I set out to write a series of blog posts about my experience as a survivor of sexual abuse. As I began the process, the words and the topics to write about poured out of me. I realized there was a lot I wanted to cover as I began to pull apart the different aspects of my abuse. I made a list that included how the abuse kept me small and prevented me from taking risks; why I decided to return to Milton Academy to report my abuse after 31 years; my process and what it felt like to participate in the school’s investigation; why I chose to declare publicly that I was one of the unnamed people in the Investigation findings; why I decided to respond to some press inquiries and not others; what made me decide to press charges against the man who abused me and my experience of the subsequent legal process: these were all topics that others agreed would have value to readers.
I wrote my first post, and it felt good to release. And the second one spilled out of me 3 months later. And then Boston Magazine published my story. Writing has always been a way for me to process my own experiences. And the possibility of sharing these details to help others is what helped me overcome the nearly crippling fear about going back to the school that betrayed me and hoping things would be different this time. Things were different when I returned. And identifying the power that he took from me when he abused me and sharing it in a public way has enabled me to reclaim that power. This reclaiming has been a critical part of my healing.
And then I stopped writing the series.
I had so much more to write. I had a long list of topics to cover, but something was in the way. I can point to lots of reasons that kept me from writing more on the topic. The most obvious is that I was busy. But that was too easy an answer, and it wasn’t the whole story.
What I realized is that fear has blocked me from writing more. It’s not fear of what you might think though. I am not afraid about what people will think of me. While shame is still a deeply ingrained aspect from my abuse, what has kept me from writing more is the fear that what I write will be used against me in court. Every word I write and have written about my abuse will be dissected. Every triumph over the pain will be used to show that the damage to me wasn’t that bad. Any revelation or explanation of healing will be evidence that whatever harm I have claimed could not have been as traumatic as the prosecution is claiming.
I imagine myself sitting on the witness stand and having to defend out of context quotations; I anticipate being asked just how well I remember incidents that happened more than 4 decades ago, especially when alcohol was involved. Trauma does strange things to memory. The criminal justice system has little tolerance for trauma’s impact on the brain, especially when there is also no physical evidence.
Thirty-seven years after I left the school where my abuser walked the halls, I am currently grinding through the court system seeking justice - and consequences for the man who abused me. He fled overseas after being fired for admitting he had abused another student. He went to Thailand and Malaysia, where he continued to teach until a court in Massachusetts indicted him for what he did to me. It took 8 months to get the indictment. It took another year and a half to get him extradited from Southeast Asia. And it has taken another 3 years to argue through endless motions and appeals. There is still no court date on the horizon. The case may be dismissed before it even gets to trial. But if the case does go to trial, I know that every statement, everything I have written will be pulled apart for inconsistencies, for evidence that my memory (indeed that I) am unreliable and should not be believed. This is not only my fear. It is the fear that everyone who has been victimized has to consider if they report abuse: being told that it didn’t happen, that what they’re saying can’t be true. Too often that stops them, and I understand it.
I have a lot to say about the impact and what I have learned from being sexually victimized as a young teen. And writing about the experience has been a powerful salve for the wounds that still fester. So I am left to write about not being able to write - about being afraid of what I say because I know everything will be challenged with the objective of discrediting me. In fact, my choice to start Learning Courage has already been used in court as evidence that this organization is merely an opportunity to profit from my experience.
Seeking justice has been a long grind, and the outcome remains uncertain. And yet the criminal process favors those who remain silent. Seeking justice means submitting yourself to further victimization because it’s built into the process. Part of my healing has come from expressing and sharing my experience. And doing that also puts the case at risk. These elements are all reasons that prevent people from reporting abuse and pressing charges.
And they are at the heart of what has kept me from writing.
The Eyes and Ears of Boarding School
By Elena Levin, Brown University, Class of 2022
In my first creative writing course as a freshman in college, I decided to write my final short story about sexual misconduct on a boarding school campus, exploring a world that I had become very familiar with during my four years attending a New England prep school. The main character, a freshman girl, is abused by her male math teacher who also served as her dorm adviser. When receiving feedback, I was taken aback by my classmate’s responses, surprised by their critiques. Their concerns were mainly rooted in disbelief around boarding school culture. My classmates questioned some of the details such as a male teacher living in a girl’s dorm, the jammed-packed schedule, and stringent rules, believing my depiction of boarding school to be exaggerated and completely fictionalized. They could not wrap their heads around the details in the story that were based on my personal experiences and observations: the lack of support from the administration, the rampant hookup culture, and most of all the inappropriate relationships between students and teachers. My classmates’ feedback and observations triggered something in me, drawing me down a rabbit hole of self-reflection.
At 14, the people who were in charge of my safety shifted from my parents to my school’s administration.The vast manicured campus of my high school had the appearance of a college and the expectations the school has for its students are often that of a college student. What comes with going to boarding school is an accelerated transition into adulthood. When I arrived at college I was surprised by the way in some areas I felt over-prepared, but in others, I lacked important skills that seemed to come easily to my classmates. We were trained well in time management and leadership skills, setting us up for academic success in college. However, understanding and witnessing healthy romantic and sexual relationships and learning to trust the administration to have the student body’s best interest in mind were not part of my high school experience. While adults were ever-present on campus, there were many ways in which the faculty and staff left us without proper emotional support and resources to thrive in our future endeavors, leaving me feeling unseen and ill-equipped when I entered a college social environment.
On a co-ed high school campus filled with overscheduled teens experiencing high levels of hormones and stress, students will ultimately find ways to let off steam, either in healthy ways, channeling stress into sports or the arts, or through unhealthy coping mechanisms such as substance abuse, skipping commitments, or sexual deviancy. Attending a preparatory school, early on it became clear that our purpose at the school was to get into an “acceptable” college. This meant I had to spend my time wisely doing homework, excelling at my sport, and gaining leadership positions to put on my resume. The pressure increased as college application deadlines approached. With this extreme pressure, it is not surprising that each year a handful of students went on medical leave for mental health reasons, transferred schools, or were asked to leave campus for breaking the rules.
The hookup culture that existed at my boarding school, despite the rules and risk of punishment, was ever-present and at the core of the social hierarchy. At the top were upperclassmen, mainly male athletes, often affluent and with family legacy at the school. Female students had to obtain attention from someone at the top in order to be deemed socially relevant. While for male students their sport was what often defined their social worth, there were many more social and physical expectations for girls. To receive the attention of the boys at the top, girls had to dress a certain way, never repeat an outfit, and have connections with male and female upperclassmen. Money is at the root of all of these expectations. Excelling at a sport often requires equipment, participating in travel teams, and private coaching. Dressing well required having the trendiest clothes, often designer brands. Having connections with older students meant that there was most often a previous connection to the school, whether through a sibling or friend. These connections were indicators of a family tie to the school which often comes with privilege through family donations and the ability to pay for years of tuition. As a result, it felt like the social hierarchy was determined before the first time I even stepped on campus, and I immediately felt as though I was playing catch up in order to be integrated into the social scene.
It must also be noted that there was a lack of representation and resources provided to LGBTQ students, which made heterosexual relationships the norm. All rules were based on heterosexual assumptions. The way that the school day was structured, only 30 minutes were given to students to interact with opposite-sex students in a non-academic setting. The time limits created pressure to engage in the hookup culture during the specified times, creating a sense of urgency in sexual activity which is a recipe for transactional sexual behavior. LGBTQ couples were able to interact freely with one another as long as the administration was not aware. The absence of clear policies provided LGBTQ couples with more freedom to explore those relationships but came with a tendency to hide to prevent the school from becoming involved which may have led students to hide or suppress who they truly are. The focus on heterosexual couples may have put LGBTQ students at risk with the lack of clear procedures and institutional support.
The way things were written in the school’s handbook, it appeared that the school thought all private interactions were inherently sexual. While there were a few locations that permitted male and female students to interact, such as the dining hall and student activities center, these locations came with a lack of privacy that is often necessary to form meaningful and healthy relationships. In order to visit one another’s dorm room, heterosexual couples would have to receive approval from an on-duty dorm adviser, and were required to keep their dorm room door open and have three feet on the floor at all times. Dorm advisors would periodically check in on students to ensure that no inappropriate behaviors were occurring. Students were put in an uncomfortable position having to ask for permission as the advisor on duty could very well be their teacher or coach. The process of requesting permission ultimately required that teachers involve themselves in the student’s social life and, consequently, to have an opinion on the relationship by either approving or rejecting a visitation request. As the faculty fills the parental role, this process blurs the line between faculty and students in a way that does not happen at day schools. By involving the faculty in the student’s social decision-making, it’s not surprising that many students broke these rules to prevent the school from getting involved. The tendency to sneak around in this sense is not specific to boarding school culture but becomes more complex when teachers are acting as the authority figure in and out of the classroom.
Although sex was decriminalized my junior year in the student handbook, the rules to prevent sexual activity were still in place. This meant that students were punished for breaking visitation rules rather than the sexual activity itself. These rules were created to keep students from “fooling around” in school buildings and naturally, students had to get creative to get around this rule. Unfortunately, the rules that were in place to prevent sexual misconduct and sexual activity on campus put students in unsafe situations where they were not only sneaking around the rules but isolating themselves in places where they couldn't be caught. In occurrences of sexual misconduct, students may have avoidedreporting incidents and utilizing the existing resources since early on we were taught, breaking rules will prevent you from getting into a good college.
I remember my first night freshman year of high school, listening to girls describe their plans to hook up with junior boys on the hockey and lacrosse teams. They planned on going for a “walk” around campus, which I quickly learned meant sneaking to a dark corner of campus to hook up. The pressure to engage in the hookup culture was intense from all angles. Mealtime conversations were often centered around the previous night’s hookups discussed or debunked. Many of these conversations were focused on how far the female student was willing to go to please the male. The “further” women were willing to go, the more social capital they received. I watched female students climb the social ladder seemingly overnight after hooking up with the “right people” and doing the “right things.”
I was even was given unsolicited advice from a sophomore dorm-mate who told me that if I wanted a boyfriend I would have to perform oral sex. This ultimately created a power dynamic between the male and female-identifying students placing male pleasure above female needs. I was taught that a successful sexual encounter in the eyes of my peers would have to leave the male satisfied. The rules in place to protect students ultimately taught me that interactions with the opposite sex have a time limit and ultimately made sexual activity transactional and a form of rebellion. This combined with the social pressure to engage in the hookup culture created an unhealthy pressure to engage and, for many, also a fear of engaging.
It is essential for school leaders to understand that early on students are indoctrinated into this hookup culture and begin to develop a foundation for their intimate relationships in adulthood. During adolescence, social experiences and sexual exploration are a significant and healthy part of the developmental process. Teaching students that sex is unacceptable and will derail their future is an unhealthy lesson that many students will carry with them after graduation. In my experience, this detrimental relationship with sexual behavior led me to believe that the rules and culture that existed at my high school would be the same in college. I never had the opportunity to unlearn what my high school had taught me, which I now can see led me down a dangerous path when I got to college. I carried the belief that my social worth was dependent on not only sex but also who my peers would deem an acceptable mate. It was ingrained in me that my self-worth was directly tied to external validation from men. It made me believe that in order to be accepted by my peers, sometimes I would have to do things I may not want to or be ready for. This left very little space for me to account for my own needs, desires, and sexual identity.
Realizing I received little to no official sexual education during high school compared to some of my college classmates was a disturbing revelation. Although during sophomore year, we were required to take “Sophomore Seminar,” which was meant to serve the same purpose as a traditional sex-ed course, my section occurred during a massive lice outbreak, and our instructor was forced to cancel our section multiple times. The sections that we did have included us watching clips of college students dying from alcohol poisoning and playing a bowling game about STD names and symptoms. Not once did we discuss safe sex practices or what a healthy relationship looks like. In fact, going into college, the only “sex talk” I received was in middle school, and it focused solely on female menstruation and male pleasure. This gap in our curriculum, combined with the toxic hetero-normative hookup culture, created an unsafe school environment that was only perpetuated by the administration. The school’s active avoidance in engaging the student body in these important conversations created a disconnect between the students and adults who were supposedly there to keep us safe and have our best interest in mind.
I believe that these unhealthy perceptions of sex that were embedded in my mind by my high school’s hookup culture put me at risk. I was assaulted my sophomore year of college by a male varsity athlete. While I know I was not at fault, I can’t help but question how I ended up in that situation and what role my high school experiences played in leading me to that point. While my college gives students information on how to take action against perpetrators, there is still room for improvement. I was encouraged by the Title IX office to informally report the assault because of the nature of the incident. Taking the informal route, the office contacted my perpetrator requesting that he come into the office to discuss the incident and have a conversation about consent. When he didn’t respond to Title IX, I was left without support. No faculty member reached out or followed up with me following the initial report. It is unsettling to know that my perpetrator continues to walk free, without receiving any knowledge of why what he did was wrong or any education to prevent him from doing what he did to me to someone else. While it’s the student’s choice to take action against their perpetrator, it’s the school’s obligation to maintain contact and follow up with students who may not take formal legal action. Although I took action against my perpetrator, many students do not have the tools to do so. I believe that my experience as a peer educator, consent educator, and prefect in a freshman dorm during high school, is what allowed me to understand the importance of speaking up when misconduct occurs. It is important to note, though, that I sought out these opportunities: my experience should not be taken as the norm.
The School’s Role and Reactions
During my 10th grade year, word got around that multiple women came forward to report a junior male track star who assaulted each one of them on different occasions. This moment should have been a sign to the school that reform was needed.The administration failed to see this as an opportunity for the student body to be educated on consent, safe sex behaviors, and available emotional and legal resources. Since the majority of the student body seemed to know about what occurred, mainly because the perpetrator posted on social media defending himself against the allegations, we were all waiting for our headmaster or dean of students to speak up during this tumultuous time; however, they never did. School meeting after school meeting we waited for someone, any familiar adult, to provide us with clarity and support. Many students took the perpetrator’s side and doubted the women who came forward, feeding the women’s pain and creating a culture unsafe for victims and survivors. As a result of the social hierarchy where male athletes lived at the top, the perpetrator’s point of view was prioritized in the conversation about the incident and perpetuated the culture of placing male students’ needs and long-term success above the females. It was the school’s responsibility to gauge the campus conversation and work to fill the knowledge gaps that were reinforcing victim-blaming and toxic relationships.
Instead of the administration using its voice and power to gain the student’s trust and educate us, they responded by bringing a play on campus that dealt with issues of sexual assault and victim-blaming. Many of the students found the play powerful and educational, but many did not take it seriously. If the administration had shared their thoughts and given the student body a clear sense of the school’s position and expectations around these topics, the play may have had its desired effect. Because the administration remained mostly silent, avoiding these conversations and teaching moments with the student body, our needs and safety were overlooked.
The following year, I observed students making efforts to reform the school’s culture only to be shut down by the administration. Junior year, a group of female students in my class created a student-run organization that educated students on sexual misconduct, consent, and the school’s resources - a clear reaction to the lack of leadership from the administration who avoided these topics, at the expense of the students. These amazing women approached the Dean of Students to receive approval for the organization. The Dean rejected their pitch multiple times claiming “it wasn’t the right time.” It wasn’t until the fall of my senior year, right before the 2016 Boston Globe Article was released, that their efforts were accepted by the administration and the organization was approved. Why did it take so long to receive approval from the school? The students were able to see the need for education around safe-sex practices while the administration turned a blind eye. This sent a message to me and other students who wanted to be involved in educating the student body on prevention and intervention on this topic, that our safety was not a priority.
My high school missed many opportunities to educate me and my peers in important relationship skills that would have set me up for social and emotional success in and out of college. When I arrived at college, the freedom to interact with members of the opposite sex, and even share a bathroom with them, came as a shock to my system. After years of being monitored and fearful of punishment, the independence that came with going to college was a blessing and a curse. Learning to live without constant supervision is a difficult transition for any adolescent, and for me, it was as if I had broken the chains that tied me to my high school’s rules, but I continued to be weighed down by the social expectations that had been ingrained in me for four years. I am forever grateful for the opportunities that my high school provided me which allowed me to develop interests and interpersonal skills that set me apart from my peers; however, as I enter my senior year of undergrad, I am still doing damage control when it comes to my self-worth and understanding my womanhood outside the context of my high school’s toxic hetero-normative hookup culture.
It is essential that administrators at the high school and college level take into consideration not only the prevalence of sexual misconduct but also the campus culture that feeds these behaviors. I believe that the students at boarding schools are the only members of the community that truly know what’s going on, especially when it comes to the hookup culture since engaging in those behaviors is often against school rules and hidden from the faculty and staff. The neglect on the part of the administration to address these issues with the student body despite their knowledge of the culture and the student’s concerns is unacceptable and damaging to students during their formative years.
On the high school level, school leaders should clearly lay out the resources available to students and teach them about healthy relationships. All students should also receive comprehensive sex and consent education, focused on preventing sexual assault and understanding the resources available to students. By placing focus on education and prevention, teaching students respect and compassion, the campus culture will improve over time. I was lucky that my peers in high school took action and started the conversation, expressing the importance of reporting misconduct, which led me to my university’s Title IX office in my time of need.
On both the high school and college level, it is essential that all schools acknowledge that in order to change their culture, prevention must be prioritized equally, if not more, than intervention. These preventative measures will teach students the skills to engage in healthy and safe sexual activity, and if misconduct occurs, they will be able to note inappropriate behaviors in reference to their understanding of what is right and wrong. This will hopefully lead them to the appropriate resources in times of need.
During my time at boarding school, I saw improvements from year to year as more student groups seemed to pop up around helping individuals with issues related to sexual safety. Many, if not all, of these efforts, were student-driven. It seems that during my time at boarding school, the students were ahead of their teachers knowing the true climate of the school and seeing the gaps in education, and filling those with clubs and community conversations. The students are the eyes and ears of campus culture since they are the people experiencing the school firsthand. It is the responsibility of the faculty and staff to prioritize the needs of the students as they are in loco parentis. Making sure that students are mentally and physically healthy should be a priority of the faculty and staff when our parents are not present to check in with us daily. Dorm advisers, coaches, teachers, and administrators should work to get to know the student in a healthy way. Teachers, coaches, and advisors should work to identify where each student needs emotional and academic support, and lead them to the proper resources to succeed.This effort requires the school to have a comprehensive knowledge of the campus climate and culture to identify and assess threats to students’ emotional and physical wellbeing.
It is important to create a culture of trust between the students and the administration, rather than one of fear. Too often in my experience, students took action that would have improved the state of the school, but they were shut down by administrators. It is easy for the school to brush off students in times of need by mislabeling mental health issues, avoiding tricky conversations, or blaming timing. In order to empower and prepare students to take on life post-grad, the students need to be and feel heard and obtain the necessary skills to succeed academically, socially, and emotionally. The students are the school’s most valuable resource for community improvement and should be seen as such in order to create a culture of trust and respect.
The views and opinions expressed through this blog are solely those of the original author. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Learning Courage staff and/or any/all contributors to this site.
A Survivor's Journey - The Impact of Abuse
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.
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.
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:
Impact of my abuse
My healing journey
Deciding to disclose my abuse
Participating in the Investigation
Becoming a public survivor
Learning from other survivors
Dealing with Indictment and extradition
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.