I am very excited that an essay it took me nearly thirty years to write, “The First Time I Told Someone,” was published earlier this month by Solstice. The essay connects the first time I tried to tell someone I’d been sexually violated as a boy to the moment when I finally did tell someone, bringing in along the way the feminist origins of my healing, the poetry of e. e. cummings, my experience with hardcore heterosexual pornography, and more. I’ve been thinking a lot about why it took me so long to write this essay, and it was not the subject matter, difficult though that still sometimes is for me to grapple with. I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on this matter here.
I first started work on what eventually became “The First Time I Told Someone” in the 1990s, though I do not remember the title it had back then. I was encouraged by two men who have long since disappeared from my life: Rory MacDonald, who was my therapist at the time, and Peter Nevraumont, an editor with whom Rory put me in touch. Peter in particular was very excited by the idea that I would write a collection of personal essays about manhood and masculinity rooted in the feminist perspective I brought to my experience. I even found an agent who was very enthusiastic about the project. Unfortunately, while almost all the editors to whom she sent my proposal found the writing and the subject matter compelling, none were willing to take it on because—and this was the refrain we heard over and over again—“men’s books just don’t sell.”
When the agent eventually dropped me—she had to make a living, after all—I set the book project aside and turned my full attention as a writer to being a poet, channeling my energies into the poems that eventually became The Silence Of Men and, ten or so years later, Words For What Those Men Have Done. I also started blogging during that time and, at least among those who read and commented on the well-established blog where I cross-posted my work, earned a small, if sometimes controversial name for myself as a male feminist blogger. I sometimes repurposed material from the book manuscript for my blog posts and would occasionally pull the old essays out to see if that project would rekindle itself in my imagination, but it never did.
The 1990s were the era of Robert Bly’s Iron John and what was called at the time the mythopoetic men’s movement. A lot of what I wrote had been framed as a critical response to that movement’s agenda, which had gone stale by the 2000s, at least in terms of the mainstream attention it had been getting, and so men’s mythopoesis no longer had the relevance that initially gave my essays some of their bite. More importantly, though, I had changed. I was in my 30s when I wrote those essays, and by 2006, when The Silence Of Men was published, my perspective had changed significantly, as it has changed several times in the nearly two decades since. The person I am now simply cannot stand behind much of what I wrote back then.
I decided to return to the pages that became “The First Time I Told Someone”—almost the entire first section of which dates, with very few changes, from the original 1990s draft—because I read, though I cannot now remember where, that most men of mine and previous generations who were sexually violated as children (I’m 60) usually wait three or four, and sometimes more decades before disclosing that fact even to their closest loved ones. The first time I told someone was just four years or so after the second sexual assault I experienced and less than ten years after the first. I attribute this difference from the generalization I read about to the anger the women’s movement gifted me when I started in the 1980s and 1990s to read writers like Adrienne Rich and June Jordan. No matter how much shame I might have felt over what the men who violated me did to me, the fierce and uncompromising feminist position that a perpetrator of sexual violence is the only person responsible and accountable for that act gave me a kind of strength I could not have found anywhere else at a time when no one, and I mean no one, was talking publicly about the sexual abuse of boys.
The formal problem I had to solve before I could finish writing “The First Time I Told Someone” was a knotty one I had been struggling with since I started the essay in the 1990s: how to tell about each experience of abuse that I suffered without being redundant or stringing them together in a way that risked devolving into a kind of trauma porn. I solved that problem once I realized I’d been approaching the question of how to tell my story ass backwards. When I first began writing, given the culture wars around gender that were roiling at the time, it was very important to me to establish the material’s “feminist bona fides,” not to insulate myself from criticism, but to make clear from the start that I was writing from a profeminist position. Inevitably, this resulted in my privileging argument over narrative in a way that made it hard to tell both stories on their own terms. Instead of showing how feminism accounted for my experience, I realized, I needed to show how feminism helped me come to terms with that experience, even if that process didn’t always fit neatly into a feminist mold.
The result is an essay I would not have been able to write fifteen, much less thirty years ago. More to the point, though, telling my story in this way has opened up the space for me to write, as a companion piece, the argument that has been implicit in this material from the start. I’m just about finished with “The First Time I Said It In Public,” which takes as its starting point a story I told in a blog post I wrote in 2017 called “My Students First Taught Me to Claim the Politics of My Survival.” Hopefully that essay will find a publisher soon after it’s done. I will let you know when it does.
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