From the moment it became public, the horrific details of the life and times of Jerry Sandusky have captivated and disgusted the nation. Statements and testimonies of oral and anal rape on 10-, 11- and 12-year-old children are simply beyond comprehension for most of our brains, hearts and nervous systems. Disgust has turned to outrage with the investigative findings that that the most senior officials at Penn State had shown a “total and consistent disregard” for the welfare of children by actively concealing Sandusky’s assaults. How can this story get any worse?
While the details of the abuse and the colluded cover up are too terrible and haunting for most of us to digest, they are not the worst part of this story. The worst part of this story is that these are not the isolated acts of one depraved monster and a handful of cowardly leaders. The worst part is that this sort of abuse is happening with epidemic regularity throughout our country. In 2005, the Center for Disease Control released a study that found one in six boys and one in four girls will experience some form of sexual abuse before the age of 18. Taking a head count, that means there are 39 million survivors of childhood sexual abuse in the United States alone.
How is this possible? What keeps kids from coming forward? What keeps adults who see something, know something or are told something from acting? It’s quite simple. Childhood sexual abuse is a cancer that breeds and thrives in a culture of secrecy and silence. A toxic mix of fear, guilt and shame keeps most kids silent. The unfathomable nature of what could be happening and the potential for devastating fallout keep most adults from acknowledging the red flags and paralyzes them from acting.
I know this because I am one of the 39 million survivors. From the ages of five to 10, my stepfather’s father, one of the most respected men in his community, would periodically emerge in my life to abuse me in an eerily similar fashion to how Sandusky abused his victims. What started with extra attention, tickles and back scratches ultimately progressed to indescribable torture and rape. It took close to 20 years before I told anyone of the abuse.
To understand why it took me so long to acknowledge my abuse, you need understand how I survived it and the effects it had. For me, especially during the worst of it, I simply didn’t feel any of it. My little seven-year-old psyche checked out, disconnected and went numb. What I wasn’t numb to, what I did feel was such intense guilt, shame and self loathing that I wanted to end my life. The cruelest, most damaging part of the abuse was not any of the specific traumas my abuser inflicted. Instead, it was the twisted path he lead me along and the narratives he fed me that led me to claim personal responsibility for the abuse. He was not my biggest fear. My biggest fear was that someone would find out what had happened to me. Find out what I had allowed. Find out what a disgusting, awful person I was. My feelings of complicity and my need to forget and dissociate from the traumas led to my silence.
My biggest fear has since changed. Now that the Sandusky trial has put a spotlight on one of the most crippling problems facing our society, my biggest fear is that we will allow the spotlight to dim. My biggest fear is that the trial will go away and culture of secrecy and silence will remain, leaving us with 39 million more survivors. It’s going to take thousands of small acts of courage if we want this to change. The kind of courage we just saw from the Sandusky victims, the courage that was clearly lacking from all those who turned a blind eye. We need to create an environment where it is safe for others to speak the truth.
I understand this is difficult. None of this is pleasant dinner conversation. The solution is not to just acknowledge the darkness and depravity of the issue, but to also celebrate the heroic acts of survival that come with it, to shine a light on the darkness. Victims cannot only survive, but go on to lead happy, healthy, joy-filled lives.
While the first 18 years of my life were tragedy, the last 20 years have been miraculous. At 18, I found my way to the mountains of Utah and got a job washing dishes at a ski lodge. Skiing became a cathartic experience for me. I found my passion and joy in the outdoors which healed me and saved my life. I eventually became a competitive skier and spent close to a decade spending all of my days skiing, climbing, surfing and kayaking around the world … living in joy.
Thirteen years ago I founded Outdoor Outreach, a California charity dedicated to transforming the lives of at-risk and underprivileged youth by using outdoor physical experiences combined with academic and social support to provide youth with the support, relationships, resources and opportunities they need to become successful adults. (With a strict policy to keep kids safe by prohibiting any one on one contact between youth and adults) Since its founding the organization has helped more than 6,600 kids with backgrounds similar to mine. There are hundreds of amazing organizations like mine doing important work throughout the country. But it’s going to take all of us to collectively step forward and change this culture of silence and secrecy to one that protects, nurtures and takes care of its children.