Commentary

Survivors at Vera House speak out

In Syracuse, male sexual abuse victims share their stories in hopes of helping others

Originally Published: December 1, 2011
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Margarine. The mere thought of it, even the word itself, for years sent Craig into dizzying tailspins. He could never understand why.

And then one day four years ago, a man knocked on his door and it all came flooding back, a lifetime of repressed memories so vile and sickening they literally imprisoned Craig in his house for two years.

When he finally emerged again, it was on a stretcher. He'd tried to kill himself and only a chance 1 a.m. visit from his son stopped him from succeeding.

It is now six months later and Craig is sitting at a square table at Vera House, a Syracuse-based outreach and advocacy center for victims of abuse.

Three other men are with him. They, like Craig, were sexually abused as children -- Ed and Tim by their fathers, Dan by a neighborhood football coach.

[+] EnlargeVera House in Syracuse, New York
courtesy Vera HouseVera House, an outreach and advocacy center for victims of sexual and domestic abuse, sits just a few miles from the Syracuse campus.

For Craig, it was the man on the other side of the door, a friend of his stepfather's. Craig's stepfather molested him for his entire childhood and for one summer, his stepfather allowed four other men to abuse him in the bathroom of a bowling alley.

Only Craig didn't remember that horrific summer until he was 47.

"You could never have made me believe in repressed memories. How could something like that happen to a person and they don't remember it?" said Craig, 51. "But now I understand it all. The margarine, I could never understand why I reacted so strongly. When he came back into my life, I just snapped. It was like a bomb went off."

The men, all part of a male survivor group at Vera House, have come to share their stories at a particularly gut-wrenching time. Just a few miles from where they sit, Syracuse University is reeling amid news that former associate men's basketball coach Bernie Fine is being investigated for allegedly molesting two former ball boys and one other.

In the absence of formal charges or indictments, the city and the university wait anxiously to see what shoe might drop next and where it will land.

Two weeks ago, scandal took permanent root at Penn State, where a grand jury indictment of former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky led to a tsunami of emotion and action in the aftermath of sexual molestation charges, sweeping up 84-year-old head coach Joe Paterno in its wake.

These four men, however, have gathered at Vera House not to pile on, but to redirect. They are tired of hearing about Joe Paterno and Jim Boeheim, about tainted legacies and scarred universities.

They want to talk about the victims, about the ones who have been identified in these two cases and the countless others who are too afraid to come forward.

And they want more than anything to talk, to open the floodgates of conversation on a topic still considered so taboo it remains inconceivable.

"Jim Boeheim doesn't need to be fired. Jim Boeheim needs to be educated," Ed said. "Everyone does. I was listening to the 11 o'clock news and someone said they couldn't believe this was happening at Syracuse. Guess what? It's probably happening in your neighborhood. It could be happening next door. We have to start talking about it."

And so these men are here to talk, to share their own painful pasts in the hopes of saving someone else's future.


Dan didn't have the luxury of repressed memories.

Molested by his football coach from the time he was 11 until he was 13, he carried the knowledge around like a two-ton albatross.

"I fully expected I would take it to my grave," he said. "I felt like my own life couldn't go on if I let my secret out. I didn't want to be stigmatized. I didn't think I could face my friends if they knew or society in general."

Dan married, had a family and became, in his words, a "pretty good alcoholic." Eventually forced into marriage counseling by his wife, he finally spilled his secret when he was 38, telling his therapist what had happened to him as a child.

It sounds inconceivable, to live with something so heavy and hurtful without screaming to authorities, to someone.

And those questions -- Why wait? Why not say something? -- are often the first posed when someone like Fine's alleged accuser, Bobby Davis, comes forward later in life.

"I've been in recovery for close to 17 years and I probably know nearly 100 survivors and I don't think any of them are in their 20s or 30s," Dan said. "Everybody holds it in."

That includes Dan, Ed, Tim and Craig.

All were grown men before they sought help and admitted they were abused.

[+] EnlargeBobby Davis
ESPNBobby Davis, seen here as a youth basketball player, alleges that Bernie Fine sexually abused him.

What outsiders fail to grasp is that people who speak out may be men, but it is the child who harbors the secret. An adult knows to go to the police or to tell someone. A child doesn't.

Especially when a child is molested not by some bogeyman hiding in the bushes, but by family members or friends, trusted grown-ups who to the outside world look like they are being kind or helpful to the child. Who, a child thinks, will believe me?

Sandusky and Fine were both revered, highly respected professionals, men with important, high-profile jobs.

"Everyone looks at it with an adult's perspective," Ed said. "You have to look at it through the eyes of an 8-year-old and that's impossible to do. My father was supposed to be raising me and setting a good example. Instead he was having sex with me."

The overwhelming need to keep it secret is compounded by the fact that they are boys.

Tim's sister also was abused by their father. She sought help years before her brother did.

Boys are taught to "man up" and don't "cry like a baby" or "act like a little girl."

"It took me years just to say I was a victim," Dan said. "I fought that in therapy. I didn't want to consider myself a victim. That meant I wasn't tough. That meant I didn't do enough."


When Ed was in elementary school, he finally worked up the courage to walk into his guidance counselor's office and say that his father was abusing him.

His guidance counselor quickly shooed him out the door and never spoke of it again.

Neither, really, did Ed until seven years ago when he first arrived at Vera House, instead suffering the abuse until he was 14 before freefalling as an adult into drugs and failed relationships.

He's not angry with the guidance counselor, considering his inaction more indicative of the ignorance of the times than callousness.

But now he sees less of an excuse for such insensitivity. Though we are still climbing the educational curve, there is clearly a more heightened awareness of the signs of abuse and an understanding that it does occur.

And that's why Ed can't forgive Boeheim for his initial outburst. The day after Davis went public with his allegations against Fine, Boeheim labeled them a "bunch of a thousand lies," and said he believed Davis was only looking for money.

Ed understands the coach needs to be educated, but he also knows the impact of words.

"How many people heard that and now are going to wait another 30 years before speaking?" he said. "I don't care about anything he said after that first reaction. I am sure there are people who were this close to talking and now they're this far away [spreading his arms wide]."

And it's not just Boeheim. It's all of the public reactions at Penn State and Syracuse that have victimized people all over again. Randi Bregman, executive director of Vera House, said frequently when there is a national news story centered on abuse -- if a woman is killed in a domestic dispute, for example -- the program's hotline numbers spike significantly.

[+] EnlargeJim Boeheim
Richard Mackson/US PresswireIn a college town like Syracuse, the words of a beloved figure such as Jim Boeheim are impactful and carry plenty of weight.

That hasn't happened.

"Would you come forward?" she asked. "Look how these people have been treated."

It's Boeheim's statements and it's the students who rioted in support of Paterno. It's the anguish over the coach's dismissal instead of the anguish for the eight men allegedly victimized by Sandusky when they were young.

And it's the standing ovation Boeheim received when he took the Carrier Dome court on Tuesday evening.

"What exactly are you applauding?" Ed asked.

But even the legal system, the one designed to protect the abused, is flawed. When Davis first went to Syracuse police, he was told his case wouldn't be prosecuted because the statute of limitations had expired.

In New York, the statute is five years for a felony, beginning when the victim reaches the age of 18.

"Because of the nature of the crime, you keep it silent," Dan said. "A 23-year-old isn't going to come forward. There's no statute of limitations on murder. This is just as vile."

"No," Craig added. "It's the same. Our souls have been murdered."


Tim was nearly 50 years old when he finally confronted his father, the man who had sexually, physically and psychologically assaulted him from the time he was 5 until he was 17.

"I was petrified," he said. "He just sat there with his eyes closed and I was terrified."

The terror, the shame, all of it is never far from the surface.

"There is no cure," Tim said. "This isn't Dr. Phil."

The reality is, there is only management. There are normal days that suddenly go haywire and quiet nights when childhood insecurities resurface.

"You sit there at 3 a.m. and you think about walking into a room, worry that people are thinking, 'Look at that schlep,'" Tim said. "You know they aren't in your heart, but it's still there."

There is no cure. This isn't Dr. Phil.

-- Tim, sexual abuse survivor

"Or," Dan added, "you think people who know are keeping their kids away from you."

Not long ago, Tim said, he was passing through a metal detector at the New York state capitol. He went to get his change out of the bowl, tipping the bowl toward him. A security guard asked him not to tip it, but Tim didn't hear him and so the guard said it again, more forcefully.

"And I just cowered," Tim said. "There's this voice that sounds like my father and I'm suddenly in this infantile state. You don't know it's coming. There aren't any warnings."

That's why he and the other three men laugh when people scoff at the timing of Davis' allegations, labeling the timing "convenient."

"There is nothing convenient about this," Craig said.

Instead they are certain that for Davis, the Penn State news served as a trigger, an out-of-nowhere reminder of what he had been through.

"I'm sure he's not alone," Dan said. "I think I'm pretty stable and yet for the past month all I've been able to think about is Penn State and Syracuse and Jerry Sandusky and Bernie Fine. What about these people still holding on to their secret? What are they doing? I'll tell you. They're drinking more. They're yelling more. They're fighting more because they can't get away from it."

And they shouldn't try -- that's what these men want to stress.

They want victims to know that they can get help privately, that they don't have to be like Davis and go to the media or even the police. They don't even need to share the name of their molester.

They just need to get help.

"People don't realize how messed up they are," Craig said. "They don't realize how falsely they're living their lives. This affects everything you do and you don't even know it."


His friend gave him the analogy, but it's a good one and so Ed shares it with everyone.

He likens his abuse to a rock in a pocket.

[+] EnlargeVera House in Syracuse, New York
courtesy Vera HouseA large banner with several heartfelt writings serves as a powerful symbol at Vera House.

"You're holding on to it, holding on really tight," he said. "Over time, it gets smaller and smaller. Eventually it's just a little pebble. It's never gone, but it's more manageable."

That's what therapy does. That's what getting help does.

And that's why these men are talking.

They want other victims to know they aren't alone, that harboring their secret won't save them. Talking about it will.

They also want the public to know that this abuse is real, that hiding it doesn't mean it didn't happen and that living with it, even when the rock becomes a pebble, is never easy.

None of them slept well the night before their interview, second-guessing their decision to participate, worried how the conversation would be construed.

But they showed up.

And they will again and again. They will go on the radio as Dan did, and to local colleges, including Syracuse, if the universities will have them.

They will share their stories -- "go ahead, dig into my life," Ed said -- and answer the impossible if it helps generate conversation, if it creates awareness, if it saves one person.

Already the television trucks are leaving Syracuse. The news cycle will move on.

But the abusers -- the predators -- will never go away.

And so Craig and Dan and Ed and Tim will talk until they can't talk anymore. To the community, yes, but also to the victims.

Because they were once victims, too.

Now they are survivors.

Really, they are heroes.

Victims of sexual abuse are encouraged to seek help by visiting local outreach centers or RAINN.org, the website for the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.

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