When two New York Times investigative journalists broke the story of Harvey Weinstein’s sordid, not-so-secret history of sexual assault against women, it opened a giant box of mea culpas that men owe women for not stopping, reporting or firing those of our gender who victimize women.
It’s long overdue. And as onerous and disgusting as Weinstein and others’ actions were, there is something even more heinous: the sexual assault of children.
Years ago, I met Julie (not her real name), a woman of rare, natural beauty; who spoke eloquently in a soft voice, each word imbued with genuine humility. Growing up in a lower-middle-class, blue-collar family, with an alcoholic father who was often violent, she left home at 18. Despite her upbringing, she graduated from college and pursued an acting career.
Our first six months together were bliss. Her Hollywood looks aside, she was well read in the classics, a talented actor, a terrific writer, and she had a great sense of humor. But ironically, the closer we became, the more time we spent together, the more our relationship seemed to spiral downward. Insignificant situations and remarks would easily provoke an anger I hadn’t seen in her previously. Her unpredictable volatility and sometimes aggressive behaviors, which were only directed at me, were absent in any other venue. Only I was seeing the dark side of a delicate soul, and I couldn’t fathom what was going on.
After arriving home from a New Year’s Eve party, just a year or so after we started dating, I was fast falling asleep when Julie said she needed to tell me something. Moving as close to me as was possible, her emerald green eyes looked directly into mine, and in words I’ll never, ever forget, she said, “My father raped me several times when I was 12 years old.”
In an instant, my heart was crushed by an unfathomable weight. My mind raced to process what she had just said. Tears poured from my eyes. She told me not to cry; that she was OK. She just wanted me to know why our relationship was sometimes filled with anger and hostility. Julie was most definitely not OK. And I would never be the same again. She continued with the details for nearly an hour as I sobbed inconsolably. Finally, we fell asleep in each other’s arms.
The next day, alone with my thoughts, I asked myself, “How could such evil exist?” How could a father purposefully inflict such savagery upon his own child? (As Julie’s revelations drilled deep into my heart, the armor around it, which had insulated me from all of the world’s problems and cares since I was young, was shattered. I would learn from her psychologist (she insisted that I meet him) that because she had come to trust me beyond all others, she felt safe to let loose her bottled-up anger and rage, which sometimes resulted in all manner of nearby objects being thrown in my direction.
But what was cathartic for her was dangerous for me. Her therapist suggested, wryly, that I keep ducking, while she worked on taking her anger out on things other than me.
My empathy, catalyzed by Julie’s horrific childhood experience, grew within me with each passing day. Months later, I undertook the training and became certified as a Guardian ad Litem, a court-appointed advocate for abused and neglected children. After five years, and for complicated reasons, Julie and I drifted apart. We were not meant to be together. But instead of Julie’s monstrous story being the end, it was just the beginning for me.
There would be two more women in my life who also shared with me the dark secrets of their sexual assaults by a family member. As the stories from victims piled up, so, too, did my determination to do as much as I could for children that have been sexually and physically abused, or neglected.
To the men reading this, some hard-earned advice: You can’t roll back time so that it never happened, and you can’t fix it by promising to go out and kill the man who assaulted your wife, daughter, or girlfriend. Instead, just sit there and actively listen. If she wants to be held, hold her. Don’t interrupt her. And don’t try to force more details from her than she wants to reveal at any given time. Let her know that you can be trusted with her secrets, and that you will support her in any way she wants you to. She doesn’t want your pity or sympathy. And for God’s sake, do not say, “I understand.” The odds are you don’t and never will. And one more thing, never, ever hold it over her head or use it against her.
No matter your gender, age or station in life, consider volunteering to help children who are victims of sexual abuse, violence or neglect. Become a Guardian ad Litem, or in some states, a CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) volunteer. It’s emotionally hard work but so essential to the well-being of those tortured souls. We must all do our part to prevent child abuse in the first place, or help a child, or a wife, or girlfriend, or daughter, who’s been a victim. We owe the children that.
William R. Stark is practice leader at Maverick LLC, a management consulting firm based in Tampa.