I recently saw a production of Stalking the Bogeyman at New World Stages in NYC. The play tells the true story of David Holthouse: the rape he endured in 1978 as a 7-year old, and his plan, as an adult, to murder his rapist.
I can't even begin to comprehend the pain, fear, and shame attached to the horrific event that is the catalyst for this play. David's rapist told him if he told his parents what had happened they would be angry because he (David) had done a bad thing. He convinced David that his parents would spank him. Then true to bullying form, the rapist said that if David told anyone he'd come to his house in the middle of the night and gut him like a salmon. As I listened to these words spoken from the mouth of the adult actor playing the 7-year old David my heart broke for the loss of innocence and the life altering event that David kept secret for 25 years after.
I wanted desperately for David to run to his mother and tell her what had happened. I wanted desperately for David's father to confront the father of this most nasty of bullies. I wanted desperately for someone to beat the shit out of the cocky 17-year old high school athlete that thought he was untouchable enough to torment, traumatize, and change the course of a child's life.
I, in no way, intend this piece to make light of or trivialize what happened to David. There is nothing light or trivial about it. But in watching him as an adult continue to protect his parents from his experience, his secret, his shame, I found myself remembering my own parental protection quandary although it is trivial compared to David's. It is nothing like his, but shows how we, the children, will do things to protect our parents even when they don't need protecting. When do children start protecting their parents?
The words David's rapist used to scare him perpetuates the idea that victims think it's their fault, that they're to blame, that they will be punished. The play exposed to me the fear we possess at revealing the things that happen to us. Even if revealing them might gain us the most needed help.
I have never experienced what David went through and my heart hurts for him now that I know his story -- for his 7-year old self and for his present day self. But I do know a thing about keeping secrets. I never spoke to my parents about being bullied in junior high or high school. I was ashamed of myself because I was afraid of my emerging homosexual feelings, and to be quite honest, I was afraid that my parents would side with the bullies. Not that they would bully me too, but that they wouldn't be sympathetic to my plight. I was a child. I was afraid -- of the bullies and of my parents. I'll never know how that scenario might have played out as I never shared my adolescent pain or teenage fears with them. I didn't trust that they would protect me. When do shame and fear replace trust?
After I moved to New York City in 1997 a new set of fears entered my life. I was in the land of Broadway and my main desire at that time was to be a musical theatre star. Yes, I say star because I had them in my eyes and I wanted to be one. I used to joke about how I wanted to become so popular, so dependable as a performer that Stephen Sondheim, composer of Sweeney Todd and Into The Woods to name but two of his brilliant musicals, would write a musical role for me. I was joking, but I was serious. I had big dreams. But there was always something lurking in the shadows of those dreams. I was gay and not out to my parents.
I had a recurring waking nightmare that I would actually make it as big as I'd dreamed, and my mother would be in the check-out line at Smith's Supermarket in Mayfield, KY and look over at the National Enquirer or Star and see me, her son, outed on the front page. I realize I would've had to've been playing in the big time big leagues for a tabloid in the late 90s early aughts to out me. But my dreams were to be playing in those leagues so it wasn't such a stretch for my theatrical mind to create that dramatic scenario.
I couldn't handle that nightmare. I couldn't handle the idea of the ridicule my mother might face from other residents in my small KY town of approximately 600 people. I wanted to protect her from any of the harsh words that I was convinced would be hurled at her or spoken about her behind her back because she had a gay son. I wanted to protect her. I also wanted to achieve my dreams, but I didn't know how to accomplish both. Being gay was nobody's fault. There was no blame. The truth as I now see it is that if someone chooses to hurl nasty remarks that is their shit and is no reflection on me or my mom. Of course the simple answer in 1997 would have been to come out to her, but I wasn't brave enough to do that yet.
David Holthouse was convinced that he couldn't share his terrifying, life changing experience with his parents, even as he got older, because he had to protect them. I understand that yet at the same time I don't. If his attacker hadn't made him believe the rape was his fault might he have run to his mother and confessed to her the horrible incident? If not immediately, sooner rather than 25 years later? Without the weight of that secret, what might his life (and that of his rapist -- hopefully behind bars) have been like if he had shared his fear and pain?
David carried the weight of his secret until he was in his 30s only to be confronted by his parents after they read about it in 10-year old David's diary. He was caught off guard and with no warning to prepare a lie told the truth. Heartbreak. His mother's heartbreak washed over me with complete sadness. I became aware that I was holding myself, my arms wrapped tightly around my midsection, as I sat in the back row of the darkened theatre.
In Stalking the Bogeyman the bogeyman is the rapist. An actual living, breathing person. But under cloak of fear and secrets we all have a bogeyman that shadows us. The reason I write so honestly when I'm telling my life's story, leaving out no detail no matter how honest or ugly, is because I don't want to go back to a time when my life seemed like one big secret. I won't do it. Some people may say I reveal too much information, but for too long I hid too much information.
David finally faced his bogeyman. I don't even know how he found the courage. Then again, I came out to my parents who at the time were the people I dreaded -- feared -- telling the most. I continue to fight my inner demons to be my true, authentic self. I realize that these experiences are no where near the same, but each of us must face down our demons in order to let them go and move forward. Some demons live and breath. Some are in our heads. All of them can be paralyzing.