For the last seven days, my inbox has been full of horror and hope -- personal stories of childhood sexual abuse -- following my column "Remember the Children" about the Penn State/Jerry Sandusky scandal.
If ex-assistant coach Sandusky really did molest eight boys over 15 years, as charged, then he has left in his wake a pool of young men who will feel ruined, alone and potentially suicidal.
"I wake up from [nightmares] and my wife is scared because I'm throwing punches in my sleep," one man wrote from Des Moines, IA. "What happened to me over 20 years ago affects every decision I make, every breath I breathe."
And yet every victim who wrote me -- men who were assaulted by coaches, fathers and priests in bathrooms, bedrooms and cars -- ended by saying the same thing: Help is out there. When they don't get it, a life of misery and loathing lies ahead. When they do, they feel so freed that they often wind up helping kids who have endured similar atrocities.
• • •
Gary Thompson was 6 when he says his father started sexually molesting him. But in a home wallpapered with violence, flying dishes and pointed guns, who could he tell?
"If I told," Thompson remembers thinking, "the outcome seemed pretty clear. My father would be dead at the hands of my mother. My mother would go to prison. And I and my siblings would be split up and sent off to relatives or foster homes. You tell yourself that keeping your mouth shut is the best thing for everyone."
So for the next five years, he lived in his own muted hell.
• • •
Many men who were sexually abused as children have ruinous relationships with women. They begin to think they are dirty to the core, shameful and dangerous to women. They're terrified they can't be trusted not to hurt women, so they run from them.
"Dan" was 10 when he began to be molested repeatedly by his older brother. When their mother caught on, she acted like nothing happened.
"The only time it was 'discussed' was by my father," Dan wrote. "He whipped me with his leather belt ... and told me I should be ashamed. ... I can clearly see his face in my memory, as he glared at me from over his reading glasses. 'That is something adults do. I am ashamed of you.'"
Dan felt desperately alone and, worse, as if he deserved his loneliness. "I was a God fearing church boy, so I thought I would burn in hell, that I was dirty, I was ugly ... I was a bad person. I felt like someone had poured acid all over me."
He considered suicide a hundred times, then one day he met a woman who stumbled onto the truth by accident.
"She confronted me," Dan wrote. "I told her as I cried uncontrollably, shook uncontrollably. Then she hugged me, and told me she loved me, unconditionally. Now -- only now -- my memories no longer have any power over me."
• • •
The sexual torture Gary Thompson says he endured at the hands of his father
seemed to worsen with each episode.
Finally, at 11, when the molestation was at its worst, his mother filed for divorce and left with the kids. Gary still hadn't told her.
And then, one day, his worst nightmare rang the doorbell.
It was his father, telling his ex-wife he'd like to take Gary's 6-year-old brother "away" for the weekend. "Spend some time with him," his father said.
"AlI I could do was just stand there," Gary remembers. "I wanted to scream ... but, literally, my mouth and jaws were completely frozen. The secret I had guarded so fiercely ... wouldn't come out of my mouth to save my baby brother. And I watched them drive away."
• • •
Two reactions welled up in victims last week as they read about Sandusky and Penn State. One is the anger from their childhood erupted again from hidden places. "In the wake of the PSU scandal," wrote one victim, "I find myself reliving everything I went through."
"It brought back many bad memories of my abused childhood which I too have chosen to try and forget," wrote a victim from Minnesota. "The pain never does go away."
The second is that the healed are grateful to have spoken up and gotten help and wish they could tell the Penn State boys to seek that same help.
A man molested by a neighbor from age 4 to 8: "I was president of my class in high school, captain of the football team, the most popular kid in school. I am also an alcoholic ... I cannot trust, love, and I am constantly running to avoid the pain. Luckily, I have been able to address many of these things through therapy and the love and support of family and friends."
A man abused by his father and his uncles: "After 36 years of drug and alcohol abuse, I have finally found a recovery group where I can be honest about my past."
Abused at 10: "I finally spoke to a professional doctor and she helped me deal with my molestation. I wasn't afraid anymore, I told my wife, I told my friends, I told my family.......and guess what? They still loved me."
• • •
As Gary Thompson watched his father take away his 6-year-old brother
straight into his own black past, the guilt and shame burned within him like a bonfire. "My guilt turned into absolute self-hatred."
And then, out of the divine, the car his father was driving crashed in traffic. Within two hours, his brother was back home, safe.
Gary still couldn't tell his mother, but "after that day, I never allowed my younger brother to be alone with my father."
And yet the secret only burrowed deeper within him.
• • •
Tim Benesh was 12 when he was sexually assaulted by his Portland (Ore.) Little League coach, Jerry Dusenberry, a youth sports supporter and U.S. Olympic boxing coach.
"My parents trusted [him]," Benesh wrote. "He in turn violated that trust and me. I, like many others, told no one."
Dusenberry, like Sandusky, worked as a volunteer with boys from low-income backgrounds. He slipped through the hands of police a couple of times before he was finally caught. In 2001, two men told police Dusenberry had molested them 20 years before, but no charges were filed.
Finally, one boy told of more recent incidents and Dusenberry wound up pleading guilty in 2002 to four counts of child sexual abuse. He served almost nine years until he was released this May.
But it wasn't Dusenberry's conviction that freed Tim Benesh. It was a therapist.
"I have been chasing a ghost for what seems like my entire life," Benesh wrote. "I never really knew what it was, but through recent therapy I have come to realize this time in my life played a bigger role in who I am, how I viewed myself and how I viewed others, especially women. ... I was one of the lucky ones."
• • •
Ugliness buried within doesn't fade. It only festers and gnaws until you feel like it will consume your very soul. Years went by. Gary Thompson's shame only deepened.
"I came to a point where I could no longer run from it and I decided to end it all," he says. "But at the very moment when I was about to take my own life, the image of the face of my 2½-year-old son Ben appeared in my mind."
That's when it hit him that he would be escaping his own prison but placing his son in one all his own. "He didn't deserve it any more than I deserved what had been done to me."
• • •
What can you do?
1) Witnesses, speak up. The last thing childhood sexual abuse victims need is a moment of silence. They need you to tell a cop, tell the county, or tell a teacher when you see something suspicious between an adult and a child. No matter who it is. Pedophiles work hard at appearing trustworthy.
2) Parents, stop treating coaches like guardians. No kid should ever spend the night at a coach's house, no matter how sterling the coach's reputation. Sandusky was the leader of a huge Pennsylvania charity. He was married with six adopted kids. What could go wrong? And when your kids tell you an adult is being "weird" or "doing stuff," the best thing you can do is believe them.
3) Victims, find help, no matter how long ago it was. Call the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD. Or go to stopitnow.org.
• • •
About five years ago, Gary Thompson's 9-year-old daughter, Marissa, wanted to know why she'd never met his parents.
He explained to her that when he was a boy, "some very bad things" had happened to him.
"Why didn't you tell someone when you were little," Marissa asked,
"so they could stand up for you?"
Gary swallowed hard and answered, "I was very, very scared back then and I didn't have anyone I could turn to who could stand up for me."
And his daughter reached up, put her small hand on his arm and said,
"I'd stand up for you, Daddy."
• • •
That moment changed his life.
Now Gary Thompson stands up for kids through the Family and Children's Place in Louisville, Ky., where Thompson is helping to build a Child Advocacy Center (familyandchildrensplace.org).
And that's what we all have to do. Stand up. Speak up. There is help out there. There is hope out there.
Take it. Give it.
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Rick Reilly is the 11-time National Sportswriter of the Year. He contributes essays and commentary to "Monday Night Countdown," "SportsCenter," and ESPN/ABC golf and tennis coverage. He's also the host of "Homecoming," ESPN's unique, one-hour interview show set in the hometowns of legendary athletes. For more Rick, check out the archive.
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