I Watched the Live Stream of My Abuser’s Memorial
”He made outsiders feel welcomed.”
”He made you feel special.”
”He made everyone feel noticed and included.”
”Imagine, as an insecure teen, he was responsible for that build of confidence and individuality.”
I am enraged. I am also terrified.
Hundreds gathered today to celebrate the life of and speak such worshipful words of a man who influenced thousands of lives: as a high school teacher, as a director, as a “leader,” a “mentor,” a “hero,” one who “brought out the best in people,” a man who so many former students claim they, “would not be the man I am today without him,” and, “no one who knew this man could claim they were unchanged by him.”
That last one is true for me, at least. While they attended a memorial for a legend, I watched them praise the man who groomed, manipulated and sexually abused me as a teen.
Everything that was said of him was true. He was a man who was larger than life, and, as an insecure, wandering, artsy teen, he really did have the power to influence students. I lost count of how many people went onto teaching, directing and acting careers because of him. When you are a teen and are still in the process of discovering who you are, for an older figure to recognize who-you-hope-to-be-but-aren’t-quite-sure-you-can, is, as one former student expressed, “like hearing the voice of god.”
It was those same attributes he used on me, a recently heartbroken teen looking for recognition, to get me to trust him and believe the story of myself he was feeding me.
As one Facebook eulogy put it, he “knew he was loved,” and he used that power accordingly, as so many students can attest to.
Students clamored for his attention and praise. To be loved by him alleviated the agonizing weight of teen angst. So when he started paying more attention to me, it felt like winning a gold medal. Or a Tony Award. When you are shy and insecure and the onslaught of undiagnosed-for-years depression kicks in, you pray for that kind of validation. And the day you turn 18 and a legend asks if you’d like to get coffee with just him (this seemed normal enough as he would often go to the movies with students outside of class and rehearsal; the school didn’t bat an eye), you jump at the opportunity for one-on-one attention from a potential mentor.
We first met when I was 16, he would later recall how I was wearing a shirt with horizontal stripes in our first introduction, no doubt, because he ogled as it accentuated my newly-developed breasts. When I was 17 and sick with a cough, he told me it made my voice sound “sexy.” He was overly physical with students, but the fact that he loved to give everyone overly long hugs and at least the girls kisses, was the accepted norm. Students delighted in it.
There was no suspicion by me as to any correlation between asking to spend time with me out of class or rehearsal and my 18th birthday (though now it’s so blatantly obvious he waited until I was legal so that if I told anyone of his intended actions, he wouldn’t get in “as much trouble,” but also was so eager he couldn’t bear to wait another moment to ask me); I only was excited to get special attention as he groomed me with questions that were also praise, like when he remarked on my intelligence, and asked, “Do you ever feel different?”
Finally! Someone saw in me what I was afraid to believe myself! That I was special. That I mattered.
I was 18, but, as anyone who has lived past the age of 18 can tell you, I was still an inexperienced child. In fact, I had only experienced my first kiss a few months before our “coffee dates.” I hadn’t yet developed a taste for it, and he would pay for and treat me to hot chocolates with extra whipped cream.
In our conversations, I beamed with confidence. I felt like such a mature adult when he would talk to me about parenting his two daughters — one a few years older than me, one a few years younger. He would confess his personal battle with his addictive personality and his struggles with being bipolar. Though we were out of class, he was teaching me what society teaches young girls: to bear the weight and responsibility of men’s emotions. I was his confidant. I felt as though I was given special access to a part of himself that no one else had. I felt like a prize, and I needed to feel something other than the depression I didn’t yet know I had.
That’s how pillars of communities are formed, aren’t they? The people who exude a sense of safety and belonging. Other students of his expressed mild jealousy over my special treatment, and, still hurting over being dumped by the golden boy of the theatre program that year, it felt like my heart healing.
That is how they groom you: finding your weaknesses and building you up in an isolated setting.
So, when a man, 33 years your senior, sticks his cigarette-stained tongue into your mouth, you allow it. Because when a man, who today one speaker at his memorial said, “was not unlike Christ,” wants something from you, you never say the word “yes,” but you also don’t know how to say the word “no.”
I feel deep shame over the actions I allowed, and, because he had so thoroughly manipulated me into feeling special, valued, and so mature and responsible, then I must have been mature enough to handle this. When you are young and impressionable and someone feeds you a story of who you are, they also feed you new definitions of words like maturity and responsibility.
He expressed guilt and I would soothe him, as he so taught me to do. He would emotionally dump his personal grievances for me to carry: how bad his depression was, how if I rejected him it could set off another episode.
I look back and try to make sense out of it all, how I could lose such control over my own mind. Millions of women who have been victims of emotional abuse can attest to the same feelings; the confusion, the shame, and how the isolation and manipulation are as captivating as a cult leader.
Earlier, I expressed how I was terrified. Terrified of speaking out because of fear that no one would believe me. Fear that I will receive hate mail and death threats and become a social pariah for speaking ill of a man who was a hero to so many.
Perhaps those are some of the reasons so many women never speak of their abusers. Maybe the rule, “don’t speak ill of the dead,” was made to protect these abusers. So, I remember that famous quote from Dune, a book he taught a course on that became legendary: “Fear is the mind killer.”
The level of abuse at which he operated runs deep, as does any abuse that happens in your young, impressionable, formative years. As we grow, we aren’t attracted to healthy relationships so much as we are attracted to what we find familiar, so, my subconscious found a sociopath to fall in love with. A man who abused me and several other women, including teenagers. I didn’t know that in dating him I was trying to fight an old battle.
I developed a Pavlovian response to people praising my intelligence or talent, where I would immediately feel objectified and defensive. It squashed my creativity and belief in myself, because any kind of praise and recognition was so powerfully linked to being used as a pawn in one man’s quest to numb himself from his profound sense of immaturity, insecurity and inner knowledge of how pathetic he really believed himself to be.
I’m sure that most won’t believe me; this is what I have come to learn in the broken patriarchal society we live in.
During his “celebration of life,” one former student spoke of how when you were a teen and feeling like you just couldn’t believe in yourself, he would talk to you, “And it wasn’t just a pep talk, it was a statement. You had no choice but to do what he said.”
I think of how positive that must have been for so many students. I think of that student saying “you had no choice” when I remember how he spoke and influenced me when his erect micro-penis, the length and girth of my thumb (and doesn’t that explain his insecurities in his own fragile sense of masculinity?), entered my mouth. My very first. I remember I thought of how my siblings had sucked their thumbs but I never found comfort in the bad habit. It washed away the taste of my hot chocolate with extra whipped cream, and it washed away my chance to ever have that first experience again. It washed away my sense of self-worth and vitality that took over a decade to recover.
This is the power of legends and pillars of communities. This is the power of abusers.
And this essay is the power of a victim.
Fuck you, TA.