A Survivor's Journey - The Impact of Abuse

The Chorus of Critics

I recognize that it’s impossible to separate how much my life - the way I act and think - would be different if I hadn’t been sexually abused.  Being sexually abused changed me in both profound and small ways. I believe that the abuse magnified existing, latent and emerging impulses and thoughts.  I don’t believe it’s useful or even possible to identify how different I would be if I had not been abused.  But I do think it’s important to acknowledge what consequences feel directly tied to the abuse I sustained.  My objective in writing this, after all, is to provide perspective rather than definitive connections. And much of what I describe here are common reactions to sexual abuse. My experience is therefore not unique at all.  Rather it is all too common.  Above all, I write this with the intention to help others understand.  I hope you will read it with that in mind.    

What follows, therefore, is a brief list of ways I believe the abuse impacted me, both during high school and the years that followed.

The Chorus of Critics - This is what I call the unproductive voices in my head that grew in volume and confidence during high school.  They ganged up on me, preventing me from focusing in school, on the sports field and even during social interactions.  You’re not good enough. What makes you think you can do that? You know you will fail!   Voices of doubt are part of the human condition. For most adolescents, they come and go.  Mine just sat on my shoulder and yelled at a volume that drowned out a lot of what was going on around me. To say this was a distraction is an understatement in the extreme.  I was berated incessantly. If things were going OK, the critics told me things were about to go south any second.  If I was doing something poorly or received a bad grade, they jumped up and down and screamed. You see?  We told you this would happen!  Why do you even bother? 

Over time and with lots of therapy, I began to recognize the power that the Chorus had over me and how damaging they were - and also the reason they existed.  They were part of my protective shell.  Today I’m more practiced at talking back to them, thanking them for protecting me from being disappointed or hurt.  I try to recognize when they are helpful.  The vast majority of time, though, they hold me back.  Thankfully, they hold less sway with me today than they did earlier in my life when I couldn’t separate them from the truth.

Shame - The Chorus of Critics are fueled by shame.  They have a voracious appetite for it.  They have an encyclopedic memory of my behavior and thoughts, and they used this evidence to remind me that I wasn’t worthy, wasn’t good enough, that someone else was more deserving.   While I knew intellectually that the abuse was not my fault, this shame guided my behavior. It created this self-sabotaging doom loop that prevented me from committing to anything wholeheartedly.  If I didn’t succeed, I could always tell myself that at least I hadn’t really given it everything I had. This played out in the classroom and on the sports field primarily, but it was a pervasive mindset that informed the calculation for many decisions.  As with the Chorus of Critics, I began to see how detrimental this mindset was for me - particularly in my professional life.  Knowing something is bad for you is important.  Changing the well-worn grooves on this vinyl record took years.

While I would sing with passion and emotion in front of my bedroom mirror in my high school days, I held back in front of my band mates.  I did a semester program with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) my fall semester of my first year of college.  When my trip leader suggested I consider taking the Instructor’s Course, I was flattered and terrified.  I could never be that much of a leader, I told myself.  I never applied.

I thought I had processed the abuse over the years, much of that in therapy sessions but also with close friends and family.  What I realized, however, was even recently, as I wrote my first blog post, some of the words that came out of my head and onto the page were still laden with guilt.  Seeing the words and phrases on the page gave me an opportunity to recognize the shame that still infiltrated my words.  Once I could see it, I was able to re-think and then re-write the details, using words that were more appropriate for the power differential and conflict that the abuse created within me.   

Self-Doubt / Lack of Confidence - The manifestation of the Chorus of Critics and the shame was a crippling lack of confidence.  If I wasn’t worth my parents or the school leadership sticking up for me, for protecting me, I certainly wasn’t going to do it on my own.  I was, in my own mind, only at the school because of my family history and because my mother worked in the development office at the school.  Why else would the school have admitted me?  Any merits I thought I could contribute and might even be recognized for were invisible at Milton.

Substance Use- I started using weed in 7th grade.  That was early compared to many of my peers.  I had friends who were 1 and 2 years ahead of me in school, so I was exposed at a younger age than most of my classmates.  And after the bike trip, when the leader abused me, being high was my preferred state.  It was my escape.  I got high during school, and I often got high after finishing my homework at night.  I drank too, although I didn’t like the feeling of being out of control.  And with a family history of alcoholism, I was always wary of drinking too much.  

The allure of being high led me to experiment with other substances. I suppose the Chorus of Critics helped me as I experimented because I often found myself caught up in the cacophony of their droning reminders of my weaknesses and vulnerabilities. I believe that my fear of becoming an alcoholic combined with the Chorus of Critics playing such a loud soundtrack actually prevented me from going down the rabbit hole of addiction - an all too-common result of sexaul abuse. Cannabis, though, was always a reliable escape. 

Aversion to Leadership - I neither trusted nor wanted to be a leader. Leaders had failed me at Milton.  The leader of the bike trip failed me by abusing me.  The Head of school failed me and others by not holding my abuser accountable, enabling him to abuse an untold number of other students until he was finally fired for abusing another student five years after the school knew of my abuse. 

The pinnacle of my leadership was when my small group expedition on NOLS voted me to lead them.  This was a three-day trek through Utah’s Canyonlands National Park.  There were no roads where we were heading.  We just had a destination and a time we needed to be there.  While leading this type of group was comfortable to me, when it came to more formalized institutions, I steered clear. Not only did I not trust leaders, I wasn’t good enough in my own thinking.  I didn’t deserve to be a leader.  Avoiding leadership is, in business vernacular, a career limiting move. I tried to muscle through my early career with this internal conflict playing in the background.  I worked in positions that weren’t a good fit for my aptitudes.  And after nearly 20 years in large corporate jobs, I left that world behind.  This freed me up to create my own comfort with leadership, but that sentiment still lingers: a holdover from mistrusting leaders.   

Need to be liked - The one area that I actually felt successful was in friendships.  I valued friendships more than anything.  While this is still true today, I am less likely to do or say things to others that I think they want or I believe will make them like me.  In high school, my need to be liked was nearly pathological.  I feared people disliking me.  This wasn’t true for teachers, but maybe that’s because I was abused by one. 

For me, having friends and being likable was my only ammunition against the Chorus of Critics. The only time I could prove them wrong was in my friendships.  At least people like me. I can make friends easily.  And the longer I know them, the more I can be myself.  What a great feeling.   I didn’t have to work as hard with my childhood friends.  I knew they were with me, but with others I always had lingering insecure thoughts that I was one stupid move away from being cast out. The Chorus of Critics knew this fear, and they reminded me often.

Adult Life - I have written here mostly about the impact of my abuse that I carried with me through high school.  The reality is that these impacts don’t just disappear over time.  It’s not like an external wound that you can care for with salves and bandages.  These internal wounds stay with you.  Sometimes they deepen over time while other times they fade in the hold they have over you.  But they don’t typically get better over time without mental health support.

For some, even seeking mental health support is stigmatized, seen as a weakness or disloyalty to one’s family.  I am lucky that I knew therapy would be important for me.  And I’m lucky that I could afford it.  And yet even with the work I have done over the past 40 years, I carry these scars with me.  Many are not so lucky.  They don’t or can’t afford to seek therapy.  For some, the pain becomes too difficult to bear.  Suicide and substance abuse are very common results among victims of sexual assault.  In a 2001 study in Australia, “young people who had experienced child sexual abuse had a suicide rate that was 10.7 to 13.0 times the national Australian rates.” And in a 2001 National Institutes of Health study, 72% of participants with substance abuse reported past sexual abuse.

For me, recovery and healing is ongoing.  

I am lucky.  Many victims of abuse become swallowed by the shame.  They often turn to substances to relieve the pain, to escape from it.  For others, the dark specter of depression is a constant visitor.  Many turn to suicide, unable to bear the weight of their pain.  Unable to see a way out.  

Intervention - ideally early intervention - and support from family and friends is essential for healing. There is a way out. 

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If you are in crisis or you think you may have an emergency, call your doctor or 911 immediately. If you're having suicidal thoughts, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to talk to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area at any time (National Suicide Prevention Lifeline). If you are located outside the United States, call your local emergency line immediately.

The Board's Role in a Sexual Misconduct Investigation

By Lisa Donohue, Board President, Milton Academy

In 2016, my second year as board chair at Milton Academy (MA), we launched a sexual misconduct investigation. There was no manual to guide us through that journey. There was no resource to answer our questions and help ensure that we were taking the right approach. And there wasn’t a resource about what to expect and, more important, how to deal with the unexpected. Through the process, however, I learned that the board and the board chair play a critical role in ensuring realistic goals are established and achieved. 

The board’s role is one of governance—upholding the mission and serving as fiduciaries of the school, thinking long range and strategically. This is distinctly different than the head’s and administrators’ responsibilities of handling the day-to-day operations. However, in times of crisis, the board and the administration may work more symbiotically, and the board and board chair may assume a more direct role. This ensures that boards understand the details of the situation, can accurately assess and authorize necessary resources, and provide informed guidance to the head and administration and respond nimbly to changing circumstances. 

The board’s role is complex, as it combines compassion with fiduciary responsibilities. One cannot overshadow the other but must be linked in driving the best response. Fiduciary responsibilities are a board’s natural remit, and while extending compassion is a less obvious task, listening to those reporting harm and understanding their experiences is critical. It may appear counterintuitive that being compassionate is the best way to protect the interests of the institution, but this has been my experience, and I believe it is morally necessary and fiscally appropriate. 

CRITICAL BOARD WORK 

Adopt a survivor/victim first approach. There are both victims and survivors of sexual abuse. “Victim” is often used when someone has recently experienced sexual abuse, while “survivor” is used for someone who has gone through recovery. Either way, understand that each experience is unique and will personally relate to one of these terms. Follow their lead. Each survivor reconciles their experiences differently. At times, there will be tension between compassion and fiduciary responsibilities. Having a north star in this approach can help guide resolution of that tension. It is important to lead with helping those who have suffered harm. 

Don’t let fear drive your decisions. Particularly at the start, when a survivor first comes forward with stories of harm, the full landscape is usually unclear with much unknown. Fear often drives short term, risk-averse decision-making that can be detrimental to those reporting harm and can prevent learning that can drive needed change for the future. Don’t look to defend or explain the harm that happened. Instead, seek to understand so that you can ensure such harmful situations can’t happen again and that you can better fashion restorative measures. 

Ensure there is board chair–head of school alignment. While it might seem obvious, it is absolutely critical that the board chair and head of school are aligned from the start on process, resources, and communication. The head must operate with the support of the board and board chair and conversely must leverage the board and board chair in decision-making and resource allocation. 

Listen. It is important for survivors who are able to come forward to be heard, to be listened to in a way that makes them comfortable. It may be one-on-one or in a small group setting; it may be on campus or at a neutral location. The key is to let the survivor guide school leaders so that they feel comfortable and are able to share their story. Not everyone will be able to come forward, and that’s OK. But those who do need to be validated and commended for their courage. It is often difficult to listen to details of the misconduct and abuse, but it is so important for the survivor’s journey. 

Empathize. If you haven’t experienced sexual misconduct directly, you can’t begin to know what a survivor is going through—and it is not authentic to imply you do. But you can and need to be highly empathetic. Listen, acknowledge their pain, and, as necessary, apologize. The validation demonstrates and reinforces your survivor-centered approach. 

Form a committee with internal and external resources. One of the first action steps should be the formation of a committee with both internal and external resources and professionals. The board chair should work closely with the head of school to determine the specific composition of the committee, which generally should include expertise in sexual misconduct investigations, communications and crisis management, survivor advocacy, and legal guidance and representation. There are many different firms with expertise in these areas that is specific to secondary schools. It is critical in the situation assessment and decisionmaking processes to take into account the perspectives and advice in these different areas. 

Bring in experienced legal counsel. Having appropriate legal counsel is critical, not only in handling legal claims, potential lawsuits, and settlements, but also in the construction of the investigation. While many schools have legal counsel on retainer, it is wise to consider hiring additional counsel with expertise in key areas, such as settlements, mediation, and litigation of sexual misconduct and abuse. As with other external resources, there are law firms with expertise in this area. 

Provide support services. Offer professional help and access to survivor advocates to both the survivors and the institution’s community. This can include therapists or psychiatrists who have expertise dealing with sexual misconduct and abuse trauma. While some survivors will be well down their journey in dealing with abuse, others are just beginning and need expert help. 

Understand the importance of communication. The right communication, including frequency, tone, and transparency, is critical for all the key audiences, including survivors, alumni, current students and parents, faculty, and other community members. The board’s role here lies in reviewing communication in advance, providing feedback, and being knowledgeable and accessible for any stakeholders who may reach out. 

Conduct an investigation. As allegations are brought forward, it is critical to conduct an appropriate investigation, leveraging an experienced and reputable investigation firm. While difficult, it is important to understand the breadth and depth of any incidences and the failures of the past. A healing journey for the survivors first and foremost, but also for the institution, can only begin with this deep understanding. The work starts with finding the right firm with expertise in handling school investigations. Clarify with the investigation firm that you want them to remain independent in their work. From there, it is critical to think through additional parameters of an investigation. This includes everything from how to solicit responses, how to maintain confidentiality and legal privilege, whether to release a summary of the report or release the entire report, and the implications of any or all of these parameters on future legal proceedings. Last, it is important to recognize that the report can also have an impact or potentially play a role in a survivor’s journey. Boards may encounter accusations that are not corroborated or that are false. It is important that the investigation and investigator is able to corroborate allegations and that the requirements for corroboration are outlined at the start. False accusations, while incredibly rare, can have significant consequences for the accused. 

Maintain or build a close partnership with local authorities. It is critical to have strong working relationships with all the appropriate local authorities, including local police detectives, the Department of Child and Family Services, and the district attorney’s office, to name a few. Most likely the board itself will not have direct relationships with these authorities, but it should ensure that the institutional leadership is working in partnership with these groups for the safety of all children.

Hold insurance companies accountable. Insurance policies past and present need to be reviewed, particularly the insurance policy in place during sexual misconduct and abuse incidences. In older cases, an insurance “archeologist” may be needed to uncover the insurer and the policy applying at the time. Read all the fine print. Coverage becomes important for budgeting, legal assessments, and potential settlements of claims. Generally speaking, insurance companies will look to avoid paying out a claim or a settlement. Part of their avoidance strategy is to draw out discussions and be slow to respond. As such, it is best to engage the insurance companies at the start of the process and be very clear on application of the insurance policy and appropriate riders. Finally, the board should not shy away from being aggressive with any insurance company that is avoiding its contractual obligations. If you have difficulties with an insurer, consider engaging attorneys with a specialty in insurance coverage disputes. 

Update current reporting policies and procedures. While not directly responsible in its governance role, the board should ensure that the school’s administration applies learnings from every aspect of the process to update all current reporting policies and procedures. That includes working with the head and also with the director of human resources and the head of student life. It is critical to ensure an appropriate and safe environment for incidences to be reported and acted on. Policies and procedures should be updated as situations and learning warrant as well as on an annual basis. 

LEADING THE WAY 

At Milton, we didn’t have a playbook, but we learned along the way; we remained agile and made adjustments, and we listened to experts. We held steadfast to our survivor-centric approach. Since the investigation at Milton, we became founding members of an organization, Learning Courage, that helps school leaders reduce and respond to sexual misconduct in their schools. Learning Courage’s mantra of compassion, integrity, and clarity highlight what must be foundational to any board of trustees’ response to sexual misconduct and abuse allegations and an ensuing investigation. 

LISA DONOHUE, a 1983 graduate of Milton Academy in Milton, Massachusetts, is in her sixth year as board president and 12th year as a trustee at the school.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of Independent School Magazine.

A Survivor's Journey

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: 

  1. Impact of my abuse
  2. My healing journey
  3. Deciding to disclose my abuse 
  4. Participating in the Investigation
  5. Becoming a public survivor
  6. Pressing Charges
  7. Learning from other survivors
  8. Dealing with Indictment and extradition
  9. Setting expectations for an outcome in the case 

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.