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re-printed from medium.com as "Too Much Information" by the author
After forty years of stoic silence, I started to write pieces about my childhood, and one oblique piece about being assaulted in a juvenile facility at fourteen, in 1970. I posted it on the old Open Salon site, though I could not tell the whole story. A mess, incomplete and odd.
It opened a door I could not close, so I had to re-direct the impulse. Wrote plays, stories, and essays — but the darkest material lurked and insisted, coloring otherwise innocuous writing.
Having raised my oldest daughter Molly from infancy as a single parent, we decided there was a story there, so she and I wrote an interleaved version of our lives. After 200,000 raw words and two years, we decided our G-rated version would not let us tell it true, so we separated the two stories into two (still unpublished) books.
Meanwhile, as my three daughters thrived, launched their independent lives, I started to crash. I had to tell someone. First my partner, in bits and pieces—she was horrified.
Then Molly was assaulted, and her assailant pled out. In the aftermath, I realized that my silence about being raped was terror, and how the boys and guards responsible depended on that. How boys don’t tell, how shame and fear are internalized, and choke us. I started to imagine justice (and retribution), so I wrote it all. Marathon writing sessions, full of tears, rage, head-banging.
The first versions were sterile, dispassionate, dodgy. I did not think so at the time, but others could see it. A manuscript full of lyrical expression, vivid feeling — but the material about that year, those five days, were incomplete and flat.
Then I truly crashed. Work and health issues were the proximal cause, but what emerged soon after, and still haunts me, is What Happened, and What They Did. I obsessed.
Found an excellent therapist. When I finally showed her the writing, she said: No. I had explained it without any emotional connection. Took the reader on a rollercoaster ride with the sequence and some details — but who was that boy? what did it feel like and what happened after? how did it change me? Having never asked myself about or looked at those aspects, I came to understand I was shut down, dissociated. I had to finally re-inhabit my life, to see and feel what I had never forgotten but had kept compartmentalized, re-framed, diminished.
I had tried to “walk it off,” to “be a man about it” and it worked, sort of—if we omit the compulsive, eighty-hour work weeks, that is, and the inauthentic self I shored up, every day.
You might say I exhausted my defenses, after forty years. And say, too: writing has power like no other art, to reveal our self to our self, because the more I wrote, the harder it got to maintain the self-deception, the false front, the endlessly tweaked personal history that made me heroic and “whole.”
After several versions, to which my therapist kept saying No, I finally got it, what she was asking for. There was only one way to do this: purge all thought of publication, revenge, and self-protection and go back there, to those days of rapes and tortures — I required a partial anusectomy for the what they did to me — and say it all. Give a Voice to the pain and terror, the anguish and insanity afterwards.
I deleted that first version. Immediately wrote it again, said it better; deleted that. Then I wrote it all. How I joked and pleaded, how they made me take part in my own humiliation, trapped in that cell. How I screamed. How the guards permitted it and how I wanted to kill them, then — and now, still.
Writing it was twenty-four hours that changed me forever. I became broken again, but visible and true. Later, when I edited the book, I had to change all that followed. I had realized how mundane and powerful dissociation was, after being raped, how I became an actor, pretending to be just like all of you.
I was fourteen and a late bloomer, a slim and pretty boy. It hit me like blow: I was a child.
Finally, my therapist said Yes.
Eventually, after a lot of polish, I started sending queries. Honed the query, did all the right things. When I got a response at all, they were odd to me. Quotes: “Despite its charms, this kind of material is not suitable for us” (charms? and from an agency that had in fact represented difficult memoirs); “We can’t publish this, no one can. It’s too graphic”; and “No thanks. And we recommend you remove the lurid rape scenes before you submit to anyone else.” Lurid?
As I learned how to manage my new-old, re-inhabited self, I spoke out at events, in groups. Turns out, though, that the very people who most relate — other rape victims (almost always women), their families, professionals and activists, are “triggered” by even the simplest version. I also encountered a barrier I understand and support: rape is far and away a crime against women, statistically. Women are not believed, and are stonewalled. Finding one’s Voice is especially hard when the culture punishes assertiveness in women altogether.
So okay. Eventually I found organizations like 1in6, and an uneasy but supportive relationship with other survivors. I learned it is not a race to the bottom, that it’s the same bloody floor for all, whether our trust was betrayed with fondling or there was sustained, prolonged violence. I learned the value of service, to look outwards, to listen to other victims. Compassion creates more compassion, and compassion is the balm, if not the antidote.
But there is a difference. What’s called C-PTSD should not be ranked “above” other trauma, but it is profoundly different. The violence and humiliation I endured was extreme, and the facility knew but let it happen. I was betrayed, for five days and nights. My fight-or-flight response was blocked and I was transformed forever. Three older, bigger boys, enabled by tough guards, destroyed me. That is the simple truth. I struggle every day now to awake up, to find calm, to not go dead inside. Wholeness and Closure and Resolution, as we all understand them, do not apply.
I was accepted as a Fellow with the CUNY Writers Institute several years ago, and finally got some answers about what I wrote. Leo Carey of The New Yorker encouraged me to share the piece about the assaults with the small group, and his opinion — that I show restraint in how I say it, and it works for him — was not shared by some Fellows. The youngest, a grad student, was adamant that I should reduce it to one sentence, like Mathabane does in “Kaffir Boy.” She accused me of “fetishizing rape” — a grad school lit-crit concept, I came to understand. Leo was an advocate for considering everything, playing “what if” without prejudice or favor, so I took her criticism seriously.
But rape victims are not heard, even when we speak up.
We struggle to overcome our peculiar, misplaced shame. We fear reprisals and blame. It is what rapists depend on, that we can’t tell. At best, we use euphemisms, out of respect for the listener. And so rape is widely misunderstood.
Movies and TV rarely get it right. “Thrash, overcome, endure” is true enough, but the whole truth is messier. Pleading and joking, partial, step-by-step compliance — this is is what humans do in the hyper-vigilant state prior to violence. Time slows and we think only to deflect, delay, deny, until it is too late. To the camera, it looks like compliance—so writers, directors, and actors ramp it up, signify with exaggerated behavior how “she tries with all her might” and “is overcome.”
We don’t know what rape really is, what it does. Brownmiller is mostly but not completely right when she says it is about power and control. Yes—but it is still about sex.
We ignore assaults in facilities, and generally, perhaps unconsciously, figure that’s different, that they sort-of “deserve it.” Liberals make just as many “bubba cellmate-don’t bend over for the soap-rough justice” jokes as conservatives.
I lost my two best male friends when I “came out” as being raped. One said “I don’t know, I would have died trying. Why didn’t you fight back that first night?” The other simply withdrew, found reasons to never spend time with me, and got hostile. Most men are profoundly uncomfortable with male raped, and don’t want to one heard.
This year, in response to a letter I sent years ago, a new Missouri assistant attorney general apologized, on his letterhead, for what happened to me. He heard me — but when I thanked him, and suggested they find a way to apologize publicly to the hundreds of boys assaulted in what was at the time the worst juvenile justice system in the country, he said he would get back to me, after doing more research. Then Coronavirus happened.
But I will keep trying. I owe it to the boys who were brutalized in Missouri. I owe it to all the boys and men in institutions, who even today have no protection. The PREA Act documents how rape has increased in facilities every single year, since it was established in 2003. We are damned for our indifference.
I will be heard.
Greg was a CUNY Writing Fellow in 2017, working with Leo Carey of The New Yorker and Jon Galassi of FSG. After a career as illustrator for the New Yorker, CLIO winner/judge, and creative director, he found his true art as a writer. Salon picked up a few pieces, notably one about his Parkinson's diagnosis.
As project manager and developer, he designed and delivered the Yale Climate Institute‘s collaborative tools for scientists. He created and ran, live, the first multimedia stage set for Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, in 1996. Two of his short plays were produced, one off-Broadway.
His poetry and essays have been published in anthologies, including wVw, Late Summer Orphans, Into Sanity (co-edited by David Vonnegut), CAPS Poetry anthologies, and Vanguard Voices. He lives near New Paltz, New York.