I woke up last month to find someone had slipped a novel into my mail slot. The text on the dust jacket got my attention: Ruth, now in her “twilight . . . looks back on a harrowing childhood and on the unaccountable love and happiness that emerged from it.” I jumped in. Near the end of the book I came to this line: “If I can’t ever tell anyone the true story . . . then no one will ever know me.”
I hung on to those words all day.
I happened to be writing an essay about my life and the self-blame I’d long carried about having had cancer. But then I stopped, snagged in that very same way as when I had come to Ruth’s admonition. Would I include a certain seven words?
“I had been molested as a child.”
I don’t believe in coincidences. I thought there was a reason why I couldn’t let go of novelist Carrie Brown’s prescient sentence just as I was trying to write my “true story” for the very first time.
Getting to the point where I could consider putting those seven words down on paper had taken a lifetime. I’d had some bad starts. In 1989, when I was 32 years old, I confided my secret to one of my closest friends, who in turn revealed to me that a recent rape had triggered memories of having been molested by her grandmother. Within the year, with her own secret bleeding into her psyche, my friend — only 26 — took her life.
Soon after, I made another attempt at disclosure, confiding in a new boyfriend, who seemed to love and accept me despite the stained soul that I saw in the mirror. But he betrayed me: He cheated on me, and when I moved out he tried to blackmail me with my secret. To my horror, he sent a postcard (a postcard!) to my office announcing a meeting of sexual abuse survivors at my apartment. The so-called invitation, he threatened, would also be mailed to my entire family — outing me as a victim — unless I agreed to move back in with him.
It got worse, as my ex’s bluster turned into a death threat, and I had to make a decision about what to do. I’ve been good at many things in my life, but standing up for myself hasn’t been one of them. This time, though, I overcame the terror, stood my ground and took him on, starting with a police order of protection. He flinched and disappeared from my life.
Once again I was alone with my secret, which now proved too much for me. I made an appointment with the psychotherapist I’d seen at age 23, when I was just coming out 12 years earlier. For several appointments I dutifully went to his office but couldn’t answer the question: “Why are you here?”
Finally, this is what I wrote down and then read out loud to him:
“As much as I have tried, I can’t actually say to you what I need to without reading the words from this paper.. . . I’m afraid to read this because in telling you the story it will become real. But, I need to become real. I’m ready.”
I read to him the details of what my paternal grandfather did to me as a young boy, ending with “I don’t know where all of that fear went. It just stayed inside me. I buried it that quickly and that perfectly.”
I continued in therapy and made quiet disclosures to a few of my closest friends, but it didn’t feel like enough.
I had dreams, terrible ones, like the one in which my 8-year-old self was in class and my grandfather entered the room seeking a victim. In the dream, he chose my real-life friend Charlotte, who stood up and said, “No, I won’t go with you.” When my turn came, no such words came from me, reminding me of the hauntingly accusatory saying: “There are no victims, only volunteers.” I still thought it was my fault.
Over two decades, I talked to those friends about revealing more — but there was no real reason to. Why? My grandfather was dead. I was married. I didn’t need anything from anyone.
Until recently, that is, when I realized I did need something, when it suddenly seemed wrong not to disclose the truth. Maybe it was actress Ellen Page’s coming-out statement (“I am tired of lying by omission”) or Dylan Farrow’s accusation of sexual abuse against Woody Allen (which he has denied). I’d previously come out as gay and I’d talked and written about having had cancer. Shedding a skin had always made a positive difference in how I felt about myself and in deepening my relationships.
My friend and confidante, Amy, wrote me: “You’re tired of holding your secret, you want it to come out and you’ll deal with whatever fallout there may be. It’s time.”
I told my sister, then my brother, both of whom instinctively supported me. Finally, I went to see my parents, both in their 80s and not in the best of health. I’d thought about this conversation a hundred times before, but this was no dress rehearsal. Unable to tamp down the fear lodged in my throat, I decided to step over it and just tell my story.
When I finished, my mom, a retired psychiatric social worker, put on her professional hat and said: “Sexual abuse is all too common and hidden away.”
Unlike many others who reveal their secret, I was fortunate: Neither my mother nor my father disputed what I was saying; in fact, it all seemed to ring true to them, and Mom even added other bits to the narrative. For example, she wondered aloud, why had my late grandmother become apoplectic whenever my grandfather visited us without her? “We thought she was controlling. Now I wonder if she was trying to protect you kids.”
Despite my many rehearsals for this moment, the drama played out in a way I’d never imagined: The healing power of my family’s love and support was immediately tangible. Of course, I wondered whether my grandfather had sexually assaulted anyone else, but that’s a question for another day.
As I’ve told others since then, I’d been healing in ways I’d hadn’t even hoped for. My friend Peter sent an e-mail, reading in part: “Life seems to be a continual act of coming out, isn’t it? The boundaries we think are uncrossable, the unnamable corners of our soul that we live in fear of bringing to light . . . are the very regions that allow us to feel complete if we dare to explore them. So thank you for crossing borders, shining a light into those corners — they only make you more lovable, more admirable.”
I don’t quote Peter to suggest that I am more lovable or admirable now but to remind myself of this truth (to paraphrase James Joyce from “Ulysses”): Our secrets sit silent in the dark recesses of our hearts, but even they weary of their tyranny, willing and wanted to be dethroned.
Or as Amy said: “It was simply time.”
Petrow writes the “Civilities” advice column for The Post. He can be reached at http://www.facebook.com/stevenpetrow and http://www.twitter.com/stevenpetrow.