From early on, Donna felt something was wrong. Among the "red flags" that kept popping up, she says, were Ray's irritability and his tendency to pace. And then there was his subtle but growing detachment from her. "When we got married, we really explored each other. We had fun," says Donna, now 50. "Getting to know each other, forming as a married couple and as a family, we bonded closer. But as weird as this sounds, the more we did that, the more he pulled away, emotionally and physically." Slowly their sex life dwindled. Sometimes she had merely to touch his shoulder when he'd freeze and draw back. Donna wondered if he was having an affair. Mostly, though, she just felt rejected, and this broke her heart.
"I knew he loved me. There are so many ways to show love other than sex—endearing things he would do," she says. "But my self-esteem really was depleting, because I thought, 'What's wrong with me?' It was something that I was very persistent about, trying to get to 'why.' There was a thorn in our marriage, and I needed to find out what it was." The more she challenged him about it, however, the worse things got. Ray, a surveyor and park ranger who often worked two jobs, would say he was tired or too busy to talk. "There was always an answer," she says, "but it never added up." Uncertain and lonely, she began to overeat—a groping attempt to feed her longing for intimacy, as her therapist would later explain. "So many people said to me, 'Donna, go have an affair!' But I didn't want that. I never wanted that. I wanted my husband back."
Little changed through nearly 25 years of marriage. Then in the fall of 2001, Donna returned to college to finish her degree in education. One course in particular, on the psychology of human relations, spoke directly to her. "I started realizing, 'Oh my God, there are names for the things I've been going through!'" Poring over her textbooks, she came to believe that her husband had been sexually abused. His behavior fit the pattern.
Confirmation, however, didn't come until one afternoon that spring. While Ray busied himself in the kitchen, Donna turned on The Oprah Show and found several young men talking about having been abused by their priests. She stood in stunned silence when she recognized one of the offenders: Father James Hanley—the same priest who had performed their marriage and two years later baptized their first child.
"Then I heard this tiny voice coming from the kitchen," she says.
It was Ray, barely in a whisper: "I guess I'm not the only one."
The shock was so great it capsized Donna, and she dropped to her knees in the living room. "The pieces of my puzzle started falling together," she says.
It took another few days before Ray told her what had happened when he was 12, how Hanley had pretended to give him an education in sex, demonstrating each lesson on the boy's body.
What came next was a long journey to recovery. Both the Skettinis became activists and members of the national Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). Ray joined nearly two dozen of Hanley's other victims to demand that the priest be defrocked, and lent his name to a civil lawsuit filed to learn what the church had known about Hanley's crimes and how it had dealt with that information. Ultimately Hanley admitted to sexually abusing some 12 child parishioners (although a statute of limitations kept him out of jail), and the diocese paid out a multimillion-dollar settlement to 21 of his victims, including Ray. Because Hanley wasn't required to register as a sex offender when he moved to a new neighborhood, Ray and Donna agreed to help leaflet the streets with warnings. One surprising morning, Hanley appeared and shouted at the protesters.
In a fit of anger, Donna grabbed him by the sleeve and demanded he account for what he had done.
"Did you abuse this man right here?"
"Ray Skettini? Yes, I did," he answered hotly.
"He's my husband. ... You married us. ... You baptized our daughter."
"Yes, I did," he said, "and Ray knows I'm goddamned sorry for what I did to him too; right, Ray?"
After a brief exchange, Ray responded, "Jim Hanley, you still never got all the help you needed."
Hanley agreed: "I love you, Ray, and I hope you forgive me, babe."
"Oh, I don't know if I can forgive anything anymore," Ray answered calmly.
Today Donna and Ray are still digging themselves out from the past, attending individual and couples therapy sessions twice a week (which the church pays for as part of a legal settlement) and making an effort to be frank with each other. They have not yet solved their troubles with physical intimacy, a fact that upsets them both—"but we're working on it," Donna says. In Ray's mind, this could take a lifetime of therapy. "I'm still trying to get back to being close to my wife," he says. "I never had an explanation for 'Why was I not wanting to have sex with her?' I never understood it myself till all this broke. I would like to believe we're moving in a more positive direction. I was scared she was going to leave me."
But Donna is still committed to making the marriage work. A major breakthrough in therapy for her, she says, has been discovering that she wasn't the one who turned her husband off. "I have since realized it was a third person in my marriage—Jim Hanley," she says. Last year Donna wrote the priest a seven-page letter. "I told him it wasn't just Ray he destroyed. He destroyed our marriage, our healthy, normal relationship. And I wasn't going to let him win."
It is hard to know how common sexual abuse is among boys. A survey by researchers at the University of Massachusetts–Boston suggests that approximately one in six men is sexually abused before the age of 16. If correct, that means more than 17 million American men share this ugly history. But many never disclose their victimization. Some may not recognize their early sexual encounters with older men or women as abuse; others blame themselves. In one study, 75 percent of male survivors reported being ashamed that they had failed to fend off the perpetrator. Another reason for keeping their abuse a secret is that they don't want people to think of them as easily coerced or forced, according to Gail B. Slap, MD, professor of pediatrics and medicine at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, who has studied the issue.
Research over the past three decades points to the tremendous difficulty these survivors have in their relationships—the anger, fear, and isolation that typically result from childhood sexual abuse is particularly corrosive to healthy love. As for how their women fare, that's less clear. Very little research has been done on the wives and girlfriends of male abuse victims. "This is really a shame, because they have so many needs," says Richard B. Gartner, PhD, a psychoanalyst and leading expert in the field, who practices in New York City. "The bigger the betrayal, the more the boy reacts as though relationships themselves are traumatic. He becomes kind of allergic to being in relationships. It's very hard for a wife or partner to deal with that." Such relationships can be emotional—and physical—battlefields. Or the men seem coldly remote and "zone out" at home. Many also turn to drugs and alcohol, or become obsessive about food, exercise, or work, devoting so much energy to a career that their families are neglected. Experts call this a hypermasculine response. "We use the phrase 'the ripple effect,'" says Janice Palm, a Seattle therapist and executive director of Shepherd's Counseling Services, which runs one of the few support groups for the partners of adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse. "This isn't just in the life of the person who was abused, but in the life of anyone in their relationship sphere."
One common ripple, as the Skettinis discovered, is a disruption of sex. Julie and Craig Martin have struggled with this in a different way. Craig, 52, first disclosed his abuse by a family priest when he began dating Julie more than 20 years ago. At the time, he owned a bar in Waite Park, Minnesota. "I told him," Julie says, "'Whenever you are ready to deal with it, I'm there for you.'" But Craig dealt with it by binge drinking and having an affair, at one point fathering a child with another woman. "I didn't cause him to cheat on me, [but] you go through terrible feelings of 'What could I have done? What did I do wrong?'" Julie, now 47, explains. Thanks to rehab and therapy, including counseling for sexual compulsion, they are still married and in love. Craig has been sober for eight years and attends monthly sessions for victims of childhood sexual abuse at the University of Minnesota. He sold the bar to attend graduate school and is now a social worker helping troubled boys. Not that all their problems have been solved. "I don't believe we've had any intercourse for several years—it's awful," says Julie. "It's almost like we're married singles or best friends living in the same house and raising kids together. I can laugh, but I cry inside. It hurts. It's very sad."
In his book Abused Boys, therapist Mic Hunter details the many reasons why sexual intimacy is complicated for male survivors: Some withhold or avoid physical intimacy because they come to think of sex as a disgusting act that people inflict on one another. In a complex effort to show respect, some victims seek out prostitutes or strangers instead of venting their desires on their loved one. Others may come to define sexuality as always involving a perpetrator and a victim. "Often this association is so powerful that the victim becomes physically nauseated even when someone initiates respectful, mutual, consensual sex with him," Hunter writes.
On the other hand, many adult survivors compulsively seek out sex: More than one-third of the men in Sex Addicts Anonymous said they'd been sexually abused as children, according to a study Hunter conducted. Some sort of sexual dysfunction affects one in four abuse survivors, he reports—including inhibited drive and erectile problems.
Healing, for these men, is possible, but experts say that the process they go through can be one of the more difficult junctures in their lives. It often involves confronting the one thing they never wanted revealed. And it often makes things worse for their partners. "Recovery is hell on relationships. Many couples don't stay together," says Mike Lew, a Boston psychotherapist who wrote Victims No Longer: Men Recovering from Incest and Other Sexual Child Abuse. "And if the couple makes it through, the relationship is different. It's healthier, it's stronger, but it's not the same. The old relationship is dead."
The Martins are living proof of that. Julie says Craig's recovery process has caused them to grow apart. So far therapy hasn't bridged the divide. "I love him. He's gained my trust back," she says. "I admire everything he's done. I give him credit. But he's not the man I married."
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.'"
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."
Twenty-six years ago, there were a number of things Marilyn Stevens found unusual about Dominic Carter, an 18-year-old fresh off the bus to attend a rural State University of New York college-prep summer program for promising students from disadvantaged backgrounds. For one, he looked entirely out of place in upstate apple country—understandable given his childhood in a run-down Bronx tenement overlooking a gritty expressway. For another, he had an unnerving clarity about where he was going in life, and with whom. He was on campus for only a few days before approaching Marilyn, the 25-year-old program coordinator, to improbably declare: "You're going to be my wife and the mother of my children."
"Are you crazy?" she remembers thinking. "It was like, 'Me Tarzan, you Jane,'" she says. Over the summer, she did everything she could to redirect Dominic's affections toward women his own age, but he never faltered. He stayed at SUNY and earned his degree in just three years. Two months after graduation, he and Marilyn married. "I guess I got beaten down by the chase," she says. It turned out, however, that they had much in common. Marilyn came from similarly disadvantaged roots in Harlem, where seven of her 10 siblings have died, most from heroin and AIDS. Her first step out of poverty was the same summer program that recruited Dominic. Like him, she harbored intense ambition—hers was to work in higher education, while he hung his hopes on a career in journalism.
Somewhere during those early years, he mentioned—only once, and without any details—that he'd been sexually abused by his mother, whom he referred to as Laverne. "We were sitting and watching TV and he just blurted it out," Marilyn remembers. "I was really in shock, because I couldn't imagine that a mother could do such a horrendous act to her child. So I just put it in the back of my head and never revisited it. He never spoke about it, and I never brought it up again."
But the silence barely masked the issue. Today both Dominic and Marilyn say his abuse has been the single most defining element of their long marriage, which has produced two children, now 20 and 16. Tensions started to mount after the couple conceived their first baby, Courtney. They had moved in with Marilyn's mother in Harlem, close enough to the Bronx so that Laverne could call or drop by unannounced to visit. Over Dominic's objections, Marilyn always let Laverne in. "How do you tell a person, 'I can't have a relationship with you?' That was not within my personality, or my mother's," she says. "We would let her come in, let her eat and break bread, and try to get her out the door before he got home."
They weren't always successful. If Dominic arrived and saw his mother, he would spin back through the door and disappear for hours—sometimes hitting the clubs with friends till daylight, once staying out all weekend.
With Dominic increasingly absent, Laverne came around even more often. She would ask Marilyn or her mother to have him call her for one reason or another, but when they passed along the messages, he would explode: "Stay away from Laverne! She's using the both of you!"
"I felt so trapped," Marilyn says about her relationship with Laverne. "You start to have heart palpitations—'How do I handle this? I don't want to be mean and nasty to her. I don't have all the facts, but I feel like I'm betraying my husband.'"
And the more betrayed Dominic felt, the more angry and remote he became. Rage seemed to gnaw away at him. "He was extremely moody," Marilyn says. "There was all this erratic behavior that was turned inward." She would find him sitting alone in the kitchen, chewing absently on his knuckles till they bled.
Marilyn concedes she didn't handle her frustrations in the wisest manner. Too frequently she defaulted to sarcasm. "Do you want hot sauce for those knuckles?" she'd ask derisively. She never once suspected his childhood experiences had anything to do with the way he was acting. Besides, it was hard for her to accept that the entertaining woman who showed up at her door—a woman she'd come to love—could have done anything remotely like what her husband had once intimated. "She was always put together very nicely, not a hair out of place, and would talk, talk, talk—very funny, very comical sometimes. So in your mind you say, 'This didn't happen.'"
It wasn't a doubt she voiced to her husband. But he sensed it nonetheless. "She didn't want to believe what happened," Dominic, 44, says now. When he once confided Laverne's crimes to Marilyn's mother, she was just as skeptical. "This is so deep," he says, "the natural instinct is to not believe it."
Instead of investing in his homelife, Dominic devoted more and more time to his career, which took off like a rocket—going from a reporter for WLIB, a New York–area radio station geared to the African-American community, to senior political reporter for NY1News, where he has raked in awards and interviewed world leaders from Nelson Mandela to Bill Clinton.
Today he is one of New York's best-known local political journalists and a frequent guest on national programs like Hardball with Chris Matthews. "He was always on the go, nonstop," says Marilyn, 51, a senior administrator at Manhattan College. But as the years wore on, she realized he was running not only toward a high-flying career but away from her and their children—away from any intimacy whatsoever.
Finally, after a decade of tumultuous marriage, she'd had enough. "I said, 'Dominic, we have got to deal with this. You just can't keep running and running and running.'" They enrolled in couples therapy. Each also saw a counselor privately. Week in and week out, they talked about their problems and frustrations. She worked to modulate her sarcasm, while he tried opening up more—but their relationship was still rocky. She faulted him for not participating fully in therapy and felt excluded from his interior life. During all these sessions, Dominic never once mentioned his history of abuse. Not wanting to betray a confidence, Marilyn didn't bring it up either. At this point, she just wanted him to be a better husband, and she was losing hope. "It got to be too much," she says. "It was like we were both locked in the same room with no exit."
About eight years ago, she confronted him one last time. "If you don't want to talk to me, if you don't want to talk to your therapist, write it down," she remembers saying. "You have got to do something. I hate to use the old cliché, but set yourself free."
Dominic didn't start writing until 2001, shortly after his mother's death. Resolved to unload his secrets about what she had done to him, he quickly realized he knew very little about the woman he refused to call Mother—a term of respect he reserved for his maternal grandmother, who shared parenting responsibilities. He knew there were times when Laverne would disappear for months on end, sometimes longer than a year. These were periods of joy for him, spent safely with "Mother." But each time Laverne returned, he was passed right back to her.
What he remembered most was how she treated him. When they were alone, her cruelty was severe. There was a blur of beatings. And then, when he was 7, one night he heard her calling "Do-mi-nic" in the singsong way that meant he had no choice but to go to her. He found her in bed, naked, and when he climbed in, as she demanded, she asked him to touch her breasts. Then her thighs, and between her legs where he was surprised to find coarse hair. Her breath was hot as she put her mouth on his tiny lips—she'd never even kissed him on the cheek. He became more and more frightened, he later recalled, when she touched his undeveloped penis and "rubbed it until I feared it was going to fall off." Then, "she lifted my whole body, all 70 pounds of me, and she kept moaning and mumbling and caressing."
He knew it was wrong—and feared it would turn him into "a freak of nature" or worse. It never happened again, but his terror "became almost devastating at times," he says. Much as he tried, he could never forget that night. "I would literally wave my hand in front of my face, as an 11- or 12-year-old kid, and go 'Boop.' That would mean: Put it out of your mind." The spell never worked.
Dominic approached the task of retracing his childhood as if he were investigating a news story. Relatives told him that Laverne's many absences were due to mental illness—she had been hospitalized repeatedly at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan. He sent away for her records. The first bundle arrived in 2003. Marilyn was with him at the post office when he opened the large package and poured out an astonishing stack of medical charts, 620 pages tall.
"You want me to step outside and give you your own private moment?" she asked.
"No," he said.
The pages revealed that Laverne had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. There were notes about straitjackets, long lists of her medications, and judges' orders regarding her detention. She received her first shock-therapy treatment when she was barely 15. The files also contained details of Dominic's life. Once, when he was 2, she folded her fingers around his throat and choked him until his cries snapped her out of her "dreamlike state"; another time, a voice suggested she throw him from the window—"Do it," the voice commanded. She told her doctors that she was afraid one day she might. Meanwhile, she beat him violently. His battered body was a familiar presence in the local emergency room, where he once arrived with swollen testicles after an especially severe spanking.
Twice Dominic was placed in foster care. When he was 12, Laverne petitioned for his return, and a family court judge was about to grant it, when Dominic asked to speak to him alone. In the judge's chambers, he described in detail the night his mother molested him. "It was the first time I had ever mentioned it," he explains. The judge gave his grandmother full custody, and Dominic never lived with Laverne again.
"That ended the abuse right there," he says.
For Marilyn, the stark records finally helped her understand her husband. She no longer harbored any doubts about his story. And for Dominic, the evidence of his mother's hellish existence allowed him to begin resolving his own past. "She was a tortured soul in ways he had no idea," Marilyn says. "She had no control over her life. [Realizing] that was his salvation."
With the documents at his elbow, Dominic began to write a chronicle of his abuse and redemption, which he self-published last year as a book titled No Momma's Boy. A chapter at a time, he revealed the secrets he'd guarded all his life. Turning them over to his wife to read and edit marked the beginning of the conversation she had craved for decades—and the end of his life on the run. "She felt that [writing this book] would help me, and it really has," he says. "I can tell you this: I have forgiven my mother and now I would love nothing more than to give her a hug and tell her, 'I love you, you're my mother, and we can move forward together.' It took me a long time to understand this. I feel for the first time in my life that I can breathe the fresh air.
"I'm enjoying my children, my wife," he adds. "And I'm happy. For the first time in my life, I'm happy."
"We have turned a corner in our relationship," Marilyn says. "Everybody in the family has been touched by this. And we're finally seeing our way through it together."