Editorial: Surviving pedophilia

·3 min read

How safe are the private, intimate spaces we call homes?

In 2013, “Harper’s Magazine” published a memoir, “Sliver of Sky,” on harpers.org.

The essayist is Barry Holstun Lopez, a recipient of the National Book Award in 1986 for his work, “Arctic Dreams,” one of 13 fiction and non-fiction books published before his death on Dec. 25, 2020.

In the Harper’s memoir, Lopez revealed that he was molested for many years as a child. The predator was Harry Shier, a man who was sought by the authorities for falsely claiming to be a doctor and performing botched surgeries on young boys, and later for sodomizing boys.

Lopez endured abuse for almost four years, beginning at the age of seven years when his mother, divorced from her husband, first welcomed Shier’s regular visits to her home where she lived with Barry and his then four-year-old brother.

In the early 1950s, sexual abuse was shrouded in social stigma that defiled the victim and by association, his or her family. This created pressure for both the victim and family members to deny the serial sexual abuse.

Shier cultivated the trust of Lopez’s mother because he had the verified, unquestionable reputation of a man performing an invaluable public service as the director of a sanitarium that helped alcoholics recover from addiction.

Lopez writes that Shier deflected his mother’s attention by treating a distant relative for alcoholism, and speaking with a client who enabled Lopez’s mother to have a salary raise. Shier also paid court to Lopez’s mother, raising hopes for a future improvement of their living in the lower-middle class, fatherless family of three.

“Why, people wonder, does the evidence for a child’s resistance in these circumstances usually seem so meager?” asks Lopez in his memoir. “Physical resistance, of course, is virtually impossible for most children. The child’s alternatives, as I understand them, never get much beyond endurance and avoidance—and speculation about how to encourage intervention.”

Shier used gaslighting to coerce the boy, lecturing to Lopez that he was helping his family by not speaking about the abuse and threatening to commit him to a mental institution if he were to confide in someone about the “treatments” Shier was giving Lopez.

Lopez taught himself to justify the sexual abuse as necessary to draw away Shier from his younger brother. However, years later, his brother told Lopez that he had also been sexually abused by Shier many times in the mid-1950s, one of many realizations (among these, that their mother had been earning enough and did not need the help of Shier) that accumulated and caused Lopez to become depressed at the age of 17.

“I had become confused about my sexual identity and was haunted by a sense of contamination, a feeling that I had been rendered worthless as a man because of what I had done,” Lopez writes.

Being physically free of Shier enabled Lopez to think beyond his own survival and wonder if other boys had been victimized by the pedophile. Yet, after speaking about the serial sexual abuse with his family and the authorities, Lopez frequently met this rationalization absolving Shier: “Whatever wrong he might have done in his private life, he had been of great value to the larger community.”

After decades of believing that denial and silence was the more prudent way to deal with the trauma of being serially abused by an predator who was, for a time, more trusted by his mother and then stepfather, Lopez sought the help of mental health professionals.

He writes in the Harper’s memoir:

“I have gathered that people seem to think that what victims most desire in the way of retribution is money and justice, apparently in that order. My own guess would be that what they most want is something quite different: they want to be believed, to have a foundation on which they can rebuild a sense of dignity. Reclaiming self-respect is more important than winning money, more important than exacting vengeance.”

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