I was born in 1972, one year before Roe v. Wade, when abortion in America was illegal.
I never imagined I’d spend sleepless nights at age fifty worrying about my nieces’ reproductive freedom. But then again, I never imagined I’d need an abortion.
When I celebrated my milestone birthday last March, I was filled with gratitude for what I now view as a gift given to me at age twenty-three.
My abortion allowed me a second chance, the opportunity to live the life of my choosing. Without it, I don’t know where I’d be, but I do know I wouldn’t be writing this today.
I’ve spent several days over the past year attending rallies on the Village Green in my hometown of Falmouth, Massachusetts in support of reproductive freedom, beginning on January 22, the 49th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. I joined the small, hardy group that was undeterred by the “invigorating” New England weather.
As I found a spot behind the fence, I found myself among kindred spirits. Some were there for personal reasons, others to support those of us who have been hiding in the shadows of shame.
Some in attendance broke the law decades ago by seeking abortions, while others are considered criminals for assisting friends and loved ones.
I was one of the few, perhaps only women representing the Roe Era.
When I lost control over what was happening to my body, I had the safe, legal option to choose the outcome. I’ve never taken that for granted.
It felt as if I had been invited to a celebration for an old friend, who was there for me at my lowest, and I could finally join the party.
Since telling my “dirty secret” two years ago, right before the 2020 Presidential election, I’ve been freed of that overwhelming shame I harbored due to the patriarchy, misogyny, hypocrisy, and gas lighting of the Roman Catholic Church.
It was my third time standing out in Falmouth for abortion rights, but my first in that very prominent spot in our town, making it feel even more significant.
We wore green, in solidarity with the Marea Verde, the Green Wave representing the activists and organizations fighting to expand and decriminalize abortion access in Latin America.
Penny Duby of the Upper Cape Women’s Coalition, one of the organizers of the event, presented us with green ribbons for makeshift armbands. She also gave me a pin, which I proudly fastened prominently on my green winter coat: Someone You Love Has Had An Abortion.
The event was bittersweet, like celebrating someone in hospice care, for those of us paying attention to this issue knew the overturning of Roe was most likely imminent.
One of the first people I spotted was State Representative Susan Moran (D-Falmouth). She wasn’t there for a photo opportunity, but rather, because she believes reproductive justice is a human right, not a political issue to be weaponized.
I first met Su over a decade ago, when I did publicity for West Falmouth Library, where she volunteered her time as a board member. I saw firsthand her commitment to her community. I consider myself lucky to call her a friend, and I’m equally lucky to be a constituent, as she vows to continue fighting for reproductive rights.
I introduced myself to the woman next to me, Jill Heine, an international human rights lawyer from Cotuit. She believes abortion is fundamental to women’s health care.
“I’ve worked in countries all over the world, and I never thought I’d be fighting for this in the United States,” she said.
I noticed a woman carrying a neon green sign that read, “I Love Someone Who Has Had An Abortion.” After she gave me permission to take her photo, she offered the context.
Jen F. had traveled from another town on Cape Cod because she felt compelled to be there.
“I carry this sign for myself. I had one,” she said. “I was raped by someone I knew.”
I hugged her, offering my respect for her bravery and candor. People like Jen aren’t statistics, they’re human beings – your friends, family, and co-workers. They shouldn’t be the ones fighting today.
In early May, after the Supreme Court leak, a group gathered again, including Congressman Bill Keating, who has fought for reproductive rights throughout his career, to protect and expand abortion access in Massachusetts.
America will never be free or brave without this fundamental human right, and a nation of forced birth can never call itself civilized.
As plans were being made for a May 14 Bans Off Our Bodies Rally, Penny Duby asked me to publicly share my story. I hesitated at first, but I knew I needed to step outside my comfort zone. I spent so many years in silence that I refuse to be ever be shamed into submission again.
For twenty-five years, I assumed I’d take my secret to the grave. Little did I know, one day I’d end up yelling it into a microphone on my town green. I was overcome by the amount of support I received, including that from my sister, Courtney, who was front and center, filming my speech. Undoubtedly, she and the rest of my family would have been there for me when I was 23 and terrified, but I was too ashamed to ask for their help.
I finally got the opportunity that day to meet Jennifer Longval, a nurse and abortion care provider at Boston’s Beth Israel Hospital. She contacted me when I first shared my story on Facebook two years ago and a self-proclaimed church-goer lectured me for doing so.
Jennifer is like the woman who was there for me at Planned Parenthood in Providence in 1995, before and after my procedure. Her kindness is one of the only things I remember from that late April morning. She comforted me when I fell asleep, explaining everything to me, and she was there when I woke up, feeling ashamed and disgusted with myself, but so grateful for her presence.
Jennifer is a source of non-judgemental comfort and wisdom to women and people in all stages of family planning. She understands that the decision if or when to become a parent is a personal choice. She’s also there for those who face traumatic and excruciatingly painful decisions when the life of the mother and/or the baby are at risk. They too are not statistics in a political game. These are real-life scenarios, not water cooler sound bites to hurl around social media like proverbial stones.
Donna Buckley, candidate for Barnstable County Sherriff, pledged her support to fight for reproductive freedom, underscoring the importance of voting in every race, from school board to President.
The hatred and ignorance that has taken over our country is emboldened at every level, including a Blue state like ours. As Tip O’Neill said, “All politics is local,” and complacency is what got us here in the first place.
A few days later, I took another step, when I agreed to share my story on WCAI, the local NPR (National Public Radio) station. I reiterated what I’m now able to say without hesitation: I’m grateful every day that I had an abortion.
When the Dobbs decision came down about a month later, I was contacted by WCAI and the Cape Cod Times for my perspective, and although I wasn’t surprised by the news, it was still impossible to believe, and I was too furious to articulate a worthwhile response. What could I possibly add to the conversation? I’m not the face or the voice of abortion; I’m just one more person who is much more than a statistic.
We gathered, once again, on June 25, the day after Dobbs, an otherwise flawless summer afternoon.
Many of the same faces and the same signs, and also many men.
We were also joined by the ones we’re fighting for.
The event also garnered support from clergy members, both male and female, representing various churches on Cape Cod, not including Catholic.
Rob Galibois, the Democratic candidate for Cape and Islands District Attorney, pledged his support, not only to protect abortion rights but also the rights of healthcare providers.
And on July 4, when my husband, Chris, and I didn’t feel like celebrating our nation’s birth, we recognized the holiday in a different way.
Organized by Finley Lennon and Gracie Howes, the event was held in support of the Green Wave.
It was also hosted as a reminder that reproductive rights belong to all people who can get pregnant, not just women.
I recently returned from Italy, just in time to gather once more on the Village Green. As I sat in Lisbon airport, non-religiously praying my flight delay would be brief and I wouldn’t miss the event, I couldn’t help but feel resentful to be rushing home jet-lagged to this archaic fight.
After two and a half weeks feeling empowered to be a solo female traveler, I was reminded that in my own country, women have always been oppressed by men. My nieces may be able to travel the world but will they be able to exercise their reproductive rights?
The next day, I found myself back on Main Street, USA.
The same people, fighting not for ourselves but for our future.
It had been my first visit to Rome in three years. The last time I wandered around the capitol of Catholicism, I was still hiding from my past. Although I had just shared my long-buried secret with a dear friend, it would be another year before I finally shed that unnecessary burden by publicly stating those four words: I had an abortion.
Deep down, I still felt like a dirty sinner, the ultimate disappointment.
Today, I’m no longer ashamed. Instead I’m proud of the life and career I’ve built, and the people I’ve hopefully helped along the way. None of it would be possible without reproductive freedom. I’ll never stop fighting for everyone to have that same right.
To quote “This Is The Sea,” one of my favorite songs by The Waterboys, from the album of the name name, “Once you were tethered. Now you are free.”
Abortion is Health Care. It’s about people, not politics, including the ones you love. Vote Blue.
It was September of 1990, my freshman year at Bridgewater State College.
I was 18, and he had just turned 21. Although he was a junior, he was a year older than his BSC classmates, having graduated from New Bedford High School in ’87. He was also a commuter, who drove a hunter green MG, adding to his Jake Ryan/Sixteen Candles mystique.
I was introduced to Greg Motta, and many other people who would become my closest college friends, through my high school friend, Todd Humphrey, during lunch at the back tables in Tillinghast Hall.
He was boyishly handsome without the slightest bit of arrogance. Our crowd had various nicknames, and he was dubbed “Groovy Greg,” for obvious reasons – he was effortlessly cool and unpretentious, with his own preppy/deadhead/surfer vibe. Fittingly, he also loved The Brady Bunch, one of many things we bonded over, and he was notably impressed whenever I’d stump him with trivia about my favorite, lesser-known episodes.
When I found out his birthday was August 7, my parents’ anniversary, I thought it was a sign we were meant to be together.
Greg was my first college crush, but an unrequited love. We were destined for something better than a fleeting romance.
Tilly became one of our places, where we’d sit for hours over endless cups of coffee. Or the Campus Center steps, or the Commuter Caf, or Carver’s Pond, or the corner of dorm room Scorpion Bowl parties.
He was an Art major, I was an English major, and we had deep conversations about all things most important to us – family, music, creative expression. We didn’t do small talk. He listened intently and laughed loudly, his brown eyes twinkling, loving any anecdote about my upbringing, telling me all about his his parents, Anne and Frank, his two brothers, Chris and Andy, and his sister, also named Sarah. I had never even heard of Westport before I met Greg, and it seemed like such a faraway place. He loved his hometown the way I loved Falmouth.
Although I was only forty-five minutes from home, it was the first time I was away from my family, that pivotal chapter in life when we begin to identify as individuals and finally make our own acquaintance. I got to know myself while introducing myself to Greg, and during those talks, he made me feel smart and special, always identifying me as a writer, even when I didn’t feel like one.
Greg was there for me in January of 1991, when my friend Jenny Chance was killed while riding her bike near her college campus in Vermont. She died doing something she loved. No warning. Three decades later, it still doesn’t seem real. Greg was the same age as Jenny at the time, and he wasn’t afraid of my tears and grief. He comforted me during a time of unfathomable pain.
Two weeks ago, Greg died of a heart attack, after taking a run along Horseneck Beach, where he grew up, doing what he loved. Today, he should be turning 53. Instead, there is a staggering void in the world that can never be filled.
The last time our college friends got together in August of 2014, Greg invited me to visit Westport the following month when the beaches would be less crowded in September. Then life happened. My father got sick and died the following year.
I never got a chance to visit Westport until last week, for Greg’s funeral. I finally met some of his family I had heard so much about in my youth – his brother, Chris and his dad – and his beloved fiancee, Icy, his partner in life and love for the past eight years. They all offered the most gracious and sincere condolences to me, a stranger, while in the midst of their own own unfathomable grief. I tried to keep my composure, but I can’t get used to speaking about Greg in the past tense.
When Mr. Motta told me he wanted to tell me a story about Greg, I could see some of where my friend had inherited his gregarious nature. His eyes lit up as he recalled a day at Little League tryouts when Greg was about ten. He had already made the team, but another boy, who wasn’t as athletic, was standing on the field alone. Greg went over and put his arm around him in a friendly gesture, making him feel welcome, accepted, comfortable, safe. “That’s just how Greg was. He got that from his mother,” he said.
If you were lucky enough to know Greg Motta, you know exactly how that little boy felt.
A cool and rainy grey day. Celtic vibes on Cape Cod. My dad’s favorite.
The kind he’d spend writing in his upstairs office, the bedroom Courtney and I once shared when we were small, after moving full-time from Newton to our magical Falmouth summer home. The window overlooking the cherry tree we planted for Seton’s birthday when he turned 8.
It’s now a guest room for our expanding family, a neatly made bed with a stack of clean towels and a basket of toiletries for the outdoor shower. The shelf that once displayed awards, articles, and photographs of his life as a novelist, travel writer, theater director, high school teacher, and college professor, is now bare. The desk has been replaced with a bureau.
Today James F. Murphy Jr. would be 90 years old.
My father spent his last birthday in a nursing home bed, the beginning of the Endless Summer of 2015. He spent his last day on this earth three months later, also on the 27th, in a hospital bed in the Great Room of our Grand Ave home.
The last time he celebrated at home, when everything was normal, with Paul’s Pizza in the kitchen, and Mom’s Desert Rose China and cake and Brigham’s Ice Cream in the dining room, was 2014. One of my favorite photos of my dad and me is from that night. I’m wearing one of my Fleetwood Mac T-shirts and a deceptive smile hiding the fact I knew such times were fleeting.
In addition to being a parent, my father was one of my closest friends. He always encouraged me to be an individual. To dress in my own unique style, to dye my hair whatever color I came across in Liggett’s as a teenager, to speak my mind and express my feelings, in poetry or in person, from voicing unrequited love to standing up to injustice. He was a mentor and a muse, a colleague and a kindred spirit. He opened up the world to me in countless ways, through literature and travel.
I woke up today with the intention to feel nothing but gratitude for his life, and for the gift of being his daughter. But some days the climate in our country, which has become progressively darker over the past six years, rife with unabashed misogyny, is making it even harder to navigate life without him. I’m a daddy’s girl without a daddy, and I now feel like a fugitive in my own country.
As I grieve the loss of Roe, I grieve not only the loss of my father, but in a broader sense, the loss of a man who empowered and respected women. Not just his beloved wife and four daughters, or the women to whom he had a personal connection, but his students, his colleagues, and anyone lucky enough to know him. My dad wasn’t threatened by women, he was inspired by them.
But despite all that, I never had the luxury of sharing my most painful and shameful secret with him. Because of my Catholic upbringing, a religion my family eventually questioned, and ultimately rejected, I was so programmed that I naively thought his love for me was conditional, as the Church always preached when it came to God and Jesus. I thought he wouldn’t love me the same, if at all, if he knew the “real” me, for I was the ultimate sinner.
I’m now older and wiser, having recently celebrated a milestone birthday as well. The 23-year-old girl, who didn’t know where to turn when the home pregnancy test revealed what she already knew, is now 50. I now know that my father, who risked his life in the Korean War, would be outraged about the unconstitutional overturning of Roe, and the disgusting, ignorant attacks on women, and anyone, who has sought, or may someday need, an abortion.
The void of his absence can sometimes be staggering. Today was one of those days. But I finally realize my father wouldn’t be ashamed of my journey, he’d be proud. In signature fashion, he’d be the loudest voice cheering me on. So as the rain pours down tonight, and the wind blows through my window, I try to tune out a white, female, conservative TV commentator defending rape and incest over reproductive freedom.
Like a shell to my ear, if I close my eyes and listen closely, I can almost hear him telling me to never back down.
Happy Birthday, Daddy. I love you and miss you forever.
It’s been just over a year since I stopped hiding. Since I said, and wrote, the words that have always been barely beneath the surface.
I had an abortion.
My decision to speak out right before the 2020 Presidential election was years in the making. Twenty-five, to be exact. A physical decision as much as an emotional one. My mind and body would no longer allow me to stay silent. And why should I?
When I published my essay on my blog, sharing what I had been too ashamed to tell the people closest to me, I braced for the public backlash. Or, more accurately, the whiplash, for I silently relive that experience every time I read a headline or social media post “debating” this fundamental human right.
There’s an expression that no one can make you feel anything without your permission, however I disagree. Although well-intentioned, it’s also dismissive and invalidates the debilitating power of shame.
I knew I was probably making a big mistake when I also decided to post my story on one of our local Facebook discussion pages. My intent wasn’t to shock, seek attention, or push political beliefs. My hope was to illustrate that you never know what others are capable of hiding. That people are more than statistics.
As another expression goes, someone you love has had an abortion.
Regardless of your politics or religion, which often go hand in hand in the United States, someone in your life has been forced to make this painful decision. I assure you.
During my reporting career, I wrote about the life-saving work of the Samaritans on Cape Cod, which I shared widely on social media as a potential resource for individuals suffering from depression. But when I shared my own story on a public page, I was criticized and chastised by some who saw me as a modern day Hester Prynne, unworthy of any sympathy.
That’s because my trauma involves abortion. Or to borrow from Layne Staley’s Gibran inspired lyrics, my pain is self-chosen. At least in some people’s eyes.
Their reactions are the answer to the question I get all the time now.
“Why didn’t you tell anyone?”
The predictable comments came in seconds after I posted the link containing the dreaded Scarlet “A,” so they hadn’t even read the article, they were merely triggered by the word.
The one I viewed as sinful and dirty. A word that had become a reflection of myself.
After all, it was my own fault, right? I was careless and stupid enough to get pregnant, so why shouldn’t I pay the price for the rest of my life? It didn’t matter that I was set up to fail by the Catholic Church, where I learned as a little girl that sex is a sin, unless it’s for procreation, and birth control is outlawed. Women were an afterthought. Madonna or whore. The Virgin Mary or Mary Magdalene. The mother of Jesus or his charity case, the prostitute.
But that was irrelevant. I never should have let it happen in the first place.
God punished you. You made your bed, so lie in it.
There was an angry-looking guy with an Irish last name. He was from Sandwich, not even Falmouth, but the “A” word got his attention. “Let’s see a sunset picture instead,” he wrote. “No one wants to hear about your past mistakes.”
Then a younger guy who looked to be in his 30s, who worked with a classmate at a local restaurant.
“That’s great but I don’t want to pay for it,” he chimed in, the one in the bar always trying to get a laugh.
Then a woman who affiliates herself with a popular Falmouth church that prides itself on being a “welcoming” environment.
“I didn’t join this page to hear about abortion,” she scolded.
When, against my better judgement, I decided to push back by informing her I merely thought my story might help someone else suffering from hidden trauma, she reiterated her point. In essence, the age-old dismissive shamer.
This isn’t the time or place.
So then, what is the time, and where is the place, to talk openly about mental health, depression, and suicide prevention? Major events, like an unplanned pregnancy, can forever change the trajectory of one’s life, but in particular, the person who becomes pregnant.
The connection between reproductive rights and mental health can’t be overstated, and it should no longer be ignored.
I’ve read, and shared, countless news stories on local Facebook pages, in addition to my own page, to help others – Cape Codders struggling with financial challenges, health issues, alcoholism and substance abuse, just to name a few. Many of which I wrote as a reporter during my twelve-year career for Wicked Local. Part of my mission as a writer and storyteller is to show people they’re not alone.
If I had given into my initial suicidal thoughts as a terrified young woman, before my two closest friends helped me access a safe and legal abortion, I wouldn’t have been here to tell those important stories, not to mention my work over the past three years advocating for sex abuse survivors.
Or if I had chosen to have a child with my partner, a heroin addict, I most likely would have ended up with the same habit, or dead as a result. I loved him more than I loved myself, and I would have done anything to make it work if a child were involved.
He inadvertently gave me one of the greatest gifts of my life when he chose heroin over me.
My abortion, and his rejection, gave me a second chance at life.
After all these years, I’ve never experienced a panic or anxiety attack, to my knowledge, but I became nauseous and lightheaded as my heart began echoing outside my chest.
I respect the admininstator of the Facebook page, who chose not to delete my post, but instead had the sensitivity to turn off the comments when similar criticisms came in and it became evident where the dialogue was headed.
But while the first inclination for some was to judge or berate, they were vastly outnumbered by those offering support and even admiration. Some even kindly said that by sharing my experience, I was possibly saving a life. That was exactly why I had posted it.
A few days later, on November 7, a Saturday, the election was finally called for Joe Biden. After living in what has become an unapologetically misogynistic society, I felt a wave of calm, poised for a sea change.
Later that afternoon, I headed to one of my sacred spots in Falmouth Heights to catch the sunset, for like Frank Lloyd Wright, nature is my religion.
I’ve witnessed countless jaw-dropping scenes in my hometown, but this one was special. Maybe because there was a collective serenity amid the small crowd waiting for the day’s curtain call. Salmon, lavender, and tangerine, no filter needed. “After the flood, all the colors came out.”
Each vivid shade offering the promise of change.
I then drove “around the hill,” as we always used to say in my family. Down past the ballpark and the Heights beach, Vineyard Sound hugging my right, heading to East Falmouth to pick up takeout at our favorite burrito place. Fading pastels danced in my rear view mirror as I crossed the Maravista bridge, and I was at peace.
The feeling was shattered shortly after I got home. As I glanced at my Facebook feed, a post by a friend jumped out at me, one word in particular.
I don’t know if he was drunk, or just pissed off about the election, or both, but he missed the irony by announcing, whether his words or a copied post, that his party would accept the results like adults without resorting to behavior such as labeling Biden supporters “babykillers,” or something to that effect. (His statement really didn’t age well considering the deadly insurrection that occurred eight weeks later.)
Just a few days prior, I had shared the most personal story I’ve ever written, in which I described the unfathomable cruelty of that word, one I had never seen him use until that moment. I always kept our political differences out of our interactions because I really liked him, which is why it was even more painful.
Thumbs up and heart emojis appeared instantly, along with enthusiastic words of approval from many familiar faces – people I’ve worked with in the community, siblings of friends, even one of my CCD teachers – but no surprise there.
That familiar tide of shame washed over me.
“Maybe he wasn’t talking specifically about you,” my husband, Chris, said gently, lifting me up off the kitchen floor where I was sobbing.
I practically screamed at him through my tears that every time someone uses that word, no matter who they are, they’re talking about me, or people just like me.
And every time I see or hear that word, I relive the most shameful experience of my life.
I never ended up eating that night.
I’m not looking for sympathy, or trying to shame others as I have been. I just want people to stop shaming us. To think before they judge.
Sticks and stones break bones, but words seep into marrow.
People can indeed make you feel without your allowance, but since speaking my truth and reclaiming my story, I’m healing and growing. I’m learning not to let their words define me.
Since sharing my story, or “coming out,” as a lesbian friend described, I’ve also experienced profound human kindness, often from the most unexpected places, particularly from strangers.
I’ve received countless messages from women who were compelled to share their experience with me, both publicly and privately, some who had never spoken or written the words. Many are still harboring this secret from their partners, spouses, and families. We are forever bound by trust, compassion, and respect.
Revisiting my past has not only been cathartic but also empowering. I got in my car on April 26, an unseasonably balmy day last spring, and drove to Planned Parenthood in Providence. I practically crawled in on that day in 1995, blinded by sunlight, reeling from morning sickness, shame, and guilt. Twenty-six years later, walking into the prison-like facade, enclosed by a fence for safety, I was overcome with gratitude.
As a now 49-year old woman, I felt proud of the writing career I’ve built, which has brought me from Falmouth to the Vatican, and the people I’ve helped with my words.
Others throw around the the self-righteous term “pro-life,” implying the rest of us are “pro-death.” Grafifti was scribbled on a sign outside as a reminder.
“Please don’t kill me, Mommy.” In actuality, it’s impossible to calculate how many lives Planned Parenthood has saved. I’m just one.
I’ve also found a community of support at Recovery Without Walls, where I was invited last spring by my friend, Bill Dougherty, to participate in a weekly acupuncture and meditation group with women in recovery. Acupuncturist Arlene Myers Alexander, a new and cherished friend, incorporates cellular healing meditation as a tool to help manage the amygdala, the part of the brain that controls our fight or flight response with emotions such as shame, fear, anxiety, and depression.
There I’ve forged profound connections with inspiring women, all recovering from something. They make feel pride instead of shame. There I’m not afraid to be myself. It’s a place where I’m safe to be vulnerable.
I’ve also been touched by the vocal support and validation from the men in my life, old friends and new, publicly and privately. It’s hard to convey what it means, for, in my experience, men are the loudest voices controlling this narrative, lawmakers aside.
But as I’ve learned from my dear friend Steve Bird, a sex abuse survivor and advocate I’ve worked with for the past three years, no one’s trauma is any less valid. That includes mine.
This past October, my mother and I stood out once again in front of Peg Noonan Park in Falmouth for reproductive rights, but that morning I also joined a group at the Mashpee rotary. This time was different from 2020, when I stood alongside others in Falmouth Village. This time, my sign said it all.
My abortion saved my life.
Any qualms I had about those unequivocal words were put to rest when I met Ann Shea of the Upper Cape Women’s Coalition, who embraced me and asked to take my photo. She and Penelope Duby of UCWC have become part of my new support system, while also inspiring me.
I was then approached by a man who appeared to be in his 80s, who squinted his eyes to read my sign.
I tensed up for a second, until he lifted his cane and bowed his head in a gesture of respect.
“I admire you. You are very brave,” he said.
My eyes filled with tears, thinking he was about the same age as my father would be. One of my closest friends, he never knew my hidden pain. I almost told him once but I was too ashamed. Afraid it would change the way he viewed me. I knew deep, deep down, then and now, that wasn’t the case, that he would still love me unconditionally, but shame is overpowering and undermining.
I recently watched the Netflix miniseries, MAID, based on the 2019 memoir by Stephanie Land. I could relate so well to the main character, and I got a glimpse of what my future might have been. Alex is in her mid twenties, a single mother of a toddler, and an aspiring writer. Her college plans, and a creative writing scholarship, are put aside as she attempts to leave an abusive relationship while navigating government assistance and cleaning houses.
Making enough money to survive while not making too much to render her ineligible for assistance is a full-time job. One of the most important topics the series addresses is emotional abuse, and how it is just as debilitating as physical violence. The fact that the father of her child didn’t hit her proves to be a strike against her, for although the American social justice system views emotional abuse (and financial abuse) as a form of domestic violence, the legal system doesn’t.
Words and fists are both used to oppress, which the show powerfully illustrates. I know what it’s like to lose all belief in yourself only to believe a false narrative created by a gaslighter. Sometimes I still hear his voice in my head: “Crazy. Psycho. Paranoid.”
Additionally, it shows that poverty, generational trauma, untreated mental illness and substance abuse are all part of the same vicious cycle.
Margaret Qualley and her real life mother, Andie MacDowell, both give stunning performances. I cried long buried tears for Alex, and I wanted to reach through the screen and hug her tightly, telling her she’s smart, worthy, and capable of so many things.
The holidays can be bittersweet. If I had decided to become a mother, I would have given birth on or around Christmas. I’ve always found New Year’s Eve to be melancholic and anti-climactic, like life itself. Too much pressure for perfection.
This year I was lucky enough to spend Christmas Eve with Kelly, who, along with Damian, saved my life by simply being there, without judgement.
Some of my happiest Christmas memories involve both of them, including the night I had too many cocktails before Midnight Mass and inadvertently started saying Mass along with the priest. Memories made between Sunset Strip in Mashpee and Worcester Court in Falmouth Heights.
Parenthood wasn’t my journey, but it ended up being theirs, and watching them both perform that role fills me with emotion. They and their spouses have created beautiful families that give me hope for our future.
Instead of pondering the past on New Year’s Eve, Chris and I celebrated what’s to come, watching the sky over MacMillan Pier in Provincetown ablaze with fireworks. A Cape Cod community where freedom of identity is not only accepted, it’s expected.
I’m excited for the future, both personally and professionally. I’ve learned so much about myself since honoring my past. I now know that I’m not any less a woman because I didn’t have children. I’m not a failure, or a sinner. I’m not a criminal.
While Stephen Bird was busy last week preparing his signature soup and clam chowder for the Cape Cod Marathon, he had no idea how much those efforts would be appreciated, not just by the running community, but the town of Falmouth in general.
After a one-year hiatus in 2020 due to Covid-19, this year’s staging of the Mayflower Wind Cape Cod Marathon, Relay, and Half was highly anticipated, by runners and organizers. Slated for Halloween weekend, the event notoriously coincides with the region’s stormy autumn weather, so while a late October Nor’easter was not necessarily unexpected, it was definitely unwelcome. Cape Cod awoke to widespread power outages and extensive storm damage in the early morning hours of Wednesday, October 27, and the following day, the race committee was forced to make the difficult decision to cancel.
The next item on the agenda: deciding what to do with 200 gallons of soup and chowder.
As production chef for The Quarterdeck and the Pilot House in Falmouth and Sandwich respectively, Steve Bird is well-known for his clam chowder and hearty soups, which he has prepared for the past few years for the post-race celebration. The event is often held under a tent in a torrential downpour, so the menu is by design.
“Providing a hot, nutritious meal to runners after they cross the finish line is one of the things the Cape Cod Marathon is known for, and it’s a tradition not all races do anymore,” Steve said. “It’s something people appreciate, especially when it’s freezing cold and raining during race weekend.”
Therefore, as the forecast started to turn bleak for October 30 and 31, Steve forged ahead undeterred, prepping the base for the coveted chowder, in addition to turkey and wild rice soup, and gluten-free minestrone, for those with dietary restrictions.
Although power would eventually be restored for much of Falmouth by race day, the storm’s impact proved to be too much, particularly in terms of flooding and downed trees and power lines along the course. The Falmouth Running Club, which produces the event, met with Falmouth Police Department on Thursday morning and, shortly after, race director Jack Afarian made the call to cancel.
“My first priority is the safety of the runners, volunteers, and spectators, and if I don’t feel like I can conduct a safe race, we’re not going to do it. And the police agreed,” he said. “We put our heads together and decided to give the soup away, and then we talked about the best way to do that.”
After race organizers weighed Gus Canty Community Center as an option, they contacted Falmouth Recreation Director Joe Olenick, who gave them permission to set up on the sidewalk in front of the building, centrally located on Main Street, next to Falmouth Police Department and Falmouth Senior Center.
At the suggestion of Falmouth resident Art Gaylord, Steve Bird contacted his neighbor and family friend, Samantha Bauer, founder and director of Falmouth nonprofit Inspiration is Everywhere, who was already doing her part. Once she determined Kenyon’s Market in East Falmouth was already distributing free coffee for line workers, she began requesting donations through PayPal and Venmo for Gatorade and electrolyte waters, which she delivered to the EverSource staging area in front of Wal-Mart. Shaw’s Supermarket also donated to her effort. After reading a Facebook post by the wife of a line worker who couldn’t obtain bottled water while out on his route, she purchased reusable travel mugs at Dollar Tree, which she filled with water supplied by Cape Cod Marathon, and also delivered.
Social media blasts were shared on Thursday to announce the makeshift soup kitchen at Gus Canty, informing people to come equipped with their own containers with lids, and Steve Bird, with help from his wife, Jennifer Gilbert, and other volunteers, began transporting his equipment, along with countless buckets of soup and chowder base.
Cars began filling the parking lot shortly after their start time of 3 pm, with volunteers from Falmouth Running Club, Falmouth Road Race, Inspiration is Everywhere, and title sponsor Mayflower Wind serving up Steve’s creations, along with apples, bananas, and snacks, donated for runners by Shaw’s, in addition to gallons of drinking water. Hot breakfast sandwiches were sent over by the Falmouth Inn, located next to Gus Canty.
The Marathon soup kitchen set up in the same spot again on Friday, when many people were gratefully returning home to restored power, after about 56 hours without.
Food sponsor donations included ingredients for the chowder and soups from Reinhart Foodservice; Ring Brothers Produce; dairy from Paul W. Marks; turkeys from William and Company; and clams from St. Ours.
For Jack Afarian, it was a positive outcome to an unfortunate situation.
“It feels pretty lousy to disappoint 4,000 runners, but that’s the second worst thing that can happen to a race director. The worst is to have an unsafe event where someone is injured, or worse,” he said. “We’re putting everything toward a good cause, so there’s a silver lining here. Maybe there was a reason the race was canceled.”
Filling in gaps of need in the community is the core mission of Inspiration is Everywhere, from providing essentials like clothing and toiletries to aiding individuals by connecting them to resources, to providing general assistance, such as free internet access. The office on Spring Bars Road boasts a meeting space available for hosting alcohol and drug-free events, in an effort to combat substance use disorder among young people as a result of boredom and experimentation.
Samantha Bauer eagerly answered Steve’s call seeking help with the townwide effort at Gus Canty.
“I’m happy for any chance to show my community that other people care about them, whether they’re in a state of crisis or not,” she said.
Giving back to those less fortunate was instilled in Samantha by her mother and grandmother, and it’s a lesson she models to her children, Anthony and Isabella, 4 and 5, who were passing out fruit.
“It’s important for my kids to be involved and see they can physically impact people in a positive way, by simply handing someone a banana or a cup of soup,” Samantha said.
She and Steve Bird hope to move forward with a more organized effort for future storms, in which restaurants can participate by donating their food during power outages for Steve to prepare for the public. Samantha has drafted a proposal for the consideration of town officials.
Steve and I had spoken by phone earlier in the week about a very different topic; he took a break from prepping and chopping as the rain pelted down on Cape Cod. I had recently written for my blog his courageous account of surviving childhood sexual abuse, which he confided to me in 2018 but only recently decided to share with the public. One of his goals for telling his story is to underscore the connection between addiction and unresolved trauma, with the hope of showing survivors they’re not alone. After 15 years of attempting to get sober, Steve celebrated his first year free of alcohol, nicotine and drugs back in August, and he believes that finally acknowledging his trauma has been essential to his recovery.
We’ve since shared Steve’s story with local media and beyond, and will continue to do so, in an effort to spread his message far and wide. Since coming forward, Steve has been approached by countless people, acquaintances and strangers, who can relate to his pain, and realize they don’t have to suffer in shameful silence.
Watching his hometown line up for a bowl of hot, homemade soup after two days without power, which he prepared, proved to be a similar reminder.
“No matter how connected we think we are, or how many Facebook friends we have, so many people are lonely and isolated,” he said. “This was a way to keep the Marathon tradition alive while bringing our whole town together.”
For as long he can remember, Stephen Bird has lived a lie. Now, at age 53, he’s finally ready to speak the truth.
Steve and I first connected in October 2018, when he was referred to me by our mutual friend, and my fellow Falmouth writer, Joanne Gartner, about the prospect of sharing a very personal story in the form of a book. Steve had originally approached Joanne, but due to the subject matter, she suggested he contact me.
After more than a decade working as a freelance reporter, covering everything from Town Hall to the Cape Cod art scene, I had recently embarked on a self-initiated investigation into clergy sex abuse in the Catholic Church, specifically my childhood parish of St. Patrick’s in Falmouth. Although I was never a target, I know many women and men who were, and the whispers were loud enough for even a small child to hear. It’s one of the main reasons I left the Catholic Church right after I was confirmed as a teenager in the late 1980s.
In small town fashion, I didn’t really know Steve per se, but I knew “of” him, affectionately nicknamed “Birdman,” for although he graduated a few years ahead of me from Falmouth High School, we hung out in similar circles. While he was a “Deadhead,” who drove a cool VW bus, and I was part of the “Alternative” crowd, whose only transportation was skateboards, we both became regulars at our friends’ party house in Falmouth Heights, where I met my future husband, also a friend of Steve.
Therefore I didn’t know much about him, despite being connected on social media. But all of that changed quickly when we met one October afternoon in 2018, in the cozy, rustic garage of his parents’ home overlooking Sippewissett Marsh. I had a vague idea of where the house was, for I had attended the Birds’ legendary Road Race party the summer I was 18, right before leaving for college. Although I have thought about that party over the years when taking that winding road down to Wood Neck or the Knob, I could never remember the exact location, until three decades later, when I arrived with a notebook and voice recorder instead of the Kappy’s Amaretto we were inexplicably drinking on that Road Race so many years ago.
Steve’s story does not involve the Catholic Church, but his is like that of so many clergy sex abuse survivors who have bravely shared theirs. It involves grooming by an authority figure, abuse of power, and the erosion of innocence, all of which forever change the trajectory of a person’s life. Steve was candid from the start, explaining he was also meeting with another writer, for not only did he need someone with a particular writing ability, he was looking for a certain connection, someone who could get into his head and tap into his shame to convey an unfathomable experience. We were both interviewing each other.
Ending the stigma of abuse is one of the reasons I’m committed to helping tell these courageous and important stories, so I offered to write a sample chapter. I turned on my recorder, and that’s when our friendship truly began.
Similar to clergy abuse, Steve’s trauma occurred in a place where trust is taken for granted, by a well-respected, “relatable” authority figure. In his case, the backdrop was a private preparatory school where Steve’s father taught history, in a quintessential New England setting.
He wasted no time in opening up, sparing no detail of his childhood, which essentially came to a crashing halt at five years old, when he was introduced to sex by the man tasked with teaching swimming to Steve and the other young children of faculty members, all of whom lived on campus in a seemingly tight-knit community.
“It started out with him ‘helping’ us take showers after swimming lessons,” Steve recalled.
Child predators are skilled in their grooming tactics. They seek out career paths or vocations allowing them to be close to their desired targets, particularly those providing opportunities in which they can remove children from their environment, away from outside influences and authority figures.
Once he had gained the children’s trust by testing their boundaries, the abusive behavior escalated, enabled by camping trips to an isolated cabin in the woods. The setting seemed idyllic and inviting, offering the promise of adventure. But instead it became the place where Steve’s innocence would die, and the lines between right and wrong would be blurred.
It happened at night, after s’mores and story time. It was presented as a game, something new to learn, all part of the experience. And it wasn’t just Steve, but also his peers, both boys and girls.
“He made us have sex with each other while he watched us and filmed it. He was never on camera himself,” Steve said. “He told us he was teaching us to be movie stars, preparing us for careers in Hollywood, and to innocent little kids, that seemed exciting.”
Sexual abuse and pedophilia were not part of the dialogue of the 1970s, therefore Steve’s parents, and those of the other victims, had no reason to question the motive of the nice man whose wife wasn’t able to have children of their own. How sad and unfair, they thought, but how kind of him to serve as a mentor and positive role model. Innocent like their children, for he had groomed the families as well, cultivating the persona of a sympathetic figure, and they gratefully assumed he would keep their children safe and happy.
Shortly after the abuse began, so did Steve’s propensity for elaborate storytelling and deception.
“At five years old, I was stealing money from my parents to buy candy. I’d hide in the closet and eat it and then I’d stand there with chocolate all over my face and deny it,” he said. “I was already addicted to keeping secrets.”
In Steve’s case, the abuse began so early, at such an impressionable age, that for many years, he had no concept that what happened to him was criminal. And because it was never presented in a shameful, threatening, or dangerous way, which is common for clergy sex abuse survivors, he and his friends assumed it was a “normal” aspect of growing up, for it was presented as “fun” rather than “sin.”
It was all part of the grooming.
“I never viewed sex as taboo. I had no reason to, because I was so young, and I had no frame of reference for it,” he said. “If you don’t tell a child he shouldn’t take candy from a stranger, he has no way of knowing it’s wrong.”
The abuse would continue for the next eight years, and in Steve’s case, it only stopped because he was unknowingly taken out of the environment by his unsuspecting parents, when his family moved to Cape Cod. Although he would never suffer from sexual abuse again, he would suffer from the emotional scars and repercussions for the next four decades.
Shortly after settling in Falmouth, Steve’s parents, Courtney and Caroline Bird, quickly became an integral part of the community, particularly through their involvement with the Falmouth Road Race, the Falmouth Track Club, and the Cape Cod Marathon. Steve and his younger sister, Aletha forged friendships in their new town that would prove to be lifelong bonds.
“I found my people when I moved to Falmouth,” Steve said. “I made so many great friends, and I dated some girls who were very special to me. For a while, I thought what happened as a little kid hadn’t affected me.”
He began working as a cook at The Quarterdeck restaurant on Main Street, which would lead to a future career. The adrenaline-filled atmosphere and proverbial kitchen heat weren’t daunting to Steve. Rather, it was a welcoming and comfortable atmosphere, a place where he could focus and control at least one aspect of his life by following instructions and doing his job. By all accounts, he was leading the life of a typical teenage boy.
Due to his early and unhealthy introduction, Steve had never experienced sex as a result of emotional intimacy, instead it was merely for physical gratification. Therefore, it became something he needed more than wanted, and by freshman year of high school, he found himself missing that thrill of keeping secrets. A wrong turn down an alley on a weekend trip to Boston would find him in the Combat Zone, where he was approached by a man inquiring if he’d “like to have a little fun.” Curious, and in no way frightened or intimidated, the teenager followed him to an abandoned building where they smoked a joint to break the ice. It would be Steve’s first consensual sexual encounter with a stranger, and it reignited in him, and temporarily satiated, that desire for deception.
The clandestine interlude provided a thrill he likened to a drug. Before long, he was accepting money in addition to mind-altering substances, which provided a feeling of empowerment, leading the intensity of both the drugs and the encounters to escalate.
“I figured I might as well get something out of it. But I put myself in a lot of very dangerous situations without even thinking about it, or wondering what could happen to me,” he said. “I smoked crack before I ever did a line of coke.”
His trips to the city quickly became a coveted ritual.
“My grandmother lived in Newton, so I’d lie and say I was helping her out for the weekend. But in reality, I was spending all my time in Boston, having sex with strangers, and doing whatever drugs they offered me,” Steve said.
On Sunday night, he’d catch the last bus back to the Falmouth bus station on Depot Ave, returning to his “other” life as a seemingly average teen, fabricating a tale to tell his girlfriends the same way he denied stealing money from his parents.
“I truly cared for the girls I dated, and in my mind, it wasn’t cheating because I wasn’t doing it to hurt them. It was something I couldn’t control,” Steve said. “No one had any idea, because I never let anyone get too close to me. If anyone ever tried, I’d just push them away.”
As he got older, he slowly started to question the events of his youth, while also burying them deeply in his subconscious as a means of self-preservation, behavior that is common for survivors of abuse. Following the Grateful Dead after high school became not just a way of life, but a socially acceptable means of self-medicating. Still thinking he was able to compartmentalize what had happened to him as a five-year-old, he eventually settled in the Pacific Northwest and built a family and career, running his own farm-to-table restaurant with produce grown in his organic garden.
But the enormity of Steve’s past finally caught up with him one August afternoon in 2005, when he and his now former wife were touring a prospective school for their young daughter. The remote, bucolic setting sparked a memory, and suddenly he was reeling with anxiety. Uncharacteristically, he put his foot down, insisting the school wasn’t the right fit for their daughter. Rather than tell his wife the truth, he resorted to his default response – crafting elaborate fabrications – going as far as stealing money from his family to justify his argument that they couldn’t afford the tuition. Finally feeling backed into a corner, he shared with his wife his deeply buried secret.
“Until then, I had only told one other person, and I had sworn him to secrecy,” Steve said.
The marriage wasn’t able to endure what was perceived as a betrayal, and he suffered an emotional breakdown, prompting a downward spiral of drug use, in an effort to repress the flood of memories. Soon after, Steve sought substance abuse treatment for the first time, but it wouldn’t be the last.
At the same time, Steve discovered his abuser was still working with children. His outrage also sparked unnecessary guilt, and he blamed himself for not speaking out, motivating him to contact one of his male friends from those nights in the cabin.
“I felt ashamed I hadn’t come forward sooner, thinking I might have been able to prevent other kids from experiencing what happened to us,” Steve said.
The two men received a modest financial settlement in exchange for their stolen youth, and Steve continued to bury his past, self-medicating to ride the waves of conflicting emotion.
However, Steve’s story is also one of hope and inspiration, for life has finally come full circle, and today, he’s found peace. Remarried to his longtime friend from his Grateful Dead touring days, Jennifer Gilbert, they live next door to Steve’s parents in Sippewissett, along with their blended family of children and pets. He and his former wife share a respectful co-parenting relationship.
The Quarterdeck has changed hands a few times since he was in high school, and he’s now the production chef, juggling the same role at the Pilot House in Sandwich. If you’ve enjoyed a meal at one of these iconic Cape Cod spots, it’s largely due to Steve’s talent and dedication. And if you’ve warmed up after the Cape Cod Marathon with a cup of decadent clam chowder, chances are Steve was the one who made it for you, stirring the ladle while wearing his signature smile.
With the support of his wife, his family, and his boss, Bob Jarvis, Steve has been on a journey of healing over the past year, which began when he voluntarily checked himself into Gosnold for substance abuse treatment in the summer of 2020.
“I can’t remember if it was my eighth or ninth time trying to get sober,” he said. “I’ve lost count.”
But treatment was just the first step. He credits Gosnold with listening to his needs by connecting him to Vertava Health Massachusetts (formerly Swift River) for long-term treatment, where he was able to focus on his dual diagnosis of alcoholism and Complex PTSD. Steve believes trauma is the key to unlocking the revolving door of his addiction. Therefore, he continues to advocate for himself and his healing, working with a private therapist, in addition to therapy through Recovering Champions, and attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Last November, Steve participated in an intensive EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy treatment at Trauma Institute & Child Trauma Institute in Northampton, Mass, which enabled him to face the dark reality of his stolen childhood.
Steve celebrated a significant personal milestone on August 25 – his first consecutive year without alcohol, drugs, and nicotine – all of which he has relied on for as long as he can remember. It’s even more impressive considering he was working two full-time jobs during Cape Cod tourist season, all throughout a pandemic.
“This is a lifelong journey, and it takes constant work, but in the past, I’d be making plans to hit the liquor store the second I got out of rehab. This time has been so different. I haven’t had those cravings, and I’m not white-knuckling it all the time,” he said. “And I’m not miserable. I’m actually happy.”
Part of Steve’s motivation for publicly sharing his story is to help those who are caught in the vicious cycle of rehabilitation and relapse.
“The majority of people I know who have serious addiction problems, and people I’ve met in rehab and at meetings, almost always have one thing in common – there’s some trauma in their past they’ve never dealt with, either intentionally, or they’ve buried it so deeply, they don’t even remember it happened,” he said.
“Trauma comes in many forms; it’s not just sexual abuse. Maybe it’s your parents’ divorce, or you were in a car accident, or you were subjected to mental or physical abuse. Everyone’s trauma has equal weight. Whatever it is, if you don’t deal with it, you’re just going to keep going in circles chasing sobriety. I see it all the time, people putting everything into AA meetings, or religion, or both, which I respect, don’t get me wrong, but they’re still white-knuckling each day because they haven’t dealt with the root cause of their addiction.”
Steve continues to address issues from his own trauma, such as beginning to establish healthy boundaries and advocating for himself, in his recovery and his personal life.
“I’m working on being able to say exactly what I mean and what I need without feeling guilty. I’ve always been more afraid of letting someone else down than myself, so it’s easier to lie than be honest,” he said. “I’m finally becoming comfortable with the truth.”
After our first meeting in 2018, I sent Steve my sample chapter. He candidly apologized that he didn’t have the funds to hire me to write his entire story, but that was never my motivation. Empowering people to own the pain of their past and free themselves from shame has become my mission in recent years. Steve told me my writing had brought him to tears, in a good way, and that’s what mattered to me more.
I felt we had connected immediately, but I couldn’t tell him exactly why at the time.
Steve continued to support my clergy investigation over the next few months, texting me periodically to offer his encouragement. Then in February of 2019, he contacted me while I was eating dinner in Rome with my friend, Dan. I had just written an article detailing the unfathomable sexual and emotional abuse he had suffered as a boy at St. Anthony’s Church in East Falmouth. As he watched from afar while Dan spoke his truth, first on the front page of the Falmouth newspaper, then in a peaceful protest in Rome, a fire was reignited in Steve. But before he could help anyone else, he needed to heal the child within.
Steve and I met once again in his parents’ garage, this time on a late spring day in 2021. Unable to stay silent, he was finally ready. We shared another profound conversation that day, for since I had last seen him, I had come forward with my own long-buried secret, no longer able to hide the pain of an abortion I was forced to seek at age 23. Hearing Steve’s story, and that of so many survivors of sexual abuse, I could easily empathize with the debilitating weight of shame, secrecy, and guilt. “What would they think of me if they knew?” is a question I had pondered about almost everyone since 1995.
When I decided during the 2020 presidential election to share my story of trauma, Steve was one of the first people to reach out and tell me he was proud of me, and that I should be too, privately through text, and publicly on Facebook. It sounds like such a simple statement but it made me sob. Shame is overpowering, and when someone else recognizes the burden, the comfort from that validation is overwhelming. That day in the garage, we cried again, for each other. But they were also tears of joy.
After our meeting, we were greeted by Steve’s father, Courtney, and I thanked him for having the courage to support his son’s wish to come forward. Sharing such a deeply painful and personal truth, especially in one’s hometown, is an act of public service, which takes a tremendous amount of bravery.
“We wish it didn’t have to be said, but we’re very proud of him and his decision to help other people,” he said.
I ran into Courtney once again, fittingly, on Road Race Weekend, at the unveiling of a memorial walkway to honor the late, great Tommy Leonard. Staring at the sign in front of the Quarterdeck, I immediately thought of my friend Steve, whose story I was still in the midst of writing. I greeted Courtney and quietly reiterated how much I respect the Birds for validating Steve’s desire to go public, not only to educate about the connection between trauma and addiction, but also to help end the stigma of both.
It usually takes victims of childhood sexual abuse about four decades until they are able to speak out, if ever. Although he will always have regrets, Steve is now able to feel pride rather than debilitating shame, for he views his past as part of his purpose.
One of his goals moving forward is to address vulnerable populations, particularly children and adolescents, about the realities of sexual abuse. His hope is to work with schools and other organizations to educate and empower.
“I wish it hadn’t taken me until my fifties to confront my trauma. I wasted so many years running from it, but I can’t change any of that now. I can only move forward,” he said.
“If telling my story helps someone suffering from addiction to seek therapy and treatment, or prevents one more child from being abused, or empowers one person to finally speak out and share a buried secret, then it’s all worth it.”
If you are a victim of sexual abuse, you are not alone, and help is available.
I recently stumbled on the following essay I wrote a few weeks into my first semester at Bridgewater State College (now University), in the Fall of 1990, for one of Professor Maureen Connolly’s writing classes. I don’t remember the exact assignment, but it details the day my parents drove me to BSC. My dad was soon leaving to teach for the semester at Dublin City University on a Jasper Whiting Scholarship, and I was full of mixed emotions. Although I got an A-/B+, I see some grammar issues and other things I should have changed, but I left it untouched, in the voice of my 18-year-old self, for it brings me right back to that day. There are also unanswered questions – like how did I shower on my first day of class?And how did my poor dad find the time to come back the next day?
When I think of the thousands of selfless things my parents did for me over the years, this was just another day in the life. Long before cell phones, or even luggage on wheels. Crossing the Bourne Bridge onLaborDay.
September is bittersweet.
I woke up on Monday, September 3, after a restless night, knowing something about the day was different. My eyes focused on my barren walls, once covered with posters that were now neatly rolled, tied, and packed away. Then it dawned on me – it was my first day of college.
I showered thinking, “This is the last time I’ll be showering in a ‘normal’ bathroom.” While I was working up a good lather on the top of my head, I contemplated the many bags and suitcases waiting in my room. Packing had always been something I just couldn’t grasp. I remember a trip to Canada years ago when I had packed about 18 pairs of shorts and not a single pair of pants. Upon arrival, we were greeted by the coldest summer Prince Edward Island had seen in years. My family drove for miles in our Brady Bunch station wagon, searching for a children’s clothing store. Thankfully, we finally found a thrift shop.
Packing for college was no different. For some reason, I felt insecure about leaving my winter sweaters in my back closet unguarded, so I had packed bags upon bags of wool and cashmere. Dad’s face became more contorted with each bag I lugged out to him. Somehow he managed to pile it all in the trunk. Mom had been warning me about “overpacking,” referring to “Nina bringing winter boots to Chestnut Hill in September.”
However, I thought I had everything under control. So I said my goodbyes to my brothers and sisters, posed for a few forced smile snapshots, and with Oscar-worthy melodrama, embraced my beloved Great Dane, Sinead. Even though Bridgewater was under an hour away, I felt as if I were seeing them all for the last time.
After what seemed like ten minutes on the highway, we pulled into the parking lot of Shea-Durgin aka “The Hill,” which was to be my home for the next eight months. My parents and I unloaded the car and carried everything up to Room 213 Shea. My roommate, her parents, and brother, and boyfriend were just about finished getting her settled, and after introductions, they went off to get lunch.
The three of us proceeded to unpack my things and make up my bed. The first hurdle I had to overcome was when my mom held up one of the packages I had searched high and low for (extra-long twin is rather hard to find in Falmouth), informing me I had purchased two fitted sheets. She assured me it was a simple mistake, but I chided myself for making such a faux pas after two years as a chambermaid.
While I was busy arranging my jewelry on the dresser, I heard my mother exclaiming – half to herself, half to me – “Goodness, when do you find the time to listen to all of these tapes?!” Annoyed, I just shuffled earrings louder.
My dad then asked where my towels were so he could put them on the high shelf in my closet. Thus began the fruitless search. Ten minutes of, “I could have sworn,” and rifling through plastic bags. My parents found the whole situation quite humorous, saying I could use one of my wool sweaters as a towel. I, on the other hand, found nothing funny about it. I became more enraged as I noticed my roommate’s four fresh, clean towels stacked perfectly on her shelf. I fumed silently, trying to concentrate on happy things: Christmas vacation, spring break, summer!
After a lot of slamming of books and pouting, I decided to grow up, and realize things could be much worse. My parents once again reminded me I was 45-minutes away, and my dad could come back the next day with the forgotten items, like a wastebasket and more hangers. So after I closed the door behind my parents, and perhaps my childhood, I looked around my new room and decided where to hang my posters.
Jim Scanlan, who is quoted in the article, is a social justice warrior, and one of the first people to support my motivation to expose the Catholic crimes in my hometown. I was introduced to him in 2018 through a dear family friend, although he was already familiar to me as “Kevin from Providence,” the inspiration for a character in the 2015 Oscar winning film “Spotlight,” based on the Boston Globe’s groundbreaking 2002 investigation into the Archdiocese of Boston’s clergy sex abuse cover-up.
Since Jim came forward about being raped while he was a student at BC High, by hockey coach and teacher Father James Talbot, he has utilized his platform to expose clergy sex abuse and advocate for statute of limitation reform. One of his motivations for doing so was learning Talbot had admitted to abusing and raping up to 88 young men. Knowing he could prevent even one more from the trauma he endured as a teenager, and still endures, was all the motivation he needed, and his testimony was instrumental in putting Talbot behind bars for seven years. As Jim notes, the list is too little too late, and is undoubtedly incomplete. I can see a few omissions from my own research, namely Reverend William Campbell, also from my former parish.
I was just a little too young to be one of Bill Baker’s targets, but he preyed upon several other girls at St. Patrick’s Church in Falmouth, Massachusetts in the late 1970s, back when my family still practiced Catholicism. One of his victims told me her story in graphic detail; she was an eighth-grader at Lawrence School when he first started abusing her. Another woman, who was able to escape his evil intentions, recalls playing tennis with Baker, and the inappropriate comments he made, in an obvious effort to gauge how far he could take his deviant behavior with the young girl. When he decided that she wasn’t a potential target for his advances, he backed off. Classic examples of grooming behavior. Another one of Baker’s victims died by suicide.
There have been other suicides of St. Patrick’s parishioners spanning generations – some of which I’m certain are a result of abuse and others I’ve always suspected may be related. There have been suicides at Catholic parishes all over Falmouth.
Even as a small child, I could practically hear the whispers about “Father Bill,” as he liked to be called, who tried to come off as “down to earth” and “approachable.” Years later, when I read about Paul Shanley, the notorious “street priest,” who seemed to think he was cool, all I could picture was Baker. My mother and some of the women who taught CCD at St. Patrick’s weren’t falling for his Eddie Haskell facade and expressed their concern to each other about his obvious and unapologetic preoccupation with young girls. She also remembers being in the office at St Patrick’s and hearing him on the telephone “whispering sweet nothings” to someone, without seeming to care if anyone heard. A young priest in his late twenties, carrying on like a lovestruck teenager. One of the more assertive women called the Fall River Diocese, then led by Bishop Daniel Cronin, to register a complaint on behalf of the group, but their observation fell on deaf ears, for parishioners aren’t supposed to question the Church, especially those who are female.
And then just as suddenly as he arrived, Father Bill disappeared one night, with no explanation. When people immediately started asking questions, some of whom were unaware of his predatory ways and therefore devastated by his departure, we were all told Baker had suffered a nervous breakdown, a line now known to be straight from the Catholic playbook. However, my mom recalls asking Father James McCarthy, head of St. Patrick’s at the time, about Baker’s whereabouts and being told swiftly, “Don’t worry. He’s gone and that’s the end of that.”
I know why he left, and exactly what prompted his abrupt and unceremonious exit. It’s why I’m dedicated to investigating the crimes that were committed in my hometown and honoring the lives that have been shattered, both directly and indirectly, by abusive priests and the bishops who enabled them by looking the other way and shuffling them off to another parish. How many more girls did Baker go on to rape? How many did he rape when he was at his first assignment in Attleboro, before coming to Falmouth? I know of at least one.
Then there’s Joseph Maguire, Father Joe, who came to “St. Pat’s” in the early 80s. He’s also listed as being affiliated with the Boy Scouts of Cape Cod, and had a gimmicky thing where he’d invite all the children of the parish up close to the altar to listen to his sermons and likened it to telling them a bedtime story. Something about it and him just didn’t ring true to me, or to the rest of my family, for we were some of the Holden Caulfields of the parish, yet we had every reason to call out phonies. What we somehow suspected might be occurring was actually happening, but no one had words for it back then.
Father Joe was at St. Patrick’s when I had to go on a creepy overnight retreat, a requirement for Confirmation, which I had zero interest in pursuing in the first place, and only did because I thought it was important to my parents. The whole experience was very cult-like, taking us all away from our families, hearing melodramatic stories of redemption from guest speakers, all male, whose qualifications were a mystery, and receiving even more melodramatic letters that family and friends had been instructed to write. Lots of tears for no necessary reason. All of it felt like mind control, and I couldn’t wait to get home.
Monsignor Maurice Souza of St. Anthony’s Parish in East Falmouth abused my friend Dan Sherwood for nearly a decade. After months of off the record meetings with me, Dan asked me to write his story, and we eventually took it to Vatican City, where he shared it with the world through international media during the Pope’s summit in 2019, which was nothing more than another publicity stunt by Francis. Jose Avila and Gilbert Simoes, who went on to work at Falmouth High School, are both pedophiles and rapists, who targeted countless young men, prior to Souza. When recently visiting the grave of my dear friend at St. Anthony’s, I was perplexed and disgusted to discover they are buried with pomp and circumstance in a special clergy plot behind the parish. One of Avila’s victims took his own life, and his son later died in the same manner. Two generations, an entire family, destroyed by the Catholic Church. Avila and Simoes should be exhumed immediately.
There is so much to write on this topic, it has impacted countless lives, in Falmouth and beyond. This is just the beginning of accountability for criminals and healing for survivors. If you’re a victim of clergy sex abuse, please remember, it’s not your fault, and you’re not alone. For resources and outreach, visit SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests). If you’d like to share your experience with me, either on or off the record, please contact me at email@example.com. Your story will be safe with me, and your wishes will always be respected.
Write what you know. It’s what my father always told his students, but I always reiterated to him, for I believe his best writing is autobiographical. His words had an elegant cadence, full of rich description and poetic alliteration, no matter the subject. He wrote the following essay in the summer of 2008, after watching Barack Obama address a diverse and jubilant crowd in St. Paul, Minnesota, when he became the presumptive nominee of the Democratic party, and the first African-American to do so.
My father was overcome with emotion, for many reasons, and penned the following reflection, which I typed for him and submitted to the Cape Cod Times for consideration; it was published later that summer.
My father is pictured first from the left in the top row, at age 20, at basic training. He didn’t meet his friend, Nickie, whom he honors in this essay, until he was in Korea, and he never forgot him. Over the years, my dad and I tried to find Nickie, but we didn’t have much to go on. I searched the web and followed-up on a few leads, with no luck.
There are so many times I’ve pondered my dad’s words – while watching Colin Kaepernick kneel in peaceful protest, while holding a sign and waving to my fellow Cape Codders to respectfully demand racial justice, or while watching Spike Lee’s fictional account of the very real experience of the African-American soldier in his riveting film, “Da 5 Bloods.”
This morning, I thought of my father and Mr. Nickie, and how grateful they would be to see their sacrifices being respectfully honored by President-Elect Joseph Biden and his wife, First Lady-Elect Dr. Jill Biden at Philadelphia’s Korean War Memorial. And how jubilant they would be to see the United States has finally joined the more evolved and sophisticated countries around the globe by finally sending a woman to the White House – one of Jamaican and Indian descent.
On this Veterans Day, I send my deepest gratitude to all who have fought for our freedom, but especially the heroes who have been forgotten, overlooked, and taken for granted because of their skin color.
This is for you…
A Sort of Homecoming: Unsung Heroes of the Forgotten War
By James Francis Murphy Jr.
Recently, as I watched Barack Obama speaking to an audience of people from all walks of life, my thoughts traveled back over 50 years to a troop train and a five-day trip from Fort Lawton, Washington to New York City.
We soldiers on board were returning from service in Korea and we settled in comfortably, “compliments” of the United States Government. My friend, Nickie, an African-American, referred to as a “Negro” in those days, took the top bunk and I took the lower.
“I like it up here, Jimbo. I feel like Jimmy Cagney in White Heat. ‘Top of the world!’” he said, followed by a pretty good Cagney impersonation.
I responded with my best Walter Brennan, and we began five days of laughing and sharing our impersonations of movie stars.
We had met in a field hospital, where Nickie was receiving treatment for wounds he had suffered earlier when on night patrol and, I, less dramatically, was there recuperating from a bout with malaria.
We hit it off immediately, but after our release from the hospital, we lost touch with one another until we met at a staging area in Fort Lawton, just a few days before we embarked on the journey home. Despite the passing of time, we picked up where we had left off.
Once on board, Fred, the African-American porter, took good care of us, along with the eight other soldiers in his assigned station. As he sat on the edge of my bunk, Fred regaled us with stories of his years as a Pullman porter, while Nickie listened intently from his perch above.
Fred mentioned a name I have never forgotten, Mr. A. Phillip Randolph. “Yes, sir. He is my hero, and a hero of all the Georges.” Fred nodded.
“Georges?” I asked.
He smiled. “All the porters are called “Georges” because of George Pullman, the founder and owner of the Pullman Company. And Mr. Randolph is our hero because he fought to unionize us. He certainly improved our lives.”
“Should we call you George?” Nickie laughed.
“No, call me Mr. Fred and I’ll call you Mr. Nickie and Mr. Jim. Is that okay with you?”
Throughout the following days, Nickie and I caught up on our meeting in the hospital, and the laughs we had shared. We would stand out on the iron platform between the two cars and swap stories of sergeants we knew and loved and, well, the others.
As we talked, the lurching train twisted through the narrow corridors of the Dakotas, past valleys and lofty mountains, brushed alongside the green rows of Wisconsin farms that stretched for acres, and on toward the cattle of Nebraska that grazed in the sweet sweep of grassland.
“Boy, it really is a big country, Nickie,” I marveled.
“Sure is,” he sighed. “Sure is.”
One night, as we stood on the platform, with the scent of apple and berry orchards and the pinch of pine in the air, Nickie seemed alone in his thoughts, even though I was at arm’s length. For some reason, I was mature enough to linger quietly as the clattering and rattling of the tracks below seemed to accentuate what was unsaid but palpable.
Finally, he turned to me. “You know, Jimbo, I don’t think I’ll ever play baseball again. I was a damn good pitcher. But, that shrapnel tore a lot from that shoulder. I’ll miss baseball. But, I suppose a guy can’t play a game for the rest of his life,” he joked.
“Nickie, I read somewhere they can do wonders these days with wounds and injuries,” I pronounced with the naïve confidence of a 21-year-old.
“Yeah, we’ll see. Hey, maybe I’ll come visit you and we can go see Ted Williams and the Red Sox.”
The stories of the war, baseball, girlfriends, and movies passed too quickly as we raced East and then quite suddenly, we were pulling into New York and Penn Station on the morning of August 10th. We looked out the windows of our bunks, and instead of the vast prairies we had left behind, we craned our necks at the towering buildings of Manhattan.
“It’s over, Nickie,” I yelled up to him. “We’re in New York City.”
“Yeah, we are. It’s been a great ride, Jimbo.”
Later, as I stood in front of a full-length mirror in an antechamber outside the men’s room combing my hair, Mr. Fred stepped in.
“Well, now, look at Mr. Jim getting all gussied up to meet the ladies.” And then suddenly, his tone became serious. “I wouldn’t go into the men’s room if I were you, Mr. Jim,” he warned.
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because Mr. Nickie is in there.”
“I don’t get it. What difference does that make?”
“He’s crying? Why is he crying? We’re going home.”
“Where do you live, Mr. Jim?”
“You know where I live. Outside of Boston.”
“Mr. Nickie lives in Mississippi.” He shook his head and left.
In the excitement that poured out of us like a river, we grabbed our bags and headed for the buses to take us to Camp Kilmer in New Jersey to be discharged from the Army. I never saw Nickie again and I didn’t even have his address.
So the other evening as I watched Barack Obama, a five-day journey that took place over half a century ago came flashing back, almost as if it were yesterday, and I thought of my friend.
I found it difficult to keep the tears back as Barack Obama, the first African-American presidential nominee, spoke before a stadium of supporters. I hoped that somewhere, Nickie was watching, his eyes moist and hopeful, and I thought, ‘Top of the world, dear friend. You have finally come home.’
In 2020 America, we’re celebrating a century of women’s suffrage while simultaneously defending a woman’s right to govern her body. The Margaret Atwood allusions became tired long ago. Throughout this election cycle, women and their families have also been forced to defend the most difficult medical and emotional decision imaginable – late-term abortion.
Over the past four years, a woman’s private pain has increasingly become water cooler fodder, dinner table conversation. Something to “discuss” on Facebook, or the comment section of the local newspaper. Since everyone else is talking about it, particularly white mansplainers on social media, I need to join the conversation, despite my instinct to hide. I’m tired of being ashamed.
This is my story.
I was 23, and newly in love. It was my last semester at Bridgewater State College, and I couldn’t wait to graduate. I almost didn’t.
Earlier that winter, I went from one dysfunctional relationship to another, after a year of trying to deny the feelings that had been building for a friend. He was like the Pied Piper, seeming to come out of nowhere. He showed up on campus one day the previous year, acoustic guitar in hand, his boyish charm and quick wit initially masking his childhood trauma. John Lennon meets Kurt Cobain, the lead singer of the band everyone was talking about. A meeting of the minds of his two musical inspirations.
I can’t help but feel that I deserved it all, since Griffin and I got together in such a selfish way. I don’t regret the fact I finally found the self-esteem to walk away from a boyfriend who spent the majority of our two-year relationship cheating on me (often with my friends, or people in our social circle), but I wish I hadn’t been so myopic, disregarding the feelings of Griffin’s girlfriend, someone I respected and admired. She too had fallen for Griffin’s spell, while in a relationship with one of my closest friends. When Griffin and I betrayed them to be in a relationship, we were ostracized by all our mutual friends, which I now understand, but at the time I thought it was hypocritical, since everyone had seen firsthand how I had been treated. It was the cliched messy love triangle that often occurs in the microcosm of a college clique, but with so many more sides.
I don’t remember the exact sequence of things, for I’ve blocked a lot of it out. Since working with victims of clergy sex abuse over the past two years, I’ve come to understand so well the concept of compartmentalization. You pack away the things that are too painful to protect yourself in an attempt to move on. I vaguely recall walking to CVS, and then going back to my rented room in a home near the campus center.
The test told me what I already knew.
I was pregnant.
Despite my love of the ocean, and my Pisces horoscope, I’ve always been terrified of deep and dark water, even on television. My father had a profound fear of drowning throughout his life that he inadvertently passed on to me. He was always nervous about his children at pools or on boats, immediately searching for a life preserver. The idea of getting caught in a riptide is more terrifying to me than almost anything imaginable. Perhaps because I’ve known a similar helplessness.
Unless you’ve been raised in the Catholic faith, it’s impossible to understand the tidal wave of shame that suffocated me in that moment.
I was the quintessential “middle child” of six. I always followed the rules and tried to never make waves. From a very young age, I took on my mother’s insecurities around money, and not having enough of it. She did the bills in our house, so she was more realistic than my dad. She had given up her master’s degree, her teaching career, and her aspirations to be a mother and teach CCD, because that’s what was expected of Catholic women. My mom and I have lived parallel lives, for she didn’t have a choice either. I often felt guilty for my very existence, and I was envious of my older siblings, for it seemed like life was a little simpler when it was just the three of them with Mom and Dad, when they lived in Newton.
I never advocated for myself about anything; Bridgewater was the only school I applied to. My dad had a friend in the English department, but more importantly to me, I could go there tuition-free because my father taught at Mass Maritime Academy. I didn’t want to go to a Jesuit school like Boston College, because of my experience in the Catholic Church, so instead of following in my father’s footsteps, I chose a state school for one main reason: it was cheaper.
I later worked at Northeastern University and fell in love with everything about the school, wondering how things might have been different if I hadn’t gone to Bridgewater, and if I hadn’t met Griffin. Would I be more “successful” now, with a “normal” life? Probably not, for the problem was primarily with me. I would have been just as co-dependent no matter where I ended up, and if I went to a bigger school, I might have gotten lost in other ways, missing out on all the memorable things from Bridgewater, when I was single and somewhat confident, before I got into relationships and forfeited my self-esteem. I wouldn’t have met my original circle of friends, or had my radio show, or written poetry for the school literary magazine. Things that allowed me to express and be myself.
I don’t know whom I was more afraid and ashamed to tell – my father, my mother, or my older sister. When you come from a big family, each sibling has a role, and it wasn’t my sister’s fault I feared her, but she was just as much of an authority figure as my parents, perhaps more.
The life I had imagined for myself, and taken for granted, was suddenly over. I was no longer the person anyone thought or hoped. I was a stranger even to myself, and for the first time in my life, I couldn’t turn to the people I had always counted on.
The misogyny of our patriarchal and chauvinistic society rears its ugly head in so many aspects of a woman’s life, but especially if you’re Catholic. Therefore, I missed out on healthy rites of passage, like dating. When I was in ninth grade, and the boy from church I had a crush on suddenly started paying attention to me, my life felt like a John Hughes movie. But when he asked me to meet him at the library one day after school, my poor mom, acting on her Catholic conditioning, told me it was “inappropriate.” We laugh about it now, but it began my melodramatic view of romance, as he and I instead showed our feelings through love notes and mixed tapes.
The Murphys were “modest.” I never even wore a two-piece bathing suit until my twenties; I was more comfortable in a bomber jacket than a bikini, and being “sexy” was not remotely on my radar. Everything surrounding sex was shameful, including my own body.
“It’s different for girls,” can be applied to almost any scenario. If my brothers got someone pregnant, I doubt their first instinct would have been suicide. My dad called all four of his daughters “Princess,” but being the only petite one, with a penchant for the alternative, I was also his “Pixie.” In my mind, that no longer mattered. Now he’d think I was a slut.
I had already disappointed my parents by requiring a full extra year to graduate. There were many reasons I ended up on the five-year plan – too much freedom at a young age, unresolved grief that resurfaced when Jenny Chance died my freshman year, and the increasing loss of identity that resulted from romantic relationships for which I wasn’t equipped.
I had two options, for I don’t consider them to be choices – suicide or abortion – and I pondered them both. I never “chose” to have an abortion. I was backed into a corner, with no one to turn to for guidance. Were it not for Planned Parenthood, and my ability to access a safe abortion, which is my legal right, I know with certainly that I wouldn’t be able to write this today, for the simple reason that I wouldn’t be here.
And if it weren’t for the two friends who gave me their unconditional and non-judgmental support, I would have attempted to take my life. I didn’t want to die, and the thought of hurting myself in any way was terrifying and unthinkable, but I didn’t know how to live with the shame of what I had done. How could I have been so stupid?
To say that suicide is selfish is selfish in itself. Unless you’ve been in that place, feeling that desperation, you can’t begin to understand, and your judgement is something you should evaluate before it contributes to such feelings in someone you love.
Griffin’s first instinct was for us to become parents, perhaps to make up for the love he had been denied as a child. Perhaps that was a reason I was drawn to him. I naively thought my love was enough to save him from his past and his inevitable fate.
Our upbringings couldn’t have been more different. His parents were teenagers when he was born, his father was a heroin addict. He was raised by his father’s grandparents after his mother relinquished custody of him as a little boy. Griffin wasn’t even his real name; it was a nickname he gave himself on the middle school playground. A bookworm who loved Dungeons & Dragons and played in the school band, he was inspired by the mythical creature for a pseudonym. Although he idolized his father, for whom he was named, he resented him, and he didn’t want to end up the same way. He eventually disappeared one day as Griffin waited for him to pick him up to go fishing. He never saw his dad again, and it haunted him. I always secretly hoped I’d somehow find him and reunite them.
Griffin initially admired my loving family, but later he would use it as a weapon, among so many other things, to make me feel weak, telling me I didn’t have my own identity. Although his motive was cruelty, now I realize part of him was right.
Long before the internet and cell phones, I rifled through the yellow pages in my landlady’s kitchen when she was out volunteering for Catholic Charities. The irony was almost comical. Griffin and I hadn’t even had a proper first date, but we split the cost of the “procedure” as if we were going dutch on dinner. It was four hundred dollars, which may as well have been four hundred million. I had given up my job as a tutor in the campus writing center, to spend more time in my first dysfunctional relationship, and had spent my meager summer earnings shortly after the beginning of senior year. My second senior year, as I always shamefully had to admit. My dad used to stop by to see me on Saturdays on his way back to the Cape after teaching his writing class at BC, usually giving me a crisp and coveted twenty dollar bill. But I was avoiding him, terrified he would find out, and told him not to come.
Damian, who was paying his own tuition, gave me the $200 without hesitation.
It was too early in my pregnancy to have the procedure, so I had to wait two weeks. It took me years to fully understand the events surrounding the Oklahoma City Bombing, for at the time of the tragedy, I was in bed with morning sickness that lasted around the clock, praying my devoutly Catholic landlady wouldn’t notice. Years ago, I was diagnosed with a hiatal hernia, and I’ve always suffered from stomach issues, for it’s the place where my anxiety manifests. Therefore, I could barely function, trying to make it to class during those two weeks, but mostly writhing in pain in the bathtub, or curled up in my bed in the fetal position, trying to escape in the mindless drama of 90210 and Melrose Place.
Griffin had to borrow his friend’s car, for his only means of transportation was a skateboard. It was the first and most significant red flag, which I ignored, for on the way to the clinic, he insisted we had to stop and pick up his friend, who also didn’t have a car, and needed to cash his paycheck. It was the most humiliating experience of my life, and I needed privacy, as I was curled up in the backseat, but he prolonged my physical and emotional pain.
I’ve only been to Providence three times since April 26, 1995: to the hospital when my niece was born, to see Chris Cornell on the Songbook tour, and most recently, to finally meet my friend Jim, the man who inspired the “Kevin from Providence” character in the film Spotlight. He was one of the earliest supporters of my clergy investigation, and is someone from whom I continue to take inspiration.
I’m lucky enough that I didn’t have to cross a picket line that morning. My heart aches for the women who do.
I vaguely remember Griffin sitting with me in the waiting room, for what seemed like hours, before they called my name. He was wearing his olive green canvas jacket, reading something by H.P. Lovecraft. I just learned when writing this that the author was born in Providence.
Years later, when I gave blood for the first time, in honor of my neighbor, the nausea, ginger ale, and pretzels triggered long-buried memories. But I never forgot the kindness of the woman who explained everything to me, and sat with me as I came to. She looked Irish, with fair skin and red hair, and even though I was barely conscious, I worried what she thought of me.
Griffin dropped me off at my house later that day, and Kelly drove up from the Cape with groceries, filling up my shelves with comfort food, giving me some money to have on hand. Simple gestures that meant everything. She and Damian saved my life.
Barely three weeks later, I received a blank degree at my commencement. I had written a note to my psychology professor, hoping for pity, explaining I was “going through a rough time.” I didn’t blame her when she failed me; I was so focused on Griffin, I hadn’t applied myself at all, long before the pregnancy. My poor parents were so disappointed, for I’d have to make up the three credits, but little did they know what a miracle it was we were there at all. I have no other recollection of that day, or Barney Frank’s remarks. Originally, all I wanted was a celebratory lunch in the Heights at Lawrence’s Restaurant with my family, but after everything that had transpired, I just wanted that chapter to be over. I was still feeling sick, weighing about ninety pounds, my fingernails bitten to the quick, when I walked across the stage.
By fall, I had been living at my parents’ house for a few months, butting heads with them over basic things, like wanting to use their car to see my boyfriend, simply because I was now a grown woman living under their roof. At my mother’s suggestion, I went to her doctor for a physical, and after a cursory exam and some quick questions about our mother/daughter relationship, she sent me home with a bag full of Zoloft samples, instructing me to take them. Ever obedient, I did, even though I wasn’t depressed, I was just frustrated, and they made me feel completely out of control. It was dangerous on her part, for there’s nothing wrong with responsibly prescribing an anti-depressant, but I could have and should have told her I didn’t need to be medicated, I needed to be liberated.
I moved up to our family home in Newton, where three of my siblings were living, and started working as a nanny for our dear friends, who had just welcomed twin girls. When I wasn’t changing diapers and pushing the double stroller, I was dropping and picking up the older kids at school, doing the grocery shopping, and cooking dinner. It was a special time, for I loved them all, and while in that domestic role, I could almost picture a similar future for myself.
Then the unthinkable, especially since I was finally on the pill at age 23, and we never took chances after what had happened, but we had another pregnancy scare. My late period was probably just due to my own anxiety around all of it, but for the two weeks I waited, I knew I couldn’t and wouldn’t have another abortion, so I resigned myself to the fact I was going to be a mother.
I had it all planned out – I would celebrate one final Christmas with my family, pretending everything was normal, and then cut myself off from them completely. Once again, the shame was so strong, it clouded my thinking, and I assumed they would disown me or want nothing to do with me.
Christmas came early when I finally got my period. The date is marked in my journal with an asterisk, just in case anyone ever found it and read it. Griffin was almost disappointed, and the topic was then prefaced with “someday.” Someday we’ll have a family. I had always loved the name “Fiona” from Brigadoon, but if we had a boy, I wanted to name him Owen, after my great-grandfather.
Griffin ultimately chose heroin instead.
Music from that time reminds me of him the most, Mellon Collie and The Infinite Sadness, the Smashing Pumpkins album he gave me for Christmas; Tom Petty’s Wildflowers, which I listened to every night when rocking the girls to sleep; and his favorite, The Beatles’ White Album.
I think of Griffin when I hear Mother Love Bone’s “Crown of Thorns,” symbolic in so many ways, the religious allusion and the drug metaphor. “He who rides the pony must someday fall.”
Despite his mistreatment of me, my heart still goes out to him. He never had a chance.
A year ago, I found myself whispering my secret in my mother’s driveway to a clergy sex abuse survivor, who has become a trusted friend. Not only did she inspire me with her bravery and honesty, she made me feel safe to speak my truth. My unspoken past is why I’m so committed to my investigation. I know what it’s like to suffer from debilitating shame perpetuated by the Catholic Church. To think that it would be easier if you weren’t here anymore. I didn’t want to die. But I couldn’t live with the shame.
People have often told me they always thought I had the perfect family, the perfect life. Perfection is an illusion, and it’s a dangerous and unrealistic expectation of human beings. It takes all the joy out of life. I was ready to end mine for that reason alone.
The more I’ve learned about the crimes that were committed in my own former parish, and others in my hometown, the more I am filled with rage and resentment. To think the Catholic Church views me as the ultimate sinner rather someone who rapes a child would be laughable, if it weren’t so painful, and it’s the first thought that comes to mind on the rare occasions I enter a church. It’s all I could think about as I toured The Vatican, an ostentatious museum full of penis statues, with occasional references to women merely as temptresses, a time-honored tale that began with “evil” Eve.
And to think the Catholic Church would have been responsible for my suicide because of its sanctimonious hypocrisy is criminal.
I’ve struggled for the past year about telling my mother. Part of me wanted to spare her the pain, but at the same time, I didn’t want either of us to leave this Earth without her knowing. I’m angry that I’ve been forced to keep this secret from her, and I want us to have the authentic relationship we were denied. At nearly 85, she is one of the most evolved and accepting people I know. She is more “Christian” than many people who describe themselves as such, despite, or perhaps because of the fact she stopped looking for God in a church years ago. Instead she has found her Higher Power in a 12-step community.
Since the death of Justice Ginsburg, and the insulting “confirmation” of Coney Barrett, I have suffered from what I now realize is PTSD. I have been triggered by the unthinkable cruelty of people who pass judgement from the safe distance of a keyboard, unbothered by the real life repercussions of their words. Or even worse, the people who’ve criticized me to my face without even knowing by expressing their “Pro-Life” views. I’m still terrified of being judged, wondering what people will think when they read this, and I’ve woken my husband on countless nights with my sobbing.
I recently spent some time with my mother’s older brother, helping with errands while his wife was in a rehabilitation facility following a shoulder injury. One day, while doing shopping and laundry, I felt nauseous as I noticed the 8×10 framed photo of Pope John Paul II, the largest on display in the room. Shame immediately washed over me, and I thought about bringing my secret to the grave.
What will they think when they find out?
The thought was immediately replaced with anger. If I had killed myself in 1995, I wouldn’t be here to help them today. I think of the family members I never would have met, if I had died 25 years ago.
Suicide has touched my family profoundly, as it has so many others. It wasn’t until my thirties that I learned my dad’s father, James Francis “Frank” Murphy Sr., my beloved Papa Murphy, lost two older brothers to suicide, and had to identify both bodies. His brother, Willie returned from WWI depressed and traumatized. He was working as a union steward and had been dipping into the union funds. The day before he was set to go before a review board, he jumped off a train into an oncoming train in Watertown. He couldn’t live with the shame.
Six months later, his brother Owen Jr. was found with his head in the oven, and my great-grandmother died soon after, most likely from the emotional toll. It’s impossible to reconcile such tragedy with my Papa, the sweet and gentle man who was always so happy to see me, making me feel special and safe.
Two generations later, our family history repeated, when my father’s sister’s oldest son died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, and his younger brother discovered him.
Age and distance had always separated Bob and me. He was one of my cool California cousins, who occasionally came for exciting Cape Cod visits. I finally got to know him when I visited his family in California in 1998, the final stop on my cross-country trip with Damian, who dropped me off at my aunt’s house in Petaluma. I became the shy little kid again when Bob arrived for dinner at his brother Dave’s home in San Francisco, where I was staying.
“Hey, Cousin,” he said, with a twinkle in his brown eyes and a smirk behind his beard. He gave me a big bear hug, and I immediately felt comfortable.
When we got the phone call at my parents’ house in 2009, I could empathize with that feeling of helplessness, thinking you don’t have a choice.
I’d give anything to be able to tell him just how much I understand.
Two weeks ago, my mom and I peacefully “protested” in support of women’s rights, on Main Street in Falmouth, and she held a sign I had hastily made that morning, having no idea just how personal it was.
Three days later, I finally let it out, and cried like the 23-year-old girl who desperately wants to be forgiven.
My mother supports me unconditionally, as she always has.
When I told her what I think is the obvious, that my dad’s sobriety wouldn’t have survived if I had killed myself, she contradicted me, telling me he wouldn’t have survived at all.
It took years after Griffin to trust again, and when I finally did, I told Chris my secret immediately, wanting him to walk away instead of risking his finding out later and changing his opinion of me. Ever since then, he’s also supported everything I do. I feel a combination of gratitude and guilt, for I often think how his life would be different if he had married someone “normal” who could have made him the amazing father he would have been.
He is quick to contradict me too. We chose not to be parents, and he tells me he has no regrets. But I can’t help but wonder, for motherhood isn’t a door you slam shut. It’s a window you peer into occasionally, like passing by a cozy home on a dark night. It’s the tears that come while reading a bedtime story to your nieces and suddenly remembering you are just the aunt, a glorified babysitter. Society is unkind to women who don’t conform, especially those who choose not to have children, and even moreso, married women who make such a choice.
But it’s the women in this secret society who suffer even more, for somehow it’s become okay for everyone to talk about it except us. We’re not even allowed to grieve, for we feel as if it’s our fault.
People who don’t know me, and sadly people who do, believe I’m a “murderer” and a “baby killer.” Someone recently posted a graphic photo accusing Planned Parenthood of selling body parts of babies. Planned Parenthood saved my life, and was the only place where I could obtain the birth control that is every woman’s right. But by then it was too late. I had to get an abortion first.
As I write this on Samhain, and revisit the ghosts of my past, the little girl in me wishes my daddy were here to hold me and tell me it’s okay, and that I’m forgiven.
The life of Chase R. Soares ended far too soon, but his family is making certain that his legacy lives forever.
Since Chase’s tragic passing at the age of 23 last February, his mother, Brooke Lopes DeBarros has navigated her grief by focusing on the bright light her son brought to this world, which is felt to this day, and will continue to shine on through the people he impacted during his far too short journey on this Earth.
I never had the honor of knowing Chase, but I feel as if I did, for Brooke proudly shared photos on social media, capturing his magnetic smile, which radiated charm and pure kindness, and his skills on the basketball court, both high school and college, for she attended every game she could. When she posted videos, you could barely hear the crowd in the stands beyond the joyful cheer of a proud mom, and you couldn’t help but smile, wanting to cheer along with her.
I met Brooke more than forty years ago at Mullen-Hall Elementary School. It’s why I love being a townie; I continue to cross paths with people I’ve known forever, particularly those innocent days of Halloween parades on Main Street and field trips to Plimoth Plantation. Brooke and I enjoyed after school play dates and went to each other’s birthday parties. I can remember one at her dad’s house when we were about seven. What struck me first about her back then was her loving nature and sweet smile. And when she became a mother, I admired from afar her devotion to her sons, Chase and Brayden, marking occasions with photos of everyone dressed in matching T-shirts. It was no surprise to see the loving family she had created with her husband, Norman DeBarros.
Since Chase’s passing last winter, I’ve watched Brooke weather an unfathomable storm with grace, powering through the darkest days, all during a global pandemic. Chase had greater gifts than athletic prowess; he was a mentor in the Falmouth community, known for spreading love through simple acts of kindness. He was a very spiritual young man, often articulating his beliefs about faith through his artwork. Brooke’s focus now is on keeping her son’s legacy alive, and continuing to make this world a better place in his name.
While managing the painful tasks that followed his death, Brooke didn’t anticipate that Chase’s grave at St. Joseph’s Cemetery in Falmouth would be located next to an unpaved road on the Gifford Street grounds. She has visited Chase every day since last February, and the dirt seemed disrespectful. It wasn’t what she envisioned as a final resting place for her son.
As a testament to Chase and his family, volunteers rectified the situation on Columbus Day Weekend, however, Brooke had to seek permission from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fall River in order to move forward with the community initiative.
The road is now paved, thanks to the time and effort of several caring individuals, and donations from Lawrence-Lynch Corporation in Falmouth, Pina Sanitation Service of Mashpee, and Clover Paving Company of Bourne.
Volunteers began at six a.m. on Saturday, October 9, but Clover employee Steven Fernandes couldn’t make it that day. Wanting to do his part, he graded and prepped the road at 4:30 in the morning on Friday, before heading in to work. Norman worked overtime to help fund the project; Chase’s grandmother, Susan Lopes also donated, in addition to an anonymous donor.
This beautiful gesture will not only be felt by Chase’s family, but all those who make the difficult trip to visit their loved ones. Just as he did in life, Chase continues to spread kindness.
Brooke and I will be using this space to highlight the impactful ways she plans to keep his memory alive.
David O’Regan used to hide from his past. Facing it has become part of his healing.
David and I connected on Facebook in the summer of 2019, and although we’ve never met in person, I consider myself lucky to call him a friend. I always look forward to his thoughtful posts, which offer much-needed optimism, wisdom, and humor in today’s often negative and insensitive world. He’s a very deep and empathetic soul, and at first glance, you’d never begin to fathom the horror he has suffered.
When I noticed he was a 1969 graduate of Natick High School, I asked if he had known my dad, an English teacher and theater director, who went on to become chair of the department. I figured it was inevitable that their paths had crossed in the halls of NHS. But as he explained, and his senior portrait illustrates, he was quietly coping with PTSD, unaware of what to even call it, and unable to engage in the traditional high school experience.
David’s childhood was stolen by the Reverend Richard J. Ahern, of the Stigmatine Brothers and Fathers, based in Waltham. Ahern was also the director of Camp Elm Bank, an idyllic spot on the banks of the Charles River in Wellesley, for boys as young as six years old. David attended for two seasons, beginning in 1962, the summer after third grade. Although the abuse didn’t begin at the camp, the grooming did, both of David and his parents. The special attention Ahern bestowed on young David was welcomed by the O’Regans, who considered it an honor, for in the Catholic faith, a priest was viewed as the closest person to God, almost God-like himself.
Ahern began seeking out David several times a day. The positive reinforcement he offered was lacking in David’s everyday life, growing up in a large family, while also suffering from dyslexia.
“Predators are skilled at identifying areas of weakness they can use as leverage,” David explained. “For me, it was my struggles with reading and writing. It was something that always made me feel ashamed and stupid. Suddenly, he made me feel good about myself.”
The camp was a welcome escape from David’s dysfunctional upbringing in Natick. His Protestant mother suffered from bi-polar disorder, although undiagnosed at the time; instead she self-medicated with alcohol. His father was a devout Irish-Catholic, emotionally unavailable, who faithfully brought his six children to Mass every Sunday, filling the entire pew.
When his parents went to pick up David at the close of his first summer, they were enthusiastically greeted by Ahern, who embraced them before rushing off, returning with a brochure for the following season. On the cover, it prominently featured a photo of David’s innocent, smiling face. He had been such a delight, Ahern insisted he return for another summer of fun and enrichment.
Therefore, it wasn’t out of the ordinary when Ahern called the O’Regan home after David’s second year. He needed to take a quick overnight trip to Western Massachusetts the following weekend. It was going to be a long and lonely drive, and he could really use some company. Perhaps David would like to tag along? David jumped at the chance for an adventure away from his family, and his parents didn’t hesitate. Once again, it was an honor that the priest had chosen their son.
Ahern took David to see a movie, followed by the ultimate treat: dinner at McDonald’s. The Golden Arches hadn’t come to David’s hometown of Natick, so a Happy Meal was an exciting indulgence. But he had a hard time enjoying either, for he recalled the pit in his stomach that resulted from the moment he got into Ahern’s car. Almost immediately, the priest exhibited a completely different demeanor – cold, critical, cruel.
“You’re not a sissy, are you?” he looked over at David and asked angrily.
“I didn’t really know what he meant, but I knew it was something no 12-year-old boy wanted to be. So I insisted I wasn’t,” David recalled.
When they arrived at the motel, David was instructed to wait in the car, and when Ahern returned, he told David not to call him “Father,” for it would make him uncomfortable, since he wasn’t dressed in priestly garb.
When Ahern opened the door to their room, the first thing David noticed was there was only one bed. Perhaps sensing his nervousness, the priest quickly explained there were no other rooms available, informing him they would have to share.
When David came out of the bathroom after changing into the new pajamas his mother had purchased especially for the trip, Ahern started laughing at him and mocking him. He then went into the bathroom to take a shower, spending what seemed like hours, before he finally emerged.
“When he came out of the bathroom, he was stark naked,” David said.
It began with the priest asking if the boy had ever played the Tickle Game.
“Have you ever seen a man milking before?” he asked, and began masturbating.
“He did things to me that I didn’t even have words for, that I didn’t know someone could do to a person,” David said.
At the time, David believed it to be his fault.
“I always had a horrible self-image, so I thought that was how bad boys were punished,” he recalled.
David would go on to take three or four trips a year with Ahern, until he was 15. According to his calculations, Ahern raped him on approximately eighteen occasions.
Each time the phone call came, his stomach dropped, but he couldn’t tell his parents why.
“Of course he’d love to go,” his mother would always say without hesitation.
Like many survivors, David buried his memories for decades, or perhaps more accurately, his brain saved him from re-living the trauma. It was a secret he kept from everyone in his life, including his wife, Jane, until the Boston Globe Spotlight Team’s groundbreaking reporting in 2002. At the time, they had been married for 32 years. One night, while enjoying their after dinner ritual of drinking coffee and watching the news, the clergy sex abuse scandal, including the Stigmatine order, played out on the screen. The memories came flooding back, and David became uncharacteristically aggressive, yelling at the television.
“It was a side Jane had never seen before, and it confused and frightened her,” he said.
The term “soulmate” is often overused, but in David and Jane’s case, it’s only fitting. They met on Valentine’s Day in 1969. He was working as a security guard and attending Chamberlain College. Having left a party out of boredom, he was headed to a liquor store in Newton Lower Falls to pick up a cheap six-pack. However, he noticed a young woman across the street, thumbing for a ride. She was from Maine, a student at Wellesley College, and she was trying to get to the T (Massachusetts Transit Authority) to visit her brother, a Harvard grad living in Cambridge. She accepted David’s initial offer to drive her to the T, but when they started talking, they couldn’t stop. He offered to bring her right to Cambridge, but when they arrived at her brother’s apartment, David asked if she’d like a tour of the city. He ended up spending his beer money on coffee for two at Howard Johnson’s and a romantic trip to the top of the Prudential that night.
They were married a year later, and would go on to raise six children, opening their home and hearts to many foster children over the years.
As coverage of the abuse scandal in the Boston Archdiocese continued to unfold each day, David’s memories became more overpowering, resulting in nightmares and panic attacks. A deep depression left him unable to work. Feeling he had finally hit what he described as “rock bottom,” he asked Jane to take a drive, just as they had so many years before.
“I knew I couldn’t face her, so it was the easiest way for me to tell her,” David said. “Having been raised in a dysfunctional home, we were taught to keep secrets and never to air our dirty laundry.”
Keeping his eyes fixed straight ahead on the Massachusetts Turnpike, he finally shared his truth.
“I was one of those boys,” he said.
After a few minutes of explanation, Jane insisted he pull over, and they embraced and cried together.
David cited a Bible reference from Corinthians to describe his wife and her reaction to his revelation.
“’Love is patient, love is kind’. That’s Jane,” he said. “She has been one of my greatest blessings, and has taught me so much about life and love.”
It was Jane who encouraged her husband to seek therapy, and it was David’s therapist who suggested he join a support group where he would benefit from a community.
David offers the same advice to fellow survivors: Get help.
“You need to talk to someone about it, and if you don’t have insurance, many hospitals offer free counseling for survivors of sexual and domestic abuse. But you also need to talk to people who have been through it and can truly understand,” he said.
Ahern died in 2001, and his crimes against children are well-documented by Bishopaccountability.org, showing a similar pattern of predatory behavior while serving in Stigmatine parishes in the Archdioceses of Boston and New York, and the Dioceses of Richmond, VA and Springfield, MA.
David requested a meeting with Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, for one reason only: he wanted an apology. He insisted that Jane accompany him, for the abuse affected not only Dave, but everyone in his life. After a long pause and much fidgeting with the ropes of his robe, O’Malley offered a tepid and carefully-worded response. Reflecting two decades later, David feels O’Malley’s offering was disingenuous, considering the lack of progress and accountability since then, from the Vatican all the way to Boston.
Although the church paid for his therapy and medication after being raped as a child, David still had to come up with the co-payments.
“I felt as if the church just wanted me to go away. They were just feeding me crumbs,” he said.
“Their pain was my pain. What happened to them, happened to me. When you’re a survivor of clergy abuse, there are certain boxes that you can tick off, things that have happened in your life that may not have occurred otherwise,” he said. “And when people share their story, it gives others license to speak.”
No longer ashamed of his past, today David uses it to empower. He and Jane live in Warren, Massachusetts, and he is now a leader in the organization that has been pivotal in his therapy, heading up the Worcester-Boston chapter of SNAP Massachusetts, along with Steve Sheehan of Bishopaccountability. SNAP is a global organization for victims of all types of clergy sexual abuse, including abuse by nuns, and sexual abuse in general, such as incest or other organizations such as the Boy Scouts. And while the pandemic has temporarily sidelined in-person meetings, David has discovered that the online format is encouraging new membership, for some survivors find it a more comfortable way to connect.
David used to shy away from people, and he never could have imagined himself to be active on social media. But he has found an even larger community of support on Facebook, where he shares inspiration, insight, and on his difficult days, even despair.
“Helping others has become a source of healing for me,” he said. “I know what it’s like to be down. You’re not alone, and you don’t have to suffer in silence.”
If you are a victim of clergy sexual abuse, or sexual abuse of any kind, help is available. Visit snapnetwork.org for a list of online support groups, resources, and information, or call 1-877-SNAP -HEALS (1-877-762-7432).
A colorful call to action illustrating the importance of voting will be on display at Falmouth’s Peg Noonan Park on Main Street through Election Day. The project was spearheaded by the Falmouth League of Women Voters, which hosted a community painting day on Saturday, October 10.
Conceived by Falmouth resident Sarah Pring of the LWV and designed by Sandwich artist Jackie Reeves (pictured above) the three-panel “Be a Voter” mural is a sign of our times, spanning the long, hard battle for women’s suffrage to the mail-in voting that has already started across the country.
The public was invited to contribute to the mural at a paint-by-numbers style event. Participants signed up for a short time slot, and after selecting a color, the community artists filled in the corresponding block. Social distancing and masks were respectfully enforced at the event.
Tucker Clark of West Falmouth starts filling in the border of a section showcasing the time-honored tradition of casting a ballot in-person at the polls.
A few hours later, the finished product…
Oliveann Hobbie, longtime member of the League of Women Voters, serves as the organization’s publicity manager. The LWV is a non-partisan organization open to women and men, which encourages informed and active participation in government.
In keeping with the LWV’s mission, the mural directs voters to the LWV website, in addition to vote411.org, a comprehensive resource by the League of Women Voters Education Fund.
Jackie Reeves’ hope is not only to inspire a wave of young voters, but also to remind citizens of every age that every vote matters.
Falmouth is lucky to have the vision of this thought-provoking artist, who co-created the profoundly beautiful James Baldwin mural on Route 6A in Barnstable Village with fellow artist Joe Diggs.
The completed banner is inclusive and inspiring, showcasing the many faces of the American voter, reflecting our nation’s diversity.
Election Day is Tuesday, November 3. Mail-in ballots can be dropped in person in the gray mailbox in front of Falmouth Town Hall. Visit http://www.falmouthmass.us/655/Election-and-Voter-Information for additional info on polling locations for casting your ballot in-person, and more. Your vote counts; make your voice heard…
It seems impossible my father has been gone five years. Since I watched “It’s A Wonderful Life,” or willingly listened to Celtic music. Since he enveloped me in the comforting scent of after shave, soap, and wool. Since I went from being a Daddy’s Girl to a Fatherless Daughter.
Dad never liked Sundays. He always got the blues. But he loved Indian Summer. Therefore, it was somehow fitting he died in the early morning hours of Sunday, September 27.
It all happened so fast. After an excruciating year in and out of hospitals, nursing homes, and emergency rooms, he seemed to be getting a little better. A bed had just become available at Royal Nursing Home in Falmouth, and his team at Brigham & Women’s thought that would be the best place for him, considering he had already received such excellent care from Royal. Despite the circumstances, Dad loved it there, charming all with his twinkling blue eyes and genuine interest in anyone who appeared in his doorway.
My older brother, Ted, and I had recently met with the director, pleading Dad’s case like helicopter parents trying to secure a spot in the most popular preschool, hoping the sepsis diagnosis wouldn’t hurt his chances of being re-admitted.
On Monday, September 14, we got the news for which we had been desperately waiting. The infection was under control. Dad could come home.
Little did I know as a child that some of my happiest memories would later derive from pulling into the parking lot of Royal to see my mom’s car already in a spot near the door, the Marty Walsh and Elizabeth Warren stickers slightly askew on the silver bumper. At the time, I was working at Museums on the Green, right down the street on Katharine Lee Bates Road, so I could jump in my car at a moment’s notice to visit him.
No matter how much he adored his six kids, no one could lift Dad’s spirits quite like Mom – a testament to fifty-four years, spanning courtship, marriage, and enduring friendship. Growing up in a large Irish family, it was rare to get one-on-one time with either of my parents, or even better, time with them together.
Walking to Dad’s room at Royal, through the lobby, past the nurses’ station, around the corner, and down the hall to the right, I always felt the same peaceful anticipation as I did walking up the brick path at my childhood home on Grand Ave.
Feeling safe. Cherished. Loved.
They’d be deep in conversation, and Dad would act pleasantly shocked to see me. He’d always say my first and last name, stretching out the syllables as though incredulous and overjoyed that I was actually standing before him.
“Sa-rah Mur-phy! Where the hell did you come from?!”
Seeing Mom sitting by his bedside filled me with serenity. On the tray table would be his coveted Boston Globe, along with one of his favorite meals she had prepared or, later, when eating became a chore, a homemade frappe Rocky Balboa style, full of raw eggs for the much-needed calories.
It was the same way he’d always greet me when I moved back home to Falmouth in 2003, after living in our family house in Newton for eight years after college. Now two minutes away from my childhood home on Grand Ave, on the other side of Falmouth Harbor.
I’d knock softly on his office door, once a bedroom I shared with Courtney. He’d be sitting at his desk, hunched over the latest manuscript he’d soon be asking me to type, his elegant penmanship spread horizontally across the white copy paper, a space heater running near his feet, sometimes even in summer.
Or down the hallway, in the room my parents dubbed “The Love Nest,” because of its cozy ambiance, where they sat and talked about everything from Irish literature to politics to patriarchy. Usually when I opened the door, one would be on the phone, the other on the computer, while Rick Steves, Oprah, or occasionally Dr. Phil could be heard offering commentary in the background. Or Dad would be on the futon, hunched over while checking his blood sugar.
No matter what he was doing, he’d always offer that same excited greeting.
“Sa-rah Mur-phy! How the hell are ya?!”
I was in a meeting at Museums on the Green on Tuesday, September 15, when everything changed. We were on the second floor of Conant House, where my office was at the time, sitting around the table brainstorming plans for Christmas visitation, one of the signature events for the organization. Back then, I still loved Christmas, just like my dad. I was excited just talking about the prospect of transforming the historic homes into a yuletide yesteryear. However, the middle-aged voice in my head kept nagging at the eager little girl reminding her not to get ahead of herself. There are some things Santa can’t bring, and so much could happen between then and December.
And with that came the texts from my sister, Courtney, who was living in Lexington at the time and spending all her free time visiting Dad, while we “held down the fort” on the Cape as much as possible. We started a sibling text chain when Dad first got sick, in the fall of 2014, when he initially checked into Royal.
The texts kept coming, becoming more urgent, filled with medical jargon I couldn’t even follow. They no longer thought Dad’s condition was related to his diabetes, which had resulted in some of his toes being amputated. Now it was talk of bone marrow and cancer. I couldn’t process the words, and was trying to discreetly read them, until I couldn’t keep the emotion in any longer.
His doctors wanted the whole family to meet. We needed to get to Boston immediately. It was time to make decisions.
I got up and left, barely able to offer an explanation.
Later that afternoon, when we had all gathered, the head doctor explained our options, using a six-month timeline. It was the day before Ted’s birthday, forever changed, and I quickly did the math, desperately holding on to the possibility that Dad might still be here for mine in March. One more time for him to sing me Happy Birthday.
He kept describing Dad as “the patient,” outlining the symptoms of Myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a form of early leukemia, and most likely the reason he got so winded whenever we tried to get him to put down his pen and go for a walk. It was probably why he was always so cold.
Blood transfusions would only work for so long, and would only be partially effective, until he could no longer breathe on his own. I listened to the best of my ability, until a visceral sound escaped. Dr. Kristin D’Silva, a young doctor on my dad’s team, rushed over and held me as I sobbed. I will never forget her kindness. In that moment, everyone in my family was trying to process their own grief; I couldn’t expect anyone to be able to comfort me in mine.
Dad refused further tests or treatment. He was ready to die, and he wanted to die at home.
He was discharged on Thursday the 17th. I had driven up with Joanna and Mom, and I was elected to ride back to Falmouth in the ambulance with Dad, while they went home to get the hospital bed ready in the Great Room. I never thought I’d be the one to watch Dad sign a Do Not a Resuscitate order, or that I wouldn’t try to convince him otherwise.
The team told Dad what an honor it was to care for him, respectfully referring to him as “Professor Murphy.” I tried to remain focused on the good news. Dad was coming home.
I don’t remember how the topic came up, but he regaled the EMTs with tales from his few run-ins with Whitey Bulger, the older and infamous brother of Dad’s college friend, Billy. He had an inordinate amount of energy, because he was so excited to be going back to Grand Ave. I had to keep telling him to relax and enjoy the ride, without reminding him the reason for his labored breathing.
I’ve never known the joy of bringing home a newborn baby, but it was what I imagine to be a similar feeling, and it was one of the happiest days of my life, despite the reason for the journey.
One of the EMTs was from Quincy, and in typical Murphy fashion, I had to at least try to make a small world connection. “You wouldn’t happen to know…?” referencing one of the few Quincy people I did know. A fellow English major at Bridgwater State College, she was the third roommate when my friend, Damian and I rented a house in Port Clyde, Maine the summer we did our senior seminar, a requisite for graduation.
Not only did he know her, he had married her.
My dad had driven me all the way to Maine, because I couldn’t take extra time away from my summer job to get a ride with Damian the previous day. We left the Heights at the crack of dawn, or probably more like 7 am. Notorious for never being a morning person, I was in a terrible mood, even though Dad was the one chauffeuring me there on a stifling August day, only to get right back in the car and drive all the way home. Long before cell phones, he probably didn’t even have working AC in the car. And he couldn’t have been happier to do it.
Dad got “really mad” so few times you could usually remember the reason for the occasion, and my senior year of high school, he got totally fed up with my miserable attitude every day, as I sulked over my coffee.
“For Pete’s Sake, if you’re going to sit at this table, the least you can do is not be such a GD pain in the ass!” Signature Jimbo speak.
Therefore it was only fitting that I’d be the last one to wake up on the morning of September 27 to see everyone sitting around Dad. The house had become quiet sometime between three and four am, and I naively took it as a good sign, that he was finally sleeping soundly.
“He’s gone,” Courtney said gently, although I already knew.
Dad had been calling out for Nana and Papa all weekend, with shocking intensity, in the plaintive voice of a child, as though calling up a staircase, or yelling up to Heaven. He no longer sounded like my dad. He was Jimmy Murphy from the Lake, telling his own dad he was heading out to Boyd Park or the Paramount movie theater. I later learned from my cousin’s wife that my father’s sister had a similar experience in her final hours. Her feet wouldn’t stop moving under the covers.
“She’s running through her life,” the nurse explained.
Later, I went up to my parents’ room, and stared out the front window, overlooking the ball park and Falmouth Heights Beach. Sea and sky were flawless, and it could have been any summer day in my youth. Ted was in the driveway talking to Suzie O’Connor, Mrs. Grant was doing yard work, and cars were coming and going at the Sullivans.’ But then a black SUV pulled up, and a classmate of my sister, now an undertaker, approached Ted and shook his hand. He carried a quilt and entered the house, and when he came out, it was covering up the body bag.
Somehow, I thought I was ready. We already had a dress rehearsal in late June, when Dad aspirated one night at Royal. Ted showed up at my door at midnight to bring Chris and me to Falmouth Hospital, where Dad was unconscious, dressed only in a hospital gown, his hands like ice. “This is it,” I thought, as we drove up Palmer Ave. When I got there, I held his hand and whispered in his ear, pleading for him to wake up, with the same childlike intensity he later expressed. “Please, Daddy,” I begged.
I’ve read countless stories and poems referencing the act of keening, many as a student in my dad’s friend, Maureen’s Connelly’s Irish literature class at Bridgewater State College. But it wasn’t until the moment I watched my father leave Grand Ave for the last time that I truly understood. I curled up in the fetal position on my dad’s side of the bed, and screamed until I couldn’t. I can only imagine who heard me that day.
My mother, like most Irish-Catholic women, carries unnecessary guilt about countless things, including my dad’s death. She wishes she had been by his side at the exact moment.
Initially, I thought Dad was trying to spare us the pain of his loss, but the more I reflect on the family man he was, I think it was he who couldn’t bring himself to say goodbye.
I woke up this morning feeling angry that my dad isn’t here, then I had to remind myself of how lucky I am that he was.
I am forever grateful to be Jim Murphy’s daughter.
I know there’s a raucous party going on in Heaven, but selfishly, I think he should be here with us, ringing in his milestone birthday with a guitar solo, while his On The Rocks groupies raise our glasses during Friday Night “6 to 9 Action” at Grumpy’s.
It’s surreal to write about him in the past tense.
I’ll never forget catching his eye as he and Tricia waited in line at my dad’s crowded wake in October 2015. It was Columbus Day Weekend, when most people have holiday plans, and it moved me to even more tears that they had taken the time out of their busy lives to pay respects to our family.
Jeff enveloped me in a hug, unafraid of my raw grief.
“We’re so sorry for your loss, dear,” he whispered in his slight accent – “dee-yah.”
He always called me that, and it was one of the things that made him an old soul to me, a throwback to his Portuguese ancestors.
I can’t remember the first time I met Jeff; I just remember always knowing him. He was two years ahead of me, in my brother’s class, so it must have been when I got to high school in 1986. My husband, Chris, had already befriended Jeff by that time, when he was about 17 and Jeff was 14, spending hours in the Souzas’ basement on Acapesket Road, playing covers of their favorites by AC/DC and Black Sabbath. During that time, Chris was lucky enough to witness the musical chemistry between Jeff and his dad, a legendary jazz guitarist.
Falmouth’s Shellfish Warden by day, George Souza’s musical resume ranged from radio commercials to a stint in the Dorsey Brothers to his regular gig in the Frank Smoller Trio at The Flying Bridge, where the band recorded a live album. Mr. Souza was the first person Chris ever saw master two-handed rhythm and lead, and he did it effortlessly.
Chris would later come to know Jeff as a generous boss, when he worked for his friend at JD Souza Landscape Company. Because family always came first, one of Jeff’s most important accounts was his aunt, who lived near Falmouth Harbor. Eventually all the guys adopted Jeff’s name for her, referring to her in the same endearing way he did as simply “Auntie Carmen.” Chris and I still laugh about that to this day.
I always knew Jeff for his sharp observational wit, but I would later get to know him on a more emotional level, through my work as a reporter. I first interviewed him and his brother, Greg, in August of 2016, in the basement of the home he shared with Tricia, the walls decorated with a rainbow array of rare guitars.The article was to promote their upcoming “Souzapalooza” Charity Music Festival, with proceeds being split between the Fresh Pond Holy Ghost Society and local nonprofit Wings For Falmouth Families.
Jeff’s ancestors emigrated from Sao Miguel in 1907, and his Portuguese heritage was always a source of great pride. George Souza’s godfather built the original stone arches in front of the Holy Ghost hall, and years later, whenever it or the nearby St. Anthony’s Club needed to stage a fundraiser, Mr. Souza would assemble a group of musicians to play. Jeff was dedicated to keeping those contributions alive, and he believed the clubs represented an exceedingly rare connection to the Old World and simpler times.
“It’s a place you can go and have a three-dollar bowl of soup and see your cousins,” he said.
Jeff was candid about how much he missed both of his parents, and the many aunts, uncles, and other beloved relatives who had gone before him, much too soon. I could relate in a sense. As the one-year anniversary of my dad’s death approached, I was definitely struggling, and everything was a reminder – the hazy sun sitting high in the late summer sky, the melancholy quiet of approaching fall, the terrifying feeling that life goes on amid staggering loss.
Later that night, we shared some texts, as I had to follow-up with some fact-checking, such as clarifying the significance of the On the Rocks Teaticket Tour despite the fact the Souzas hail from East Falmouth. Any self-respecting townie reporter, especially one who’s married to a guy from Perch Pond Circle, knows never to confuse the two.
We continued our existential conversation, and I appreciated the chance to be vulnerable about the grief that was hovering just below the surface, waiting to pounce as the calendar turned to September. Not only did he understand, he wasn’t afraid to talk about it.
Seven months later, Greg sent us a message saying Jeff had been diagnosed with colon cancer.
Music provided a temporary but invigorating panacea for Jeff, and a chance to showcase the profound musical gift that flowed from within. Watching Jeff with his older brother, Greg, his cousin David Smoller, and his musical brother, Charles Williamson gave me (and countless others) more joy than I could ever articulate. On The Rocks was another avenue for Jeff to celebrate his roots, in many ways a revival of The Frank Smoller Trio, featuring Jeff and Greg’s dad, and Dave’s grandfather, and I could almost picture them watching in the wings with pride.
Jeff’s energy level was a thing to behold. He performed through it all, while recovering from surgeries and chemotherapy, even on nights he was especially tired and had to play while sitting down. Tricia’s calming nature was ever present, despite all that she was quietly dealing with herself.
I’m sure people wondered why I spent the shows wandering the crowd taking so many photos and videos. Deep down, I was afraid we were privy to something special and fleeting. Looking back, I wonder if Jeff always knew his time was limited, therefore he wanted to make the most of it. He’d flash that contagious smile, hamming it up for the camera, texting me the next morning. “Get any good pics?” I finally set up a Google folder for him because I took so many, and he wasn’t a social media kind of guy.
Jeff’s cancer was in remission in August of 2018, when I interviewed the brothers again for the upcoming Souzapalooza. Proceeds would help defray medical expenses for their nine-year-old great-niece, Madeline, who was battling non-Hodgkins lymphoma at the time. They raffled off a custom built guitar to raise even more funds – a turquoise Stratocaster with high-end components thoughtfully selected by Jeff and constructed by Bay Fretted Instrument & Repair Shop in Marstons Mills.
Thankfully, today, Madeline is thriving.
During that interview, Jeff was more focused on his niece’s prognosis than his own. He never once complained about his situation; instead he expressed gratitude for his immense support system, his family and bandmates – Greg, who was there every step of the way, for treatments in Boston and Falmouth – and the people he entrusted to run his company – Tricia, his partner in life and work, her son, Chad Enos, and his longtime employee, and oldest friend, Tim Simpson.
Born two days apart, their friendship began in the Falmouth Hospital maternity ward in 1970, and Jeff would quickly become an honorary Simpson.
Chris and Jeff got the chance to relive their youth during Jeff’s final year. Jeff had about twenty original songs for which he wanted Chris to write vocals, with plans to eventually record. My husband, who barely checks his email, was suddenly texting with Jeff like a teenage girl, laughing over long forgotten private jokes. He’d come home late at night, happy and inspired after once again playing in Jeff’s basement.
I texted Jeff on May 15, a Friday, to tell him I put another video in the folder, fearing it might be goodbye. Afraid to say it, or some variation, but more afraid not to.
“We love you,” was the last message I received from Jeff. Four days later, he was gone.
In a pre Covid world, Jeff’s childhood parish would have been packed, but due to restrictions, space was limited. As we exited the church on a flawlessly sunny Friday night, we joined the masked mourners gathering around the Souza family plot. I was overcome by the deafening silence – no screaming guitar or boisterous laughter. No 6 to 9 Action.
I’ve visited Jeff a few times since that night, once recently when picking up takeout from Golden Sails, and I could so easily imagine him sitting at the bar holding court. I think of him always, when I cross the Green Pond bridge, when I pass the house that was Auntie Carmen’s, and when I hear Billy Idol, Tom Petty, The Cult…
Words he once texted offering comfort once again ring painfully true.
“The more we love them, the more we miss them,” he wrote.
You can say that again, my friend.
If you’d like to honor Jeff, you can make a donation to: Fresh Pond Holy Ghost Society, Attn: Souzapalooza Charity Music Festival, PO Box 2204, Teaticket, MA 02536. Follow Souzapalooza on Facebook for more information.
I wrote the following reflection in 2012, when I served as editor for the New Balance Falmouth Road Race 40th Anniversary magazine. A portion of this was originally published in a reporter’s notebook I wrote for the Falmouth Bulletin in 2007. The race and I have both grown older since I first penned these words, but the sentiment remains. Growing up in Falmouth Heights during the 70s and 80s was a very special time, and I’m forever grateful for these memories of simpler days…
View From the Heights
I grew up with the Falmouth Road Race, and this year, we both turn 40.
Living on Grand Avenue, behind the ballpark in Falmouth Heights, the race was a way of life. If 4th of July marked the official start of summer, Road Race was definitely the highlight. Like Christmas in August, it was greeted with the same breathless anticipation, the build-up being the best part.
On Saturday, the large trucks would enter my neighborhood, like Santa’s magical sleigh, transforming the empty field with stages, tables, makeshift fences, and a long line of porta potties. I’d wake on Sunday morning to the piercing din of microphone feedback, proverbial music to my ears, heralding the arrival of my favorite summer day. My father’s best friend, Bill McCarthy would ride over with his family from their summer house in Belmar. I’d look out the upstairs window and see their bikes propped from largest to smallest against the trees in the backyard, like a family of ducks. Their arrival signaled that the roads in the Heights were now closed.
We always watched from our usual place, on Crescent Park near the 10K mark, and those first few years, I was perched on my father’s shoulders. But as I got older, and two siblings came along, I forfeited that spot to stand among the towering crowd, watching countless feet fly by in a speeding blur. Even as a small child, I knew we were witnessing something special.
Our screams always got louder when we spotted a runner with a shirt that had a personal connection for us. “Go Eagles!” “You can do it, Mass Maritime!”
After the race, we’d cut through the Sullivans’ and head over to the ball park with our summer friends – the Pentas, the Gameres, Joe Crowley, and Chris Vituolo, and the only other year-round members of our crew, the McEvoy girls, for free hot dogs and Gatorade. The excitement of such a prospect was not lost on young children.
In 1979, the summer my father’s first book, Quonsett, was released in paperback, our family sported T-shirts bearing the name of the book, a thriller about a serial killer in a Cape Cod town, and some of his friends wore them in the race. The Michael Ames House on the hill displayed a huge banner for us with the words, “Quonsett welcomes the Road Runners.”
My dad paid $85 for a plane to circle the sky above, with another banner offering the suggestion, “Read Quonsett.” Looking back, he decided the plane probably wasn’t the best marketing tool. “Who’s looking up? Everyone’s watching the runners!” he laughed. Being an iconic local event at the time, race later made it into the book’s sequel, Night Watcher.
The year I was ten, after watching Joan Benoit smile for photographs while donning her laurel wreath, my younger sister, Courtney and I made our way across the sea of people to the knoll where we went sledding each winter. I shyly approached her and asked for her autograph. She signed my Perrier painter’s cap, which I immediately showed off to my friends and the adults congregating in our backyard for our annual party.
There was the year of my lemonade stand, when I woke in a panic on a sunless, muggy day, fearing I had somehow slept through the race, only to find I had hours to set up my enterprise in front of MacDougall’s Boatyard and Marine Research. I made a pretty good profit, thanks to my sympathetic customers who purchased sickeningly sweet, lukewarm Country Time served in dented Dixie cups. I later squandered my earnings on penny candy up at Under the Sun next to the old Casino, but not until the following day. Back then, after the race was over, we were prohibited from venturing near the Casino until Monday morning swimming lessons. It wasn’t until adulthood that we finally entered the forbidden zone.
My older brother, Ted would throw a party in The Shack, the converted garage of my parents’ rental property next to our house. Race day always brought the same faces, some we only saw each August, friends who ran, spectators who needed parking, and we’d squeeze into the Shack, listening to Bim Skala Bim, while our neighbor, Pat Grant hosted a dueling party across the street at his mother’s house. Some of the guests would visit back and forth between the two parties, and later we’d walk over to Capers, before crossing over to the Wharf, and then downstairs for dancing on the beer-soaked floor at the Casino.
The dilapidated Casino has been gone since 2003, replaced by a restaurant and condos, and Capers is now the British Beer Company, but the memories live on, like sea salt lingering in summer air. Many of those friends still come to the Shack every year, but now they are pushing strollers or chasing toddlers, and there is still electricity in the air during Road Race weekend. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
There are two things fundamental to my upbringing that have been missing from my life for the past twenty years – a dog and an outdoor shower. My husband and I are currently all set with pets, since our 15-year-old cat keeps us up all night, every night, due to his geriatric OCD issues, which are getting increasingly worse with age. Sometimes I think his younger brother would prefer to go back to sharing a cage at the rescue organization just so he can get some sleep, and there are many nights I’d consider joining him. Therefore my dreams of having another Great Dane (maybe a blue one this time), or boxer or Rhodesian Ridgeback are currently on hold. I’m okay with that for now…
But I’ve been lamenting my lack of an outdoor shower for years, primarily because it’s a connection to my childhood. We even had one (albeit just a shower head) on the back of our house in West Newton, where we lived before moving full-time to our summer house in Falmouth Heights in the early 70s. That set-up was primitive in comparison to what I’d later come to know, for growing up on Cape Cod, the outdoor shower is part of life’s backdrop, an extension of home.
Holding my palm up, while huddling in a sandy bathing suit, waiting for the water to warm up. The persistent trickle of running water mingling with a wire brush scraping against the grill. The pungent perfume of charcoal briquettes wafting through the air along with James Taylor on WCIB.
Back before global warming, when we actually had four seasons, the outdoor shower was perpetually running, from steamy spring days to rainy fall nights.
Earlier this summer, Chris and I felt extremely lucky to get on Joe Calfee’s schedule for some long overdue home improvement projects. Joe’s reputation for quality work precedes him, and finding an honest, expedient contractor is no small feat, so he’s always in demand. But you won’t find a fleet of vehicles all over town bearing his name, just his signature red pick-up. As a Falmouth native, he cares first and foremost about preserving the character of our town by maintaining the charm of its homes. Instead of pointing out cracks, he looks for potential. He doesn’t sell you on things you don’t need or make promises he can’t keep. So when he said he had time to add a shower to his to-do list, Chris put his dreams of a shed on the back burner for my sake.
Summer 2020 has been one for the books. For the first time in 48 years, it’s mid-August, and I haven’t even put my toes in the water. I feel like an alien as I drive around the Heights hill and see hordes of people crowded on every inch of beach, vaguely remembering the shocking relief that comes only from saltwater meeting skin. Or to use a different cliche, feeling like a proverbial fish out of water. An alien fish.
The shower has been my saving grace…
Not only did we get an outdoor shower, we got a unique work of art, constructed with cedar and pressure-treated posts. The yin-and-yang curves allow for more air flow and also resemble waves, a perfect theme for this ocean-loving Pisces, and the shower head and hooks are thoughtfully placed with a petite person in mind.
There’s even an adorable little bench…
I took my first outdoor shower – at my own home – for the first time in two decades, on a cool and starry moonlit evening two weeks ago. A slight breeze danced through the trees, the neighbors’ wind chime at its heels. Just around the corner, I could hear the Island Queen’s last ferry of the night signaling its way back home to Falmouth Harbor.
Thank you, Joe. It finally feels like summer again…
It was February 2019, and I was packing for my first trip to Rome, when I received a Facebook message from a friend thanking me for an article I had just written about clergy sex abuse. In it I shared the story of a man in my hometown of Falmouth, Massachusetts, now in his early fifties, who endured a decade of abuse at the hands of Monsignor Maurice Souza at St. Anthony’s Church in East Falmouth. We were following his story to Vatican City, where we would peacefully protest the Pope’s summit that was called to supposedly address the issue. My friend could relate to the experience of finally speaking his truth after so many years, for he too was coming to terms with what happened to him as a boy in another Massachusetts town, at St. Brigid’s Parish in Lexingtonin the late 1960s.
Earlier this week, he decided it was time to come forward and name his abuser, the late Reverend John Patrick “Fitz” Fitzpatrick, in the hope of helping not only himself, but other survivors, and offering families of survivors a window into their loved ones. Perhaps this has happened to someone in your life, but he or she isn’t ready to come forward. Or perhaps that person has blocked it all out. My friend is tired of shouldering the burden of misplaced shame that accompanies keeping secret an experience no child or adult should ever endure. While he isn’t ready to be identified by his own name just yet, he doesn’t want to be a proverbial “John Doe.” He’s chosen the name William “Verdad” for a reason, for it translates to “Determined Guardian of Truth.”
This is his story…
Speaking My Truth
by William Verdad
I need to get this on paper, or “out there,” so to speak. My experience as a victim of childhood sexual abuse represents one of thousands, maybe millions. I am a statistic, but it’s finally time to share the actual words and story with the people it could potentially help. Abuse of this kind alters lives drastically and permanently.
When I was a child, I was raped about a dozen times by two priests from my childhood parish. I blocked out the experience for over 40 years.
I am now 60 years old.
I finally began to remember about ten years ago, when I ran out of money for drugs and alcohol, and moved to my brother’s house to dry out. It took months, but one day it all finally started to come back. John and I were watching Mystic River, a film I had tried to watch a few times but always walked away from as soon as it got difficult. This time it triggered something.
“I just thought of when I was a lector as a young boy. I read from the Bible at mass a couple of times, didn’t I?” I looked to him to validate my recollection.
“Yes, but probably more like a dozen times,” he said.
This news was significant in putting the pieces together, as John’s memory has always been better than mine, and he is older, so I knew it must be true.
I began firing questions at him, starting with my age at the time. Nine or ten was his response.
Then it hit me – the church said I had been chosen as the youngest boy ever to read the Bible to a Roman Catholic crowd. Ever. Suddenly this seemed incredulous. Wow….ever?! That’s pretty noteworthy. How had I forgotten that for so long?
Bits and pieces began to come back. My mother and the whole family were so proud. What an honor.
I remember thinking, ‘why me?’ I didn’t ask for this. I am horribly dyslexic and can’t even read that well. Actually, I am terrified, but everyone seems so proud and excited, so I don’t want to disappoint anyone. I’ll practice a lot and I’ll be okay.
It was always Father “Fitz” and another priest who gave me my assigned reading, and each time, no matter how much I read it, I still didn’t really get the meaning; the words were unfamiliar and hard to pronounce. They would pull me out of religious education class (which was held in a building on church grounds), and we’d go to the basement to rehearse my reading.
At first I welcomed the chance to practice, since I was dreading having to read in front of hundreds of people on those Sunday mornings. Next, I remembered asking them why we didn’t actually practice when we were in the basement. Their demeanor changed in an instant from being sweet and complimentary to cruel and harsh.
The same thing happened when I questioned why my pants were belted at a different hole and my shirt was tucked in a way that I would never do. Oh, they got so very angry when I asked that.
I noticed that when they brought me back to class, much more time had seemed to pass than made sense. Although it was held on Thursday afternoons for two hours after regular school, we referred to it as “Sunday School.” I recalled getting in trouble often with my teacher for falling asleep at my desk after returning from the basement. This happened many times, but at the time, I was just glad that it made the day seem shorter.
A few weeks after the incident watching the movie, more memories returned to me one night in a dream.
Waking up in that basement, everything very foggy, only the shaking light of the high cellar window slowly coming into rhythmic focus. Feeling something behind me and being grabbed by it. Does he have his finger in my bum? What is this? He was much older, and I heard him snap at the younger priest, who quickly put a cloth doused in something over my face.
The memories continued. I would read the verses once, then they would put a cloth over my mouth and nose and put me face-down on a high table. Waking back up every time to one holding me upright and the other waving an amyl nitrate in my face. I later asked them what they had done to me. Was it a medical thing? I had no real understanding of sex, but did remember doctors putting thermometers into my anus. They were very, very angry at my question and said it was a bit like that, but it must be kept secret and that I was special.
Then it began to be a threat that if I told anyone I would break my mother’s heart. They said if I didn’t stay quiet they would take the big Easter reading away from me, and that was a huge honor.
I kept my mouth shut. I loved my mother so much, and she was so proud. But at one of the Sunday readings, I was massively nervous. It was a lot of letters from Paul to the Corinthians, stuff I didn’t get. I was a kid who asked a lot of questions, and they didn’t like that. I asked if I could read something easier that I could understand; I think I even suggested something from the Psalms, something about love or helping friends. This also made them very angry, so I didn’t ask again.
I got through the reading and I had to wait in the wings to read again. I was with the two altar boys. One of them was a year or so younger than me. He was small but seemed so much older. His eyes were very dark and sunken.
As the mass was in progress he turned to me and said matter-of-factly, “Did they fuck you yet?”
“What?” I said, completely shocked.
“Did they have sex with you yet?”
I didn’t even understand what he was saying. “But they’re men. A man can’t have sex with another man,” I responded.
“Yes they can. In the ass,” he said, pointing to his own butt.
I became upset and repeated more loudly, “A man can only have sex with a woman!”
Next thing I knew, an angry priest came over to us telling us to never speak to each other while mass was in progress.
The last thing I remember about it all was how kind they were to me at first, and how special they made me feel, followed by the confusion and pain of being chastised and shunned for being bad. I never understood what I had done wrong or what I did to deserve it.
I’ve carried this with me for the past five decades, trying to block it out and keep it all down with lots of drugs, drinking, and drama. Those evil parasites scarred me for life, and aside from a handful of people in my life, no one knew about it until now. Or did they? Those who enable and cover-up for these predators are just as guilty, so I’m sharing my story in the hopes of saving another innocent life from being shattered. And if you’re reading this and you know this pain firsthand, I hope you know you’re not alone.
I recently visited my brother T.M. Murphy’s Monday morning session of The Just Write It Class in Falmouth Heights. Thankfully Covid-19 hasn’t cancelled the 2020 season of this long-standing summer tradition, now in its 25th year. Since he first started teaching in The Writers’ Shack, Ted has encouraged kids to follow their dreams and creative aspirations through writing and storytelling.
The rustic ambiance of the Shack, where we once hung out in our youth, lends itself to inspiration, and the exposed beams are now covered not only with tattered U2 posters, but the signatures of students past and present, and further evidence of their prolific work in Ted’s class. Additionally, the act of writing lends itself to social distancing, so with safety precautions in place, it’s been business as usual for these aspiring young writers. Classes are offered for ages 9-12; 12-15; and 16-19. Each two-hour session consists of group instruction through writing prompts, followed by free writes, enabling students to come away from each class with a rough draft, work-in-progress, or finished product. Students also get the chance to practice public speaking, as they share their work at the podium. After each reading, their classmates offer feedback, but there’s one rule: constructive criticism only. The supportive environment results in the forming of new and lasting friendships.
Ruthie is a rising sixth-grader at Morse Pond School in Falmouth. Like the rest of the Monday morning writers, she’s a returning student to the Just Write It Class.
“I like how we can meet with friends we made last year, and that even though there’s a pandemic going on, we’re still able to do this and have fun,” she said.
Lila agreed. “It’s nice to spend time with people who aren’t my family and to have something to do other than sitting at home.”
Will enjoys the structure of The Just Write It Class. “I can write freely and experiment with all my ideas,” he said.
Caitlin also appreciates having that creative freedom. “I like being able to write about whatever I want instead of being given an assignment,” she said. Witches is one of her favorite subjects, and one of her many stories hangs prominently in the Shack.
Max and Cullen have become fast friends and creative collaborators; they’re currently working on a story together.
“I wanted to take this class again because it lets me be more imaginative,” Cullen said. “I can write about whatever is in my mind.”
Max credited the teacher for setting the tone, which he believes contributes to the overall atmosphere. “I like how Ted has a certain sense of humor. He’s actually funny,” he said. “Having a teacher like that helps you make a certain connection, and it just makes you want to learn more.”
A few spaces are available for the final summer session of The Just Write It Class, for ages 9-12, beginning Wednesday, August 5 from 8:45-10:45 am. To register, contact Ted Murphy at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook and Instagram.
*Copyright 1993. Reprinted in “Chicken Soup for the Veteran’s Soul,” 2001.
My most vivid memory associated with the American flag flashes to Korea and a gray, clammy day in early August 1953. The Korean War had come to an end a week earlier, on July 27 at precisely 10 PM. I remember lying in a rice paddy and suddenly experiencing the thunderous, deafeaning silence of peace. The Chinese and North Koreans, surely as joyful as I, were singing and raising their flags less than two hundred yards from where my platoon sergeant and I sat smoking celebratory cigars.
A military spotlight, affectionately referred to as “Moonbeam Charlie,” played along the valley floor and crept up the scarred hills, catching the Chinese and North Koreans in spirited dancing around their outpost flagpole. Their flags seemed to mean something to them, and at that time, I wasn’t sure what my flag meant to me.
But that changed dramatically a week later, when I was a part of a contingent sent to represent my regiment at “Freedom Village.”
“Operation Big Switch” was on. Our prisoners of war were to be returned to American hands, as the Chinese and North Koreans were to be returned to their people. Through the dim half-light of fading memory, I recollect that Freedom Village was in a scooped-out hollow with hills brooding over it from four sides. A few dwellings leaned into the village amid taut canvas hospital tents.
We representatives of the United Nations stood at attention as ambulances and beat-up buses arrived from the north. The UN, American, and Korean flags hung limply in the humid August air. Photographers, Army and civilian alike, scurried about for good vantage points.
The Chinese and North Koreans were the first to cross over “Freedom Bridge.” They were surly, healthy looking and well fed. Some carried signs decrying capitalism. Members of a Republic of Korea regiment scowled, and one of them sent a spray of saliva in his former opponent’s direction. The exchange had a tone of tense and bitter antagonism, and as young as I was, I wondered how long the newly inked truce would last.
When the remaining Chinese and North Koreans had been herded off to their own vehicles, the UN prisoners were ushered from the trucks and buses and sent across the bridge to our side. The UN Honor Guard, combat veterans, and observers gasped when they saw the condition of their returning comrades, who struggled, hobbled and staggered, gaunt and emaciated, toward friendly faces.
One after another they came. The next one was in worse condition than the one before. Long lines of dull-eyed soldiers of the “Forgotten War” inched their way to freedom, and out of their number, a gray-faced stick figure of a boy-turned-old man dragged himself along the bridge. His bony arms were held out like a sleepwalker. He staggered and swayed, and one time fell into the wooden railing. Every eye in that village was suddenly trained on that one figure. Even those on the northern side watched the gallant physical effort of the wasted soldier. Each tried, inwardly, to help, to urge him on, until finally, when he lurched forward, an MP major, a giant of a man, came up to help. The soldier waved him off with his skeleton hands and arms. Looking around at the grim faces, he caught sight of the three color bearers and shuffled toward them. When he reached the American flag bearer, he knelt on trembling knees before the flag as though it were an altar. He reached up and tugged at the flag. The color bearer, either by instinct or by some infinite wisdom, lowered the flag and the soldier covered his face with it, sobbing and shaking uncontrollably.
Other than the clicks of cameras, the village was cemetery-quiet. Tears streamed from all of us. Cotton replaced saliva in our throats. After several moments, the stillness was broken by the sound of the heavy boots of the MP major, who came crunching across the gravel, his cheeks moist and glistening. He bent down and tenderly scooped the soldier up in his muscular arms and carried him off to a waiting ambulance, much as a father would carry a baby.
There wasn’t a dry eye in that silent village, thousands of miles away from Main Street, USA.
The Fourth of July is now a memory, and my husband and I have been in quarantine since before St. Patrick’s Day. While we’ve slowly but surely been getting out a bit more as the months creep by, the global pandemic persists. As I write this, it’s a flawless summer day, but I have yet to get to the beach this season, which is unheard of for this lifelong Cape Codder, who also happens to be a Pisces.
Italy has now closed its borders to Americans, after candidly pleading with the US not to make their mistake by underestimating the severity of the situation. I can’t say I’m remotely surprised, or that I blame them. Therefore it’s doubtful I’ll be making my fall research trip to Vatican City as planned, but thankfully, I can travel virtually, since my work as an advocate for clergy sex abuse survivors connects me to inspiring individuals all over the world. I recently had the pleasure of speaking by phone with Fred Sebaggala, founder and managing director of shelearns.org, a non-profit in Kampala, Uganda dedicated to educating and empowering girls and women.
Although it was nearly 9 PM his time, his day was not yet over, as he explained his motivation for starting the organization. Fred and his sister were raised by their mother Betty, a hard-working, single parent, who struggled and sacrificed in order to give her children all the things she lacked.
“She was not an educated lady, but she did what she could to make sure we always had the best. In the traditional African setting, women are viewed as second-class citizens. They cannot speak out. If my mother had been empowered, she could have made a difference in the world. A woman with a voice is, by definition, a strong woman,” he said, referencing one of the slogans of She Learns.
“I wanted to find a way to help other girls so they didn’t have to face the same challenges she did.”
Despite the lack of opportunities afforded to Betty in her youth, she is changing the world through her son, who challenges African cultural stereotypes by promoting equality in education. The impetus for his initiative came a few years ago when Fred attended a gender equality conference and felt compelled to make a difference. Today, he and his colleagues visit schools to motivate female students about their societal worth and potential, while educating them to be financially independent and self-reliant rather looking to a spouse to fill that role.
“We teach them that being a girl is not a bad thing. Girls deserve the same opportunities as boys. We challenge them to think like a ceo, a manager, or a preacher. How would they address their workers or their congregation if they were in charge? We build their self-esteem so they understand that their potential is already within them, because when she learns, she can win. When she learns, she can live a better life. When she learns, she can be anything she wants in this world,” Fred explained.
The organization also provides access to the most basic resources for girls and women, such as shoes and menstrual pads, for without them, they are unable to attend school or work.
“In some villages, it’s hard to get sanitary pads, and some girls can’t afford them. They worry people will laugh at them, which makes them feel pain and shame, and they can’t imagine how they could ever go to school in such a situation. So we bring sanitary pads to the villages, along with other needed supplies, like food,” he said.
The importance of a man working to end the stigma of menstruation, something so normal, which is often weaponized against women all over the globe, cannot be overstated. My respect for Fred is immeasurable. As a former Catholic, I experienced the shame that accompanied what should be welcomed as a healthy rite of passage, and many years later, I wrote an essay about how I learned about my period not from my mother, but instead from the awkward, cheesy filmstrip all the girls watched in sixth grade. My poor mom still apologizes for this, which wasn’t at all her fault, for she was a product of a religious system in which anything relating to sex was regarded as sinful and “inappropriate.” She was simply repeating the behavior she had learned from my grandmother, which was based in fear, more than anything else.
Instead of using religion to control women, She Learns does the opposite; it liberates them with references to the Bible, a concept so foreign to the patriarchal religion I left as a teenager.
“The Bible did not disparage women. God empowered both sexes, but the main way women have been put down in my country is by being silenced,” Fred said. “So we teach the girl child to look outside the box of the traditional setting. We teach her that women have value.”
She Learns also works to eliminate child labor and child trafficking, and to educate in the prevention of domestic abuse, therefore Fred took on an African leadership role in the global organization SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), through his work with SNAP Vice-President, Ashley Easter, US advisor to She Learns. Ashley interviews Fred in this video about his future goals for She Leans, such as the establishment of trade school where girls and women can learn vocational skills in order to pursue a career.
Empowering those who are marginalized is Fred’s greatest joy, for he believes helping others is how we truly succeed.
“If you want to build a strong woman, start with a girl. Even if it’s just one, behind that girl, there may be ten more. And when one girl is lifted, she can empower others. She can change the world.”
The Island Queen is making waves and taking strides to promote clean waters with the purchase and installation of the “Seabin,” Cape Cod’s very first floating trash bin. The device is part of a global initiative founded in Australia by two avid water lovers committed to reducing trash with the end goal of eventually making the need obsolete through education and awareness. The company was founded on a simple premise – trash cans are just as necessary in the ocean as they are on land.
Island Queen Manager Michael Reposa discovered the Seabin Project last summer, after searching online for a solution to the trash build-up that he routinely witnesses firsthand in the water surrounding the Island Queen ferry terminal, located on Falmouth Heights Road.
“All of us spend many hours a day, every day, standing at this dock, and when we first start maintenance on the boat in early May, you can see the bottom of the harbor. But as more people come, and more boats are in the water, it slowly becomes murkier,” he observed.
Additionally, the boat is anchored in one of the harbor’s only inlets, so with the tide comes cigarette butts, fish heads, and plastic – specifically bags, food wrappers, and nip bottles – with microplastics proving to be one of the biggest culprits. To that end, the Seabin can collect items as small as two millimeters, objects unseen by the human eye but consumed by organisms in the local food chain.
Mr. Reposa believes the majority of the trash is not a result of intentional littering but primarily accumulates in the harbor from storm drains and wind. Despite the use of a pool skimmer, the problem continued.
“Keeping the area clean was becoming a full-time job,” he said.
Mr. Reposa spent a few months last year in the off-season researching the innovative Seabin technology, founded in 2017 by an engineer and a boat-builder, and learned the product could be purchased and shipped from a company in Canada. He presented his findings to his employer, owner Charlie Bardelis Jr., who agreed to the idea immediately.
Cape Cod’s first Seabin is now up and running. Custom signage is being created by Locust Street Sign Company in Falmouth, and the Island Queen will cross-promote its participation in the global effort with Seaside Sustainability of Gloucester.
A quiet motor on the bottom of the Seabin creates suction, pooling and collecting small trash, while making it easier to reach in and grab the larger items that are also attracted. The unassuming piece of machinery connects to a floating dock, so it rises with the tide, and remains at water level.
According to the Seabin Project, 8.1 million tons of mismanaged waste enters our oceans each year, and each seabin has the capacity to catch a half ton of debris annually, in the form of:90,000 plastic bags; 16,500 plastic bottles; 35,700 disposable cups; 16,500 plastic bottles, and 166,500 plastic utensils.
General Manager Todd Bidwell credited Mr. Reposa for introducing the idea and Mr. Bardelis for his commitment to clean oceans.
“When Mike told us about this initiative, and that this would be the first Seabin on Cape Cod, we thought it was a fantastic idea. By purchasing and installing the Seabin, we now feel like we’re contributing to the health of Falmouth Harbor, which ultimately is going to benefit not just the businesses and residents of the area, but all our waterways, in Falmouth and beyond. Hopefully this is the beginning of a trend,” he said.
Mr. Reposa credited Mr. Bardelis and Mr. Bidwell for recognizing the importance of such an investment.
“One Seabin isn’t going to clean up the whole harbor, but it’s a start in the right direction,” he said.
Life couldn’t be more different now than when I last wrote. In January of 2020, the year held much promise, and despite all that has transpired since, I still believe that. The onset of the global pandemic almost seems like a distant memory here in the United States, for those on the front lines of that battle are joined by Americans fighting for racial equality. Meanwhile, countries all around the globe are standing in solidarity, demanding the US finally take accountability for the systemic racism dating back to our country’s inception, a shameful by-product of the slave history that was glossed over in my history textbooks. Before I had any idea of what this winter would hold, I was contacted on Facebook by clergy abuse survivor/activist Benjamin Kitobo, seeking my help sharing his story. His life was forever changed in 1980, when he was a 13-year-old student at an African seminary in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), then known as Zaire. Benja suffered sexual abuse for four years at the hands of a Belgian priest who had been sent to Zaire after being accused of abusing a child in Belgium. His “punishment” was the signature response of the Roman Catholic Church – a quiet reassignment to avoid scandal – in this case to a remote African village, where he would ostensibly be out of sight and mind. Predictably, taking a page out of the predator playbook, he continued his behavior in his new environment, and the bishops who ignored the potential danger he posed were complicit in his crimes against Benja and the other boys he targeted at the school.
Benja was featured last November in a documentary on CNN titled “Abuse and Scandal in the Catholic Church: The Case of the Predator Priest,” detailing his courageous journey seeking accountability, resulting in obtaining a taped confession from his abuser. But after issuing an abuse complaint, he later discovered his abuser was still working with children in Rwanda, which is part of his motivation as a survivor advocate. According to Benja, it can be life-threatening to speak about abuse in Congo, where the topic is swept under the proverbial rug.
Benja was the only survivor representing Africa at the global summit of bishops in Rome in February of 2019, which I also attended, billed by Pope Francis as an “all-out battle” against this scourge that has plagued the Roman Catholic Church since its beginning. Despite the pope’s claims, no concrete change has occurred since then, which is unsurprising to anyone paying the slightest bit of attention to this criminal issue. Benja and I both participated in the March to Zero, a peaceful protest through the streets of Rome on a crisp, sunny Saturday morning, organized by Ending Clergy Abuse, with participation from other prominent groups, such as SNAP (Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests) and bishopaccountability.org. Our paths didn’t cross during that invigorating walk across the Tiber river, from the Piazza del Popolo to Castel Sant’ Angelo, just outside the unwelcoming walls of the Vatican, but I was honored and taken aback when he contacted me seeking my help telling his story in the form of a memoir, and to bring attention to Africa’s handling of this particular plight. Benja’s life is fascinating and full of accomplishment. Now a father, living in St. Louis, he left Congo as a refugee, spending a brief time living in Foligno, a small town in the Umbrian region of Italy.
We first spoke in depth over the phone last January, in between his busy schedule as a nurse, and trying to finish his dissertation. A sweet and funny man, the same age as my husband, Chris, he explained reasonably yet passionately the vital importance of shining a light on his native land and the most marginalized of abuse victims.
“They knowingly send these predators to prey on these innocent victims, who are powerless to fight back. It’s risky to speak out. The control they have is like slavery all over again. You’re only free when you speak up, but the price of speaking is very high,” he said.
Although I have no idea what it’s like to be targeted for my skin, I do know what it’s like to be discounted for my sex, in society and religion, which is one of the primary reasons I left the Catholic Church, after being confirmed as a teenager. In 2020 America, despite fighting tooth and nail for suffrage a century ago, a topic also glossed over in the history books, women are still not equal to their male counterparts, starting with their paychecks. I write this on Juneteenth, a holiday I never knew existed until a few years ago, and only now am getting a more clear understanding of, for it was not even mentioned in those same history books. Needless to say, it was obviously a bit impulsive, if not incredibly naive, to immediately say yes when Benja asked if he could obtain financing, I would accompany him to follow the story to Congo. Although Chris supports my clergy abuse investigation wholeheartedly, despite the fact it doesn’t garner any kind of paycheck, he shot down the idea of such a trip, considering he could hear Benja on speakerphone describing the potential dangers I might face. In my earnest desire to give voice to the voiceless, it didn’t initially dawn on me that I could now be the target of race, and a victim of physical and sexual violence due to my skin color. Talk about white privilege.
Although the pandemic has put so many things on hold, Benja and I have spoken a few more times since, and I remain committed to the project, while we try to find someone with the affluence to aid us in seeing it to fruition. For a Cape Cod freelance writer, already struggling to make ends meet, it’s even more challenging now to pursue my passion in our pandemic world. In our most recent Facebook exchanges, Benja candidly discussed his own far more serious challenges – as someone who is fighting both of the aforementioned battles – saving lives from Covid while also living with racial inequality. In a moment of vulnerability, he shared his despair, while I apologized for my race.
“Don’t take it that way. You are a link of hope. We all need a hopeful outlook,” he wrote.
It’s a new year and a new decade, but I’m still reflecting on 2019.
Over the past twelve months, my life has changed and my world has expanded, in countless ways. After working secretly with Dan Sherwood, a clergy sex abuse survivor from my hometown, who has since become a trusted friend, he decided last February it was time to tell his truth, and asked me to share his story.
Not long after emailing my copy and photos to the local newspaper, where I had been working as a human interest reporter for twelve years, I found myself on a plane to Rome, headed to meet Dan, who was embarking on his own profound journey.
Within 48 hours, Dan was sharing his story at an international press conference, detailing the decade of sexual abuse he suffered as an altar boy at St. Anthony’s Church in East Falmouth, Massachusetts, and the two of us were peacefully protesting in the streets of Rome, as military police silently walked alongside us wielding rifles.
The trip felt like the next logical progression in a personal and professional path I started to embark upon in 2002, when my parents and I began watching the clergy sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church unfold each day in the pages of The Boston Globe, as reported by the tenacious Spotlight team.
I’ll never forget seeing those headlines splashed across stacks of frozen newspapers piled up next to the Clam Shack on Falmouth Harbor, waiting to be transported aboard the Quickwater Ferry to Martha’s Vineyard. I was usually out taking landscape photos, and I’d jump in my car and head to my childhood home, two minutes away in Falmouth Heights, on the other side of the harbor. My parents, who never began a day without the Globe, were waiting with the tea kettle on, ready to discuss the latest developments. Although self-described “typical Irish-Catholics,” who both attended parochial school, as they grew older, they began to question what they viewed as the hypocrisy of the Church, and its teachings, as evidenced by the sermons we heard at our local parish. Now 84, my mother has been sounding the alarm on the danger of Patriarchy long before it became a hashtag. So when Voice of the Faithful met for the first time in a church basement in 2002, she was in attendance; my father dropped her off on his way to teach at Boston College one Saturday morning.
Fast-forward 17 years. When I started to feel the Universe was urging me to follow the story to Rome, my mother not only agreed, she insisted. “This is something you must do,” she told me. If my father were still with us, there’s no doubt he would have said the same. Before I left for my trip, my mom presented me with the keychain she bought when visiting Vatican City as a young woman in 1959. My dad was also touring Europe that summer, but they had temporarily broken up and and were unsuccessfully attempting to avoid each other throughout their travels. But all roads lead to Newton…
Once I made the decision, everything seemed effortless – from finding an affordable flight to Rome, just days before departure, to the indescribable feeling of homecoming that I felt upon arrival, to the affable strangers who were kind enough to offer directions when I needed them, usually punctuated by “Follow me,” and a wave of the hand. A metaphorical reminder that when you’re feeling lost, stop and ask for help.
Along with the keychain, I brought a green rubber bracelet, similar to the one my dad wore in his final year, as his wrist, covered in spots from the early leukemia we didn’t know was ravaging his body, continued to wither. It also symbolizes the courageous cancer battle conquered by our dear family friend, Wayne, with a simple, one-word reminder in white letters: PERSISTENCE.
I returned to Italy seven months later and, on September 27, the fourth anniversary of my father’s death, I wandered around the Eternal City, imagining him joking with his travel partner about how they had to “get the hell out of there” before they ran into Margaret Ann Matthews. Like a wholesome version of “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” culminating in marriage rather than murder.
All day long, and all throughout my trip, from Rome to Cinque Terre to Lucca to Assisi, I could feel my dad’s presence. Although I ache to share my adventures of the past year with him, I know he is watching, and his silent voice has been one of my loudest cheerleaders.
Like travel, my investigation has revealed what I already knew: the world is smaller than it is vast, and we are all more alike than we are different. My work on Cape Cod has led me to Benjamin Kitobo, who suffered abuse as a young boy in the Congo, and was recently featured in a CNN documentary. Benja’s mission is to highlight the issue in his native Africa, demanding zero tolerance and accountability for abuse and cover-ups, a message he brought to the Pope’s summit last February as the only African victim protesting in Vatican City. Somehow our paths never crossed in Rome, but we recently connected on social media, and he has requested my help in bringing this cause to the forefront of this global safety crisis.
To say that I’m honored is an understatement, and I’m excited to see where this journey will take me in 2020.
November 3 is #AllSurvivorsDay, an international day recognizing survivors of sexual abuse wherever it occurs – at home, school, church, the military, on college campuses and sports teams – with the goal of bringing awareness and change by shedding light on the widespread nature of the issue. Since I began my investigation over a year ago into clergy sex abuse on Cape Cod, these are just a few of the countless individuals I’ve been inspired by, who are on the front lines of this particular fight…
Tim Lennon, Arizona, USA
I met Tim Lennon last winter on a bright February morning at Rome’s Piazza del Popolo (People’s Square), where survivors and advocates were taking to the streets for the “March to Zero,” organized by ECA (Ending Clegy Abuse) Global Justice Project, to demand zero tolerance from the Catholic Church for abuse and cover-ups. Many in attendance, including myself, were in Vatican City for the Pope’s four-day global summit with church leaders to address the topic. I had traveled to Rome with Dan Sherwood, a survivor from my hometown of Falmouth, Massachusetts, who had just given me permission (after months of off-the-record meetings) to share his story in the local newspaper.
Throughout the peaceful protest, which snaked in and out of cobblestone alleys and across the Tiber, Tim carried a black and white photograph of himself as a child, smiling for the camera and dressed in his Sunday best. At age 12, his innocence was shattered when he was raped and abused by his parish priest in Iowa. At the time, Tim was immobilized by fear and misplaced shame. Today, he uses his own experience to educate, working tirelessly as the board president of SNAP (Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests) – an independent, confidential, international network of survivors of religious and non-denominational institutional sexual abuse and their supporters. He also seeks justice for survivors in the area of statute of limitations law reform.
A proud father of two grown daughters, Tim credits his advocacy with SNAP for providing what he described as “a path of healing.”
“What happened to me when I was 12 is that I froze. I didn’t do anything or say anything,” he recalled. “Now I can fight back because I have the strength of our network to propel me forward.” In turn, he is providing invaluable support to fellow survivors.
Darryl Smith, Dunedin, New Zealand
It’s difficult for me to fathom the horror depicted in “A Shattered Life,” but for clergy sex abuse survivor Darryl Smith, it represents his childhood. That ended at age six, when he was raped the first night he was sent to Maryland’s School – a Catholic residential institution in New Zealand for children with intellectual disabilities. The self-published memoir details the abuse Darryl suffered there and at the Granada Hostel for Young Men eight years later, when his family moved to Australia in 1979.
Darryl ventured to Vatican City last winter with the hope of bringing his message to Pope Francis, and we first met at a crowded international press conference – another event organized by ECA. He caught my attention with the cover of his book and his kind blue eyes, which are also veiled with sadness, hinting at the trauma of his past. According to Darryl, because he was born mildly intellectually handicapped, writing the book was no easy task, for several reasons. But in the past year, he has become a prolific writer, penning several volumes about his experience. Darryl was paid reparation for the abuse in 2009, but he seeks what he describes as “proper justice” in the form of an acknowledgement from the Vatican and accountability for those who enabled the abuse.
Dan Sherwood and I ran into Darryl at Castel Sant’ Angelo after the March to Zero, as the three of us were heading back to the hotel ECA was using as home base. Although he didn’t get the opportunity for an audience with the Pope as he hoped, Darryl was able to convey his message, and share his book, with church leadership, crossing the street to introduce himself to Archbishop of Armagh Eamon Martin, Primate of All Ireland, who accepted Darryl’s invitation to join us back at ECA headquarters.
Darryl advocates for his fellow survivors as the New Zealand Ambassador to The Archangel Foundation, helping others find their voice. He believes his perspective is needed in order to effect political change, therefore he’s throwing his hat into the ring and running for a seat in Parliament, pledging his commitment to seek zero tolerance for sexual abuse and longer sentences for perpetrators. In the meantime, he is proud of how far he has come. “I used to consider myself a victim,” he said. “Today, I’m a survivor.”
Jim Scanlan, Rhode Island, USA
Last fall, as the leaves were falling and the Red Sox were vying for another title, I was put in touch with Jim Scanlan by a mutual friend. In our first phone conversation, he generously offered his validation and support of my self-initiated investigation into clergy sex abuse in my hometown.
I was already familiar with Jim from afar as the inspiration for “Kevin from Providence” in the 2015 film “Spotlight” about the Boston Globe Spotlight Team’s 2002 Pulitzer-Prize winning investigation of the Catholic Church’s cover-up of clergy sex abuse, fueled by brilliant and empathetic reporting by Michael Rezendes, Sacha Pfeiffer, and Matt Carroll, and courageous leadership from Martin Baron and Walter Robinson.
However, it wasn’t until after the film’s release that Jim decided to go on the record with Karen Lee Ziner of the Providence Journal, sharing his experience of rape and assault at the hands of Father James Talbot as a sixteen-year-old student at Boston College High School. The year after Jim graduated, in 1980, Talbot was transferred to Cheverus High School in Maine, where he was also accused of molesting students. Jim’s testimony was instrumental in sending him to prison for seven years. Talbot admitted to molesting nearly 90 students throughout his career.
Jim’s motivation for testifying, and for going public, was to help prevent further abuse and to remove the stigma by showing fellow survivors the shame belongs to the abuser, not the victim. Jim also played a pivotal role in the recent extension of Rhode Island’s statute of limitations, enabling victims to sue over childhood sexual abuse from seven years to 35 years after their 18th birthday. District 33 Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee (D-South Kingstown) was motivated by personal experience to introduce “Annie’s Bill” to the House of Representatives, named for her sister, Ann Hagan Webb, who was abused as a third-grader at Sacred Heart elementary school in West Warwick. Their tenacious advocacy, along with the testimony of other courageous survivors, was key to the bill’s passing.
Jim’s dedication to making the world safer and eliminating the shame that accompanies abuse is also evidenced in his role as a board member for the Center for Resilience, a Providence based non-profit, which aims to empower children and adults through the practice of mindfulness in the classroom, community, and workplace to combat stress and anxiety, while cultivating compassion and providing tools to thrive despite adversity.
It’s only fitting that I was introduced to Jim by the daughter-in-law of my father’s dearest friend. After my father left this Earth in 2015, and I discovered even more how he quietly impacted the lives of his students, colleagues, and friends throughout his life, I decided I wanted to use my writing for a higher purpose. It’s one of the reasons I’m on this journey, and I’ll be forever grateful to Jim for validating that vision.
I recently returned from a two-week trip to Italy – a personal and professional pilgrimage of sorts – following a year of independently investigating clergy sex abuse on Cape Cod. The pervasiveness of the issue cannot be overstated. It is a public safety crisis that goes far beyond my hometown, my state, my country. A rotting onion with infinite layers.
People sometimes ask me why I care so much about the topic and, without meaning to sound sarcastic, my first thought is, “Why don’t you?” My motivation is multi-faceted. I care because of the men and women who have shared with me, both publicly and privately, their experiences of abuse and assault in the Catholic Church. Some have been plagued by memories throughout their lives, while others are confronting the past for the first time. As an Irish-American woman, who practiced Catholicism until my early teens, I am enraged by the audacity of the Church. I sat in a pew every Sunday, being chastised for sins I didn’t understand and hadn’t committed, as my dad fumbled for more crumpled dollars to put in the collection basket. Little did we know of the not-so-hidden secrets just beyond the altar.
However, since embarking on this journey, and traveling from Vatican City to Assisi, I’ve discovered firsthand what I always believed – that religion and spirituality are not mutually exclusive. I’ve also been blessed along the way by inspiring new friendships with survivors, activists, and journalists dedicated to sharing their own trauma, or giving voice to the voiceless, in an effort to make this world safer. I look forward to sharing my experiences while showcasing their important work here.
Here in the United States, April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. Meanwhile, in Vatican City, and around the world, Pope Francis continues his publicity tour of denial and deflection on the topic of clergy sex abuse. His words, no matter how vehemently stated, continue to contradict his purported beliefs and supposed measures of action, most recently in a statement to The Guardian on February 20. The day after the Pope began his highly-anticipated summit to address the issue – which can easily be described as a global safety crisis – he equated those who question the Church’s handling of the issue as “friends of the devil,” who want to see “100 priests hanging in Vatican Square.”
In a letter to the four members of the Papal Summit Committee, Ending Clergy Sex Abuse (ECA) addresses what they describe to be the Pope’s “disturbing pattern of disparaging survivors who question his handling of the issue.” A worldwide organization of clergy sex abuse survivors and supporters spanning 21 countries and six continents, ECA was at the forefront of the summit and met with the Papal Committee, spearheading a vigil for survivors and a march in the streets of Rome to demand zero tolerance of abuse and cover-ups. Additionally, ECA is calling out the Pope for actions since the summit that they believe reverse his commitment to zero tolerance, specifically in regard to removing abusive priests from ministry, holding bishops accountable for cover-ups, and reforming church procedures in the handling of abuse cases.
Here in my hometown of Falmouth on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, residents are at odds over potential zoning for substance abuse treatment centers, which is the result of a recent controversy regarding the proposed siting of a needle exchange program across from St. Anthony’s Church in East Falmouth. Monsignor Steve Avila, pastor of St. Anthony’s, attended a December 2018 meeting of the Falmouth Board of Selectmen to speak against the project, citing safety concerns for children who attend Mass and other programs at the Church, including Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts. When I contacted Father Avila to give him the opportunity to offer a message to Dan Sherwood, who recently shared his story of being sexually abused at St. Anthony’s for nearly a decade while he was an altar boy, I received no response. Rather than focus on hypothetical harm to children at the Church, Father Steve should be addressing the historical harm which has occurred within the walls of St. Anthony’s for generations.
This past Sunday, I attended a Mass of Atonement, Prayer, and Penance at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Fall River (the diocese of which Cape Cod comprises) to commemorate Child Abuse Prevention Month. Fall River Bishop Edgar da Cunha was the celebrant, and offered special intentions for victims of clergy sex abuse. I was there in support of all victims, but especially the men and women who have shared with me their most private confessions in recent months, long-buried memories they have kept to themselves due to shame and misplaced guilt. I approached the Bishop at the conclusion as he was blessing parishioners to inquire if he had a message I could bring back to Dan, who is still waiting for his pain to be acknowledged by St. Anthony’s.
“I want to say that I feel sorry for what happened to him. In the name of the Church, I want to ask for his forgiveness and apologize,” Bishop da Cunha said. “I hope he finds God’s grace in his heart to give him healing and peace. Whatever way we can help him continue the journey of healing and forgiveness, I’ll be happy to help.”
I pressed the Bishop on how to follow-up, since I recently tried to reach him and was unsuccessful. He suggested Dan reach out to the Diocese’s Office of Safe Environment, which is where I called, however I thanked him and passed along the message anyway. Perhaps we’ll take him up on the offer…
If you think clergy sex abuse is an evil of the past, meet 22-year-old Alessandro Battaglia of Milan. While it’s common for survivors to bury the memories of what they endured in an effort to protect themselves from further trauma, he has never forgotten what happened to him seven years ago.
Alessandro is one of the many inspiring individuals Dan Sherwood and I met when we traveled to Vatican City in February. While church leaders from all over the world had gathered for the Pope’s much-anticipated summit to address clerical sex abuse, survivors like Dan and Alessandro were also there, to demand transparency and accountability from the Catholic Church.
After months of secret meetings and private conversations, Dan had asked me to tell his story by sharing his truth in the local newspaper. Just as he was arriving in Rome, it was circulating all over the internet back home. For him, the trip signified a new chapter in life – one in which he could finally live honestly.
I was greeted on my first morning in Rome by a flawless blue sky and the unfamiliar warmth of a February sun. As Dan and I strolled through St. Peter’s Square, I couldn’t remember the last time I felt so stress-free and peaceful. I was overcome with gratitude that the proverbial stars had aligned, bringing me to a place I longed to experience my entire life, and for such a reason.
As we ambled along the cobblestone street, Dan thought he spotted a familiar face from social media amid the throngs of tourists. His suspicions were confirmed when we got closer, and we introduced ourselves to George Mead, a member of Ending Clergy Abuse (ECA), a worldwide organization based in Seattle comprising survivors and human rights activists with the mission “to compel the Roman Catholic Church to end clergy abuse, protect children, and seek justice for victims.”
During the week of the papal summit, ECA spearheaded an organized effort with other groups working on the front lines every day in the fight to protect children, including Bishop Accountability and SNAP (Survivors Network of Those Abused By Priests). The collaboration resulted in the largest worldwide gathering to date of clergy abuse survivors and activists, representing more than 21 countries and five continents.
George invited us to a nearby hotel, where ECA had set up temporary headquarters for the week, and there we met survivors, activists, journalists, and filmmakers, all dedicated to the same cause. That afternoon, Dan and I took the elevator to a conference room overlooking a sunny rooftop deck on the hotel’s top floor, where ECA staged an international press conference for survivors to share their truth.
There was no Italian translator present, so although Alessandro’s words were lost on me, his pain was not. I watched him gesticulating emphatically, tears welling up in his eyes, as my own vision blurred.
Later I headed to the lounge to charge my phone. It was loud and lively at first, full of strangers who were quickly becoming familiar to me for the pivotal roles they play in this global battle. The room emptied and silence entered, so I began documenting the day in my journal. On the couch next to me, a young boy was lying on his back, scrolling absently through his phone. Initially, he wore what appeared to be the cloak of a sullen teenager, but then I realized it was the despondency of a broken man.
Alessandro and I sat in silence until, unsuccessfully grasping for Italian, I said in the only language I know, “I’m so sorry for what happened to you.”
He sat up and folded his hands. “My English is not so good,” he said, smiling weakly, his eyes hooded by the trauma he first experienced seven years ago. As he stared at the floor, he grasped for the words to tell his story.
Alessandro still blames himself for being raped at 15 by his trusted parish priest. “I should have known when I opened the door and saw one bed. I should have done something, but I froze,” he said.
He has attempted suicide four times in the past seven years. One morning, he woke up in the hospital after driving his car into a guard rail.
Today Alessandro is a successful graphic designer, and although he is buoyed by his work as an activist, he continues to be weighed down by misplaced guilt.
“Some days are very hard and I cannot speak about it. It’s too much to bear. But then there are days when I know I am helping people, and I am still here for a reason,” he said.
The room filled once again, and I stood up and extended my arms. We shared a hug and more tears as I thanked him for his courage.
I saw my new friend the next morning, as we both took part in the March to Zero, a protest staged by ECA to demand zero tolerance from the Vatican of abuse and cover-ups. The sun shone down for the event, which began at the Piazza del Popolo, the People’s Plaza, and ended outside Castel Sant’Angelo. Wielding my protest sign and juggling my phone instead of my cumbersome camera, I held my own with the aggressive international press, walking backwards through the cobblestone streets of Rome. Dressed in a sweatshirt emblazoned with the word SURVIVOR, Alessandro locked eyes with me. In them, I saw both rage and grief, but most of all, perseverance.
Back at the hotel, invigorated by the experience and the crisp spring air, we once again embraced. But this time, Alessandro was beaming. He was empowered, and he was reminded he is indeed here for a reason.
Clergy sex abuse survivor Dan Sherwood isn’t waiting for the Catholic Church to change. Instead he’s joining the fight to prevent future victims.
Dan and I met for several months beginning last fall before he eventually asked me to share his story in February. His motivation was twofold – a desire to pursue an authentic, shame-free life at age 51, and to help others who have endured similar suffering. His began shortly after he moved to Falmouth at age nine and became an altar boy at St. Anthony’s Church in East Falmouth on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
After going public about the decade of sexual and emotional abuse inflicted upon him by Monsignor Maurice Souza, Dan continued his journey of truth by traveling to Vatican City. There church leaders from around the world had gathered for the Pope’s much-anticipated summit on clerical sex abuse. Although the abuse crisis was the top agenda item at the November 2018 meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, at the Vatican’s request, no action was taken, with the promise the issue would be discussed on a global level in Vatican City.
In a letter from Massachusetts bishops to parishioners dated February 15, a week prior to the papal summit in Rome, the gathering was described as a way “to seek to create a strong consensus throughout the universal Church of zero tolerance for sexual abuse.” It goes on to state that in 2018, the primary attention of responsibility for the abuse crisis shifted from priests to bishops, to include accountability for bishops and cardinals. U.S. Bishops subsequently announced the need for establishing a method to report both cardinals and bishops implicated in the cover-up of sexual abuse, in addition to a review committee to include “appropriately-credentialed lay leadership.” The letter was signed by Sean O’Malley, Archbishop of Boston; Mitchell Rozanzki, Bishop of Springfield; Robert McManus, Bishop of Worcester; and Edgar da Cunha, Bishop of Fall River. O’Malley also serves as president of the pope’s Commission for the Protection of Children.
Pope Francis concluded the four-day meeting of the minds on February 24 with hyperbole rather than action. Although he declared an “all-out battle” against the abuse of minors, calling it an “abominable crime” he promised to “erase from the face of the earth,” he failed to offer concrete measures for doing so.
For survivors like Dan, the lack of action, and what he believes to be the height of hypocrisy, only add insult to injury. “The Pope is the one person with the authority to enforce zero tolerance into Church law. He had an unbelievable opportunity to do that, but I think he screwed up and he’s hiding behind the bishops,” Dan said. “The Catholic Church is so quick to preach against abortion, but at the same time, many of these church leaders have either been abusing kids themselves, or shuffling predator priests from one parish to another while turning a blind eye as more children are victimized.”
Each day, the headlines continue to validate his point. Just this week, the Pope refused the resignation of French cardinal Phillipe Barbarin of Lyon, who was found guilty on March 7 of failing to report allegations of abuse of boy scouts committed by a priest dating back to the 1970s. Barbarin, who is appealing his six-month suspended sentence, said the pope, invoking the presumption of innocence, instead told him to do whatever he felt necessary for the good of the archdiocese.
Dan believes it’s time for parishioners to take back their church by demanding transparency from their diocese, and he is hopeful Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey will join states across the country currently launching investigations into abuse and cover-ups.
“If you’re concerned, the best thing to do is talk to your parish priest. Ask him what he knows. Tell him you want answers from the Diocese. Demand a complete list of names of accused priests. Not just some of them, all of them,” he said.
Falmouth Style reached out to Monsignor Stephen Avila of St. Anthony’s Church for comment. In a return call, Avila stated in a voicemail that “stringent” safety protocols have been in place since the mid-1990s, and thorough investigations are conducted in response to “credible” accusations of abuse, citing the website of the Diocese of Fall River (which comprises Cape Cod & Islands) for further information. A follow-up call to Msgr. Avila was not returned. Calls to Father Tim McGoldrick at St. Patrick’s Church in Falmouth, and Father Arnold Medeiros of St. Elizabeth Seton Church in North Falmouth and St. Joseph Church in Woods Hole were also not returned.
“To me, that doesn’t show much ‘pastoral care’ from a monsignor in the local parish. That kind of attitude would make survivors, or people who want to report abuse, feel very disenfranchised,” Dan said. “They probably would go elsewhere, or maybe never come forward, allowing the abuse to continue. That response seems pretty out of touch with the issue.”
Dan Sherwood proudly became an altar boy at St. Anthony’s Parish shortly after moving to Falmouth in 1977 when he was nine. For the next decade, he was sexually and emotionally abused by Monsignor Maurice Souza. When Dan decided it was finally time to share his experience, he asked Sarah to tell his story. Read all about it here…
Clergy sex abuse survivor Dan Sherwood recently shared his story with his hometown of Falmouth. Now he has shared it with the world. He and Sarah brought his message to the papal summit in Vatican City in February, where they met clergy sex abuse survivors and supporters from all over the globe. Read all about it here…