Six years ago I wrote a memoir. It was about forgiveness, growing up Catholic, sex. It was an attempt to make sense of the chaos of having been molested as a kid (over a three-year period) by a camp counselor many years my senior. I wrote a thoughtful book full of mercy. It went out into the world, and I felt relief, gratitude. I felt I'd arrived. Somewhere. Sainthood. Peace.
I have since learned that there are moments when I will be knocked to the dirt. The complexity, the half-life, of sexual abuse is endless. The most recent and, for reasons I'm still unraveling, most potent sucker punch has come in the form of the Penn State scandal.
The media was already at fever pitch when, on Nov. 11, I opened the door of my hotel room to find at my feet, in huge and murderously red-colored print across the front of a complimentary copy of USA Today, "Victim Number 1." My stomach heaved.
I didn't want to peek, but I peeled open the pages to learn that this headline was a reference not to Sandusky's first apparent victim but to the brave young man (nameless in the news, for now) who has been the first to step forward, who has, with the help of a counselor, a lawyer, and (I pray) his family, spoken up and brought his case, his story, to the police. Not yet 20, this boy was described in USA Today as a hero who, because of his courage, has finally put a stop to a string of horrible crimes, ending the "conspiracy of cowards," the countless officials at Penn Sate who remained silent.
I stepped back into my Des Moines hotel room and fell into a chair. The tears came fast and furious.
* * * * *
On a spring afternoon two years ago I was at my desk, which overlooks the playground of a public elementary school. The kids were out for a sky-blue recess, their jackets tied around their waists or tossed to the foot of the fence. I was in the midst of writing a story about a trip to Italy. I kept looking out the window at the swirl of chirping students, and the next thing I knew, I had crossed to the phone in our living room, dialed 411, and asked for the number of a Southern California police station.
"Please hold for the Golena Sheriff's Department."
"Oh. OK. Thank you, operator." Lord, it was happening. I pressed the receiver to my ear.
Golena. I am guessing it is a small town. Rural. Never been there. It is the last place that I know he resided, where, perhaps, he still resides to this very day.
It rings twice.
"Hello. Sheriff's office."
The voice is female, and I'm instantly relieved. Whatever it is I want to say, it seems it will be easier saying it to a she.
"My name is Martin Moran, and..."
My heart is throwing a tantrum: Hang up! This is stupid. And now the brain is off like a shot: You're 50 years old, for God's sake! What in the world are you afraid of? The derision of a sheriff? Disturbing Bob's life? Do you think he could hurt you still, threaten you? This is fucking Stockholm Syndrome, kid.
Breathless, I am at once a little boy of 12 and a man of 50.
"Yes. Hello... I am calling... I think someone may reside in your town who molested me when I was a kid. I wanted to be sure, if he's still living, that you were aware of his... him."
I'm relieved at how matter-of-fact I sound. This feels like manly progress of a sort.
"Was he ever convicted?" she asks.
"Yes, ma'am. In Colorado. In the '70s. Not by me, though."
Someone else did that brave work, I think but don't say as I try to quell the voices that chide me: Coward. Wimp. Co-conspirator.
And there it is. His actual name. I said it aloud to the lady sheriff, and I am writing it here now on this cold day in December 2011. In the 2005 memoir I used a Kafkaesque "Robert C______." Aesthetically, I loved the mystery of the blank. I felt (and still do) that this rendered the tale more eternal, universal. Somehow, without the weight of his real name, I felt freer, less encumbered in composing the interior story of a soul, in recreating memories from 30 years earlier. And the publisher's legal department felt it prudent to make slight alterations to avoid any possible litigation. Fine. After all, it was not a book focused on blame but on a journey toward understanding, so good, let's not sully the page with his fucking name.
"Still checking," the lady sheriff says. I hear the clicking sound of what must be her fingernails at the keyboard. I am picturing a small suburban street, a ramshackle house with a truck in the drive, up on a jack, missing a wheel, tools scattered in a driveway, weeds creeping through cracked cement. I picture him gray and slow and bent, as he was when I found and confronted him at a veterans' hospital in 2002. I picture him asking a neighbor boy to help fix a tire on the old truck, asking the kid to come on inside for lemonade, and -- please, God -- a cop car pulling up to arrest things.
"Oh," she says. "Yes... yes, he does live here."
So he's alive! I had Googled him more than once, searching for an obituary or something to pop up that spoke of his demise, thinking this would be the final curtain, a welcome closure. But I had (a have still) never found a thing.
"We know where he is," she continues, with a kind of Perry Mason twang. "He is a registrant."
"He's required to register with us periodically. It's part of his agreement. He is current, I see."
"So you're aware, I mean, able to--"
"Yes, sir. We keep a strict watch on him."
God, I pray that's true. The relief I feel! Someone is doing the job, the job I never did.
Before I hang up she says, "Thanks for your call, Martin. Take good care."
Her voice is replete with wisdom, with kindness, or so it seems, and I feel my eyes water, my throat tighten as I think: She understands. Understands everything.
It took me more than 30 years to call the cops.
Back at my desk, I kept lifting my gaze to the window, the schoolyard. Fourth graders, I guessed, maybe fifth, leaping every which way. They take turns coming out for recess. The various ages have distinct qualities of play: kindergartners are all high-pitched cries and flailing limbs, the seventh and eighth graders coordination, deeper shouts, and zinging projectiles. I find I often guess at the ages, at the lives of these growing, precious creatures, sending out a wish that they safely find their way in their own time toward their authentic selves.
It knew it was the ache, the persistent niggling at the back of my head, an ancient guilt that brought me to the phone. A duty long deferred? A stab that says: Marty, if you'd blown the whistle way back when, others may have been spared. How many did he go on to seduce in the months and years that I remained frozen in silence? This thought kills me.
* * * * *
"The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing."
My shame is ancient, intractable. Shame that I allowed it to happen in the first place, that I gave in and over to the wild, confusing pleasure of sex with him. It was a relationship of sorts, and I remained terrified, frozen in the bond of it, until I dug down and wrote a book that I know added an honest voice to the paralyzing complexity of childhood sexual abuse. "I never took legal action," I have heard myself say to various questioners. "I took dramatic action." Still, the shame of not having smacked or strangled the guy will sneak up, and I have to remind myself again and again that I was a kid and that along the way I have done my best, that it has taken countless steps, year by year, to unravel the damn thing and move toward speaking out, toward healing, toward forgiveness -- mostly for myself.
The revelations in the issue of USA Today that I held in my hands a few weeks ago made me weep crazily for about a thousand reasons. You may have wept, too, or cried out in disbelief, confusion, or righteous anger. Yes, "interests" were probably being served; again, grown men trapped in some insane male bastion (the Catholic Church, the LDS Church, the Orthodox Jewish community, now football) remained quiet as kids were being violated. There are inexcusable actions and non-actions.
As I sat in that hotel room clutching that oh-so-American newspaper, I wept for the courage of Victim Number 1. For all the victims. I wept for the apparent sickness of the accused. I wept at my own faults and frailty. But I also wept, and weep now, because that newspaper I held insisted on painting a black-and-white tale of monsters and victims, of cowards and heroes. It's how we like our stories. It's how we judge and keep human events at a distance. It is terribly difficult to ponder how real and how close, how human and how common what happened at Penn State is, or the fear and greed and desire that can shatter our ethics, our hearts.
Somewhere between all the black and white, between the heroes and victims in the sad story of Penn State, is the gray area of frightened human beings caught up in a world of hypermasculinity and voiceless secrets. It calls for our condemnation. Somehow, it also calls for our compassion. How else might we learn to talk and thus truly learn from these horrific events, to be truly aware of each other's human plight?
Martin Moran's memoir The Tricky Part was first published by Beacon Press in 2005 and was adapted from his one-man play of the same name, for which he won an Obie in 2004. Moran makes his living as an actor and writer in New York City. He has appeared in many Broadway and Off-Broadway plays, including Spamalot, Titanic, Cabaret, Bells Are Ringing, and Floyd Collins, and is currently playing Dr. Dillamond in the national tour of Wicked. He is also at work on a new one-man piece scheduled to be performed off Broadway in fall 2012.
This post originally appeared on BeaconBroadside.com.