(Note: Once again, little ones have gone unprotected, with small boys victimized by both the twisted and broken and the blind and indifferent. I was sexually- abused decades ago, at the age of 8. No victim ever forgets. For the hope of the Penn State small boys and other children being abused, often despite the awareness of others who look the other way, I’m sharing my story here. If you are aware of a child predator, please speak up. Silence truly like a cancer grows.)
The little one who smiles and hides the pain
Lets tears fall when he plays out in the rain.
The innocence portrayed with winsome look
Was the part of him that someone selfish took.
The awakened now spends time just looking back
And moments focused only on his lack.
The autumn gray has claimed the barefoot son
Who sits and dreams of how he used to run.
— Thom Hunter
The after-Daddy days in our white frame house on Texas Street were quiet and grey. The arguments were gone, but the moments of laughter had also slipped away. The uncertainty of our family had not been clarified by my father’s departure. The house was familiar; the yard was the same; the trains just as loud and wall-rattling as they clipped the yard on their way to somewhere . . . somewhere else. Which is where I wanted to be, away from the bagworm-infested trees and the heat of the summer. The barefoot boy was ready to walk away from pain and confusion, but had no where to go.
I loved that old house, though it held its fears. I remember when our family would sit around the table in the dining room with bowls of pinto beans and cornbread and sour pickles and great glasses of sweet iced tea. I remembered the time Daddy brought home a pet skunk which had the run of the house, but usually just hid in the hall closet and dashed out only to taunt my mother and provoke an argument about the absurdity of a rodent rummaging among our Sunday clothes.
The fear? It was the attic opening above the hallway between the dining room and the kitchen, slightly askew as if it were frequently used by someone living up there who came out only in the dark, perhaps to itself rummage the closet in my bedroom or slide beneath my bed. When I would be sent to the kitchen to refill the tea pitcher or bring more bread, I would skirt along the wall and keep an eye on that opening.
When I look back now, I am comforted to know that as a seven-year-old, my fears were so benign and common: dark and empty attics, monsters under beds. That would end at the age of eight to be replaced by fears that moved inside of me to produce a different darkness.
“Rescue” came in 1962.
For the first few years after my parents’ divorce, the Continental Trailways bus between Denton and Fort Worth was the connection between my dad and his children. Sometimes Daddy would take the bus to Denton for a day in the park; sometimes all four of us children would board the bus for the trip to Fort Worth for a walk in the zoo and an evening of biscuits and pinto beans in Daddy’s little apartment. And sour pickles.
The bus was loud and smelly and the people, despite the fact they were on a bus headed to some specific designation, looked lost and wandering and self-absorbed, which is how I felt. Though we would laugh and share the inner jokes of siblings, pestering the passengers, exhausting the good will of the driver, the bus became a symbol for never being home, but just somewhere in between.
Within a year of the divorce, the bus trips became less frequent. Daddy was often broke and unable to afford the ticket to come see us, or the four children’s fares for us to go see him. We began to find other ways to spend our Saturdays. Movie matinées and Milk Duds, swimming with cousins on my mother’s side, cashing in coke bottles for comic books to curl up in a world of conquering heroes.
Home still echoed an aching emptiness I was sure would never go away. Everything was a reminder. The space in the driveway where Daddy used to park his car. The disappearance of the ash trays in the living room. No vienna sausages in the pantry. No snoring at night; no red flickering of his cigarettes in the darkened living room where he would wander to try to figure things out. No weekend fishing trips to Bridgeport. No skunk. No one to chase away the monsters or straighten the tilting attic door. We soon moved and Texas Street moved into memory.
Mother worked hard to fill the emptiness, loading us up to go to drive-in movies at night, putting together picnics on the weekend, bringing home a new puppy. Still, she knew my brother Mike and I needed the influence of men in the absence of our father. We were too cooped up with sisters, and my brother — five years older than I — was already beginning to find his own way out into a more adventuresome world.
When Mike came home with the news that a bunch of the boys in the neighborhood were being rounded up to start a new scout troop, Mother was all for it. A young, clean-cut outdoorsman and self-proclaimed scoutmaster, Mr. Hooten, had been showing off his collection of hatchets and knives, outdoor gadgets and camping gear. He had a way with words and weapons. Like all the boys, we were hooked. Mr. Hooten was going to build the sharpest Scout troop in Texas and every boy in the neighborhood was welcome to join and march in formation into manhood. I was, of course, way too young.
I took to Mr. Hooten right off. He reminded me of all the good things about Daddy. Mr. Hooten decided I could join the troop – unofficially – even though I was only eight, several years too young. He promised Mother he would watch out for me; he promised my brother he would not let me be too big a pest. And he promised me he’d “protect” me from the older boys, just in case any of them might be bullies. I was parading in the personal attention. I was finally someone’s favorite, and I was anxious to learn all the things Mr. Hooten could teach me.
Mr. Hooten was a pedophile. Sick and sly, he knew how to take a little boy’s grin of anticipation and turn it for his personal satisfaction. He “protected” me as anyone would valuable personal property. I was not a member of the troop; I was his.
The sexual abuse began innocently enough, creeping in like a welcome sunrise on a clear morning that gives no hint of the storms to come in the heating of the day. If sin would announce itself, like the first incoming missile of an air war, we could duck and run for cover. It doesn’t happen that way. Sin slides in.
Mr. Hooten’s favorite activity was movie night. He would order movies boys love – westerns and war movies and hokie horror flicks – and we’d all crowd into the community room he’d borrow from the city. Movie night was a reward for the hard work of memorizing oaths and carving soapbox cars. There, in the dark, perhaps 30 young teenage boys and a little brother or two would sprawl on the floor and become enthralled in the adventures on the screen. There, in the dark, Mr. Hooten became enthralled with me. I didn’t mind. I admired him; he cared about me. Sitting closely in front of him in the crowded room, I welcomed his arm around me as he would pull me back towards him and slide me down so I would be comfortable and he could see above my burr-cut head. I didn’t mind the backrub, the slow movements of his strong hands along my spine. It didn’t seem wrong when he reached around in front and rubbed my chest and stomach and pulled me closer. There, in the dark, with all my friends around, it didn’t even seem strange when he fondled me through my jeans, or even when he began to reach inside, never taking his eyes off the screen. He was, after all, Mr. Hooten. It couldn’t be wrong. He even called me Tom-Bo, the nickname my Dad had given me. I began to live for Friday nights.
My daddy had taken our family on a few campouts when I was a little boy. He’d even driven us all the way out to Yellowstone National Park where we slept in a tent and listened for bears and took hikes and identified berries and skipped rocks on streams. I missed those days, so I was very excited when Mr. Hooten said our troop was going to camp . . . and I could go along. He assured my mother I’d be safe. In fact, he said, I could sleep in his tent to make sure the older boys played no late night pranks on me.
When I was with Mr. Hooten, I felt loved and accepted and singled out. He knew that. I was so easily taken in by him. I anticipated the camping trip with more excitement than any Christmas. I packed my things weeks ahead, complaining incessantly to my mother that I needed a sleeping bag we couldn’t afford. Mr. Hooten told me not to worry about it; he had one for me. He would take care of everything.
Off in the wilderness, out in the woods, beneath the stars, only a few feet away from the remains of a smoldering campfire, behind the zipped doors of a musty tent and crowded into one sleeping bag together, Mr. Hooten’s cautious caring came unraveled. His “little buddy,” his Tom-Bo, became his toy. His protection became perversion. His acceptance of me became his using of me. I went into the tent puffed up, euphoric and longing for the next day’s outdoor adventure, my mind crowded with memories of Yellowstone adventures of the past. I came out broken, confused, and longing for home. The comfortable reassuring closeness of movie night, which he had used to reel me in, was replaced by the rough manipulation of a strong man accustomed to making people do things, and accept his doing things to them. He did as he wished and I did as he wanted. He was, after all, the master.
“Do exactly what I tell you to do or I’ll . . .” I had never heard words like that before, spoken in a tone that made it clear I had placed myself where I could no longer choose my actions. It would be the first time I had done so; the first moment of giving away control, an involuntary step onto the edge of an, at the time, invisible slippery slope, a re-defining of what was right, a challenge to all reason. I found myself, even at eight, rationalizing to prevent rejection.
Just as I would not weep years later when tossed in a holding cell as a result of my own actions, I would not weep that morning as I emerged into the clearing where the campfire’s ashes lay cold under the dawning sky. Not here; not with these boys.
Mr. Hooten was a sick man with a twisted mind and a way of making evil look and feel like love. I had a deep need for an adult man worthy of my trust and admiration. I was ignorant and innocent and eager to be accepted, wanting and wandering, ready to be molded, as he said repeatedly, into a little man. And he took it upon himself to reshape my life. With sadistic precision he filled in the gaps left by the loss of my father’s love with his predatory sickness. With a false smile and a corrupted touch, he slowly and skillfully and malevolently took my childhood simplicity and innocence and pleasured himself, turning it into premature guilt and confusion, which I buried deep inside so as not to disappoint him. He took the gentle psyche of an innocent boy in his perverted hands and twisted it so hard that he left a permanent imprint on the future shape of my life. And from this, he gained his wicked satisfaction.
Back in Denton, in my shame, I was silent. For a time, I curled up in the quiet with my comic books and plastic soldiers and the pain, both physical and mental, slipped away as I found justification for his intentions. I resented myself for the sullenness I had shown in the last day of the camp-out, for the hurt feelings he must have had as I shied away, which had made him mad and had lead to his ignoring me all that final day. I felt guilt — not for his actions in the dark, but for my reactions in the daylight — and I was ready to tell him I was sorry. In only a few days, I was longing for movie night. I needed Mr. Hooten to be nice again, to curl up on the floor of the big room full of boys and pull me – only me – up in front of him and hold me, touch me; make me feel special. To remind me that I had been chosen. I decided he had not really meant to hurt me in the tent, that I had just been stupid and not like other boys, who would have been glad to have been given such attention. I had been mean and ungrateful and I wanted to make it up to him so he would keep me in his troop.
Mike and I were only a few minutes late to movie night, but the lights were already down low. I scouted the room from far in the back and finally saw Mr. Hooten, there in the darkest spot in the middle behind the projector and I started picking my way around and between the sprawled bodies of the scouts. And then I stopped. Mr. Hooten and another burr-headed boy were curled up together in the dark. A smaller boy, maybe only six, someone else’s little brother, had taken my place. My week of fading remorse had resulted in a jarring rejection. I found myself a spot alone far out on the edge of the room. I don’t remember the movie.
After Mr. Hooten traded me in, I retreated into a shell, custom built a safer world around me, and became very selective about who would enter. It was only a brief “relationship,” but like all children preyed upon by sick adults, I did not escape undamaged.
When I was cast aside by Mr. Hooten and able to think more clearly, it didn’t take me long to know how wrong it had all been. Feeling real guilt for the first time in my life, I went to a couple of people I thought I could trust. I was embarrassed and frightened, but I took a risk and told. I sought real rescue.
“I’ve been doing something terrible. Can I tell you about it?” I remember asking. It did not occur to me that it was he — Mr. Hooten — who had done something terrible. To me . . . it was me.
“Yes,” I was told by each. “You can tell me anything.”
And I did. And I thought they were listening. And I thought they would help me.
“Don’t you ever repeat a word of this to anyone,” one said angrily. “People will call you a liar . . . and a lot of other things. There’s no excuse for making things up just to get attention.”
One even punctuated his shocked response with a hard punch to my shoulder, as if the pain would reinforce his warning to never speak of this again.
I tried to tell a few others, but it was too difficult for them to hear. Pretty soon I learned that there are things you just don’t tell people. Things that people do to you; things you yourself do. Secrets that slowly become a part of you. Deeds that do indeed shape your manhood, but with contaminated clumps of clay. In Mr. Hooten’s menacing shadow, my voice had been too small.
I don’t know what eventually became of Mr. Hooten. I have lain awake at night wondering about the hurt and damage he inflicted on other little boys. Sexual abuse is slick and tricky and well-disguised. It slips into a child’s world with a smile and a laugh, a chuckle and a touch, and doesn’t leave until childhood purity has been stolen away and destroyed, and along with it, the ability to trust.
I don’t know if Mr. Hooten was gay or straight, because it was not really about sex at all. It was sport and selfishness and an unending search to fill a perverted emptiness. It was the conquest of a child, power over innocent prey, the sad satisfaction of a selfish soul at the expense of another, and the crumpling and tossing aside of a person perceived as less significant. There was no love, no care, just power and presence preceding emptiness and rejection from both to each.
And shame. I know there was great shame on my part or I would have told my father. I wonder if he might have risen from his own self-absorption to rescue me?
I’ve not been one for excuses. I know what statistics show — that a great majority of grownups with sexual identity problems were abused as children or abandoned by their fathers, or both — but I believe that, despite all that, the responsibility for my actions lies with me. What I became later and what I did in the desperate acts of self-destruction rest on my shoulders, not on Daddy’s or Mr. Hooten’s, both really only transitory visitors to my life. But I do know that in the mix of the me I came to be are the shaping memories of trains along Texas Street, a small boat on a star-lit pond, a grimy Continental Trailways bus racing down the road to Fort Worth, dark movies, camping tents and a punch on the shoulder. Things that add up.
Some of us keep our secrets too long, thinking it is our burden to bear, unaware that we share it with others in our very actions, in the way we live as we hide and dodge and hurt the ones we love, even as we destroy the goodness of our selves.
In the span of a year I had lost my father, found Mr. Hooten and lost him also.
I would learn through the years that rejection is one of my significant “triggers” for acting out on my same-sex attractions. When the need to be wanted is not met in a child, he or she often does not develop the level of self-confidence that makes gender-identity more natural to move into. Does that mean that all the little boys Mr. Hooten bent with his seeking of self-satisfaction grew up to struggle with same-sex attraction? Did they become gay because of his wicked use? Not necessarily. I will never know.
The accepted “side effects” of childhood sexual abuse are many: guilt, shame, fear, anxiety, self-blame, a feeling of powerlessness, an inability to say no to others in relationships, difficulty nurturing self, a lack of trust in your own feelings, an emotional shut down or ‘numbing’, an inability to see your positive aspects, a desire for perfectionism, a need to control at all costs, a feeling of being invisible or of being a non-person, problems giving or receiving affection, difficulty relying on others. Each of these side effects can produce a new wave of guilt, an inner question that goes unanswered: “Why can’t I just get over it?”
The question is punctuated by the advice of others: “Get over it.”
The anger the adult feels at himself for acting out on something that happened to him as a child is furious and frustrating. We are allowing that person to maintain control long after he has moved on. Depression is familiar.
Some of the children abused by Mr. Hooten and the other predators who prey upon the innocent may emerge, through the grace of God, to lead completely normal lives, unfazed by their brush with evil. Others may not survive at all, driven by self-doubts to self-destruction, seeking solace in things that lead them no-where and merely compound their lostness until they can no longer find themselves at all. Others may move into some form of sexual abuse themselves, seeking power over spouses or, heaven forbid, repeating the misdeeds done to them. Others may just retreat into themselves and live behind a wall.
That’s a lot of baggage to take home from movie night.
I appreciate the fact God made each of us “wondrously.” I just wish people would leave His work alone so it can manifest itself in the way He intended. That little boy who wandered into the community room dreamed of being like his dad, only better. Even 8-year-olds can look beyond rockets and rifles to being daddies. I was going to do it perfectly. And in my perfect world, I would be the best Daddy. There would be no end to the zoo trips, the campouts, the fishing, the storytelling, the listening. I would rescue. I would have had nothing to hide; my children would never have been confused.
If only we could see what lies ahead. If only there were not so many twists and turns and hills and valleys obscured. We could carve out a road to overcoming instead of laying down stones for a pathway to succumbing. We would know we were being swallowed up before we plummeted so far into the depths of the struggle that all our energy goes into flailing instead of climbing.
It would take many years and a great deal of pain before someone would lead me down the better path of forgiveness for both Daddy and Mr. Hooten . . . and myself. Forgiveness would be the only way to begin to unzip the dark tent and emerge into the clearing.
It would require rescues that are real and people who would hear. They would come.
(For more insight into sexual and relational brokenness, read Surviving Sexual Brokenness: What Grace Can Do, available at Amazon.com.)