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In essay revealing he was raped at age 8, novelist Junot Diaz shines light on male sexual assault

Chicago Tribune
April 11, 2018

By age 11, novelist Junot Diaz was struggling with depression and uncontrollable rage. At 14, he put a gun to his head.

The nights were the worst. He dreamed of horrific rapes: attacks by his siblings, his father, his teachers, his peers, complete strangers. Often, he’d wake up with blood in his mouth; he’d bitten down hard on his tongue while he slept.

In a widely shared essay published in The New Yorker on Monday, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author went public for the first time with his rape at age 8 by a trusted adult and the consequences that dogged him for decades. His account of his assault and its aftermath, including trouble with intimacy, intrusive memories, and depression, echoes the stories shared in the largely female #MeToo movement, in which women have spoken openly about their pain and healing after sexual assault.

But Diaz’s account also sheds light on the particular challenges facing male sexual-assault victims, according to Meredith Alling, communications director for 1in6, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that provides services for sexually abused men.

“The expectations that we place on men — they’re not allowed to be weak, they’re not allowed to be vulnerable, a lot of times from a really early age they’re not allowed to ask for help — these can really be a barrier to seeking help,” she said

Diaz, who was born in the Dominican Republic, wrote that rape was at odds with his very definition of manhood.

“Always I was afraid — afraid that the rape had ‘ruined’ me; afraid that I would be ‘found out’; afraid afraid afraid,” Diaz wrote in an essay shared more than 130,000 times on Facebook. “‘Real’ Dominican men, after all, aren’t raped. And if I wasn’t a ‘real’ Dominican man I wasn’t anything. The rape excluded me from manhood, from love, from everything.”

While Diaz was talking about his own specific culture, the fear that rape is at odds with masculinity is common among male assault survivors, said Janice S. Waters, senior director of clinical services at the Chicago Children’s Advocacy Center, a nonprofit serving sexually abused children.

“Boys are less likely to come forward, so there are probably more boys that are impacted than we’re aware of, and I think the reason would be that fear of their male identity being questioned, and that fear that people will see them as ‘less than,’” Waters said.

The essay also highlights the change that’s possible when male victims do seek help, Waters and Alling said.

Around the time Diaz won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” his fiancee discovered he had been cheating on her with multiple women and broke up with him. “A heartbreak can take out a world,” he wrote in The New Yorker. “I know hers did. Took out her world and mine.”

It took two more years for him to hit rock bottom.

“In a drunken fit I tried to jump from my friend’s rooftop apartment in the D.R. He grabbed me before I could get my foot on a nearby stool and didn’t let go until I stopped shaking.”

Friends helped, as did a great therapist, he wrote. A decade later, he’s in therapy twice a week; he’s open about his rape with friends, macho and otherwise, and he’s feeling hopeful. He’s stopped hurting people with his “lies and choices,” he wrote. He’s stopped sleeping around, and he makes amends wherever he can.

That rings true, too, Waters said.

“The powerful emotions that hold people back are often this guilt and shame,” she said. “Once the secret is out, and people love and accept you, that is really powerful.”

Waters recommends that men who have been sexually abused in childhood find a “safe place to tell their story,” where their experience will be accepted and validated and they can start the path to healing. That might mean talking to a therapist, a minister or a loved one.

For parents or guardians who are concerned that a child may have been sexually abused, Waters recommends seeking out a therapist. Her organization can provide Chicago-area referrals.

She said group therapy also can be helpful for boys who have been abused.

“It’s really powerful to meet other individuals who had the same experience because (boys) feel so isolated, like this is a big secret,” she said. “You can see them build this camaraderie. You get the sense that they all know it: ‘We’re all here for this, and we all have each other’s backs.’”