I write here is based on my experience. It is also informed by conversations with many other survivors of sexual abuse - both men and women. My words may resonate strongly for some and less (or not at all) for others. Regardless, my objective in sharing them is to create a deeper understanding of the complexity of sexual abuse by bringing you to some of the complicated moments, tough decisions, actions that made a difference, things that made me feel vulnerable and things that made me feel deeply connected.
Making a public declaration that I had been abused in the 1980s as a student was terrifying. And yet it has also been one of the most meaningful and profound things I have done in my life. It has changed me in positive ways that I’ll share. And it has exposed an inner strength that I intuitively felt I had but had never used. It also brought up old, painful memories and left me wondering if I was doing the right thing more times than I can remember.
I won’t try to cover the full experience in one blog post. There’s too much to discuss. Instead I will address different aspects of my experience as a survivor in different posts. Some of the topics I’ll cover include:
While you are not likely to enjoy reading what I’ve written, I hope that it is instructive and useful for you, regardless of your experience or knowledge of sexual abuse. I also hope that it provides some measure of comfort for others who have been sexually assaulted. Even though our stories will differ, the feeling of shame is common to abuse survivors. Disclosing these details is also intended to demystify aspects of the survivor experience. Hopefully it will even support healing, even if just to decrease a feeling of isolation for those who have experienced this pain.
Pause. Take a deep breath. It’s 1981. Welcome to my early teens.
I was sexually abused when I was 13 years old, the summer before and during my freshman year at Milton Academy, an independent school in Milton, Massachusetts. I grew up in Milton and had a family connection to the school on both sides of my family that went back over 100 years. This connection was a source of both pride and expectation - mostly self-imposed. It felt like a foregone conclusion that I would also attend the school.
Academics at Milton were rigorous compared to my public elementary school, and I realized quickly that I’d need to work really hard. One thing that made the transition into Milton easy for me was that I had three cousins already enrolled who were also close friends. It was with two of those cousins, Doug and Will, that I decided to go on an adventure biking through the countryside of northern Italy, which was led by a teacher from school, Rey Buono.
Rey was in his mid-30s. He had thinning wavy salt and pepper hair and a mustache. He had this strange habit of smoking only the first half of the cigarette and putting the rest out. There was this nervous energy about him that was foreign to me. His heels rarely touched the ground as he walked. I had heard stories about Rey and how he let kids drink and smoke on the trip and sometimes in his on-campus apartment. My teenage brain registered that as Wow! How cool!. There were rumors that Rey was gay and that he made sexual advances towards male students. Again, my teenage brain: I am going with my buddies. Together we are practically invincible!
On the trip, we mostly stayed in campgrounds. In the larger cities, we stayed in small inns. Rey had a system for randomly assigning sleeping arrangements. In the campgrounds, that meant someone was always sharing a tent with Rey. And in the pensione, the rooms usually had multiple beds. Sometimes they were twins and other times they were double beds. The lottery for sleeping assignments worked in my favor, and I never shared a tent or bed with Rey - until one of our final evenings of the trip.
We were in a pensione in Venice, and my bed assignment was in a room with two twin beds and a double bed. Somehow I ended up assigned to the double bed with Rey. I was uncomfortable with the sleeping arrangements but also relieved that there were two others from the trip sleeping in the other beds. After dinner, Will and Doug and I headed off to drink rum and Cokes by the side of one of the canals. I hoped we would be out long enough to find everyone asleep when we got back to the room. That’s not what happened. I delayed getting into bed. At some point in the night, I remember feeling Rey’s hands on my back. I froze. What is happening? His hands continued moving around my body and ultimately rested on my penis, which he began to massage. I was terrified and confused. What did I do to make him think I wanted this? Why is my body responding to his touch? I smelled cigarettes and wine on his breath. I don’t want this! Is anyone else awake? How do I make this stop?
I turned over so he couldn’t touch me, and he just kept pushing his hands underneath me. I got out of bed and went to the bathroom, trying to figure out what to do and hoping that he would fall asleep. When I got back into bed, Rey touched me again. Just stop! Can’t you tell that I don’t want this to happen? Why are you doing this? Does my erection mean that I have somehow suppressed homosexual feelings until now, and his touch somehow awakened awareness of my true sexuality? Doug and Will are here with me! I have to let them know what Rey did.
After breakfast the next day, I pulled Doug and Will aside. What a relief to have close friends with me to trust with my horror and shame. I wasn’t sure how they would respond, but I knew I had to tell them. There’s nothing we can do about this, but I have to tell them. They will believe me. I need someone to believe me. When Doug heard, he became really angry and told me that he was going to confront Rey. Yes! But what if he denies it? What if he blames me for touching him? I felt an overwhelming sense of being cared for and that Doug’s conversation would prevent this from happening to me again. And I felt fear for how Rey would react. What if he gets mad at me?
My parents raised me to follow rules and respect adults, so Doug’s advocacy was powerful, and unlike anything I had ever experienced in my life. It was an incredible act of courage to confront Rey. Here was a teen calling out an adult for inappropriate behavior. I would never have had the courage to do what Doug did for me. At a time when I felt unable to advocate for myself beyond telling my friends what happened, Doug stepped in and seemed to know exactly what to do. He spoke for me when I didn’t know how. It was a huge relief.
“Rey, you fucked up,” Doug told him. There was no denial. “I’m really sorry,” he admitted. “That won’t happen again.”
The night I returned home, my mom sat on my bed and cried as she told me that she and my father were separating. My parents were not emotionally expressive, so seeing her cry really hit me hard. How could I possibly add to her sadness by telling her what Rey did to me. My world felt fractured. Two horrible life experiences collided at the same time. At least I could share one of them with friends and classmates. Being molested, on the other hand, didn’t feel quite as socially acceptable to discuss as my parent’s separation. Besides, I had told my buddies, and everything was going to be OK. Rey wouldn’t dare try that again after Doug’s confrontation. I wanted so much to believe that it was an isolated incident. And not telling my mother also meant I didn’t have to deal with the questions she might ask.
But not telling my mom also meant that she believed everything was terrific about the bike trip and that Rey was a great guy. I gave her no reason to believe otherwise. So in a cruel twist that was based in love, she asked administrators at Milton if Rey could be my academic advisor. She felt like he knew me and might be a better support than someone else at the school during the early days of my parents’ separation. Oh no! What do I do now? I felt so stuck when she told me. She was trying to do the right thing for me, actually sticking her head out on my behalf, which wasn’t a common behavior for her at the time. I forget whether I wrestled with saying anything to my mom about Rey becoming my advisor. I knew it would be a challenging year academically, and maybe I wanted to believe that what happened in Italy wouldn’t happen at school. Now I have to pretend this is fine with me. She had no idea that I didn’t like the idea. I’m so stuck.
The first evidence that the abuse would continue came before school even started. My mother invited Rey to join us for a weekend on Cape Cod. Looking back, I know how wildly inappropriate this was. What a blurring of boundaries! I don’t recall any discussion with her about inviting him. At this point, I was trying so desperately to make it look like everything was just fine with me. I had a girlfriend; I had plenty of friends; I was co-captain of the JV lacrosse team. I can’t let anyone know that anything is wrong. One of the nights Rey was with us on the Cape, we were hanging out in my room listening to music. It was a small room, with not much space for more than a couple twin beds, so that’s where we sat. After a while, he put his hand on my thigh and then moved his hand toward my crotch. I remember feeling a sense of anger and inner strength. I moved his hand and told him, “no.” This is my space. You are on my turf. I was in a home I loved where I spent my childhood summers. I was strong and centered enough to say no and asked him to stop during that visit.
There are a lot of details I don’t recall about that year. And there are others I remember very well. Rey was present throughout that year not just because he was my advisor but also because he directed the freshman play. I loved acting and had looked forward to the play, hoping I’d get a decent role, but I now had this added challenge of being directed by Rey. When he cast me in a lead role, I worried whether it was my acting ability or if Rey had some other motive.
To say that I struggled academically at Milton is putting it mildly. I know now that my learning style was not suited for learning by reading and memorizing details. All I knew then was that my grades were barely passing despite the 3-4 hours of work I put in each night on homework. At some point in the fall, Rey offered to help me prepare for a history test in a class that had been difficult for me. Did I ask for his help or tell him I was struggling? As my advisor, he knew how I was doing. Come to my apartment on campus, he offered. I can help you prepare. I was scared I might fail and felt I didn’t have another option. And by then, I was so deep into the deception of pretending that everything was just fine, so I suspect I felt I had no choice.
Like many things in my life from 35 years ago, I don’t remember much about these study sessions. But each one ended with him giving me a blow job. I was really into girls and never before had thoughts that I might be gay. But what does it mean if I keep going to his apartment? I felt ashamed. Unlike when I was in Italy, I didn’t feel like I could tell friends. How can I stop this? Why do I keep ending up here when I hate it? Will I make it through Milton? What would my friends and family think if they found out? Why can’t I make it stop?
These were all questions that came up while I drifted off to sleep. They followed me on my way to school. They sat next to me in every class. They haunted me on the lacrosse field. The shame congealed and settled into my veins. I am a bad person. I am not smart. I am an imposter in every aspect of my life. I am only here because of my family legacy. I don’t deserve to be here. I can’t leave. I have to make it. I can’t stay. I have to get out.
I was so unhappy that I began to imagine the possibility of killing myself. I didn’t really want to die, but I didn’t want to live either. I hinted at some of my thoughts to Doug one day as we sat in his room listening to and analyzing the lyrics of Pink Floyd’s album, Dark Side of the Moon. “You raise the blade; you make the change; you rearrange me ‘till I’m sane.” This was about suicide, I reasoned. “Jamie,” Doug said, “this is actually about a lobotomy.” It was written about Syd Barrett, one of the founders of the group who fell into extreme mental illness during the band’s rise to fame.
Doug was a huge Pink Floyd fan and avid reader. I always admired this about Doug. He’s an incredibly smart guy. Being friends with him made me feel a bit less like a fake. At least I’m smart enough that Doug seems to enjoy hanging with me. The conversation about the Pink Floyd lyrics gave Doug yet another clue that I was really struggling. A couple of days later, he asked me for permission to tell his mother what happened on the bike trip.
Yes! Please! This is how to make Rey stop! But what if people find out that I’ve been going to Rey’s apartment? Then everyone at school will think I enjoyed what he is doing to me! Maybe they already think I’m gay, and I’m the only one who never considered it. While I was ashamed of what might come out about my behavior, what was more important to me was that this might lead to the abuse stopping. I gave Doug permission to speak with his mother.
Doug’s mother, Sue, was always someone I felt comfortable speaking with so it felt OK to me that she know. I also knew her to be righteous and unafraid to speak her mind. I had personal experience with this. These things made me feel more at ease.
Sue pulled me aside within a day or two and asked me if what Doug had told her was true. We sat in her red station wagon outside my house, and she asked me if she could share this information with my mom. I don’t have any memory of discussing with my mom the details of the abuse or what would happen next. Sue offered to write and then send a letter to the administration at Milton, telling them that Rey had sexually abused me. She sent the letter.
And then nobody at school asked me about the bike trip or whether anything had happened afterward.
There was silence!
What a relief! But what is happening? What do they know? What are they doing? They must know everything. How do they know without speaking with me? Who is telling them about what happened? Someone must be. I’m so relieved this is over. Is it over?
At least Rey was no longer my advisor, and the abuse was over.
But there was no discussion. Nobody from the school asked me any questions. The only thing I remember hearing about what was happening was that Rey would be prohibited from doing more bike trips. I was so relieved that no other kids would ever have to experience what happened to me on the trip.
I never questioned why Rey was still at the school. What was most important to me was that the abuse stopped. I could try to pretend everything was OK. I can do this. But everything wasn’t OK. I don’t know how to do this. I’m not sure I want to do this. The shame ate at me. It tore at my self-confidence and consumed my sense of worthiness. Friends were my only solace. I threw myself into singing in a rock band, playing lacrosse, and I smoked a lot of pot. Friends continued to like me even when I struggled to like myself. I surrounded myself with them as much as possible. My friends, I believe, literally saved me. Just don’t take away my friends.
Peers continued to be a major source of comfort to me through the rest of my years at Milton. They made me feel less like a fraud. There was safety in numbers. We had each other’s back. When others failed to protect me, friends were always there. With close friends and family, I became open about what Rey had done to me. Even though I wasn’t strong enough to stop Rey in Italy, I told friends. And they helped me stop it. They don’t need to know there is more to the story. Tenacity, fear, hard work, close friendships and some luck, I managed to stay at Milton.
On a beautiful day in June of 1985, my two grandfathers, graduates themselves, presented me with my diploma. I still felt like damaged goods, unworthy of their pride, but I made it.
The abuse stopped. But it didn’t go away.
The next in this series of blog posts will focus on the impact of the abuse in my life after high school. If you'd like to receive updates on future blog posts, you can register for them by clicking here.
Note that this is obviously not a ‘victim statement’ or testimony of any kind – I have already done that under oath and I’m quite glad to have it behind me – but rather my own story in human terms as I experienced it. Particularly as to my own scattered teenage thoughts, which I have rendered here in italics, I’ve written what I felt as I remember it now (I did not keep a contemporaneous journal at the time), and not anything that I would wish to have taken verbatim as fact.
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