Photo: Mary Ellen Mark
"It really takes a strong woman to deal with male abuse survivors," says Curtis St. John, president of MaleSurvivor, a national support group for men who have been sexually victimized. "They can be nasty and abusive, kicking everybody in their shins, because they don't want anyone close to them. But I tell women, 'If you make it through with them, they're going to be happier and cooler and more in love than the person you fell in love with in the first place.'"
St. John, 40, should know. He made it through with his wife, Ilene Lieberman-St. John, at his side. "Before Ilene, I wasn't even worth working on. I had no reason to bother helping myself," he says.
When they met in 1996 at Purchase College, where they both worked, he was 28 years old and just divorced, and she was a 40-year-old mother of two young children whose husband had died of cancer. She was nervous about the age difference at first, but they started dating, hitting it off as equals. She loved his exuberance, as did her kids.
One night just before they got married, they were lying in bed watching television when Curtis turned to Ilene and said, "I have to tell you something. I was abused when I was a child."
The man, he told her, was a neighbor and well-regarded history teacher named Albert Fentress, who under the pretense of tutoring Curtis molested him, eventually subjecting him to oral sex—up to 20 times during the spring and summer of 1979.
"Did he hurt you?" Ilene asked.
"No," Curtis answered, and then added, matter-of-factly, "Well, he went on to murder and cannibalize another kid."
It was as though Curtis were recapping a movie plot: Fentress was arrested that August for abusing a second boy, whom he killed—and whose remains he subsequently cooked and ate. At first the story staggered Ilene. Then she asked Curtis how he'd handled it all.
"I'm fine," he told her. "It hasn't affected me."
Ilene, having moved on from her own trauma, was willing to believe him. "I did the widow thing for a while, and then I was done—I didn't identify with widows anymore. So I put what he was saying into the context of my own life."
Curtis recognizes today that the abuse did affect him as a young man. "Here's an award-winning teacher that my parents trust. He said, 'This is okay to do; in fact, it makes you special and mature.' And—people don't like to hear this—it feels good," Curtis says now. "But it causes confusion, at the very least with sexual preference. So here I am, I've got no other sexual experience. And I'm wondering, 'Is this who I am? Am I gay?'" He knew he wasn't, but the question would nag him whenever a relationship with a woman failed.
Within a year of their wedding, other issues arose. Ilene started worrying about Curtis's drinking. There were just isolated instances, but one night when he came home drunk and denied he'd even had any alcohol, she put her foot down. "I can't live like this. You either do something about this or you're out," she told him. Curtis entered a 12-week outpatient rehabilitation program and hasn't had a drink since. In all the rehab and attendant therapy, however, he never once mentioned Fentress. And if not for Ilene, he might have gone on living in denial. But when her son Justin turned 10, she noticed her husband was behaving terribly to the boy. "Their relationship was awful," she says. "Curtis was being cold to him and pushing him away." Ilene ushered the whole family into counseling; even then, however, the battles between husband and son continued. "Finally I said, 'Don't you think you should tell Dr. Chris [the therapist] about your story? You've got to say something.'"
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