Last week, Rachael Clinton reflected on the ambivalence we often feel when daring to engage our stories of trauma and abuse. Here, Matt Morrissey, Admissions Counselor at The Allender Center, writes about the particular experience of that ambivalence as a young boy whose sense of play and wonder is attacked by the shame that accompanies abuse. Matt shares how his journey of resurrecting that playful, imaginative boyhood shapes the courageous work he does today.
“When despair for the world grows in me… I come into the peace of wild things.”
Nestled in the corner of a half-acre lot, tossed in the outskirts of Chicago, grew a Sycamore Maple tree. Standing tall with milky bark and bright green leaves, it stretched up and out across the low cut grass. With its girth painting shadows on the yard, the tree danced in the wind. No Tail—the squirrel without a tail—built a home on the third branch creeping into the neighbor’s yard. Its roots rose above the ground webbing in and out of the soft, damp dirt. The scene was earthy and Midwestern, where urban meets suburban. With chain-link fences guarding my yard from the next, it was my whole world. And perched on the fourth branch of the Sycamore Maple sat a little green-eyed boy. Regulated by the gentle sway and swing of mother nature, I came into the peace of wild things.
Tied to the second branch hung an empty bleach bottle. With three small pebbles bouncing inside, I swung and batted away with a stick. I can still hear the sound of rattling rocks and the clanging of wood and plastic. I can smell the stench of chemicals mixing with the subtle aroma of dirt and bark. Yesterday, I was a spy; today, I am a knight. My play transported me into distant worlds and ancient eras. I had sidekicks with bushy tails and no tails. When I wasn’t leaving this world for another, I sat patiently with the tree. Quietly, I could watch the black ants crawl from underneath the peeling dry skin. The wind wrestled the leaves like a hushed choir. With enough curiosity and wonderment the tree would come alive—breathing and pulsing with a soothing rhythm.
I have been and hope to always be a curious, exploring boy.
I have been and hope to always be a curious, exploring boy. The tree was my pirate ship, my Alamo, and my watchtower. With every new day came a new excuse to climb and swing, to imagine and play. For the sake of both discovery and safety, I climbed high to rest in its arms. This is what we do, this is how we survive and learn—we play.
That little boy in the tree is strong, kind, and imaginative—sensitive and attuned to his world. Though alone, he can make many friends. I love that little boy who sees much, perched and watchful. I did not play like the other boys in my neighborhood, church, or school. But I played well; I dreamt big, created much, and laughed out loud. And yet, what so many could not see was that this playing boy was in pain.
One in six boys will experience sexual abuse by the age of sixteen.1 Although much research has shown that girls tend to be sexually abused more frequently than boys, the rate at which men experience sexual victimization during childhood is not insignificant. The sexual abuse of boys is common, underreported, unrecognized, and under-treated.
The research and clinical findings reported in the literature about the aftereffects of boyhood sexual abuse are both complex and scarce. What we do know is that among sexually abused children, a greater portion of boys than girls suffer abuse from outside their family.2 And yet according to recent national surveys boys are still 4.5 times more likely to know their abuser and 22.5 times less likely to disclose of the abuse.3 Suddenly, the one in six statistic feels like only a partial snapshot.
What I know about my own story, research, and practice is that trauma disrupts play. I can’t tell you how many stories of harm have been set in a scene that what was supposed to be fun—a game, a tease, a sweet moment of freedom and exploration—turned to heartache, to betrayal and confusion. It is my deep belief that evil seeks to take the very things that our hearts long for and turn them into weapons against our desires, our hopes, and our capacity to play.
Play requires trust—faith in the unseen, an imagination to believe in things that aren’t real. For the betrayed boy, he can no longer let himself be fooled enough into being so abandoned and lost in his play—that is too risky. In the face of trauma, play dies.
Gender norms, family systems, and bad theology leave many abused boys feeling confused and conflicted, unable to rectify their story with their bodies, their feelings, and what it means to be “a man.” Quickly, the playful boy turns to work.
A corrupted masculine identity often entitles men to positions of power and privilege in the larger culture, and yet it also has severe drawbacks. I will tell you that achieving the masculine gender ideal can involve a betrayal of self that creates severe psychological and social stress for a man. In combination with a history of sexual abuse, this betrayal is excruciating and leads to a psychic killing of the inner boy. This cycle perpetuates violence against other men, women, and children.
Influenced by unrealistic internalized ideals of manhood, a boy may be even more reluctant than a girl to report sexual abuse, feeling he has more at stake—his masculine identity. And if masculinity is at the core of a man’s psychic identity—which society tells us it must be—then to lose his masculine identity is to lose himself, to suffer a kind of psychological, emotional, and spiritual death.
To lose his masculine identity is to lose himself, to suffer a kind of psychological, emotional, and spiritual death.
Here lies the good, good news of the gospel—even in the darkest tombs of our souls there is an “other” that calls us out and into life. In the midst of such profound cursing, we choose to bless. You are no longer bound to the grave. And because I know something about the little green-eyed boy who climbs trees, who beats bottles with sticks, who is so curious to know you, to be with you—you, too, can walk in resurrection.
And in my drunken hope of the gospel I will plea to you, “Come play with me.”
When you step into your story of harm and your shame propels you to hide, I will seek. And when your defenses build castles around you, I will stand at the door and knock. And when your fear causes you to fight, flee, or freeze I will call you home into the man that you are called to be—fully embodied, fully human, and fully playful.
Here in our play—in our storytelling, in our grief, and in our imagination—we resurrect the boyhood buried in your soul. As you explore the wild and untamed places of your heart, and despair grows within you, know that we will find peace. And although your world cannot see, know that there is profound strength in your broken-heartedness. Your story matters; your boyhood matters. And let me be so brave to call it good.
We believe that it is essential for both men and women to wrestle with their stories of trauma and abuse in hopes of reclaiming the goodness of who they were created to be. This conviction is at the heart of all of our offerings, and it is part of why we are so thrilled to offer the new Healing the Wounded Heart online course. We hope you will join us in this complex, life-changing, and staggeringly beautiful journey. Learn more about the course here.
1 Dube, S., Anda, R., Whitfield, C., Brown, D., Felitti, V., Dong, M., & Giles, W. (2005). Long-term consequences of childhood sexual abuse by gender of victim. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 28, 430-438.
2 Holmes, W., and Slap, G. (1998). Sexual abuse of boys: Definition, prevalence, correlates, sequelae, and management. Journal of the American Medical Association, 280, 1855-1862.
3 Hanson, R., Borntrager, C., Self-Brown, S., Kilpatrick, D., Saunders, B., Resnick, H., & Amstadter, A. (2008). Relations among gender, violence exposure, and mental health: the national survey of adolescents. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 78(3), 313-321.