• Boyhood Shadows: “I Swore I’d Never Tell”

    by Peter Mounteer

    “I swore I’d never tell” is a phrase that often comes up when victims of sexual assault or abuse voice perspectives on their childhood sexual trauma. The vicious mantra is the subtitle of a documentary film called “Boyhood Shadows” by Steve Rosen and Terri DeBono, longtime residents on the Monterey Peninsula and collaborators on numerous projects under the production company they both run, Mac + Ava Motion Pictures. With “Boyhood Shadows” Rosen and DeBono tackle head on a topic that makes most people cringe and turn off the TV or make up some excuse about how they need to get going to a place where they won’t have to even think about an issue that affects one in every six boys before the age of 16.

    One in six is a staggering statistic. But it’s more than just a statistic — it’s some 16 percent of the population. By numbers alone that is, in theory, almost 50 million young men. Something anyone would call an epidemic. Considering the amount of men’s sexual abuse support groups in this country — only about 40 — one thing becomes glaringly clear: Most of these victims aren’t getting the help that they need.

    Most people don’t even believe it. In fact, when Rosen and DeBono first encountered that number in 2007 while shooting a public service announcement for the Monterey County Rape Crisis Center, they were dumbfounded. “Before we started making this film we were really ignorant. I thought, “That’s way too high,” Rosen recalled. “I did lots of activities with male friends I’ve been very close to, so how come I never heard that?” After the PSA aired the phones started ringing at the Monterey County Rape Crisis Center. Response to the PSA was overwhelmingly positive. It was then that DeBono and Rosen became intrigued about telling the story behind that shocking statistic about which they realized that nobody knew. One of the members of the men’s group at Monterey County Rape Crisis Center approached Rosen and DeBono and said they wanted to make a documentary, and such was the genesis of Boyhood Shadows.

    It was only after meeting the men who make appearances in the film, victims of such abuse, that it became clear to the two filmmakers that after something like this happens to someone, they don’t want anybody to know, mostly because they are ashamed. Frequently the men this happens to will bury their experiences in faulty rationalizations, excuses, anything to keep them from telling and by doing so, reliving what they experienced. A lot of it has to do with how society constructs masculinity. In that vein, the film also discusses the experience of Alfredo Caballero, who was sexually molested by an uncle, beginning around the time he was four years old. In the film, Caballero recalls being told not to cry, “Don’t cry. Girls cry. you don’t cry because you’re a man,” he says in the film.

    Stoicalness and hiding emotions, specifically where pain is concerned, is a longtime pillar of traditional notions of masculinity in our society. It applies to sexual abuse, too, say experts, and can make it harder for men to be honest about their experience with abuse, giving them all the more reason to bury it, as Caballero did for many years. Another salient feature of the victimization process are the myths that involve homosexuality and childhood sexual abuse among men, these can be the most damaging especially among men like Caballero and Glenn Kulik, a central character in the film, who were abused as kids at a time when homosexuality was socially condemned and criminalized during the 1960s, ’70s and 80s.

    So how do these people keep their victims in their clutches? Simply put, it’s complicated, but it rests on manipulation. They cry, they beg, they threaten to hurt the children they abuse and put it on the children to take the pressure off the abuser by keeping their secret in order to keep their abuser safe. They take advantage of the natural sense of empathy that most children feel for them, despite the fact that the way they treat the children is abusive. It becomes further complicated when the children don’t know that what’s happening to them is abuse. That’s not to say they enjoy it, but they do not necessarily know how to safely express that they do not enjoy what’s happening to them.

    A big myth that the film also touches upon is the myth that victims of childhood sexual abuse will become gay as a result, or are gay and that’s why they were abused to begin with. Such a perspective is toxic as it takes the responsibility of being aware of this issue and doing something about it off of society and parents and onto the boys themselves, who are powerless to do anything in these situations to change them a a result of the complicated nature of their relationship with their abuser.

    Further, victim-blaming rationalizations of childhood sexual abuse by the community also leaves these men hanging with no hand to help them up, and forces them to confront these painful and traumatic experiences alone, without any support from others, even family members.

    As a result, with nowhere to go and no one to turn to, many of these men grow up damaged and develop maladaptive ways of coping. Kulik, whom DeBono described having it all and “the perfect boy next door,” fled his home, wound up penniless and unable to hold a job. He wandered the streets for nine years, abusing drugs and alcohol. Steve Rosen described the the men stuck in this vicious cycle of self blame as “twice victims; once by their abuser and once by a society unwilling to talk about it.”

    Rosen and DeBono also compare the topic of childhood sexual abuse among men to that of breast cancer in the 1990s. “Nobody would talk about it,” Rosen said, but after survivors and celebrities started coming forward and the condition began being talked about more openly, surviving breast cancer went from being a hushed-up individual secret to being a badge of courage and pride.

    Rosen and DeBono hope their film will create more public awareness and continue the dialogue about the issue. “I think its something the public needs to take a look at. There is someone you know who is suffering and it’s okay to talk about it: That to me is more important, so that they don’t feel that they are tainted.”

    Debono herself said that in the process of making the film she discovered that three people in her immediate family had been abused and that she would never have known if they had said nothing, and could only describe the revelation as overwhelming. “Hopefully, one day people will be able to say that they survived it as a child and that they are doing well now,” Rosen said.

    The dialogue is already happening and is mostly remembered in the context of the church, when it comes to the issue of clergy members abusing children. Church abuse had its most famous moment with the 2007 Los Angeles Archdiocese reached a record-breaking $660 million dollar settlement involving some 508 cases of sexual assault by priests going all the way to the 1930s. What that part of the conversation fails to acknowledge is that the vast majority of sexual abuse cases nationwide do not involve clergymen, but family members and friends. As the film points out, 93 percent of juvenile sexual assault victims know their attacker. Its usually not some stranger in the bushes.

    Heavy stuff? Rosen and DeBono think so too. For the duo behind Mac + Ava Motion Pictures, this was a difficult film to make. “It was kind of insidious actually. I had nightmares, I was depressed,” Rosen said. “You start to question your reactions to things once you know how these people react. You start to ask yourself things like ‘Am I suppressing a memory?’ It’s a tough thing to bring into your life.”

    For DeBono, what bothered her the most about the subject of Boyhood Shadows was seeing “all the potential that is destroyed by this, some of these guys could have done a lot more if they hadn’t been so tied up.” DeBono and Rosen both describe Kulik as having had it all. “He’s charismatic, charming, smart, hollywood handsome and smart, among the top 2 percent of intellects in the world according to one test by a psychiatrist.”

    For all the heavy subject matter covered in the Mac + Ava production, the film actually remains a light-hearted and very watchable take on a grisly phenomenon. Readers might be comforted to know that no re-enactments occur and that the film, which airs next week, also focusses on how the central character, Kulik, recounts his experiences and how his and other families dealt with what is arguably one the most stunning and crippling revelations that can befall a family.

    What’s most important, and is a prominent theme in the film, is that victims become more comfortable talking about these experiences and that society in general, but particularly those closest to the victims, are also willing to listen to their children and be willing to believe them. “Your awareness as a parent is critical, your openness to hearing it is critical, and believing your child when they tell you is critical,” says Tom Berg, Manager of the Monterey County Behavioral Health Bureau. “I could line up 10 therapists and 10 pedophiles and you wouldn’t be able to tell which one is which. A detective I worked with for many years told me to look for adults who want to spend more time with your children than you do, and for those adults who spend time with children as a part of their job and then want to keep spending time with them after work.”

    The consequences for not having a supportive environment, can, as experts point out, make recovery much more difficult if not impossible. Unfortunately, many parents just won’t hear it, and people don’t want to believe that it could happen under their watch. So they effectively shut out their own children, not wholly, but where the abuse is concerned. They give their kids no space to talk about it or confide in someone else they love. The results involve heavy, debilitating substance abuse, violence, problems forming relationships, trust issues, inability to hold a job, a shattered sexual identity, and sometimes, suicide. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, some two thirds of people in drug abuse treatment programs say they were physically or sexually abused as children.

    But do these children wind up as abusers themselves? The answer is a definitive no. “Although many pedophiles were abused as children, the vast majority of juvenile sexual abuse victims do not become pedophiles,” says Clare Mounteer, Executive Director of the Monterey County Rape Crisis Center. That agency also hosted Monterey County’s only support group for male victims of sexual assault, which for the past year has been inactive due to insufficient membership. However, looking at numbers provided by the United States Census Bureau, there are 426,762 people in Monterey County. 156,347 of them are males over the age of 18. In theory, provided the 16 percent estimate provided by the Centers for Disease Control in a 2005 study conducted in San Diego, there could be as many 26,057 males over 18 in Monterey County who were sexually abused as children. That’s almost enough damaged men to populate all of Pacific Grove, twice.

    Boyhood Shadows: I Swore I’d Never Tell is a hopeful program focussed on raising public awareness of the invisible pandemic of childhood sexual assault. Mark your calendars if you want to know more. Boyhood Shadows will air on KQED (Channel 9) on Wednesday, June 26 at 10 p.m., on KQED Life on Channel 189 on Friday, June 28 at 9 p.m and Saturday, June 29 at 11:00p.m. on KQED World on Channel 190. Overall the film is to be aired on 150 stations in 40 states.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on June 21, 2013

    Topics: Features, Front PG News, Peter Mounteer

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