No One Was There
One survivors' journey
by Fr. Robert D. Wheelock
It was just few minutes after midnight. The small town hospital was quiet. One woman was in labor. The nurses looked in on her as they attended to the duties of the night shift. Then, rather quickly, this child was born into the world, a world that would be uncommonly harsh to him. It was September 27, 1936 and the small town was Cherokee, Iowa. Cherokee became synonymous with the “Insane Asylum” as they were called in those days. If someone acted odd, people would say that they belong in Cherokee. It seems like an odd coincidence since most of my life I have been mentally ill with anxiety and depression.
The baby was a boy, the fourth child born to Cecilia and Leslie (Bub) Wheelock. They named him Robert Dean. People will often joke that they remember nothing of their birth. It is a joke that falls flat for me. I do remember, because through out my life one of the family stories, told over and over, was of my birth. I would be told that after the nurse cleaned me up, and wrapped me in a blanket she brought me to my mother. The story goes that mother screamed and said: “Take him away, he is too ugly, that cannot be my child—he looks like a Jap!” This was usually when one or the other of my siblings would say, “But your are Mommies pet now.” I could not begin to tell you how many times that story was told to me. Apparently no one ever thought about how that cut into my heart. That is the first of many scars that will never be healed over.
Most confusing to me, through out my life, was the fact that my family were not bad people. They did not harm others. There was no domestic violence. We were what today is called a very dysfunctional family. But, for the most part we were like any other family I knew.
I have a difficult time remembering much about my childhood. I have memories but they a few and far between. I can skip years from one memory to the next. Most of my earliest life is just not present to me except from what my family told me.
My siblings all thought that I had a “cute” pout. They told me they would hold me and pinch my little body until I would begin to pout. But before I would cry they would cuddle me and coo and love me. But they just had to see that “darling little pout.” I don't remember that of course. But, it has helped me in therapy to learn from that. I am very ambivalent about my emotions. I can feel very strongly about something and then abruptly change how I feel. I do not trust my feelings and I do not trust others feelings either. I can deal with a person being angry with me. It hurts and confuses me. But I am able to accept their anger. I cannot accept love. I can allow myself to accept that people like me. Usually, because I have done good for them. I cannot accept or trust that anyone loves me. I hate to hear those words said to me. I know that they are always a lie. I work hard to learn to accept love, to trust people feeling warm towards me. But the fact is, I am fearful when that happens, I just can't trust it. I try not to let myself respond by accepting and trusting their love. No one is going to break my heart! I have built a strong wall around it. Only children and young people have pierced it. And then only for the time that they are “safe” kids and youth. After the child grows up they cannot pierce that wall anymore. I will not allow it. At the same time, I easily come to love people. I can feel honest affection for a person I have never actually met. Love can be given—but I feel I would be a fool to think I could really trust that any one would love me for me. Even the thought of that seems really dangerous to me.
When I was born, seven years after my next oldest sister, I became her competition. My older brother (11 years older) and sister (13 years older) told me that my sister Pat really resented that there was a baby brother in the house. She was always “daddy's little girl.” That lasted as long as my Dad lived. Still, Pat apparently despised me for the small amount attention my father would give me at times.
There are three other stories that I was told many times. They involve me being harmed while my sister Pat and I were playing together. The first was that a hornets' nest fell at my feet and they swarmed all over me. I was of course stung many times and was rushed to the hospital. How serious it all was I do not know. Today, as an adult, I know that the hornet's nest did not just “fall at my feet.” I believe that my sister was to blame for that. But, I remember nothing of it. I do not remember the stings nor the hospital. It is just a story to me—one I feel I did not need to hear.
The second story I do have a vague memory of. I was told that I fell down on a hot air grill that was a part of the heating system and I was burned badly. In fact, until I was 50 years old the scars were visible on my shins.
I put creams and lotions on them to hide them. But they were visible if I were to wear short pants. I just seldom wore shorts as an adult until they faded away to where they cannot be seen today. I do remember being burned. I also remember Pat holding me down, rather than picking me up, until my mother came as I was screaming. The scars showed the shape of the iron grill that was over the hot air vent. I am amazed that the grill would get that hot. But I have the scars to show that it burned my skin rather deeply.
The third story I remember well. My sister and I were playing outside. We were arguing about something and I ran at her. As I reached her she pushed me into a large patch of cactus we had running along the side of our house. Naturally I was crying but I was able to get out of the cactus and run to my mother to tell her what Pat did. Mother told me that I should not be so clumsy and that it was wrong for me to blame my sister for my being so clumsy. When that story was told I always blamed Pat and she would just say that if she did it, I certainly deserved it because I was a brat. All of this happened to me before I was five years old. Just before I had my fifth birthday my family moved from Cherokee Iowa to Sioux City Iowa because my Dad's job on the railroad was transferred there.
When Pat was in a nursing home dying, I spoke to her and told her I forgave her for everything and I asked her to forgive me for getting so angry with her at times. She could not speak, but she had a look on her face that was fear. I spoke to her about the things I knew she had done, and about the emotional pain she had caused me for much of my adult life. She just closed her eyes and leaned back into the pillow. I told her that I loved her and that I would miss her and would miss arguing politics with her. She reached for my hand, became very restless and seemed to be struggling with death. I tried to assure her that when the angels came to get her that she would be healed and have no pain at all. I asked her to speak to God and ask Him to help me be a good priest. I left to go to my nephew's house, where I was staying. In a short time the nursing home called to tell me that Pat had died.
There is a sense in which I feel guilty about exposing Pat like this. She was mentally ill from the time she was a teen. She became an alcoholic and was addicted to pain medicine. She suffered a great deal in life. The last four years of her life she was on dialysis. Pat did a lot of penance in her life. I am sure she is with God.
No matter why a person causes pain to another, the pain and harm are real. I am a member of a religious Order. The Capuchin Franciscan Friars. At various times through out my sister's life my Order would give her financial help. Still, that was not enough for her. When I would go to the West Coast to visit my family Pat would remember the names of people I might talk about. Eventually, I had people such as my physician tell me that Pat had called them, telling them I suggested she call and ask for their financial help. I was astounded and embarrassed. Of course, they knew that something was wrong and would call me. But some of them would send her money even though I asked them not to I found out that she was calling many organizations and parishes, telling them that she was the sister of a priest, gave them my name and phone number, and that she needed money but would pay them back in just a few days. There was always some sum of money coming to her in just a few days, but she needed something right now. I have no idea how many times she repeated that story or to how many organizations and parishes. Pat had two husbands and three children. Both husbands divorced her because of her bizarre behavior. All but one of her sons disowned her and would not even attend her funeral. Her second son disowned her while he was still in high school. The sad thing is that in disowning her, he chose to disown the entire family except for his older brother. I feel cheated out of a relationship with my nephews. They were nice kids. I would have wanted them to be a part of my life.
Both of my parents were alcoholics, as was my brother Jim. Neither accepted that fact and neither ever sought help. The last ten years of her life my mother did not get drunk because she had many health problems and took medicines that apparently did some of what alcohol did for her. But to the day she died she had her bottle of Vodka hidden and would drink daily. She just did not drink as much. My Dad was drunk when he had a stroke and went to the hospital for the last time. They were both very dear and generous people. They were also the incarnation of irresponsibility. As a high school student I had to become my mother's counselor and friend as she talked about her problems with my Dad to me.
My memories are mostly of never having enough money. Bill collectors would call and my Mom or Dad would have me answer the phone and tell the guy that they were not there. My Dad would have me tell someone that he had just left to go to his office to pay the bill. I lied a lot! At one point we were so far in debt that we had an auction and sold everything in our house. I could not believe it as I saw people buying all our furniture and stuff. Mom, Dad and myself then moved into a one room, furnished apartment. We ate at a little café across the street. This lasted for six or seven months before we could move into an apartment again. Then, gradually, my parents bought some used furniture. The pastor of our parish got some beds for us and a table and chairs. That was all we had for many months. I never brought friends to our apartment.
I remember that my mother had a “nervous breakdown” and was sick in bed for months at a time. We had foster teens in our house from time to time. I think my parents were paid to have them. I remember that my brother Jim went to the Second World War and was injured. One of the foster children Jim, was captured and my Mom was crying all the time until he was released. I remember that I could not understand why these kids would come and go so. They were supposedly my brothers and sisters but they were always already teenagers and they seldom stayed for more than a few months. I would barely get to know them and they would be gone. When we loived in Cherokee I might see them again from time to time. But after we moved to Sioux City, a much larger city, once they left they were just gone.
My memories of my parents being drunk, of having to carry my mother into the house when she would drive home drunk, of the neighborhood “bully” helping me carry her into the house and telling the other kids to keep their mouths shut.
These are my memories.
I remember going to several different schools. I remember living in Beaverton Oregon for several months while my mom helped her sister who had cancer surgery. I remember my Dad's father whom I saw just once or twice. He was a patient at the “insane asylum.” I remember him as a sweet little old man who seemed perfectly wonderful to me as a child. I remember my mothers' parents. They did not live together but were not divorced. My grandmother was a rather elegant old lady. I never knew her as anything other than old. My grandpa was also an old man who was a railway crossing guard. I think I remember visiting his little shack while he was working. I also visited his little workshop-house a couple of times. I remember that I asked him what circumcision was and he took out his penis to show me. I don't remember much else about him. He was a crabby man.
In grade school and what today we call middle school I played football and baseball. I was a center on the football team and a catcher on the baseball team. I remember that my coach broke my nose by pushing me into a teammate I was supposed to tackle. My nose hit my teammates knee. Splat! I remember two girls in the 8th grade that I had a terrible crush on all through high school. I remember my best friend George, and a couple of my other classmates. That sums up all the memories I have of my childhood—until I became a Boy Scout. I think I was in the sixth grade. Our parish was starting a Boy Scout troop so a bunch of us joined. I think I have always been a joiner. I liked the scoutmaster. I liked being able to earn merit badges. We had a lot of fun and it kept us out of trouble.
The first time we were going to go camping, the scoutmaster had a young man come with us to assist him. He did not participate in anything other than the camping. I remember him as a very handsome young man. I believe he was probably about 25 or 26 years old. I was at a time when I was interested in my body and not liking it that I was a little fat. Some guys mistook my fat as muscle and I kind of liked that—but I knew it was just fat. This young man was solid as a rock. I do not remember if he was married or not.
The scouts camped in Stone Park, at the outside edge of the city. It was a big park. My family used to take rides through it because it was beautiful and had a thick forest of trees and bushes. It was a thrill to be going to a weekend campout where we would live in tents, cook meals and do all kinds of things. I really looked forward to it.
The first night, after a big bonfire where we sang, toasted marshmallows and were told horror stories, we had to get ready for bed. I do not remember whom I was going to be with in the tent. But before we left for the night, the scoutmaster and his friend (I'll call him Alan) started to give us various work assignments for that night and for in the morning. The handsome assistant called my name and told me to come help him. I thought that was really great. I would get to work with him. I liked him and felt proud that he chose me. We picked up stuff, and raked in the wood around the fire some. I can't remember all that we did. Then he told me to come with him. We started down a path in the woods. He had a flashlight. I did not.
We walked a long ways into the woods. I do not remember what we were talking about, if anything. I remember seeing the campsite get very dim it was so far away. It was very dark and I was glad I was with the muscle bound friend of my scoutmaster. Suddenly, he came behind me and put his hand over my mouth. He told me to be perfectly quiet. Don't make a sound. Take your clothes off. I am going to take mine off too. Keep really quiet. I thought that maybe this was going to be some initiation. The flashlight was off but I was staring to see his body. I remember I decided right then that I was going to lift weights and run and do all I could to have a body just like his. I was excited seeing him naked. He walked towards me and grabbed my throat. He told me that if I made a sound he would kill me right there. Then he pushed me down to my knees and told me to take his penis in my mouth and suck on it. I backed away. But I remember, I was also amazed at how big it was. He grabbed the back of my head and pushed my face into his genitals and told me to start sucking or else. When he was hard he pulled out of my mouth and pulled me up straight. He turned my body around and slugged me in the back a couple of times. He kneed me in the butt and then I felt an incredible pain in my butt. He had his hand over my mouth and told me NOT A SOUND! The pain was awful. I cannot remember ever having anything hurt like that. I remember that I felt like I had to urinate and maybe I did. It seems like he was pounding away at me for a long time. Then, he pulled out of me and kicked me as I fell to the ground. I could not help but cry a little, but he told me to shut up!
He told me to put my clothes on and he kicked me a couple of times while I was dressing so that I fell down on the ground again. When we were both dressed and I was still crying he came over and lifted me up, really gently I remember. Then he put his thumbs by my Adams apple and choked me until l was going limp. I fell down and started to gasp for air. He knelt down and told me: “If you ever tell anyone about this I will do something a lot worse than this to you.” We walked back to the camp. He walked me to my tent and thanked me for the help and told me not to bother the other guys in the tent. I crawled into the tent and didn't take anything off. And I said nothing. I lay there all night. I don't think I slept until the dawn. The next day he was as nice to me as could be. Never once did he give me a threatening look. Every night we were camping, the exact same thing happened. This went on for six or seven campouts each year for three or four years, until I was in high school and left the scouts. I have no memory of him coming after me at any time other than on the campouts. I never told anyone. I was certainly afraid of what the “something worse” might be. But, I also knew my parents. They thought that Alan was such a wonderful young man and so happy that he was a “role model” for me! My Dad could not handle stress or anything negative. His idea was that if you ignore something long enough it might just go away. When my oldest sister Rita died at the age of 44 I was asked to call my parents and tell them. I was studying in Madison Wisconsin and my parents lived in Iowa. My sister died in Portland Oregon. When my Dad answered the phone I told him that my brother-in-law had just called and that Rita had died. Rita had been in the hospital for a couple of weeks. She had a badly damaged heart. My Dad told me that if I did not have better things to say than that I did not need to ever call again, and he hung up on me. I then called the pastor of the parish where they lived so he could go and tell them about their daughters' death.
There was one campout that was different though. That night, Alan asked me, and a classmate of mine, to help him after the campfire. I thought that at least this night, nothing would happen. But, what happened was that on this night, he did to my classmate, I will call him Paul, all that he did to me. Then, after he had raped Paul, he told Paul that he had to do it all to me. Paul walked towards me and was crying. Alan came to me with Paul and he told me to suck Paul. I knelt down but Paul pushed me away and said NO! Then Alan slugged me in the face so hard I may have lost consciousness for just a few seconds. The next thing I knew Paul was in my mouth and I started to suck on him. He got hard really fast. Then Alan pulled me off Paul's' penis and told me to stand up and turn around. He told Paul to shove it in. Paul pushed me away and said NO! I do not know what Alan did but suddenly Paul was up my butt and he raped me. After he had an orgasm Paul said very softly, “I'm sorry.” Alan heard that and tried to make Paul say that he enjoyed it. Paul; wouldn't do that. Paul was a boxer and he started to fight Alan. Alan gabbed him around the throat and choked Paul until I was sure he was dead. I remember shaking so hard that my teeth made noise. He let Paul's body go and almost as soon as his body hit the ground he gasped and coughed and I knew he was still alive.
I have a picture of my 8th grade graduating class. Paul is on it. But I have no memory of Paul after he started coughing and gasping for air. I do not remember going back to camp with him and I do not remember even seeing him again. I know I did. I just do not remember it. I think this night when Paul was raped was the summer after we graduated 8th grade. About 27 years ago, I received a letter from a friend saying that Paul had been killed under very suspicious circumstances. It was an accident at work, but an accident that seemed impossible to have been accidental considering Paul's training. Everyone said that Paul had killed himself. He left a widow and two or three children.
After 8th grade I went to Heelan Catholic High School for two years. It was then that I was very confused about who I was sexually. I was infatuated with two girls. At the same time I was a student trainer for our junior golden gloves. As such I would be in the shower room when guys were showering and I began to realize that I was reacting sexually to some of my classmates who were naked. The same thing would happen in gym class. I would compare myself to them and wish I had their build because then I could get any girl I wanted. But I also remember that I would get turned on and be afraid that someone might notice that I was. It was a very confusing experience. Then I went to St. Lawrence Seminary in Mt. Calvary Wisconsin. It was a high school and first two years of college seminary. I eventually became a Capuchin and studied philosophy and theology and was ordained a priest in 1964. I do not remember having any sexual interests at all in college or graduate school. I loved being a friar and living a rather monastic life. About all I ever thought of was my studies and hoping to pass the examinations that were required to pass on from one level of study and religious life to the next.
I always had the knowledge in the back of my mind that I had been made to be naked in a woods. I would remember the naked man there as well. I knew I had been molested, but I did not remember the details of the abuse. Nothing but be striped and Alan being naked would come to my mind. Gradually, I seldom remembered it at all except if I were in a gym or in a situation where I showered with other men. Then I would remember the naked man and my staring at him. I would feel a little anxious and shower in a hurry and leave. I did not remember anything but the nakedness and that somehow I was in danger.
My memories of college life and grad school are ones of happiness and of loving to be a Capuchin. I felt happy and I felt safe. I know that I have been difficult to live with. I am very critical of others and myself. When I was about 24 years old I had my first bout of anxiety. I had been having stomach pains and the doctor put me in the hospital in Wausau Wisconsin for a series of tests. The night before I was to have a barium x-ray, I was watching some television in my hospital room. Suddenly, I became terrified. I called for the nurse and told her I was losing my mind. I told her I was frightened, and to turn off the television. I kept telling her that something awful was about to happen but I did not know what it was. At this time we did not get to see television as students in the friaryseminary, so I though it was great that I could watch it. But it had become part of the terror. She talked to me for a while and then called the doctor. He said he would put the test off for two days but that I could not have anything to “settle me down” because I was a Friar and should not need it.
From that day to today I have suffered from anxiety and depression. Sometimes I feel better than others. But the anxiety is always there, my muscles are always tense, I do not know what it would be like to have a sustained period of feeling really peaceful and calm within my soul. I feel God very close to me. I am in a general way a happy man. But I am now very much aware of all the harm that was done to me by that perverted individual. I know that there was at least one other perpetrator. But I cannot remember much other than having to do oral sex for him. I remember that he had black hair, while Alan was blonde. Paul had brown hair. This is someone that I can't remember at all. I do remember that I was in a tiny restroom with him. A one person room. I can't identify where it is or who he is, I only see his genitals. I remember the incident, I just do not remember who he was or where it happened. I am not even sure that I was forced or if I did it willingly.
Being a victim and a survivor does not say all that there is to say of me. I have been very successful in life as a Capuchin Priest. I have been involved in many ministries. I have two graduate degrees and a doctorate. I have accomplished some rather extraordinary things. I was a pastor, I taught in a University and two high schools. I was President of a national association of hospital chaplains and I was the director of a division in a national organization that served Catholic health care facilities throughout the United States. I had an appointment to a medical school as Assistant Professor of Medicine and Religion. I founded a ministry to street prostitutes and street children that is still doing very well. I have counseled thousands of high school and college kids. I have written and published quite a few things. I have visited 22 nations of our world in the course of my teaching or other ministry. I have hundreds of people that I feel are the joy of my life. I have several young men who are like my sons and who have children that are my surrogate grand kids. I feel I have been very blessed. I have Capuchin brother whom I love and admire.
But the struggles I have had, are the struggles of so many men who were sexually abused as kids or teens, at least those abused by a male. I have a rage in me that makes me think, say and do things that I hate myself for. I am older now, so it is not as bad. But I have hurt people with my sharp tongue and bitter criticism. I call it “ready rage” and lots of people have been the victims of it I have wondered about sexuality. I think I am heterosexual; I experience myself that way. Yet, the fact my body was used like a woman's in that males penetrated it makes me wonder if I am in fact gay and that is why I was raped as an eleven year old. I think I will settle that when I ask God after I die! Wondering about our sexuality is common to all sexually abused males. Recently I talked with a 16-year-old boy who was molested by his father. His mother rages at him and calls him queer and accuses him of “'seducing” his father. Boys and men who have been sexually abused do not get either the compassion or understanding that girls and young women get. Another 16-year-old boy says that the worst part of being molested for him is that he thinks he must be “a fag” and that is not acceptable to him. These are some problems that seem particular to males who are molested by males.
I worry a lot about the safety of young boys and teens. I am very protective of them in fact. I resent people speaking of adolescent boys in a negative way. Even if the kid has faults I want to excuse them. I am also protective of girls and really get upset if I hear someone speak of them as a sexual object. But I find girls very attractive myself; it is just that I get a block if I start to think of them as someone that would have a beautiful body or wonder how her boy friend sees her, does he respect her, etc., and does she respect HIM? Does she see the boy as anything other than “cute”? I feel as though I have to be the knight in shining armor protecting both the boys and the girls. At the same time I tell them to enjoy their relationships and enjoy the thrill of being loved by someone other than their families. I must be rather confusing to the kids. I celebrate their healthy sexuality and then worry that they won't respect and protect themselves. I believe that sex is a beautiful gift—but I am terrorized by the thought of being sexual. I feel that in many ways I stopped growing at the age I was abused. I have always felt inferior and radically ruined in some way. I think more about death than I do about life, except when I am around my high school students. They are the best medicine for me. But if one of them gets into trouble I am heart broken as though somehow I am at fault. I am what is called co-dependent. I am also a recovering alcoholic and a compulsive over eater. I substitute work for adult relationships. I do not know how to relax, have no hobbies. And have endless body pains and illnesses.
Sometimes I get pains in my rectum as though I was being raped at that moment. But there is no physical reason for them. I have back pain that reminds me of the way I felt after I was beaten. I often tell people I feel like I was a tackling block for the Green Bay Packers. I have a lot of anger at my parents that they never wondered or asked me about why I came home from the campouts with so many pains, aches, and bruises. My mother had to see my bloody, messy underwear but she never asked me about it. Once, when I was showering at school a classmate asked about the bruises on my back and I told him I fell out of a tree. I made excuses not to take gym after a campout weekend for a few days.
In my 50's I started to have flashbacks. I would feel that I was back in the woods and in terrible danger. Then I started to see myself being raped, and then I started to remember these things as fact. Now, I can read something or be talking to someone and start to shake uncontrollably. I have been trained to do things to help myself in these situations, it is called grounding. But when I have one of those flashbacks, I am exhausted for a couple of days and filled with fear. I belong to a group of men speaking out about our sexual abuse. It is called National Organization on Male Sexual Victimization. As a result I have been in contact with teenaged boys who have just gotten free from abuse. I try to be of help to them but I will have the overwhelming feeling that I am going to cry after I have talked to them, (talked over the internet that is.). Sometimes, I do cry. But they have become a source of healing to me. I try to love and support them the way I wish someone would have been there for me. Of course, no one got the chance, because I never reached out for help. These boys are heroic. They are also hurting so badly. But at least they are working on their pain now as young people, rather than let it fester for years as I did. What really hurts is to hear them speak of the same, awful doubts and feelings of self hate or disgust that I had. It is so hard for them to understand that they are not at fault for what happened to them, and they are not less men because of it. It is so easy to say that to them with conviction—so hard to accept it for myself.
Surely, there is hope of healing and of maybe having a somewhat normal life. At least for those who begin to work on their problems while still young. I can't help but wonder what kind of a person I might have been if I had not been abused. What would it have been like to have lived, most of my life, as an emotionally healthy person? I will never know. What I do know is that I can no longer be silent about sexual abuse of boys and men. I will never stop telling people who are willing to listen, what the damages are for the child who is betrayed and abused, and often made to feel that he asked for it or desired it or enjoyed it. I will never be able to hear of a child being harmed that I will not tense up, get ill, and feel within me a murderous hate for the perpetrator—and then feel guilty for my feelings. I will never be able to not want to scream when I hear people say that perpetrators are poor, sick people, as though they could not help themselves from harming a child. I will never stop trying to get professionals and health care facilities to reach out to the abused. I will never stop trying to have child and youth pornographers receive long sentences and do hard time. I will always have a special love and compassion for my special brothers in suffering.