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Nothing to Hide Anymore

How One Man is Overcoming the Scars of Sexual Abuse One Day at a Time

The Santa Barbara Independent / Independent.com

By Roger Durling

I was sexually molested when I was 10 years old. It has taken me more than 35 years to be able to write the sentence you just read. It’s taken me just as long to be able to process what happened to me. I’m not over it, and I don’t think I ever will be. It’s part of me.

I’m an insomniac. I’m anxious every day. I struggle with my self-esteem. I continuously battle feelings of worthlessness. I’m mistrustful of people. For a long time, I had a distorted idea of sex. I suffer panic attacks — most recently last May, when I was rushed to the hospital during a supposedly relaxing trip to Arizona. I have a hard time shaking people’s hands because mine are always sweating.

Even my brightest days can turn sour because of what happened when I was a boy. Take January 28, 2008, when I enjoyed one of the best evenings in my life. It was during my fifth year as the executive director of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, and I found myself sitting on the Arlington Theatre’s stage interviewing my favorite actor, soon-to-be Academy Award winner Javier Bardem. Our conversation was funny and insightful — we had terrific chemistry — and we could both tell that the audience was having as good a time as we were. Afterward, backstage, Bardem told me he’d had the time of his life and wished his family had been there. We hugged warmly and I headed toward the after-party to celebrate, only to find hundreds of people congratulating me outside of the Arlington.

Then, a stranger came up to me and said, “That was the worst interview. You should never do this again.” In an instant, the joyous experience was banished from my mind, the accolades I’d just received suddenly meaningless. This single remark from somebody I’d never met hit me like a ton of bricks. I quietly snuck inside a stall of the men’s bathroom and broke down.

You see, the man who abused me constantly belittled me, saying I would never amount to anything. His authority was tyrannical, both physically and mentally. He was a priest at my elementary school, and his voice is in my head on a daily basis.

But I can affirmatively say that I have turned those terrible acts into a victory for me. For the first time ever, I no longer feel like a victim — and I do not feel ashamed anymore. That’s why I’m telling you my story, to show others that there is hope. I know you are out there, as official government estimates by the National Research Council suggest that at least 20 percent of the United States population has been sexually abused, and as much as 62 percent may have been. If you are reading this and have gone through this hell, I am here to say that there is life after molestation. And maybe, just maybe, my story will help someone identify an ongoing pattern of abuse before it gets worse, and stop it before another boy or girl is scarred for life.

I was 10 years old, and the private school I attended — like most schools in Panama at the time — was run by Catholic priests. My parents wanted my brother and me to have a good education, and Catholic schools had a great reputation. Not only did they have high academic standards, but they emphasized conduct and discipline. Wearing uniforms was required — and physical punishment was not uncommon.

I was an awkward kid, too tall for my age, my legs always outgrowing my uniform shorts. I was shy, big-faced, overweight — and slightly effeminate. I also was an egghead, spewing out uninteresting facts and buried in movie dreams and books. Other kids always made fun of me. I was a loner. At the playground, I normally sat down by myself while others played soccer. I was never included, never picked to join anybody’s team.

My solace was books — anything I could get my hands on. I especially loved Tintin comic books, because I identified with the young hero on his fantastical adventures. Our school had a library, and during breaks I would check out any new book I could find. The library was run by a priest. Whenever I came in and we were alone, he called me names in his thick Spanish accent: “Girly boy.” “Pussy.” “Bitch.” At first, I thought I’d misheard him.

As the days progressed, he got louder, and when it sank in, I started to cry. But as I burst into tears, he came out from behind the counter and wrapped his arms gently around me. “I’m sorry,” he’d say. “Did I hurt your feelings?” He’d then sit me down, tell me that he would protect me from the bullies, and offered the library as a place of refuge. “Nobody ever comes in here,” he promised, and I started looking forward to my visits. He was a big man, with a friendly smile, bushy eyebrows, slouching shoulders, barrel chest, hairy arms, and fingers that reminded me of small eggplants. In his black robe, he looked like a giant.

On the school’s top floor, the library was a long, narrow room with no windows and walls painted in a sickly greenish tone. It was the only place at school with air conditioning, and since Panama is very hot and humid, the temperature alone made the library seem like a protective cave for me. I would help the priest pick up books and stack them. Before I knew it, I was working all hours of my free time there. After school, while the other students were involved in gymnastics and sports, I was at the library. My parents encouraged it. They thanked the priest for looking after me.

I can’t exactly remember how it happened — or maybe I’ve blocked it out — but at some point, the priest asked me to perform oral sex on him. I knew there was something wrong about this, but he said that it was okay because he was the one asking me. Regardless, I immediately felt guilty and had a horrible sense of shame around what happened. He told me I was special, that he’d chosen me for this special task and not to tell anybody. It was our special-special secret.

As days went by, he would ask me to mamar, or “suckle,” him, but my sense of shame was too great, and I begged him to stop. He started berating me again. “You will never amount to anything,” he’d claim. “This is what you are supposed to do — and the only thing you’re good at doing.” There were times when his light-colored eyes were full of tenderness and I longed for his affection. Other days, he’d be so angry with me that I was afraid of being crushed by his funny-looking hands.

I grew terrified of going to school. I’d lie in bed at night, thinking of ways to convince my mom to let me stay home. I’d say I was sick, that I was afraid to go, that I was afraid to speak. Sometimes, I would hide in the small closet of my bedroom and grab all of my pathetic childhood belongings — my Flintstones hand puppets, an old GI Joe, and my copy of Tintin in Tibet — and dream of getting away. But I never had the guts to do so.

One time, I cried and told her that I didn’t want to go to school because I didn’t like the priests. She told me to get over it, because the priests were good people. It was a common response from the era before “Molestation by Priest” became an international headline. I later learned that my reluctance to report the priest’s misdeeds was normal. According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, child sexual abuse is reported as many as 80,000 times a year, but the number of unreported instances remains far greater, because the children are afraid to tell anyone what has happened.

I quickly developed compulsive behaviors that my parents and I did not understand. I washed my hands over and over again and took several showers a day, lathering my skin incessantly, probably trying to wash away the guilt. I didn’t want to sleep alone, begging my parents and brother to let me sleep with them. I told them I was scared. When they asked of what, I’d say I didn’t know.

I am a gay man. Did my molestation cause me to be gay? No; I was born gay. Do I think that my being gay caused my molestation? Yes, partly.

At 10, I felt like an outcast because I was beginning to have homosexual thoughts. But I also felt like an outcast because I loved movies too much, because I loved reading too much, because I would write poems on small pieces of paper that I carried like little treasures in my pocket. I felt like an outcast because I loved learning languages like French and would use foreign phrases to make myself feel sophisticated. I felt like an outcast because I loved theater and pantomime and puppets and was obsessed with watching performers. I felt like an outcast because I felt nobody understood me, because I couldn’t relate to kids my own age. I was too tall, too fat, too ugly, too passionate, too opinionated, too loud. Being an outcast made me an easy target. I was vulnerable. But whatever was going on in my 10-year-old mind cannot possibly rationalize the behavior of my tormentor.

My parents must have known instinctually what was happening, because, before I knew it, I was taken out of the school when I was 12 years old and sent away from Panama to study in the United States. I never understood why my parents agreed for somebody so young to be away at such an early age, but it was the wisest thing they could have done. The one thing I remember most vividly is that right before I left Panama, my mom said she wanted me “to be a man.”

At my boarding school in New Jersey, I was the only Hispanic and only non-rich kid. Since I barely spoke English, I felt like I was underwater during my first year, but I was relieved to be in a school not run by priests. I found a mentor in the form of my drama teacher, Jeffrey Holcombe, an exuberant character who encouraged his students to be individualistic. He was the first person to tell me I was talented and that I had a career in the arts.

I found another mentor while attending Syracuse University. The head of the theater department was Arthur Storch, a demanding force who constantly criticized my academic performance in front of the class and drove me, in one instance, to break down in tears. I remember going to bed in the dorms at 6 p.m. and crying all night, feeling ashamed and useless. But unlike the priest, Storch had a constructive reason for his belittling: He called me into his office the next day to tell me that he’d only been so tough because he believed I was capable of so much more. “You have to start believing in yourself,” he said.

For the next 18 or so years, I tried hard to believe in myself. I tried being a playwright in New York City, and had some success, but after a while, I could no longer stomach all of the rejection that’s inherent to a life in theater. So I drifted to California to take part in the playwright’s lab at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. I wrote two terrific plays during my stay there, but even after many workshops and readings across the country, I still didn’t have the stamina for a negative response. So I took a job at Sony Pictures Studios that was nothing more than photocopying movie scripts. But working in a Hollywood studio with actors, writers, and directors walking all around gave me a sense of comfort.

For me, everything’s beautiful at the movies. I’m able to live vicariously in that sanctuary. I’m able to feel sorrow, pity, laughter, fear, and any extreme emotion, and that experience results in restoration, renewal, and revitalization — sometimes self-discovery as well. I’m able to look straight into the eyes of Hannibal Lecter and sing along with Maria von Trapp and nod in approval when Osgood Fielding III says, “Nobody’s perfect!” I can be Rocky or Billy Elliot or a Slumdog Millionaire or The Wrestler. I live for the movies. I’m happiest there.

Fired abruptly from my job one day, I drifted north to Santa Barbara, where I cofounded and ran a coffee house in Summerland called the French Bulldog. There, I met some boardmembers of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, and soon started volunteering for the fest; eventually, in 2003, I took my current job as executive director. These past seven years have been the most rewarding period of my life. After decades of being an outcast, of being afraid of rejection, of being unsure of my self-worth, this job has given me a sense of purpose. It brought me back to life.

The Academy Award-nominated writer/director Jim Sheridan once told me that the United States is the place you go once you’ve died. That definitely was the case for me — a misfit who finally found a home in Santa Barbara, where I was given the chance to start anew and told myself that I would make something out of that opportunity. My motivation to succeed, to excel, to do well was to prove to him that I was not a failure. If I ever give up on anything or feel deflated, I know he’s gotten the best of me — and now there’s no way I can ever let that happen, so I persevere.

For many years, I managed to erase the memory of my visits to that infamous library and my schoolyard days. Geographically, I was far from it, so it was easy to forget it ever happened. But even if I couldn’t pinpoint their origin, all the scars were there: insomnia, mistrust, anxiety, sexual dysfunction, bouts of depression, and panic attacks. About a decade ago, while reading an article about child molestation, my memories of the priest and his library started flooding in. At first, it felt like I was remembering a movie, but then I was shocked to realize I was the protagonist. My journey of understanding had begun.

This week and every week, I visit a terrific psychologist who helps me to heal. Through treatment, I have begun to regain a sense of self-confidence and trust, but undoing the damage of child abuse is something that takes time. The biggest thing I’ve learned in years of therapy is that I cannot blame myself for what happened. I’ve also learned to let go of my anger and to stop feeling sorry for myself. To this day, I feel shameful of what happened, but telling you what happened is another part of my healing process. And if I can help others who may have been abused but are too afraid to speak about it and seek help, it will make my journey all the more worthwhile.

A few months back, one of my dearest friends — a successful straight man, married with children — revealed to me that he had been a victim of abuse. We sat for three hours one evening, comparing stories, crying, consoling each other. We were speaking in a whisper, but I told him we needed to speak at our normal voice level because we had to stop feeling and acting as if it had been our fault.

Every time I go back to Panama, I return to where my school used to be. It was torn down several years ago, and a shopping mall was built in its place. I hate shopping and frequenting a mall is my idea of hell, but I find myself making excuses to linger in this place. It looks nothing like the schoolyard and library where I was scarred for life, but I meander around this mall, walking through all of the corridors and going up and down its escalators. “What am I looking for?” I’ve asked myself so many times. “And if I were to find him, what would I say?”

Today, I know damn well what I’d say. Just one sentence: “I’m very good at a lot of things.”