For the first time Curtis began to untangle his past. In an odd coincidence, that same week headlines reported that Fentress, who had been incarcerated in a hospital for the criminally insane, was petitioning for release. Curtis called the district attorney to give his story, and when he didn't hear right back, he reverted to the scared, mistrustful child Fentress had left behind. "I thought, 'He's not going to believe me; he's not going to listen to me,'" Curtis says.
Ultimately, however, he made contact, swore out a deposition, and helped ensure that Fentress stayed locked up in a mental institution. In the aftermath, he joined MaleSurvivor, which he credits with changing his life. The big turnaround, he says, came during one of the organization's weekends of recovery in May 2004. As part of an exercise, he composed a letter from the boy he was to the man he is now. While he wrote, using his nondominant hand as instructed, a vision popped into his head of himself walking over a big, beautiful bridge, Fentress below, unable to reach him. Slowly he came upon a small figure sitting down. It was himself as a child and he was neither sad nor hurt. "There you are," said the boy. "I've been waiting for you."
"Cool," Curtis said, taking him by the hand. "Let's go." Finding the part of himself that was healthy and whole, he says, opened the floodgates. "All of a sudden, the emotions bottled up for 30-some years came flying out. It just turned me around. ... Seven years ago, if you said to me I was going to be happy, I would have said, 'No way.' But I did it."
"I am so proud to be your wife," Ilene interrupts. "It's wonderful to see what has emerged."
Many women take longer to reach the happiness Ilene describes. "I've always thought of myself as 'collateral damage,'" says Dawn Haslanger, who is 54 and the wife of a childhood sexual abuse survivor in Seattle. Over the years, her husband, Bob, 58, has regularly suffered bouts of post-traumatic stress, which she says kept him out of work for a period of time and triggered outbursts of rage. In 2006, when the Episcopal diocese decided finally to begin an ecclesiastical case against his abuser—an emotionally trying process for Bob—Dawn realized she was suffering from her own version of PTSD. She feared that the battle would unhinge her husband and undermine her marriage.
"I started having anxiety attacks," she says. "I started not sleeping well. And sometimes during the day—a routine day—my heart would race, my blood pressure would go up, I'd get dizzy." After working for 28 years as a dental assistant, she was fired from her most recent job. "I think I probably was just tightly wound," she says. "I've been really struggling with depression for the last year and a half."
Feeling lonely and rejected is common among women in relationships with men who have been sexually abused as children, according to Mike Lew, the Boston psychotherapist. "The female partner may feel like she is the target of his anger. That might increase her frustration," he says. In a workshop he led for partners of survivors, the women also had a lot of anger. "They were angry because of what was done to someone they love. They were angry because they had to deal with the fallout. They were angry at the lack of resources and lack of help. They were angry because this isn't what they signed on for when they got into this relationship, and they had to deal with it or leave."