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The Reason I Was Born: A Talk About Impunity for Sexual Assault at UVA and Dartmouth College

The below interview given by the University of Virginia student newspaper the Caviler Daily on January 10, 2015 became the basis for my April 10, 2015 talk at Take Back the Night rally at the University of Virginia, where as a 33 year-old undergrad I endured hostile responses for writing works of fiction about sexual violence after a fellow student told me a professor had attempted to rape her,  and that professor continued, unscathed despite having two attempted rapes of graduate students under his belt by that time.  I was later told by the victim that an investigation had revealed the offender had attacked another graduate student years prior, to disabling results.

To attend this 2015 rally to speak — 19 years after graduating —  I made a Seattle-Charlottesville Spycar road trip of 3700 miles — the third time I’ve driven that car across the continent in order to raise awareness about sexual violence. My goal was to allow students use of the Spycar’s new Literary Cannon.

It was a huge hit.


 

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Tom,

I apologize for the delay. I am traveling from Indonesia back to the US, so feel free to take your time answering these questions!

— Steph Hendarta, UVA Cavilier Daily

 

  1. How did you decide to write your book?

 

This may take a while. I turned fifty-three this past December. You did as me how.

 

I’ll begin with this: for many years I have pondered having been born on the feast of Holy Innocents, a Holy day in the Catholic faith that commemorates the day King Herod ordered execution of all young male children in the vicinity of Bethlehem, to avoid the loss of his throne.

Mark Twain wrote: “The two most important days in your life are the day you were born, and the day you find out why.”

At seventeen I discovered “why,” and have been unable, and unwilling, to shake it. In fact, the reason I was born would present itself again and again as a set of evolving reminders and opportunities that evolved with progress until I would write and publish my book – which it now turns out is first of a series.

Here it is: I wrote Special Operations, as well as the novel preceding it Contrapasso, or, A Season of Consequence, to put at least one balanced story about surviving male childhood sexual abuse on the map — one that would equally entertain, and dramatize the dilemma faced by male survivors of sexual child abuse, who in our culture go horribly under represented, which proliferates a cultural avoidance that can be very dangerous – to survivors and to others.

Many times I would attempt to wall off my own trauma history through risk — using alcohol or overwork or attempts to convince myself through highly sexualized relationships with women I could be made “normal” – which at times paired me with perpetrators of domestic violence. I stand six feet six and run 280 pounds. Yet I have been sent to the emergency room for stitches due to being attacked by one domestic partner.

In the opposite direction I have hurt the ones I love through infidelity. The combination of sexual trauma, addictions, and acting out sexually could easily have been fatal for me in terms of drunk driving and exposure to advanced-stage HIV.

Shocking as these may sound, compulsive behaviors I talk about here are not uncommon among survivors of male childhood sexual abuse – the reason I believe it to be the responsibility of any man who has been abused as a child to seek treatment – and the reason I believe in talking about it – and the reason I discovered recovery to be a delightful process.

 

A pretzel had been made of my identity.

While a teen, after being sexually abused by a man of sixty for several months, I began abandoning my sensitive, vulnerable, artistic nature and my interest in books and musical performance to take up cigarette smoking, daily drinking, skip school forty days per year to work in building demolitions – didn’t bathe for days in a row which kept me covered in dust and grease – which I now recognize might’ve been a way of convincing myself I was, indeed, a man despite a man of sixty having performed fallacio on me at age thirteen — and a way of making myself less attractive to him, a pedophile physician who had told me never, ever, to smoke.

Getting back to this book we’re talking about: the first time I discovered “why” I was born wrote my identity as a writer in wet concrete, which solidified.

While in high school a man named Dr. Richard H. Cardozo who was cardiothoracic surgeon, medical school professor, and teaching clinic administrator at Dartmouth College sexually abused me on a regular and repeated basis after flying me from Worcester, MA to Hanover, N.H. on alternating weekends in his private airplane.

Then came a night I said “no,” and a morning I told him “no more.” Years after, I discovered this perpetrator fit the textbook description of sociopath: charming; manipulative; arrogant in making sure people knew what he was getting away with; and above all, accustomed to getting what he wanted. Once I had found the strength to tell him “no more, ever,” I saw his anger begin burning through that cool Svengali exterior. He then came up with an amateurishly produced book. Everything about it looked hokey. He sat me down to explain I might be making a huge mistake, as evidence offering his book’s many pictures of how “normal” and “OK” his behavior with me had been.

It would be many years before I would discover that what he euphemized “caressing” had been abuse, and that survivors of male childhood sexual abuse statistically suffer physiological disease at higher rates than non-survivors, or that an astounding percentage of us take their own lives.

What he did to me — beginning at age thirteen and a few months after my parents split up and my father had become a deadbeat dad, and my family went from fantastic to food stamps — caused indescribable terror and lifelong impairment. To endure his lewd acts came with a longstanding set of rationalizations, survival responses to keep me from the true terror of the situation: I got to fly in a plane. There was a real Ferrari in his garage — a 1964 GTO 250 LM that had raced at LeMans  — and a mini bike I could ride. And at his house I could drink all the orange juice I wanted.

But that morning I had had it. I remember that I stood up, straightened my back, and told him, “I guess that goes to show you can’t believe everything you read in books. You know one day I’m going to write a book about you.”

I was fortunate to spot the immediate payoff: I saw his self-assured twist of gimmicks shrivel and deflate.

Consistent with the con man — I had never before heard a bitter word from that man. Nor had I ever seen him lose composure. Fumbling for quick recovery, this professor of medicine, heart surgeon, hospital chief, and grandson of Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo snapped sourly, “You’re not smart enough!”

 

It was a very quiet airplane ride home that afternoon.

 

I provide this account not because I insisted upon a written agreement allowing it, and that Cardozo provide me a signed letter of apology as conditions of settlement in my lawsuit against him. I name him for my brother, Patrolman Stephen A. Lukas, who might be alive today if not for Cardozo’s having sexually abused him.

 

I wish I could take full credit for the way I had handled saying “no.”

Throughout a high school career of self-medicating with drugs and alcohol, I also kept rediscovering my aptitude for writing, a joy in taking risks with word choice and sentence construction that I can only describe as powerful.

Several weeks prior to my saying “no,” and while struggling as a high school student wracked with secret shame, an English teacher had told me about the Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Jungle, written by Upton Sinclair about inhuman practices in Chicago’s meat packing industry.

Especially attractive was that teacher’s remarks that The Jungle was a novel steeped in cold fact, and the danger its author had survived in going undercover in order write a book that would save human lives.

The general metaphor of this was so robust I decided, secretly, I might write a book like Sinclair’s The Jungle. Due to secrets I kept from myself, I knew nothing of the story it might tell. It would expose an issue few talked or knew about yet cost human lives.

To figure out what form that book might take took soul searching – and for me to find what I strenuously hid from myself in plain sight.

Because the book topic that had already chosen me.

During the years after high school I took classes at community colleges, wrote a weekly column for a Cape Cod daily newspaper, and subscribed to highbrow literary magazines. I sat at my desk night after night trying to write stories like the ones these journals published: about summers in the Hamptons, winters in Vale, or growing up in Alaska as the only mime in a large family of survivalists.

The wall over my typewriter became a tatter of well-earned rejection slips. I was getting somewhere; some of them were from The New Yorker.

Then came the second time I decided to write this book – from a set of events that I put on par with the Mystical.

It was 1991 and I was living and working as a licensed construction manager renovating four marinas in Deltaville, Virginia. A year prior I had learned from one therapist that what took place at the hand of that surgeon had been abuse – this after ten years of trying to figure out what was haunting me; the discussion of males who had endured sexual child abuse was almost nonexistent, even within the therapy community. In the popular culture the representation of this epidemic, which impacts one in six men, seemed almost zero.

 

I’d long considered myself able. However the book that would change everything took me some time to muster strength to pick up; Victims No Longer: Men Recovering From Incest and Other Sexual Child Abuse, by Mike Lew, M.Ed.

Using this book I unlocked myself from years of fear and self-loathing, I understood more clearly why I had been born: I would write a book that would do the same for someone else.

That week I signed up for a fiction writing class that met every Saturday an hour’s drive away at the College of William & Mary, taught by a wonderful man named Eric Arthur, who had made his living as writer and actor for the nineteen-thirties radio show The Shadow. Our class even cajoled him to read out, in chilling voice, that program’s tag line: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? . . . The Shadow knows.”

I concurrently took a class on writing the personal essay with writer Phyllis Theroux through a scholarship she granted me after hearing about my project. We met every Wednesday night at her home in Ashland, Virginia, an hour and a half’s drive.

In both of those classes I wrote about my abuse. Still, I mostly felt like a hobo, in the moral and Spiritual sense. But it was beginning to feel, for the first time, as if I’d hopped the right train. One that would add many wonderful cars to itself as the years rolled by.

One sunny Saturday afternoon that I would devote to my writing, I had received my fresh new copy of The New Yorker, to come face-to-face with a full-page photograph of Father Ron Provost, the Catholic priest who had been very close friends with the scoutmaster who had put me together with the heart surgeon. The New Yorker article about Father Provost was titled Unholy Acts, about Provost’s having been convicted for molesting and photographing young alter boys in their underwear at his parish in Gardner, MA.

Father Provost had as well been chaplain at Camp Collier in Gardner, Massachusetts, where our scout troop went to camp for one week each summer to learn to swim and paddle canoes and scratch mosquito bites. He often used the school bus furnished by his parish to lug our troop to camping trips, then disappear with our scoutmaster and a few of the boys. One time I’d been invited to joint them, but instead climbed Mount Monadnock with the rest of the kids. At the end of each of his bus rides, Father Provost would stand beside the door of his bus with a rumpled paper lunch bag filled with wooden nickels, which he handed out to each scout stepping off his bus. On the front of each pine coin in black ink: “Father Ron’s bus trips,” and on the back, but in red lettering: “Don’t take any wooden nickels.”

I immediately called the author of that article, Paul Wilkes, to say thank you. Prior to my call he’d no idea of the priest’s interest in scouting. My next phone call was to a police detective in Hanover, New Hampshire who told me he had watched that heart surgeon driving around town for years, each month a different boy in his car, praying for the day one of those victims would come forward.

I thought: why didn’t that detective simply intervene?

The answer: that just wasn’t done back then.

As I hung up the phone I decided, for the third time, I would write this book.

A couple of weeks later my teacher in an Introduction to Psychology course I was taking at a local community college as a condition of acceptance at UVA mentioned that a clinical psychologist from Boston University named David Lisak, PhD would be giving a talk at Mary Washington College on the subject of male sexual child abuse. I made the four-hour drive to attend and didn’t get home to Deltaville until two o’clock in the morning. What I learned at that talk was so affirming: that men who engage in creative endeavors show much higher recovery rates. Dr. David Lisak now works as a consulting Forensic Psychologist, and is a founding member of the male survivor advocacy group 1IN6.ORG.

I was about to turn thirty-two the night I saw him speak. That was the fourth time I found out why I was born.

Statutes of limitations precluded locking up the people who had abused me. Yet due to the evidence and number of witnesses my legal case against the predator-surgeon, the scoutmaster, their accomplices and youth group and church where they held meetings could have been enormous.

However I’d been accepted to UVA, where I could learn the art of fiction I settled for much less, which netted me more than tuition. However prior to settling I insisted that this predator write and sign a letter of apology, and that all parties provide a written agreement permitting me to write and publish an account of the facts.

 

 

There it was: I would go back to school to become a fiction writer. I left my career as a licensed homebuilder and enrolled at UVA to study English Literature.

This was a fresh start, I thought well worth having forgone litigation for childhood sexual abuse that might have netted me a jury award in the millions. Then, in my second semester a dear friend and PhD candidate in English Literature became victim of a sexual attack, the perpetrator a professor in the Department of English.

Amidst coercive hush related to what proved a protracted legal confrontation by the victim, and the university’s resistance I learned that graduate students tapped out dispatches in their email groups to report daily sightings around grounds of “The Monster.”

Some investigative reporting making use of the Freedom of Information Act and university archives might expose the details on UVA Professor of English Hoyt Duggan, the reported sexual attack on a female graduate student, and how many thousands of dollars the university paid out.

 

There was no disciplinary action — even though it was discovered the offending professor had sexually attacked another student several years prior, which had rendered her unable to function as a graduate student as well as in any vocation.

For me to be at a school where a demonstrated sexual predator roamed the corridors brought me back to my own abuse at Dartmouth College, but from a different perspective. As well, I fell victim to self-recriminations in having passed up other opportunities in order to learn to write useful fiction – maybe write the book about sexual abuse – at a university that for all its glory didn’t seem know the first thing about how such crimes should be handled.

I knew that all the research and reading I had done independently put me ahead of the status quo. And to witness my friend’s victimization, her husband’s suffering, and the university’s protracted cover up unleashed an emotional tsunami for me: filled with outrage yet powerless to change the equation, advised upon several occasions that if I spoke out I would likely be preempted from finishing my degree. Over time my outrage turned inward. I wracked my brain for a solution and wound up exhausted. Disillusionment became clinical depression. And for the first time in my life, after having survived so much related to my own victimization through sexual violence and the stresses of having prevailed in legal confrontation of the perpetrator and the institutions that defended him, having never been disabled by these challenges – the experience of sexual violence at UVA caused my all-out collapse.

I had to take time off.

In order to function as student, which meant managing powerful emotions while that offending professor still roamed grounds, I was prescribed strong medications, which rendered me unable to enter the fictional dream. For the next twelve years while on that medication, I would be unable to write anything but technical manuals in my work in electronic publishing.

However before I graduated UVA with High Distinction and Phi Beta Kappa in 1997 I had decided, for sure, that I would write this book – equally certain of why I was born.

In 2006, after a change in my medical regimen, it spilled out in the form of my first novel, Contrapasso, or a Season of Consequence.

 

As for the plot of the Special Operations, and The Illuminator, alternately the hero and villain, would not come to me until those harrowing weeks that followed 9/11. I lived in New York City at the time, working in dot.com electronic publishing.

I conceived Special Operations as an experiment in Christianity, to reconcile this idea of the all-forgiving god with those of Thomas Aquinas and Dante Alighieri’s law of contrapasso – that is, to tailor the punishment to fit the crime in ways that are very particular, both in form of the crime, and its scale of moral severity – in short, the ground-rules of western-hemisphere justice.

On the streets of Manhattan, I was hearing various versions of “extreme circumstances warrant extreme measures.” My thriller’s epigraph, “I will rid the Lord’s city of those who do evil (Psalm 101:8),” echoes sentiments of those days.

Every day for eighteen months, I witnessed the dress blues police funerals, or groups of police officers or firefighters who were on their way to or from these funerals.

Revenge was on so many lips — in the context of Holy wars.

In all this I held a personal stake, in having lost both a brother and brother-in-law – both of them policemen killed in the line of duty.

A plot emerged: a “villain” descends upon a small town to avenge, according to Dante’s law of contrapasso, a set of crimes American society would agree to be most condemnable – namely sexual violence on campus. Or would a “villain” avenging such crimes be a “hero?”

I drew on my own experience as a survivor of sexual violence at the hand of a surgeon and medical professor at Dartmouth College, and later a professor’s sexual attack upon a dear friend of mine while I was a student at the University of Virginia.

In creating The Illuminator a tad over-the-top, I invite readers to consider scale in in social justice: what Hawkeye observes about his vengeance-bent rival in the movie Last of the Mohicans: “Magua’s heart is twisted; he would make himself into what twisted him.”

To place this in a context that resonates with concerns in the days that followed 9/11, when I conceived this novel, consider this passage in Thomas Harris’ blockbuster Silence of the Lambs. Dr. Frederick Chilton observes of his patient Hanibal Lecter: “Oh, he’s a monster. Pure psychopath. So rare to capture one alive. From a research point of view, Lecter is our most prized asset.”

By dehumanizing the man Dr. Chilton defines himself as Dr. Lechter’s pathological equal, yet the cannibal’s moral inferior.

Anyone who deals with the aftermath of sexual violence must daily consider these distinctions.

 

 

 

  1. How did you arrive to decision that what you’re trying to convey is best expressed in fiction instead of any other medium?

 

This is a very useful question. Useful because I think its one that other survivors who write might consider.

First, I think fiction – the overarching metaphor of a novel — presents the crucial truths more universally than works of non-fiction, reaching into our collective humanity as opposed to presenting facts of history. At the same time our culture is starved for memoir on this topic. Resistant as society might seem, there’s a covered up hunger to know more than we’d like to admit.

Before I wrote Special Operations I was inspired to get started by two wonderful memoirs, both by male survivors: The Tricky Part by Martin Moran, and Half the House by Richard Hoffman.

My personal objective in writing Special Operations was to create a set of events we strive for as survivors. I’d subscribed to the practitioner’s quarterly, The Journal of Child Sexual Abuse and had just read the 1994 article Making Meaning Not Monsters: Reflections on the Delayed Memory Controversy by Karen A. Olio and William F. Cornell – which talks about psychological processes through which survivors of sexual child abuse make meaning of biographical event and recognize salient fact. It’s process that once took me from: I did such and such with this person and I think I’m despicable because of it … to: the perpetrator abused me after several months’ premeditated grooming… he was a sixty year old adult, a world traveler with a medical degree . . . I was a thirteen year old child who was vulnerable because in addition to my relative age and lack of education my parents had separated months and we were struggling economically….these factors made me the antelope separated from the herd. The perpetrator acted the skulking jackal; acts of a coward, appetites of a monster. . .

 

It’s a paradigm shift that bursts open a new set of options. So I thought: no way I can help a reader accomplish that by writing a memoir.

From my undergrad studies at UVA I’d already become fascinated with the idea of “monsters” in mythology and the cultural “work” that is “done” by such notions — Gothic literature such as Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein or Robert Louis Stevenson’s Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde, or Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Additionally my legal confrontation of perpetrator Cardozo had presented the challenge of writing out the history of his assaults in detail. That document took months to prepare, and included not only the events of abuse, but corresponding events and introductions along with dates, times, and all the witnesses.

During this same period I was learning trying to teach myself fiction writing. Each time I faced a blank sheet of paper in my typewriter it became a canvas upon which a spaghetti of unwanted memory got splatted before I could write the first word. Nevertheless I wrote several short stories – all of which in some form or other dealt with the topic, yet in completely made up story lines, not my own experience. And I considered these to be major victories over the distress – maybe even the terms of a truce in what would be a war to reclaim my mind from the perpetrator. In a pinch I could fall back on writers whose novels called upon biographic fact so important it bore the test of time. In addition to Upton Sinclair stood “great greats” such as Thomas Wolfe, Norman Maclean, Ray Bradbury, Ralph Ellison.

A lot of wonderful memoirs have already been written.

Then came the biographies that read like novels such as Sleepers.

Male survivors in the majority have to take their experience underground. For better or worse, popular culture impacts the stories we are allowed to tell us about ourselves and our response to different challenges – in that way shape the identity, stigmatize or de-stigmatize. So I was interested in this idea of portraying heroes who were also male survivors of sexual abuse – sort of playing against the stereotype that is so inaccurate since a the male survivors I know who have faced their history are a group not to be trifled with – both in terms of grey matter and in terms of their sheer all-out valor.

So at the opening of Special Operations we get a policeman killed in the line of duty, a proof-positive hero demonstrated in the tactical sense, as well as in his popularity within the small town of Goddard, MA.

 

  1. Is there a particular message you would like to convey/a purpose?

 

Yes – and it makes me strive toward becoming a better writer. And its the reason I created Spycar books, published Special Operations, took an 8700 mile book tour via Spycar, and designed my sequel Blood Rain to be a real smoker.

My purpose is this: our culture’s tendency to avoid stories of this type. That factor causes suffering for men, their families, and members of the community. And it costs lives.

Here’s an example. When the movie Sleepers came out, I think that was 1996, that film opened in Canada — because no United States distributers would go near it. Think about that, a movie with leads by Robert DeNiro; Brad Pitt; Dustin Hoffman; Minnie Driver; Kevin Bacon!

I was finishing up UVA when it hit American theaters– so it was another amazing shouting out from The Universe that I was on the right path. But it also made me I realize I would have to make the writing irresistible in my novels if I was going to attract an audience.

I learned the same lesson in years of shopping my novels around agents who, it seemed, wanted to both take on the book and to play it safe in a situation in which there was a lot of outside interference, and it was driving me crazy. So I decided to create Spycar Books.

 

Over all, I think any responsibly written story involving male survivors of childhood sexual abuse provides another facet of a narrative impacting billions.

Images we get from novels, film and television perform almost magically.

Dennis LaHane’s Mystic River did an extraordinary job of portraying the subjectivities we face, and how inexperienced we are as a culture in interpreting the signs. His novel Gone Baby Gone and the feature film made from it provides a brilliant glimpse at perpetrators’ collective baseness – so shockingly blatant it brings great release: Bam! People who do that are monsters! It wasn’t my fault!

 

  1. It is mentioned in my editor’s email that you hope your book to “act as a tool to help sexual assault survivors.” How do you do that?

 

New times: new tools. UVA rebuilt the Rotunda to exacting standards. Years later a hunk of a column capital hits the ground. The UVA community responds, using state of the art tools, materials, and techniques — maybe some reform to ways we have cared for that building in the past. We thank the initial builders, and we cheer the restorers.

My psychological thriller Special Operations and its sequels will be first in a suite of tools, which also include my wife Yannette earning her Masters in Social Work and certificate in Global Heath in order to work with victims of civil war-related gender based violence in her homeland Colombia, our creation of Spycar Books which we hope will open doors for other writers, our 8700 mile Spycar tour last summer, the Spycar of course, and the Literary Cannon we’re building to allow readers to literally “throw the book at sexual violence.”

Special Operations was the first act. I wanted to write a book so raw and honest it would shift some readers out of “neutral” — shatter patterns of quiescence, in the same way Middle Passage, by Charles R. Johnson helped our culture understand the inhumanity of the slave trade.

I’m hoping it could be used in university courses, and for a couple of reasons: to facilitate discussion of current events at UVA, and to democratize that discussion by including both faculty and students in the search to find meaning.

I think in all my supposedly sophisticated reading and research and hours of high-dollar therapy and analysis, the most valuable moment of my recovery came when somebody told me this about the person who sexually abused me: “Sounds to me like that guy’s lower than whale shit at the bottom of the ocean.” Then he paused, and added, “No. Lower.”

The very last thing a sociopathic repeat offender wants is recognition of his true face, yet through sexual violence such a monster can imprint, or superimpose that corrosive mask upon their victim’s self image. So my novel provides a front row seat as my villain, The Illuminator, artfully exposes the “true face” of some sexual predators throughout Special Operations.

Over-the-top as this avenger and her acts might seem, I offer these metaphors as a guilty pleasure that might as well break up something deep, corrosive, and unwanted.

Leaders in the field of treating sexual child abuse suggest I’ve done OK in this regard.

Bestselling author Laura Davis, who co-authored The Courage to Heal, and authored The Courage To Heal Workbook proved a talented editor who worked with me to shape Special Operations. She writes: “You’ve created a villain as compelling as Hannibal Lecter, the greatest modern villain I love to hate.”

To receive Mike Lew’s endorsement was another major milestone. He writes: “Tom Lukas is an extraordinary writer. Special Operations is well-researched, erudite, and, yes, thrilling. What an imagination! This book is also physically beautiful – artistic.”

Dr. Howard Fradkin, who is a founder of MALESURVIVOR.ORG, and co-founder of that advocacy group’s Weekends of Recovery, calls my book “Important:”

“Tom Lukas gets my 5-star rating for this top-rate thriller. As an expert in the field of male sexual victimization, I found the story to be very compelling and actually quite educational for anyone who wants to learn more about the impact of sexual abuse –not only on the victims themselves, but upon their family members, colleagues and loved ones. But this is of course not meant to be an educational novel, it is a spine tingling thriller. I like the other reviewers could not put the book down. There were lots of times I found myself both fascinated by the characters, identifying with their passions and drive, and at the other end of the continuum, horrified at the gruesome nature of the revenge being extracted. It is unusual for a thriller like this to actually create ethical dilemmas in your head…Tom has done a masterful job of researching very complex rituals, as well as understanding what goes on inside a detective’s head that keeps him plugging along year after year, well into retirement. I am a fan of this genre, and I believe Tom’s work is every bit as good as the best!”

 

 

 

  1. Are there particular instances in the book that you can refer to without revealing too much of your story?

 

I can talk about it in a general way without a spoiler. Special Operations starts out as a cop-killer justice thriller. So there’s that Dirty Harry feel with the bad guy getting his due. I did my best to pitch this in a sort of “B movie” play-acting quality — to grant the reader release on a very serious topic. So there’s some release. Later the morality of recompense becomes more complex. The reader will find herself on a seesaw. At one point sympathizing with my villain, the Illuminator as hero – then later regretting it – only to reconsider once the plot twists yet again.

 

 

  1. How did you come up with the idea of your plot and premise, as well as other details in your story (location, characters)?

 

Probably the most important course I took at UVA was Professor Deborah Parker’s Dante in Translation, in which we read Inferno. One day in her lecture Ms. Parker remarked how chillingly the movie Seven, starring Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt, had dramatized Dante’s concept of contrapasso, the moral and aesthetic rule by which he depicts punishments in Hell to reflect, very precisely, the sinner’s crimes in life – or their mirror image.

On the last day of class, Professor Parker told me she had been selected as a fellow of the UVA Institute for Advanced Technologies in the Humanities in order to create The World of Dante literary archive, and invited me to serve as project manager. At age thirty-five I was an overgrown undergrad, and for the next several months I supervised a team of graduate students preparing content. The archive was rudimentary during my involvement. Now it’s magnificent. I felt such pride and gratitude for Professor Parker’s having involved me when I discovered The World of Dante archive won an award form the National Endowment for the Humanities.

My Dante studies, particularly discussions of contrapasso provided me the container I could use in writing my novel.

One more wake up call to tell me why I was born.

 

After graduating from UVA I began research that would become the core of Special Operations, particularly about sociopaths and the process of persuasion. A book called The Mask of Sanity by American psychiatrist Hervey M. Cleckley, which has been around a while ,made the case that sociopaths often find a home at the top levels of business, and higher education. Now we see this in the form of article like the one I saw recently on the CNN web site: “Is you boss a sociopath?” The answers I suppose I was looking in these books might have been a lingering: “Could somebody that wealthy, that well-bred, that well-educated, and leading a medical school clinic be as sick as all the other books say he would have had to be?” Which was an intellectualization of the question: “Was it really not the fault of that little boy who was me?”

Another book called Trapped in the Mirror by Elan Golomb PhD brought me answers to questions about how such a monster not only can present a “face” the community will gobble up, some of them get off on it. It also got me thinking about Dante’s use of mirror image in crafting punishment to fit the crime.

 

4. Any particular reason why you chose a small town setting over an urban one?

 

“The world globes itself in a drop of dew,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. I suppose I attribute inordinate truth to his writings and saying because I grew up in Massachusetts. It was also my home state the writer Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter founded a tradition of placing the New England small town, with all its secrets and moral contradictions, as stand-in for the democratic experiment of America.

As good a reason as any to set my novel in Goddard, Massachusetts – based on the small town of Auburn, Massachusetts where I was raised – until at age eighteen I made my none-too-soon escape. In 1926, the physicist Robert Goddard, father of space travel, flew the world’s first liquid-fueled rocket on his Aunt Effie’s farm in Auburn, MA. This brought him ridicule because his rocket started a really big grass fire when it came back down – yet also sparked Goddard’s immortality, and the subsequent creation of NASA to put a man on the moon. Pretty much a snapshot of Auburn, Ma, which since then has been turned into the world’s largest strip mall. I don’t think anyone even lives there any more – they just come in for donuts and hair & nails.

I wish, here in the greatest nation in the world, our leaders had done diligence equaling space exploration on a form of trauma impacting the lives of one in six men – and taking the lives of a high percentage. My brother Stephen was a policeman killed in the line of duty in that town. He had been sexually abused by the same men as I had. Steve had always been a gentle guy, yet a fierce competitor as a semi-pro player on the soccer field. During the four months preceding his death I witnessed his escalating drug use, hyper masculinity, and the confusion he expressed with all this. The night of his death he had suffered a powerful episode of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after helping the female victim of a brutal rape. Speeding to apprehend the driver of a vehicle matching that of the assailant, he it a patch of ice, spun into a telephone pole, and was instantly killed. The relationship of these facts is circumstantial. Perhaps it’s the monumental things that are not clear that provoke the most thought.

In shying from the topic our culture had not yet delivered much in the way of helping men to recover from their trauma. Instead, we were taught to be invulnerable. We should become the saviors of others – part good deed – part alibi to ignore our own recovery, and relying upon defining someone else as victim in order to pull it off. Studies since my brother’s death expose the dangers, potentially fatal for men who leave childhood sexual abuse untreated, as well as for those around them.

On the other hand, the field now knows what works. So the recovery work can be amazing.

My choice to set my novel in the small town of Goddard, MA — based on Auburn, MA delves into avoidance of truths, and some of the same contradictions Hawthorne wrote about. But some of those things are changing as well. Ultimately my choice of settings suggests the question: why treat the topic of male sexual child abuse like its rocket science – when for men who seek treatment, the sky’s the limit?

 

5. What do you want people to take away from your novel?

 

Generally: the need to unite against sexual violence of any kind, anywhere.

As the title implies, Special Operations is about excising, with precision, whatever’s causing the ailment.

The specifics of how that gets done depend on a given reader’s background.

 

Some readers might be survivors of sexual violence; others might have family members or partners or friends who are survivors. I will have done my job as an author if The Illuminator’s gristly, Dirty Harry style vengeance brings even one of these readers a few moments of release.

Other readers might be “bystanders,” people who could have intervened but chose not to for reasons of self-preservation or self-interest, and who might define sexual violence on the college campus as a social “condition” rather than a problem to be rooted out. So they sustain the status quo, the perpetrators’ silent accomplice, as their victims call for help to self-deafened ears. In Inferno, the poet Dante Alighieri figured members of this group as The Neutral as they march naked behind a high-flown banner with nothing written on it. I devoted choice sections of Special Operations to this group of readers. I’d rather not give it away, but I will say it involves The Illuminator’s deployment of a Caravaggio painting entitled The Denial of St. Peter.

Perpetrators and would-be perpetrators make up the last group of readers I was thinking about while writing Special Operations. In the way of media history, I need to mention Lorraine Bobbitt, a married woman had been brutally raped by her husband John, who was acquitted at trial after Lorraine brought him up on charges for Spousal Rape. Loretta then sliced off his penis.

A media storm swirled about these events during the same months my graduate student friend lived through emotional and legal turmoil due to being sexually victimized by that UVA professor – and the emotional damage that came of my exposure to that.

Surgeons sewed John Bobbitt’s penis back on. Loretta Bobbitt was found not guilty for reasons of insanity due to irresistible impulse. Later John starred in a porno film.

Dante’s law of contrapasso comes to mind as I ponder this legal distinction of “irresistible impulse” turned back against the perpetrator. I’m not about to give this one away: let’s just say this gave me an idea that came out in Special Operations. This is imagery designed to shatter any barrier that walls off empathy for the potential victim in the mind of the would-be perpetrator.

For any other readers who seek a safer place in this world – I hope that they will recognize my villain Cassandra Shockly, a.k.a. The Illuminator as a virtuosa badass — so when you look in the mirror and think about rooting out sexual violence, you see a piece of her in there.

6.  How do you think can the UVa community benefit from your novel, particularly in light of the issues of sexual assault that the University community is dealing with?

 

The possibilities are endless for this book.

Of course there’s the value of the book itself as entertainment.

Beyond that, perhaps it could serve as a cultural text or artifact – imperfect as the book might be.

I’ve pondered survivors’ railings about Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River, because it represents the abuse survivor character Dave Boyle as morose, menacing, a monster. My reply as graduate of UVA’s American Studies program is that this makes that book even more valuable; as a huge best seller and director Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning film, Mystic River gives us a snapshot in time — a sense of the stories people were comfortable telling themselves at that time about male survivors.

The cultural tangle surrounding the topic of sexual violence is complex. Yet by the trained eye, these strands can be sorted. Connections can be made, maybe to create new and useful knowledge we’d not considered. There’s the voicing of personal experience. There are the barriers to disclosure: emotional, social, cultural, legal that make stories like the one about Jackie in Rolling Stone uniquely representative because all these aspects govern prudency in disclosure by victims – – which isn’t complete until it’s complete, a prerogative of schedule rightly belonging to the victim or survivor. The survivor is owed an explanation – not the inverse!

Despite the forces I’ve described remains a rich body of texts – arriving in a pattern of spits and spats: the diaries of Samuel Johnson to Edgar Allen Poe to James Joyce to Kurt Vonnegut to Pat Conroy to Lorenzo Carcaterra, Annie Proulx, Khaled Hosseni, and so on – on top of this a survey of self-advocacy groups, cultural myths, key historical events, landmark legal decisions — enough for a two-semester course and more.

 

To return to Mystic River: no single book or film is going to hit the issue squarely and from all possible angles – which is what makes the rigors of literary and cultural studies so demanding, and so rewarding – particularly when pointed at the exclusion of writings about surviving male sexual child abuse. Because rather than the question being, “What is this or that author saying?” we have, “What have these authors been trying to say? What cultural barriers prevented it? Which ones still operate? How did this impact authors qualified by trauma experience? Their communities?”

The novel Mystic River hit the bestseller list in 2001. Yet it dramatizes crimes perpetrated twenty-five years prior. Might its male survivor character Dave Boyle of Mystic River, in all his stuck-ness serve as emblem of how few recovery options had been available to men of his time, his social class, his neighborhood — as a shout-out we as a culture out to do better?

UVA might answer such a call though scholarly inquiry on grounds, which I’ve been told is a microcosm of the world—Emerson’s “The world globes itself in a drop of dew.”

Beyond the relative safety of grounds, sexual violence is on the increase, often as acts of war and on mass scale impacting entire villages – by some real bad guys like ISIS in Syria, Boko Harum in Nigeria, and the FARC in Colombia. As a proven act of war, and since the winds of terrorism I point out blow from east to west, gender-based violence deserves our attention.

UVA is uniquely positioned to build unprecedented solidarity toward positive outcomes, both locally and Internationally, by partnering with a diverse set of actors from the Department of Defense to the Department of Education to Non Government Organizations (NGOs) located around the globe.

I believe every scholarly discipline and school of the university has something to offer. This would broaden the context, to restore discussion of any and all sexual violence to a level that is professional and rigorous.

This is not rocket science: sexual violence really pisses people off. Use that! For once borrow a page from the survivors’ book. Found an institute to study it, eradicate it, and treat it – for both men and women who have been traumatized. Think what such a step might do to tolerance levels on grounds – that key ingredient we seek to “change the culture of sexual violence.”

 

As writer, publisher, and writing teacher I believe few topics are off limits, especially if they help people understand and prevent suffering. So I would applaud more books by male and female survivor — not less — and hope the university would extend appropriate support. Special Operations offers some clues, which as I mentioned brought the endorsements from top members of the Pantheon in this field: Mike Lew, Dr. Howard Fradkin, and Laura Davis.

Most important this book is also a testament to survival, and the determination and keen sensitivity survivors can uniquely bring to this problem. Survivors are the good detectives. I’m convinced no progress can be made against the problem of sexual violence if they are not involved in a way that is structural, fully embedded with university policy, permanent, and with a level of empowerment equal to the status quo. There are things non-survivors just don’t see because for them the issues are too complex, and there’s that proven social phenomenon to avoid. It can be like trying to explain flight to a fish.

I regard my education from UVA as crucial to my having written this novel, as well as those that will come after it.

At the same time, to encounter sexual violence on grounds the way I did limited my educational options, my career options, led to related violations of my Civil Rights, and permanently impaired my health.  What I was exposed to at UVA has unfairly limited and strained relations with my prior mentors and faculty there. When I have applied to graduate school there and at other institutions, required dialog with my Alma Mater has been tainted.

This all within the context of choices and sacrifices I had made in order to study there – and the horrendous way UVA handled – or avoided handling — an offending professor who perpetrated sexual violence upon graduate students. The fact that he had not been removed after his first offence against a graduate student some years before I studied at UVA remains incomprehensible to me.

The thinking behind this seemed archaic to me. I recognized this plainly in my second semester: master carpenter with a high school education who was current on research and writings the academy had perhaps not yet heard of, or had ignored. Even if I was to suffer significant misplaced retaliation, the combination allowed me to at least write stories on the subject and submit them to on-campus writing contests, a small voice in a culture of silence.

Before I’m accused of judgment I’ll invoke E.M. Forester: “Life is easy to chronicle, but bewildering to practice.”

But then consider if an eighteen or nineteen year old UVA undergraduate had gotten stuck in this same situation – how damaging the experience might be!

Remember: this mess was caused by the offending professor. He hurt his victim. He hurt me. He damaged his colleagues, and the university that had provided a home for him and his studies. That he brought about insanity at all levels is an object lesson on what that kind of trauma does to survivors and their families – and how long it takes to untangle – as if all of it could. Rather, offenders change things. Perhaps the permanency of which is the hardest to acknowledge, and to the misplaced blame upon the victims who work making the necessary repairs.

There’s an opportunity in there to use this experience. Our community paid dearly for it.

It was near impossible for me – at age thirty-three, a decade spent walking around construction job sites and running my own business under my belt. To be burdened with a blatant case of professor-on-student sexual violence on grounds that seemed stuck in the mud with no signs of being resolved by the university –was emotional claustrophobia – in which the room got smaller and smaller – and it almost cost me my life. I was a seasoned adult whose age and life experience exceeded several of my professors. Yet I was prevented from discussing the manifestation of a cultural, social, and medical problem to which I had chosen to devote the rest of my life – and it was blossoming like a cloud of DDT in the very department of my major course of study. For any mention I was blamed and ridiculed, even threatened. Many have acted alternately in the roles of persecutor and rescuer — which caused extraordinary stress and lasting medical impairment – the result my having been prevented for several years from writing the fiction I’d come to UVA to write.

Fortunately I marshaled a support network that helped me graduate. After graduation when I left the pressure cooker of UVA, and the support network I had assembled, I was left with something overwhelming and unreconciled.

 

To your question—How could the UVA community benefit from my novel and the work I want to do with it?

That’s up to the readers.

What I’m offering is to enter the discussion.

I’ve created the Spycar to show its possible to be a survivor and retain a sense of humor. We thumb our nose at the monster. We send up the survival mechanism of denial that causes human beings to pretend that tyrannical tyrannosaurus isn’t there: on a given day I can at drive into a gas station and ten people break into a smile when they lay eyes on the Spycar, maybe come over and check it out or buy a book. Another day the same number of people don’t get it. They pretend it isn’t there, or they’re too busy. Maybe they think it’s frivolous. And I have to laugh – a Spycar emblazoned with yellow Crime Scene makings — that can be its own best camouflage.

My latest addition to the Spycar is a “Literary Cannon,” a pneumatic piston-powered device powered with 3300 p.s.i that will allow readers to, very literally, “throw the book at ‘em,” and I expect quite far!

Some time I would like to stage a ritual “Throw the book at sexual violence” event at UVA, and am willing to make the drive from Seattle to Charlottesville to do so.

 

 

Why, then, after the damage I suffered there, will I take any measure – every measure to help UVA with the sexual assault issues they are dealing with?

There are many reasons. Too many for right now.

Mostly, as a survivor of sexual abuse – even though what was perpetrated on me and those other boys I saw at the doctor’s house was not my fault – I still had to find a way to forgive myself — for something I know intellectually I could not have humanly prevented since I was thirteen and uneducated and that perpetrator was sixty and held an M.D. from and Ivy League university – on top of his otherwise raunchiness.

 

I think about the others – men and women who have endured sexual violence – students who will endure sexual violence — at UVA or someplace else. Times have changed. Resources are far more available these days. And I would like to be among them – the resources – and the students who deserve them – if for no other reason than to say you can make it.

I also think about my wife Yannette’s project in earning her MSW degree, from which she graduates in June – in order to create programs in her native Colombia to benefit victims of gender-based violence who have been displaced by that nation’s Civil War of more than fifty years – in which sexual violence is a routine act of war, very often on a mass scale, as in entire villages.

And for anyone perpetrating sexual violence at my old village of UVA, I reserve these things: a Spycar, a book with his name it, and a Literary Cannon to throw it with.

Its the reason I was born.

 

  1. Anything else you would like to add?

I offer my observations here about events at UVA as constructive and restorative. As indicated by my responses to your questions, impunity for perpetrators of sexual violence is a huge problem on so many college campuses, and at UVA in particular.

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