Earlier this year a friend sent me a link to the Erie, Pa., Roman Catholic Diocese’s new public disclosure list of clergy and laypeople credibly accused of sexual abuse (the only diocese in the country to include laypeople).
I considered it answered prayer. You see, last summer I published a book, based on a true story of my friend’s tragic life in the shadow of past abuse. (He is one of the 1,000+ victims in the recent Pa. grand jury report.)
Ever since then I had contemplated sending a copy to the high school science teacher who abused me when I was in 10th grade, Randolph A. Byrd, of Crozet, Va.
I wanted “Mr. Byrd” to know I hadn’t forgotten. I wanted him to know I had tapped into my own dread and pain to write my friend’s story, and that it gave the narrative empathy, authenticity and power.
I wanted him to know that lifting a lid on those memories brought them back to life — it took days after each writing session to recover and unwind. I wanted him to be accountable in some small measure for the harm he had inflicted on me and the other girls he targeted before and after me.
Then God opened this door, through the obedience of Bishop Lawrence Persico.
Reporting my allegations produced a lot of anxiety, but it felt good to be heard. It felt even better to be believed. And a few weeks later, when the attorneys notified me Bishop Persico had added Randolph Byrd’s name to the list, I experienced a sense of closure and peace.
What I didn’t anticipate in confronting my past was that it would bring it back into my present.
Monster Out of the Closet
Now he was real again. And quite unexpectedly he began showing up in my dreams. I’ve had four vivid dreams since June, and I journaled each one before they faded in the light.
If you’re a survivor of sexual abuse, Bob Jones offers step-by-step help and encouragement for expelling the monsters in your closet in “Shining Light on the Monsters.”
They’re the kind of dreams I used to have as a child when my sleep was deep and my imagination unencumbered by experience. The kind that happen just below the surface. Body fully engaged, floating in between. Mind in overdrive, frantically seeking footing in reality.
It doesn’t take a degree in psychology to uncover the themes in my dreams: predator vs. prey, fear-fueled secrecy, and the frustration and anger of trying to find my voice. You may see other things too; they’re dreams after all.
Dream 1: “Sexual-Abuse Shit”
I see him. He’s dressed in priest robes, although he’s not a priest. He says hello nonchalantly, expectantly, as if I should greet him in return. I’m with friends, and I don’t want my secret exposed, but I can’t believe he has the audacity to say hello.
I see him again in a restaurant, and he’s among friends. I decide to confront him. Next thing I know, I’m sitting directly across from him at a long table, and we’re both drinking beer in the crowd.
I say, “I can’t believe you said hello to me today. How can you act like nothing is wrong?”
He leans in conspiratorially and whispers hoarsely, angrily, “Don’t try to tell me this is about some kind of sexual-abuse shit.”
As I open my mouth to respond, he leans back into the noise and safety of his friends, and my words get lost. Everyone loves him and is vying for his attention.
I wake very frustrated.
Dream 2: “Youthful Indiscretions”
My husband and I move into a new house right next door to him and his wife. Again, he is very popular, like a mayor in this small town.
The roof of our garage is leaking. It has no shingles, just a plastic covering with gaping holes. I’m showing my husband that the cover is the cause of our leaks when I notice he is on his roof too. I avoid eye contact, hoping he doesn’t see us or recognize me.
He’s received notification of the allegations, but brushed them off as “youthful indiscretions.” It makes me very upset because I want people to understand who he is and what he’s done.
I go to his house and his wife answers the door. I ask if she knows what her husband has done, and she laughs, saying it was a long time ago and then she echoes his words: “youthful indiscretions.”
“No. No, they weren’t,” I say, very upset. I put my arm around my own 15-year-old daughter and say, “Look at her. She’s 15. That’s how old I was. 15.”
Next time I see him he is volunteering in the hospital — part of his mask — taking care of newborns. I observe him, unseen, as he bathes and provides infant massage to a newborn. The baby is in on its back in a shallow basin of water. He’s getting rougher in how he’s handling it; water and bubbles are getting all over the baby’s face, and I’m worried that he might hurt it.
Dream 3: I’ve ______?
I’m living two doors down from him. As I go through my day I see him, and I’m trying to discern what he is up to, what he knows.
My book has been featured in an insert in The Wall Street Journal (Can’t blame a girl for dreamin’). I find out about it because the insert has been left on the hood of my car. But it is torn, like he has removed sections of it, and in Sharpie he has written:
“By moving from simply being direct to now being ______ you’ve ________.”
As I try to figure out the message, I notice my book cover and realize that’s what prompted the note.
Dream 4: Can’t Speak
I am walking into a building; it’s familiar to me, like being in school, but not. There is a little open coupe car on display, the same one I had seen in a Durham park the day before. As I walk by, I become aware of him sitting in it.
I’m eating a peach (or tomato?), something juicy that makes it difficult for me to speak. I walk right up to him, in part to show that he doesn’t scare me. He says, “So it is you,” meaning he knows I reported him. I manage a “Yes.”
I want to know if he has repented for what he did. In my dream (and awake) I pray that he has. As if in reply, he begins quoting scripture, speaking of love, but twisting the words and their meaning to justify his actions.
I want to tell him he’s not right, but I can’t speak. My mouth is swollen from the stress of the situation. I walk over to a mirror and stretch it out with my hands. I manage a few words , but it quickly happens again. I repeat the cycle several times, but I never have enough time to say what I need to say.
In the meantime he just goes on and on with his lies and misinterpretations of the Bible. I love God’s Word and it’s absolutely maddening.
Count the Cost
Why share these strange dream sequences that read like something out of a cheap B-movie?
Because if you’ve not been victimized by someone with power over you, particularly by sexual abuse — where the trade off for moving forward is silence and powerlessness — then it’s worth trying to count the cost required for victims to step forward. Understanding this can help you lower these barriers by extending compassion and love, by hearing and believing them, and by encouraging them to get help.
I consider my own abuse experience to be less traumatic than many of the accounts in the grand jury report; and yet it left its mark. And it surprises me that nearly 40 years later it still evokes such a strong response. I can only imagine what others must face in confronting their demons.
My second message is to the men and women who mustered the courage to testify before the Pennsylvania Grand Jury. While there is vindication, and even some joy in finally breaking the church hierarchy’s circle of secrecy, every victory comes with a cost. It makes me even more grateful for the sacrifice of these individuals. Thank you.
And finally to those sexual abuse victims who have yet to speak out, those living in silence and false shame — my message is to find someone with whom to take that first, brave step by naming what happened to you.
Know that coming forward is not without a price, but it is worth it.
Everyone knows that monsters disappear in the light.
Check out “Shining the Light on Monsters”: Bob Jones wrote a corollary post to help encourage other survivors to speak out. He is an innovator in the treatment of addiction and childhood abuse with four decades of experience helping people recover from childhood abuse and addiction has earned him the respect of his peers.
Read my guest post on Amy Carroll’s blog about the cost of speaking truth, “The Painful Joy of Using Your Voice for Freedom.”