For Chris Gavagan, the ongoing Penn State football child sex abuse scandal looks all too familiar.
A Brooklyn-based filmmaker, Gavagan is working on Coached Into Silence, a documentary about sexual abuse in sports that includes interviews with experts, victims, and a roller hockey coach Gavagan claims abused him when he was a teenager.
To understand how Penn State fits into the larger context of sexual abuse by coaches—as well as how the university’s leaders could display what the Freeh report termed a “total disregard for the safety and welfare of Jerry Sandusky’s child victims"— I recently spoke with Gavagan for an Atlantic online Q&A about the report, Joe Paterno and where the school goes from here.
Below are additional, previously unpublished items from that interview:
The Penn State board said it accepts "full responsibility” for failures that occurred, yet only one board member has stepped down. Paterno’s family and lawyers for other Penn State officials insist they did nothing wrong. How common is that kind of reaction from the people and organizations responsible for children’s welfare when wrongdoing and cover-ups are exposed?
With a Federal investigation still ongoing, much of this story is yet to be told. In general, institutions have adopted the deny what you can, admit what you must strategy. In one of the cases in the film, it was only after the coach who made a school a powerhouse for 30 years passed away that the school acknowledged that there were credible reports of sexual abuse of students. Not so coincidentally, this acknowledgment occurred after the statute of limitations on these crimes had passed.
In many cases, you also see similar “cherry-picked” information, such as Penn State’s decisions being made based on Seasock’s psychological report, rather than Dr. Chambers’ report. Loyalists who will back up the school’s version of events are pushed to the forefront, while those who line up against them are discredited.
Still, one need only look at each individual Olympic national governing body, sport by sport, to see the gamut of reactions to allegations of sexual abuse. Sometimes when a high profile program – USA Swimming, USA Gymnastics – is exposed for having ‘mishandled’ sexually abusing coaches within their ranks, those programs have learned from their mistakes, adopting a more proactive stance toward prevention. Many other institutions have responded by reexamining their own policies regarding, among other things, the mandated reporting of child sexual abuse.
Based on what you’ve seen in other cases, what do you expect the ultimate outcome of the legal process to be? Will people besides Jerry Sandusky go to jail?
Anything can happen when a case is handed over to a jury, but from the evidence that has been made public via the grand jury and the Freeh report, it appears quite clear that [Penn State athletic director] Tim Curley and [vice president Gary] Schultz perjured themselves. It is also clear, in denying any knowledge of the 1998 incident involving Sandusky, that Joe Paterno himself lied to the Grand Jury.
Were the coach alive today, I do believe that after the release of the Freeh report there would have been no way for him to avoid being charged with perjury.
What are the most important lessons Penn State can draw from the Freeh Report? What are the most important lessons society can draw?
For society as a whole, I think the most valuable way to see the Freeh report is as a dye-injected MRI through which we can learn more about a disease – the disease of willful institutional silence regarding the sexual abuse of children.
The has report has given us a clearer – though still imperfect and incomplete – picture of how a coverup like this can and does occur so often. It illustrates the positions where the decisions are made, the thought processes that led to those decisions and how very bright people chose to take the legally and ethically wrong path.
What steps can and should Penn State take now and in the future to prevent this from happening again, and also to address the damage done to Sandusky’s victims?
A change in the culture surrounding Penn State is a must, which is much, much easier said than done when the defining moment of a university’s week includes over a hundred thousand screaming “We Are …”
Having met many residents of State College and nearby Bellefonte throughout the course of the trial, I have seen people who are already having to come to grips with the complicated relationship between the geographical area and the university. As one elderly, dyed-in-Navy-and-White supporter told me “Love the Lion, hate the lies.” I admire that. And to that end, no less than full disclosure will do. I am all in favor of an international style truth and reconciliation commission
The soil in State College will remain toxic until the entire truth comes out. Until that time, the foundation is cracked. To build upon a foundation of lies, as shown so clearly in the Freeh report, only guarantees your eventual collapse.
As someone who has been a victim of coach sex abuse, how did the Freeh Report affect you emotionally? Do you have any insight into the sort of emotional impact the report’s release might have on other victims, including those of Sandusky?
Preproduction on Coached into Silence began in the Spring of 2009, with with the first interview shot in November of 2009. That means that through our research and ongoing filming, we have lived with all aspects of the sexual abuse of children by coaches every day for three years. Even more personally, I have dealt with life after sexual abuse for the last 20 years. Far from being jaded by being steeped in this issue so deeply for so long, through the anguish of every victim that I speak to the loss is made fresh and real all over again.
The Freeh report, when coupled with what will likely amount to a life sentence for a highly-respected and powerful man who used his position to prey on children, provides a measure of empowerment in seeing that (a) the victims were (eventually) believed; and (b) consequences are occuring.
When it comes to the unbelievably courageous young men that took the stand and faced their abuser – as well as all other unnamed victims of Jerry Sandusky that will never have their photographs projected on a screen in the Centre County courthouse – my hope is that the verdict brought them hope.
What I know is that somewhere, sleeping peacefully in their bed the night the verdict was handed down, the next victim of Jerry Sandusky just gets to be a child instead. No thanks to the powerful men who ran Penn State – who would have sacrificed that boy on their pigskin altar – but with all credit to those courageous young men who took the stand, who looked the devil in the face and spoke the truth in Bellefonte, PA.
Should the school end its football program? Why or why not?
Many will speak of the unfortunate athletes who would lose the opportunity afforded by their scholarships. My heart goes out to any innocent party that could be counted as collateral damage of this coverup, but the responsibility for the trickle down effect of these crimes lies with those who committed, enabled and covered them up, not those who hand out justice for those crimes.
In my opinion, if children have been raped on your campus, on your watch, you forfeit the right to carry on playing games until a complete overhaul in the way that you do business has been achieved. Calling a billion dollar football-industrial-complex a game may seem naive, but contrary to the prevailing attitudes, that is still what football is.
I don’t believe the program should be ended. Suspension for a period of years? I believe that the NCAA will weigh in very harshly over violations of the Clery act alone.
(Editor’s note: interview was conducted before the NCAA’s levying of penalties on Penn State football).
An institution such as Penn State has learned the hard way that they must bring the same the same transparency, the same level of vigilance, the same strict enforcement to crimes committed on their campus as they have tried to bring to NCAA violations. As detailed in the Freeh report, when labeling a sports agent who bought one of their football players $400 worth of clothing “persona non grata” and banning him from campus, Spanier and his cohorts acted like Michael Corleone. When they were faced with one of their own raping children on their hallowed grounds, when it mattered most … they were Fredo.
The investigation was deep in the places that it dug, but it was not nearly wide enough to tell anything approaching the full story. The bulk of this story, and it’s corresponding missing 30 years, is still to be told.
Coached into Silence director Chris Gavagan was a guest on the Diane Rehm show to discuss the film, the issue of child sexual abuse and the charges against former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.
Amendola’s one-man circus.
New York Times article "Coaching Gives Abusers Opportunity and Trust"
Chris Gavagan, a filmmaker who is making a documentary on sexual abuse in sports called “Coached Into Silence,” based largely on abuse he said he endured from a youth hockey coach starting when he was 14, is among those who believe the problems for boys in sports are much larger than suspected. Not only does it happen more than people want to think, he said, but the culture of sports works against a child trying to report it.
“Sexually abused boys are going to be the most silent group,” Gavagan said, adding that the allegations involving Sandusky, if true, fit a familiar pattern.
“With the whole macho atmosphere of sports, it seems to be the perfect storm of circumstances,” he said. “There’s the cult of personality that keep these guys the kings of their little kingdoms, the sense of hero worship. The kinds of things Sandusky was offering those boys is every boy’s dream — trips to bowl games, going down on the field. It allows these things to go on for a long time. And when you don’t tell someone the first time it happens, you already feel complicit.”
Gavagan has become involved in the rush to respond to the allegations against Sandusky and Fine, including testifying in front of a Pennsylvania legislative committee supporting laws requiring people to formally report to the authorities any allegations of sex abuse.
Testimony before the Pennsylvania House Children and Youth Committee in support of increased mandated reporting of childhood sexual abuse & opening a “window” in the statute of limitations.
“I want to thank you all for being here, for convening this meeting, and for listening.
My name is Chris Gavagan and for the past two years I have been producing and directing a documentary called Coached into Silence which deals specifically with the sexual abuse of boys by their coaches. The silence referred to in the title is threefold: the silence of shame victims can find themselves shrouded in, the silence of institutions protecting themselves before children, and finally the legal silencing of the victims in their search for justice.
The process of first researching and then filming Coached into Silence, which is ongoing, would have been enough to make me a lowercase “e” expert on the subject of child sexual abuse, yet my expertise is of the decidedly capital “E” variety.
I am today because I am also an invisible, untabulated statistic. In my quest to be a better hockey player, having just turned fourteen years old, I skated down the wrong block in my neighborhood and into the carefully laid trap of a serial child molester. On this tree-lined street, a street just like yours, I would become the victim of an uncounted crime, perpetrated by a unaccountable criminal.
That day is the B.C./A.D line of demarcation in my life. My childhood ended on a Fall day in 1988 and that was that. I was exposed to everything that a parent would try to protect their child from. An adult world, a darker world, a world that is cruel and obscene. A world where you will be lied to and used, all the while being told that it was for your own good. One “It’s okay to curse here, we’re all guys” at a time. One beer at a time. Or one dozen. One Playboy at a time. One glimpse of pornography at a time leading the way for a hundred more. One “massage” of a pulled muscle at a time. A child in the hands of a polished master manipulator, who had perfected his grooming process over decades.
Fifteen years ago I was certain that I would take this secret with me to the grave. I had resigned myself to a life as Damaged Goods. As someone who brought nothing but pain to anyone foolish enough to care. I had also resigned myself to life as a liar, because from the moment you first answer the question “Is everything okay?” with “Yes” you have lied about something that is fundamental. Those lies and the echoes from those years of abuse poisoned every single human interaction that I had for a decade. That I am not counted among the other statistics…the addicted, the incarcerated, the incapacitated or the suicides, is it’s own miracle.
The crimes that occurred in & around State College are appalling, heartbreaking andanything but unique. The nation as a whole seems to be paying attention because of the celebrity status of the names & institution involved. Yet the scale is always the same to the victims. The loss of innocence, the shattering of trust, the sense of betrayal, the shame…occupies every inch of its container. “Grief fills the room up of my absent child”, said Shakespeare. Both my parents & their youngest son would concur.
In directing & producing my film for the last two years our research has introduced us to thousands of similar cases. All that changes are the proper names for the actors, but the roles played are the same. The pedophile is no doubt the lead, but without the supporting actors this tragic show would have a very short run. Without the willful blindness of the Head in the Sand Ensemble, the “letter of the law” of the Moral Minimalists, the excuses proffered by the Apologists, the Moneymen jangling their thirty pieces of silver backstage, and the uncritical praise of the Hero Worshipers there would be no show at all.
The Sandusky horror show has made itself a Broadway performance of ‘How Not to Handle a Child Rapist in Your Ranks", but trust this: the curtain rises on this disaster of dramaturgy in Community theaters, in every community, every night. All the world’s a stage for this particular play. In every place that there is a hierarchical structure and a chain of command to be followed…whether in schools or sports leagues, our churches to our military to our families themselves..bucks are being passed, free passes are being given and all in the name of protecting a reputation or a brand, a legacy or a surname.
In these cases, bystanders are the load-bearing walls of the child rapist’s house of horrors. Without their support, the crimes would collapse in on the criminal almost immediately. Instead, each head turned away, each excuse offered, each whispered benefit of the doubt that it was “just a one time thing” or worse…each willful coverup of a known crime adds up to a generation of children used, raped, sodomized and eventually disenfranchised and silenced by laws that failed to protect them in the first place.
The Law is supposed to function as a system of incentives, which incentivize us to behave responsibly, or face the system of accountability which is in place. It’s why we wear our seat belts. In fact it’s why we have them at all. So buckle up, I’d like to show just a few moments of interviews that I conducted with my own former coach and abuser. A man that I did report to the league to end his access to children. A league that did fire him, but did no more, allowing him unfettered access to a whole new crop of young boys, while coaching just six miles down the road. Prior to this interview, I had not had contact with him for nearly 15 years.
(I then played four minutes from interviews with my own abuser. His admitting sexual abuse and justifying it by calling it a “lesson”. His concern that doing this interview could put him in jail. His relieved laughter when the issue of New York’s statute of limitations–age 23–is raised, and then this man walking away, fading back in to his neighborhood.)
Coached into Silence is not a monster movie. The man that you met in that video would—to this day–be described by dozens of people around him as “the nicest guy you’ll ever meet” You’ve seen that face. There are no horns on that head. You’ve seen that smile; there no fangs among those teeth. Yet the sound that has persevered longest & recurred to me the most often in my life is those teeth. The sound of those dentures being removed.
The wet clicking sound of a serial child sexual predator moving in on his prey. When he was sure that a just-turned-fourteen-year old had consumed enough alcohol to pass out…after countless hours of shock & awe bombardment of pornography. After months of methodical grooming, semi-conscious, I looked down to see the bald head of my hockey coach…while the wet, clicking sound of dentures being removed boomed in my ears. It still does. It always will.
Because I eventually reported the man that you saw on that screen mere months beyond an arbitrary statute of limitations in my state, he–who explains performing oral sex on children as a lesson—lives freer than I have been any day since the age of fourteen.
I must add, that after sexually abusing children for a minimum of three decades, that man would also pass any background check in America. The law says: Unprosectuable, unregistered, unrestrained. His neighbors will not see a red flag on any registry warning them to keep their children away. Just as crucially, without the simple truth that victims of these crimes can so easily provide, law enforcement will continue be forced to fight these crimes blindfolded.
In the world of Homeland Security, the mantra “See something, say something” has gained traction and proven effective. Yet we are missing an entirely different and much more prevalent terrorism. When it comes to the crime of sexual abuse of our children, “See something, say something” has too often been replaced with “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.” This is not good enough.
Maya Angelou writes: “History, despite it’s wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced, with courage need not be lived again. The key phrase is "if faced with courage”.
When a child’s future is hanging by a thread, there can be no margin for error. We must face the wrenching pain of what we see or suspect with courage–and make no mistake—the difference can mean life or death to a child
My documentary focuses on boys who were sexually abused by coaches because I was one of those boys. Life handed me and so many others that narrative, yet the statistics for girls are even more staggering.
Two days ago, my wife & I saw the face of our daughter for the first time, in utero.
We will meet her early this spring. When that day arrives, I need to be able to look into her eyes and know that I am doing everything that is humanly possible to keep her safe. Just as you need to be able to go home to your own children, to see your own nieces & nephews, your grandchildren….and look them in the eyes and know that you are facing this issue–with courage. That you are doing everything within the power your elected position provides to keep them safe. You must answer to those eyes. Today you are a step closer. You are facing this issue with courage today by being here, by convening this hearing, by lending us your ears and your attention this December day.
If protections are strengthened and bills become laws enacted, come springtime your courage to look at the tragedies surrounding Penn State and provide remedies can be the cause of the thaw that turns the tide of this epidemic forever.
Moral minimums will not do that. Passing the buck will not do that. Denial will not do that. Heads in the sand will not do that. Wishing it would go away will not make it so. The time is now to face these troubled and tragic histories with courage.
History is being written every day, with every choice. Every action & every inaction. You have the power to write a safer & more just future wherein you have demonstrated that the protection of our children is paramount. Where you have done better than the moral minimalists and their “I wish I had done more"s. You are all here today, and you are listening. That gives me hope that all of you; elected to serve the people of Pennsylvania, might use this tragic moment as an opportunity to do the right thing. By leading by example. By facing this with courage these dark days can be transformed into a light. If sunlight is the best disinfectant, the time is now to unshutter and open a window provision in your statute of limitations. Let the light of justice, the light of hope, and the light of truth lead the way.
Thank you for your time."
The day the nation awoke to learn of the charges against former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky the one reaction that I was unable to muster was shock.
Not because we had been following the developments regarding Sandusky since March (we have), but because of the 2+ year process of research & production for Coached into Silence.
We had investigated hundreds of cases and those cases were chosen from among thousands of others which we could have chosen to pursue. Dozens more every day. Nearly point by point, any of these cases only distinguish themselves from the events at Penn State by the proper names involved.
There is a template which you could lay over nearly every story where an institution has chosen to protect itself rather than the children which fits PSU all too well. There are countless Joe Paternos, following the letter of the law and doing no more. There are untold numbers of Mike McQuerys. There are Jerry Sanduskys in every town, in your town. The story broke and, as ever, I was heartbroken for the victims and their families. The story broke and I was outraged yet again by the protecting of the ‘brand’ while children are thrown to the wolves. The story broke yet what I could not be, was shocked.
Given what we know about predators of this sort, tragically the only thing that could shock me in this case would be hearing that the number of boys who fell victim to this man doesn’t eventually approach triple-digits.
You won’t read this entry on the subway, but you may well have read the Daily News articleby Michael O’Keeffe while moving through a tunnel beneath New York City.
Your ride this morning, was in a roughly 60x10 stainless steel box, which at rush hour may hold as many as two-hundred and fifty human beings. Many of you read a story of a man who had experienced sexual abuse, and if you made it all the way through, may have thought: “Not me”.
I wish that for you.
I have had people tell me that they “didn’t know anyone that had happened to”. The statistics will say that approximately 63 people in your rush hour subway car had a very different reaction, from direct personal experience alone.
Some percentages, for perspective:
The percentage of boys who have had unwanted or abusive sexual experiences before age 16 in America is comparable to the percentage of Americans who have blue eyes. The percentage of girls who have experienced these abuses is comparable to the percentage of Americans who have a college degree.
Have you met anyone with blue eyes? Have you met anyone with a college degree? Tens of millions Americans have lived with, have lived through childhood sexual abuse. Not all of them lived long enough to earn the label of ‘survivor’. None of us, whether we have dodged this all-too-common bullet or not, have the luxury of hearing these stories as stories about ‘Them’. They are always stories about ‘Us’.
We sit or stand in our subway cars, and we create the illusion of separation from those who are surrounding us, as if this were the last line of defense against something that threatened our own way of life. We look at the stockbroker in the suit we could never afford, the woman in the shoes we wouldn’t be caught dead in. We hear a loud expletive-laced argument between teenagers, or the hypnotic, murmured davening of Hasidim. We smell the push cart gyro someone is shoveling in, in between stops, or we breathe in the over-perfumed (or under-groomed) aroma of the person shoe-horned in next to us and think “Not me…”
This is New York City. Often we experience all of these things in a single moment of near sensory-overload. But our senses do not overload. We leave that to John Rocker on the 7. We are New Yorkers. We can handle it. We are made for it. We are made of it.
And speaking of ingredients…
The mapping of the human genome tells us that 98.77% of DNA base pairs of humans and chimpanzees are the same. The person scrolling down this page on their iPad & Ronald Reagan’s late co-star Bonzo. 98.77% the same. The Human Genome Project has also told us that, genetically, we are 60% the same as a delicious, potassium-packed banana. Yet somehow, we will look across the subway car, and see a human being that we so quickly define and dismiss as ‘Other’. The homeless man, the CEO, the migrant worker, the child in the stroller that just rolled across the tops of your feet, the owner of the elbow lodged in your ribs. Name a nationality, name a religion, name a shade, name an age, name an occupation…and try to find a way that is of any substance that goes beyond the surface to distinguish Us from Them.
Can. Not. Be. Done.
We all want to be happy, but struggle to find what the truly means. We all want to avoid suffering, and often mistakenly or ignorantly bring worse upon ourselves. We throw monkey wrenches into our own gears. We slip on the banana peels of ourselves. Ten-thousand joys and ten-thousand sorrows…the Eight Worldly Winds: praise and blame, success and failure, pleasure and pain, fame and disrepute…find us all in mildly varying measures.
Like it or not, embrace it or reject it, scientifically and spiritually speaking:
We are made of the same stuff.
No ‘Not me’…no ’Me’…there is only ever Us.
I’m reminded of a line from Fight Club “We cook your meals, we haul your trash, we connect your calls, we drive your ambulances. We guard you while you sleep.” When it comes to male survivors of sexual abuse…we are you, and we are everywhere. We are your fathers and your sons. We are your uncles and your cousins. We are your husbands and your boyfriends. We are your co-workers, your teammates, your friends.
We don’t get to be ‘different’…We’ve got too much company.
What follows is a transcript of my statement in support of the Child Victims Act to members of the New York State Assembly, press, advocates & survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
“I’d like to say that I’m making this film from some pure journalistic curiosity.
As you know, that’s not the case.
I am making this film because at fourteen years old, when all I wanted in the world was to be a better hockey player, I skated down the wrong block. Five blocks from my home in Brooklyn, a trap had been laid. This was a trap perfected by a man who by that point had coached a thousand young boys over twenty years. He made himself a master of manipulating both adults and children.
When I decided to move forward with this project, I sent this man, my abuser of 4 years a letter asking him to be involved in this documentary about “the men who made us what we are today.” He jumped at the opportunity, saying it would be the honor of his life.
I’d like to show you a few moments from these interviews now.
(I then played four minutes of interviews with my own abuser. Admitting and justifying sexual abuse as a “lesson”. Raising the concern that doing this interview could put him in jail. Laughing with relief when the issue of New York’s statute of limitations–age 23–is raised. And then this man walking away, fading back in to his neighborhood.)
When people see this man walking back into his neighborhood, they all ask the same question: “What neighborhood is this guy walking back into?"
Your neighborhood. That’s the answer to that question.
All of our neighborhoods.
Those who have suffered sexual abuse as children have become tragic experts in a field that the rest of the world wants to pretend does not exist. Yet survivors can be society’s lifeguards. While millions of children splash about in the surf right now, there are sharks circling. Survivors bear the scars of these sharks. We are the ones who can say “There. There is the predator that attacked me."
Give the people who know, the chance to say what they know.
The statute of limitations have taken the whistles from the lifeguards. Victims are forced to watch; helpless, mute—as predators sink their teeth into the next victim, and the next victim. While we scream on the sand, child after child is snatched from the sunlight and dragged to the darkness below. Not every child will survive to see the surface again. None will emerge from this fully intact.
There is blood on somebody’s hands here…
The statute of limitations by it’s very existence in cases of child sex abuse—create more victims. Many lawmakers seem to cast their vote as if they believe a shark, once fed, will never eat again. The reality is that these predators will feed for a lifetime on our children. And the short statute of limitations in our state guarantees 30, 40, 50 more years of children—our children—your children—as prey. A generation of children that could so easily have been spared.
I have been forced to watch–helpless– as my own abuser, a coach with direct easy & access to a hundred children a year for decades, found his next victim, and his next victim. I reported him at twenty-four years old. So close…
In my case, the criminally short statute of limitations has created a video vigilante. In my darkest years, this story could have had other endings. I would have killed myself to end the pain. I would have very easily killed my abuser to end the threat to other children. To make the shame go away. I could have made the only person who knew my secret go away just like that. What are your options when your ability just to tell the truth has been taken away by law?
But I but I didn’t drive the three hours from New York City to impugn the good name of this esteemed body by implying that the majority don’t care about safety at all.
In fact the majority have voted to make the great state of New York a safe haven. Let it be known to molesters, pedophiles and child sex predators that this state has chosen to protect you. You are safe here. With each failure to pass the Child Victims Act we are saying to these criminals: Welcome to New York.
When we have to rely on other states such as Massachusetts to enforce our laws, to arrest & try our criminals what we are telling those who rape and molest children is this: New York is the path of least resistance. Stay within our borders, and you are unprosecutable.
Passing the Child Victims Act can change that. A vote for the Cild Victims Act can put you on the right side of history. You can let the true experts, the survivors, have their day in court, to say what they know. You can give the lifeguards back their whistles, you can play your part in looking an a pandemic, a shark-infested sea, and saying: "We’re gonna need a bigger boat”.
You must extend the statute of limitations by passing the Child Victims Act and giving the victims back their voice…otherwise I’m afraid that this legislative body will go down in history as an assembly of accomplices.”
I am a writer, first and foremost.
Mine is not an an instinct for exhibitionism. I can be intensely private. These days, that seems to render one an anachronism. I do not tweet what I had for breakfast. I do not ‘check in’ online to let an imagined audience know that I just bought a half gallon of milk at the local bodega. I do not vent my grievances as status updates. I try to avoid airing dirty laundry, and even the clean linens are kept in their place, folded; not flaunted. I am not judging a single person who has embraced these ways.
Yet through my creative writing, every hope, fear, strength and weakness has always–will always–be laid bare. Scattered across a dozen screenplays, one would find the unvarnished truth of an emotional life lived. Nearly none of those stories are strictly autobiographical, yet they are all me. And if I am writing these with an eventual audience to receive them in mind…then I have already tweeted my breakfast, so to speak. And my ‘modest’ ego deems that worthy of 120 pages at a time, rather than 140 characters. So again, I am not judging those who partake in the technological party. Only the chosen medium distinguishes the forms of sharing ourselves. One of many ways that I am old fashioned.
My training and experience in the independent film world, fifteen years of honing my craft as a writer, a dozen years as a meditator facing 'what is’…and my entire biography have all merged within Coached into Silence. If you sought out this page today, you’ll know the line is blurred beyond recognition.
Beyond just including my personal story among the others in Coached into Silence, never was this me/movie muddiness more obvious than September 25th. It sank in as I was being wired by our sound mixer Bret, preparing to step in front of the camera for the first time since we were all required to do so in film school a dozen or so years prior. The mere moments from having a microphone taped to my skin, to the beginning of the interview left little time for mental luxuries such as self-consciousness. If I had thought about a ‘Big Screen Debut’ prior to that, myriad considerations; my clothes, my hair, my crooked teeth, my voice, my poor posture…all would have had their moment to annoy and undermine. Without a second’s thought given to these considerations, I had once choice, which was hardly a choice at all. Just be me. This was not a role to be played, this was not a character that I had written to safely hide behind and speak through. For better or worse, my entire directive was; Be Me. That was my intention on that day and with this documentary: Serve the truth as I know it.
If the golden rule of writing is to 'write what you know’, it is trumped only by it’s prerequisite; the commandment to be that which you truly are. And so here I am, having just been asked to speak at as press conference at the New York State Capitol in Albany on Tuesday about Coached into Silence and the experiences that inspired it. This is uncharted territory for me. Also speaking will be two of the heroes of this movement for justice, Assemblywoman Margaret Markey & Professor Marci Hamilton. They are among the giants upon whose shoulders we stand every day. It has been an honor to have them associated with Coached into Silence, to have them speak in our film. Now Assemblywoman Markey will be introducing me to the world, and it is my turn to speak. Be careful what you wish for…this genie will not go back in the bottle. That rounded glass refuge has shattered to shards.
What happens next?
I have been warned that I may lose the respect of many who are close to me, and possibly gain the respect of a stranger. I will quite certainly cause pain for those who love me. I’d rather those wounds scab instead of scar, so new healthier skin can grow. I want those who love me to know exactly who it is they are loving, with masks torn away and walls torn down. What I gain by taking this public step is not theoretical or down the road. In taking this step, I give myself the gift of integration and of wholeness. I am taking down the lone barrier in my life which has separated the world into 'those who know’ & ’ those who do not know.’ I might also, as is my hope, provide some small measure of comfort for a number of people whom I will never meet. Those who are living in shadow may learn a simple single fact that makes this worthwhile: You are not and have never been alone.
More optimistically still, I daydream that someone–years down the line–may never need to take my film down off some dusty shelf in order to have benefitted from it. I retain the human right to dream, and so I dream that this project will have an impact. It has already had an impact on me, one thousand times daily. So if I lose the eye contact of those whom I call neighbor, perhaps I may gain the handshake of one who I would have labeled 'stranger’, prior to this public step forward. Both definitions are relative, reductive, ephemeral and diminishing, as all labels are.
I am laying all that I have and all that I am on the line, personally & professionally. In our society, labels stick, merely for convenience; ease of reference. In my business, ‘typecasting’ is so prevalent because it allows a judgement, once passed, to replace any further complex consideration in the future. We put each other–and ourselves–in boxes, in closets, in drawers. These roles rarely fit, yet we play our parts. No wall can ever hold what a human being truly is, or more importantly what they can become. Evolution laughs at every fence that has ever been built. A natural world that created something called wings scoffs at all efforts at sequestration. Evolutionary means of overcoming may be a wee bit long-term, still, I understand the possibilities…and the risks.
My name is Chris Gavagan and the label that likely brought you here today reads thusly: I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of my hockey coach. My story was the genesis for Coached into Silence, and forms it’s spine…but better men than I provide it’s limbs, it’s lungs, it’s eyes, it’s brain and it’s heart. I hope to have the honor of introducing you to those courageous men in the coming months.
Every voice raised fights the silent injustices of this most silent of epidemics. If I began by self-applying the label of writer, I must now earn it. It is time for me to give voice to the many thousands of words typed.
It’s time to write the speech of my life.
While we prepare for our next round of interviews, I just wanted to take a few moments to summarize what has brought us to this point.
As a concept, the project which would eventually become Coached into Silence began several years ago. At the time I had naively envisioned it as an objectively journalistic, detached “issue film” exploring the sexual abuse of boys within the world of organized sports. When the subject matter is so under-discussed and the stakes so high, such a documentary could have still had value. Anything that raises awareness can aid prevention. Anything that lets those who have suffered these abuses know that they are not alone can provide a small measure of support.
We began our research process in the Fall of 2009. The deeper we found ourselves buried in the thousands and thousands of cases, the more we had to face the following disturbing fact: No matter how many cases you would find—90% of these abuses will never be “cases” at all. The fact that we can even read about a report of child sexual abuse already makes it a rare exception to the rule. As we delved farther into the reasons for that statistic, we began a series of interviews with many of the leading experts on the subject. Psychological & legal experts, those at the vanguard of prevention, support and advocacy…all of whom played a part in opening our eyes to facets of the issue that we had never known existed.
We were determined to represent the full scope of this issue. These abuses occur in every sport, across all levels of sport, and so we will be including survivors who played in the smallest town little leagues to those who eventually made their name in the professional ranks. There are no boundaries or barriers that guarantee a child is protected from falling prey to someone in a position of power intent on exploiting their access to children. “At risk” urban public schools and leagues are short of all resources, including those which would provide safeguards for children, while elite preparatory academies have the money and influence to protect the facade of their “pristine” reputations.
From the cracked asphalt of inner city leagues blighted by poverty and neglect, to the immaculately manicured fields of private bucolic Ivy League feeder schools. Once you have scratched the surface, you have to go all the way.
As our research continued, we began to reach out to those who had been directly affected by these crimes. Men and boys, their parents and loved ones. There was nothing to be gained for them personally by opening these wounds and speaking out. Their hope is that by opening their lives to us others may be helped, may even be spared the nightmares that they have endured.
As these conversations continued, the original ‘detached’ vision of Coached into Silence began to fade as the project became more and more personal with each passing moment. As I began to meet these courageous people, as I talked to them for hours, the emotional roller-coaster rumbled ahead. One moment appalled at the crimes themselves and then outraged at the injustices that too often followed. In the next moment, I would find myself completely awestruck by the courage of these survivors.
Though the conversations were painful, I felt safe sandbagged behind my role as “filmmaker”. It wasn’t long before each crack in their voice began to bring about cracks in my own armor. I’d sit with the articles & notes from these pre-interviews, I’d discuss them at length with m’lady and lead researcher. I’d sit silently by myself, taking inventory of my emotional and physical state, becoming aware of the knot in my stomach and I would ask myself “What are you resisting?”
During the next phone conversation with a young man who had been the victim of a serial molesting coach who left at least a hundred wounded children in his wake, the knot in my stomach returned. Exactly what I had been resisting revealed itself once and for all.
I felt like a fraud.
How dare I ask these people to reveal these stories, their darkest days, their darkest secrets, when I had chosen not to include the story I know best of all?
From the moment I chose to include my story as the thread that will tie all of these disparate stories together Coached into Silence has taken on a life of it’s own. The first step in that direction was a doozie….
The peculiarities of social networking sites being what they are, I shouldn’t have been surprised when–in one of those very Facebook sort of ways–it turned out to be ‘throwback day’ or ’ old school’ day or some such thing which translated into 'post an old picture of yourself as a profile picture.’ On this day I was greeted in my news feed by the High School graduation photo of the youngest son of my own abuser.
When the friend request originally arrived, I did have to weigh this particular single-degree-of-separation connection, yet I accepted after considering it for only a few moments. After all I hoped to have ‘the conversation’ with him at some point in the future.
Having already returned to the house where these abuses took place for the interview that kicked off production of Coached into Silence, I fancied myself difficult to unnerve, yet that picture hit me hard.
Prior to that interview, I had not stepped foot in 822 for at least a dozen years. As I toured the house, camera in hand, my visceral reaction to the sights and smells and the memories that these brought back surprisingly took a back seat to the new information that I was discovering. As I tried to calmly process both separate streams of stimuli, a framed photograph froze me in place.
On a bedside table stood a cardboard frame holding my own high school graduation photo, nearly two decades old. More disturbing than seeing my younger face two feet from a where a pedophile slept, was the revelation that the photograph was not alone. Behind mine, in layers, were other photographs of yet another boy, and another. One proud but distant at his Confirmation. Another with a forced smile & dead eyes in a school photo. Another boy’s graduation photo bore witness from high atop the dresser. The collection was a collision of Norman Rockwell and Norman Bates. Pedophiles; unable to connect in any real way, insteadcollect. Trophies. Milestone moments; graduations & confirmations, captured in pictures while boys were captured in the teeth of this meticulously laid trap. Just as Norman Bates added the Crane, Marion, to his collection of stuffed birds, the photographs of these boys were the collected notches on the belt of a serial child sexual molester. Dead, still life. Never aging, frozen forever at precisely the age he wanted us. The burden of what my own eyes in that photograph may have seen in all of these years will always weigh heavily on me. Framed, I was right there, bearing photographic witness to countless crimes against the other boys in his collection of “proteges.”
Seeing the graduation photo of his youngest son online today had me mourning something altogether different as I remembered all of the images that I saw in that house. It had me thinking of what was nowhere to be seen in that house. There were no pictures of his own sons anywhere. This man, unable to connect to his own sons, collected other people’s sons. Incapable of fulfilling his most important role in life as a father; he role-played as (in his own words) “a father figure in disguise.” Fatherhood, in it’s only pure & genuine form was available to him; a rare thing in his life that was not fully taken advantage of. We boys who crossed his path suffered for this, but we are not the only ones.
Upon seeing the graduation photograph of his youngest son, a photograph that has no place in the home where that young man grew up, a wholly new reaction surfaced:
Compassion for the son robbed by circumstance of the only father he will ever have.