“Pain is the only human process that is completely defined
by the person experiencing it.”
I’ve been through some shit.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m the first to admit that the shit I’ve been through is mostly of my own doing. But regardless, I’ve been through some shit.
Sometimes I feel like my whole life has been a scandal. I’ve lived the life of a liar, a manipulator, a cheater, an adulterer, a criminal . . . and a victim.
For years, I kept the fact that I was sexually assaulted, at age 18, a deep dark secret – a very deep, very dark secret. It’s humiliating to be a man, and a victim of rape. But I am, and nothing will ever change that. I was raped.
I can say this now – “I was raped” – but until my offender treatment program during prison in Lansing, I’d never ever spoken audibly about my assault – ever. It was the gap in the plot; it was the hole in the storyline. I kept it a secret from everyone and buried it so deep that it almost began to seem like a bad dream – a nightmare – that never actually happened. But it did. It happened, and I never told anyone.
As a part of the treatment program in Lansing, we had to write and present our “autobiography” to the treatment group. The group was comprised of twelve guys who were in prison for sex offenses, and of the twelve, eight were there because they did something to a relative; only four of us were there for a non-relative, and my former student was the oldest of anyone’s victim. And as each person read and presented their “autobiography,” many of them told their own stories of being abused, but I kept mine to myself. When I read my personal story aloud, I was brutally honest about everything I’d done – except that. And when I received feedback from the therapist, she flat-out called me on it. “Something’s missing,” she said to me in front of the group. “No one just becomes what you were. Something’s missing.” And, of course, I lied, saying something like, “No, that’s everything.” She merely shook her head and sighed.
A few weeks later, I knew I needed to tell her. I went into her office one day after our group session and told her everything. I told her about how one night when I was 18, the summer after I graduated from high school, my buddies and I went out drinking at a club in Wichita’s Old Town called “The Cowboy” – a club that was extremely casual about asking for the proper ID before administering alcoholic beverages to patrons. We drank and danced and what-not until the club closed, then we all went back to my house. I drank exceedingly more than usual that night, so going back to my house was my convenient preference. And after hanging out for an hour or so, my buddies decided it was time to call it a night, and they all left, except one. And this is where my memory of that night gets even more hazy. I was excessively drunk; I was sitting on my bed leaning against the headboard, trying not to throw-up, and I was reasonably certain that I was ready to slip into a drunken coma(ish) slumber. But since one remaining friend was still lingering there – lurking in the drunken fog of my peripheral vision – I felt the social (and obligatory) responsibility to remain awake as his host. I cannot recall what he was saying as he began rambling along with (what sounded like) a heart-felt soliloquy about one thing or another, but I remember him getting up from his chair and slithering across my bedroom to sit down next to me on my bed. My memory of this point in the night is more like flashes or film clips, like an old 8 millimeter reel-to-reel home movie being projected onto a grayish wall, with no sound, and numerous frames cut out and haphazardly taped back together, clicking and clacking sloppily through an old movie projector. And I felt paralyzed. I felt that if I moved, I would throw up; and even though my body remained motionless, the room sluggishly swayed like a rickety old sailboat in the wilderness of a wavy dark open sea. It was as though I was powerless and completely at the mercy of what would happen next. And then, what happened next, did.
I refuse to put the details of my assault into print, but that night, unable to move, unable to speak, unable to think – it happened.
“And that, Mr. Brundage, is the missing piece,” the therapist said to me in Lansing during our one-on-one conversation. I had no reply to this. “Don’t you see?” she asked me. “You talked in your Autobiography about how all of your out-of-control sexual behavior started in college, but you never mentioned what could have started it.” She looked to me for a reaction, but I was statuesque – motionless. “It makes perfect sense,” she said with an air of optimism, feeling as though we’d had the quintessential breakthrough. “Your promiscuous behavior as a young adult was your own subconscious way of trying to regain control of your own sexuality,” she paused, “and prove to yourself that you weren’t gay.”
The moment she dropped this on me, I suddenly felt like I had to look back and redefine my entire life. I’d lived with this pain, buried so deep for so long, and now that I’d actually spoken about it – audibly, using consonants and vowels and nouns and verbs and punctuation – suddenly, it was real.
And I wept.
That night, I told my wife, in a letter. I couldn’t stand the thought of telling her something else that might make her think differently of me, so I wrote it. After all, writing is what I do, and that was the best way I could imagine to tell her. And a few days later, when she received the letter, she reaffirmed that this revelation did not diminish the way she thought of me. We talked about it in-person at her next visit, and since then, we’ve moved forward.
During a follow-up one-on-one conversation with the therapist the following week, we spoke about how I was dealing with the fact that people now knew. I told her that it still didn’t really feel real – it was essentially “horrifyingly surreal,” as I put it – so she instructed me to do one thing: “Repeat after me,” she said. “Say, I was raped.” I looked at her, bewildered and dumbfounded. Hell no, I thought to myself. But she just stared at me. “Go ahead,” she said, “say it.” And I could tell from the way that she intently locked her sights on me that I wasn’t going to walk out of that room until I’d complied. And yet, I remained mute.
The silence in the room was deafening. I could hear my heart pounding against its better judgement. I could feel my teeth grinding like an unstable submerged ocean fault line, ready to slip and set-off a tsunami of emotion. And still, she stared. So, with seemingly no other option, my vocal cords primed for use and I inhaled, knowing that when the oxygen currently rushing into my lungs subsequently would rush out as carbon-dioxide, that air would form words, and those words would say something I’d never said before, but had known, for sixteen years, was true.
“I was raped,” I said.
My voice sounded hesitant, uneasy, afraid to step into the open air, like James Spader as he nervously stepped into the Stargate for the first time. The words shattered the silence like an assassin’s bullet. Those three words seemed to somehow speak the past into existence. Days earlier, I’d described in detail (as much as my tattered memory would provide) what had been done to me that night in 1998, but it didn’t seem real; as though it hadn’t happened to me, but rather to the protagonist of a book I’d written. But when I heard my own voice say, “I was raped,” it was suddenly very real. And it hurt. I remember crying, uncontrollably, and rather than saying anything to me, the therapist let me get it out of my system and allowed me to regain my composure before continuing our conversation.
Here’s where it gets stranger: When I stood up to leave that session with the therapist, I literally felt lighter. I felt like I was suddenly and simultaneously stronger and slimmer – as though I’d sat down wearing suit of armor, but stood up wearing silk pajamas. And ever since that day, that event – the 1998 assault on my body, my masculinity, my self-image, and my soul – holds no power over me. So now, I can talk about being a victim of rape. I can talk openly about it with the confidence of knowing that I survived a sexual assault.
I don’t blame my past sexual behavior or my crime on being raped. It was, of course, a catalyst to my slow-growing addiction to sex, but I had a choice – I always had a choice. I wasn’t an adulterous womanizing criminal because I was raped. But I do understand this: Of the many contributing factors, that one was the most significant. We do what we must do in life to cope with the pain of . . . life. And I clearly did not cope well with being raped. I should have spoken to someone about it, but I didn’t. I should have gone to the police, but I didn’t. I don’t know if either of those things would have changed anything, but I do know that my life today would be different; maybe better, maybe worse.
But regardless, my life is still recovering from the scandal – and at one point, it was a Top News Story and a Front Page News scandal. However, my infamous downfall came and went – thank God for the 24-hour news cycle. Now, I can only pick up the pieces and move forward, hoisting the past over my shoulder like an old duffel bag. And part of what I must now carry is my willingness to be open and honest about being raped. “You’re a classic case of the Cycle of Abuse,” the therapist told me in our final one-on-one session. That very well may be. And if so, it is my responsibility to do everything in my power to halt that cycle with every fiber of my being. I can only pray that it’s not too late.
No more scandals. Only honesty. Only truth.
I now have the power to define my pain – my pain no longer defines me.