On Marrying a Survivor of Childhood Sexual Abuse

Dealing with misinformation, feeling powerless, and slowly getting better together
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I thought the article would validate my husband’s experience. That’s why I emailed him the link to the decade-old New York magazine article about his alma mater, the American Boychoir School for vocal prodigies, where alumni from as late as the 1990s estimate that one in five boys were molested. Boys like Travis.

“It used to feel like an isolated incident that affected just me," Trav said.

It was the end of my workday on an October afternoon; I had just set my keys on the kitchen table. My coat was still buttoned.

“Now I know I spent nearly three years of my childhood at a boarding school not just with random pedophiles, but in a culture that allowed it.”

As his wife, how do I respond? That he survived? That he’s brave? That he’s a hero for letting me talk about it? That I will stand beside him with a personal mission and public vow that nobody will ever hurt him, physically or emotionally, again, the way they did during his 30 months as a choirboy from 1988 to 1990?.

Trav deflects these statements. He understands my protective instincts, but it makes him feel weak and uncomfortable when I say the words with such elevated drama. He is not brave, he says. Not a survivor, and certainly no hero. It doesn’t matter anymore, he says, so I suck in my breath and nod.

Mostly, I listen. I listen, and I do not laugh when my husband needs to secure the perimeter of our home each night. He keeps a machete by the nightstand. A long pillow divides our bed.

Trav believes his story is too familiar to be interesting. “I’m just another kid who got molested.” This breaks my heart to hear, but he’s not wrong about his story not being unique: The generally accepted estimate is that one in six men are sexually abused as children.

When high profile cases dominate the news, I feel for the victims, but I also scan for images of their partners and wonder how they deal with it. I want to ask what’s inside their medicine cabinets and if their husbands sometimes wince when touched, too.

I want my husband to sleep at night, and if it takes a machete in the bedroom, I've learned not to mind.

Search for Americana singers in our state, and Trav’s name usually tops the list. As a musician, he built a business on his terms, one small stage at a time, and now plays at least five shows a week. He has a kind energy that draws people to him. He is a Reiki master and meditates daily. He defuses bar fights with humor and loads heavy gear with confidence in and out of dim back alley doors. Our niece and nephew run to him, and our chiropractor once called him the nicest man he’d ever met. His shoulders and arms, muscular and tattooed, project strength and confidence. “You’re so lucky,” women tell me after they hear him sing.

There is a hum about Trav—Hawaiians call it “big mana”—so much so, people might be shocked to know about the other, darker parts of him. For all his bold stage presence, he is an extremely private guy.

My husband does not want to be a spokesperson for child sex abuse survivors. His experiences are his own, and he finds no comfort in commiserating with others. He only agreed to this essay as a way of taking the conversation into the light, removing the shame, and saying to some other little boy, “With help, you, too, can heal;” to parents, “Be careful;” and, to partners like me, “Please do not give up.”

Still, there is something in people that always wants details. Partners like me know that even if I ranked every distinct act of pedophilia from bad to worst, the emotions—fear, trauma, sadness, anger, shame— are exactly the same for every crime. While Trav’s experience might not equal the horror of some, I don’t believe in “molestation lite.”

Instead, I read statistics from the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network and nod along. These are the details that matter:

“Victims of sexual assault are 3 times more likely to suffer from depression, 6 times more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, 13 times more likely to abuse alcohol, 26 times more likely to abuse drugs, and 4 times more likely to contemplate suicide.”

Misinformation is the worst. Child sex abuse victims are not destined for deviance, but despite its repeated discrediting, a “cycle of abuse” myth persists. Put in the simplest terms by Houston’s Children’s Assessment Center, 500,000 babies born in the United States this year will likely be sexually abused before they turn 18. The vast majority of these victims will not grow up to be sex offenders.

“I have never, ever had feelings like that,” Trav once told me, as if I did not already know his character, and I was sad because he felt he needed to say the words out loud.

There’s also the guilt of not telling. He described the pressure he felt during his time at the prestigious school. “My folks borrowed money to send me there. If I quit, my whole family would have been seen as a failure.”

Both of us grew up in the same small community, and I remember seeing his photos in the local newspaper and the pride shown by our hometown. Looking back, I imagine that weight on the shoulders of a 12 year old, worried about his mom and dad. “I didn’t say anything to them or to the teachers,” he said. “If they knew what happened, I thought it would destroy them.”

This idea—that it was his fault for not speaking up—was embedded in my husband’s psyche for years. In an effort to survive, he buried the details deep, doing his best to forget the American Boychoir School. “Who would believe me?” he used to ask. “I was a scholarship kid.”

Newly into our marriage, and refusing to put more blame on that little boy’s shoulders, I said, “I believe you.”

This is the most important thing a partner can say. Almost 25 years after leaving the school, when Trav did tell his parents, they believed him, too. His mom had set out a pile of items unpacked from his school days to make a memory quilt. When Trav declined, his father asked why, and Trav told the truth.

As a parent, thinking you gave your child the opportunity of a lifetime, how do you watch that image corrode? How do you remember hearing your boy cry to come home, believing it was temporary homesickness? How do you process that despite doing your best due diligence, the organization you trusted with your child played a role in his trauma?

His parents’ immediate reaction—to hug him tight—was exactly right.

***

Travis sleeps most nights now. Before, he didn’t. When we moved in together, he was 23 and midway through a second military band enlistment. Our apartment was a small cinderblock studio, and in such close physical proximity, I watched his sunny, gregarious stage presence lie dormant for hours under a blanket on the couch. I suggested Trav visit the Air Force base clinic, and he got a 10-question checklist. “You’re fine,” the clinician said and sent Trav back to our couch.

Frustrated, we located a private practice, and with a small dose of anti-depressants, information began to slip out. “I can’t remember all the details, but I have this feeling,” he said. I held his hand as his night terrors, hyper-vigilance and claustrophobia began to make sense.

When Trav’s enlistment was up, we moved back home to Maine.

“But you’re eight years in,” people accused. “Why don’t you just stay?”

We were told we were stupid and short-sighted, throwing away good careers. I preferred that oblique assessment to my reality: If Trav were to stay in the regimented, institutional environment of the military, void of any personal control while he wrestled with these memories, he would likely put a bullet into his head.

Partners like me have very few resources. There’s no recourse, no opportunity for revenge, or even forgiveness. My challenges are loneliness, impotence, and the urge to do something, somehow to make it right.

I said, “let’s go home” because I didn’t know what else to do.

We took a 75 percent pay cut when we moved, but Trav gained a lifestyle structure with no overt vestige of imprisonment or dominance, emotional or physical. He could move freely, and we found a therapist who specializes in post-traumatic stress disorder. Details continue to leak out, but Trav is stable enough to handle them now.

At a recent dental appointment, while filling out paperwork, Trav checked the PTSD box in the medical history section. “Service-related?” the hygienist asked. When Trav said no, he thought she seemed disappointed. No war hero. He could buy sympathy with the truth, but he would never say it out loud.

“It’s nobody else’s business, and I don’t want it to define me,” he said, “Plus, it makes people uncomfortable.”

Given the near-universal shame in the telling and the near-universal discomfort of the listener, as his wife, it makes me uncomfortable how we, as a community, fail to protect our little boys.

 

***

Trav tells me I’m the most beautiful, smart, sexy woman he’s ever met, and I know he believes it. Still,  sometimes my husband cannot summon a desire to touch me in a way that doesn’t feel obligatory and rote. I’d be lying if I said I never wanted things to be different.

I swallowed urges to find myself a small apartment, to have a discreet affair, or to book a hotel room for just one good night of my own sleep. On his bad days, I dreaded opening the front door because I was never sure what I’d find. His secrets were now mine to keep, and the weight was heavy.

The words of his fans echoed in my head. “You are so lucky.”

As Trav continues to do the exhausting and intense work to put distance between himself and his sense of shame, it gets better for us. One by one, he shares information with people he trusts, and the response is near-universal: Somebody knows somebody who was affected by this issue. More often than not, instead of the discomfort he feared, there is a level of compassion. People love my husband.

We are good now, and getting better, but there are still moments when I never know what to do or say. So, when I fell down the Google rabbit hole last year and was routed to the old 2002 New York magazine article, I sent the link to Trav. According to the article, there was a longstanding and widespread atmosphere of willful ignorance about sexual abuse.

Rather than bringing the solace of knowing he was not alone, the article put Trav’s mind back in a little boy place, trying to sleep in the dormitory, sensing what happened in the rooms next door and wondering if and when he would be next.

“It wasn’t just me. It was the entire school’s culture,” Trav said, the new awareness making his voice wooden.

I watched my husband move back onto our couch that day, and I thought of all the other partners like me, shifting feet back and forth in their own kitchens, arms useless and keys jangling, with no social script and no map—the desire for vengeance and policy change and a way out overridden by a bigger, immediate desire for their husband, son, brother, or friend to just stop hurting.

“It was the entire school,” he repeated on that October day. And then, softer, “What if I remember more?”

I considered this. It took more than a decade for the emergence of his recollections to plateau, and I thought of our life stretched out for another 10 years, and then 10 more after that, dealing with this issue in perpetuity. Instead of anger or hatred or an urge to leave, I imagined a lifetime of my husband bolting straight up in the early morning hours and me coaxing him to breathe, assuring him he’s okay.

“If you remember more, I will believe you, and your family will believe you, and your friends will believe you, and we will figure it out together,” I said in my now-practiced whisper. I set my keys on the table, hung my coat on the back of a kitchen chair, and crawled up into the nook under Trav’s arm, nodding against his chest.

I know that this couch moment will pass, that it will never be as bad as those first early and uncertain days. I am grateful that “I” is now a solid community of “we” because now, most nights, instead of waking to sounds of Trav thrashing himself alert, I wake to find that at some point in those early morning hours, my husband’s hand has reached across our bed’s center pillow to rest on my waist.

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Shonna Milliken Humphrey is a writer based in Maine.

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