Reagan's son talks about his abuse
By Kathy A. Gambrell
UPI White House Reporter
From the Washington Politics &Policy Desk
Published 1/30/2003 6:19 PM
WASHINGTON, Jan. 30 (UPI) -- It was difficult for Michael Reagan to explain to his stepmother and father the immeasurable pain he had suffered for 30 years being the victim of sexual molestation.
The fact that his father was president of the United States and the fear that photographs his molester took of him might surface in the media during the election campaign made his admission that much tougher.
Reagan, now 53, is the adopted son of actress Jane Wyman and former President Ronald Reagan. His stepmother Nancy Reagan was present at the family's California ranch the day Michael decided to reveal what had happened to him years earlier.
Today, Michael Reagan lives in California, where he hosts his own conservative radio talk show, "The Mike Reagan Show." Looking at him, he reminds one of a college professor -- reserved, mild-mannered and intelligent. But on the air, Reagan is a firebrand of opinions.
He feels as strongly about what happened to him as a kid and what is happening to millions of other children in the United States every day.
He talked to United Press International about what happened that summer in 1953, how he eventually told his parents about it and what impact it has had on him as an adult.
Childhood sexual abuse occurs in secret, often exacting a lifelong toll on its victims. In some cases, it happens only once. Other times it can go on for years. Either way, the psychological toll on its victims can be devastating, plunging some into promiscuous behavior, drug abuse, alcoholism or even to the brink of suicide.
"I understand that pain," Reagan said. "I understand the agony," Reagan said.
Oftentimes children do not tell what is happening to them because their abusers threaten to harm them or their families. Some children, like Michael, are embarrassed, believing they did something wrong to attract the abuse.
Reagan is one of millions of adults who, as children, were victims of childhood sexual abuse. The National Center for the Victims of Crime in Washington reports that at least 20 percent of adult women and between 5 percent and 10 percent of adult men were sexually abused as children.
The National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse reported that state child protection agencies received 218,820 reports of child sexual abuse in 1996, the most recent year for which data is available.
"Young kids are going through this every day of their lives," Reagan said. "I really do understand your pain because I've been there." He said he draws his strength from his wife, Colleen, to whom he has been married 27 years. She was the first person he told about what had happened.
The senior Reagan was in his second term when Michael says he decided to reveal his decades-long secret to his father's new wife, Nancy, and his dad.
Michael was 8 years old when his parents placed him in a day camp at the Warner Avenue School in Beverly Hills. It was the man who then ran the camp at Ranch Hill Park who began molesting the young Reagan.
"There was a period of time when he took all the kids up into the Santa Monica Mountains, where he broke off with me and had me take my clothes off and photograph me naked," Reagan recalled.
It was a few days later when the man asked Reagan's mother if he could take the boy to dinner. Reagan said they went to the man's apartment, instead. There, he introduced Reagan to his makeshift photography darkroom awash in what Reagan recalls was a green haze. Suspended in the room was a clothesline filled with negatives and pans filled with developing solution.
"He took me in there, took a piece of paper, put it in some tongs and ran it through the different pans, and what came up was the photograph. To me it was like magic," Reagan said.
That is, until he realized that one of the pictures developed was of him taken that day in the mountains.
" I just went into shock. He put his hand on my right shoulder and asked, 'Wouldn't your mother like to have a copy of this?'" Reagan said. "I can't tell you how I got home. I know what happened afterwards, because he molested me again. But at that point I am blank."
The experience left Reagan wracked with guilt and self-doubt.
"I didn't talk about this until 1987 when I wrote my book, 'On the Outside Looking In.' I was afraid to tell anybody. God, I was Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman's son. What would people think of me?" Michael Reagan said. "What would people think of my parents?"
Reagan said he questioned his sexuality.
"I dealt with all the gay issues, as males do. We worry about 'Are we gay? Are we not gay? Will people think I'm gay?'" Reagan said.
He said he avoided becoming successful in his personal life, fearing that the photographs taken in the Santa Monica Mountains that day so long ago would surface.
"People would know I was living a lie," Reagan said.
He realized that his molester stole his life because for a long time that was the only part of his childhood he could focus on. He said he had horrendous dreams and became a bed wetter. He said he became filled with rage, once destroying a car with a sledgehammer. He dropped out of college after one semester.
He worked on a trucking dock and then raced boats. Reagan denies he ever used drugs or drank excessively, but says he was just angry.
"You're always blaming yourself," Reagan said.
Slowly, he said, he realized he had experienced some good times that he had forgotten about.
"I started thinking back to some things in my childhood and thought, 'Wow, that was fun,'" Reagan said.
Reagan has kept track of where his molester is. He discovered two years ago he was living in Iowa. California recently expanded the statute of limitations for past child abuse, allowing victims to sue their attackers. Reagan says he is considering legal action against his abuser.
While he helped his father campaign for governor of California, and then president, he worried that his secret would be discovered and it would ruin his father's political career.
"Looking back, if those photos has come out when my dad was running for president, I am not sure that suicide wouldn't have been an option," Reagan said.
In 1987, he said he was going to write a tell-all book about his family, revealing what he calls the "warts of the Reagan family."
"I actually broke down in the middle of writing it," Reagan said. He said he could not lie about what was happening in his life. He entered therapy in the Santa Monica Hospital, which at the time was offering free care to victims of abuse.
"I went in every week and dealt with it," Reagan said. Compounding his problems, he said, was at the time he was molested, he was also dealing trying to figure out why his birth mother gave him up for adoption. He decided then he was just inherently bad.
He said the decision to reveal his story to the world made his stepmother Nancy Reagan uneasy. "Families still don't like talking about it. Families aren't that much different than the Catholic Church. They think it shows badly on them. Like with Nancy, when I would go out on tour with the book, Nancy I remember calling me and saying, 'Now remember, when they get to -- you know -- 'that part,' remember when they talk to you about that, remind them you were living with your mother when that happened.' I would say, 'That's really not the issue,' but that is the issue with families," Reagan said.
As a result, he said, a lot of molested children wind up dealing with the incident alone.
He said he cried when in 1987 he told his father what had happened. Senior Reagan's response was decidedly fatherly.
"Where is that guy? I'll kick his ass," Reagan recalled his father saying. Nancy consoled the former president, saying, "Honey, it was 35 years ago. He probably doesn't have an ass anymore."
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