Out of the Shadows: Abortion in America

By Sarah E. Murphy

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.

Photo by Ann Shea

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.

Most importantly, I’ve discovered I’m not alone.

Silver Lining: Stephen Bird and Cape Cod Marathon Feed Falmouth

Text and Photos by Sarah E. Murphy

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.

Stephen Bird prepared 200 gallons of chowder and soup for the Cape Cod Marathon.

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 Mayflower Wind Cape Cod Marathon, Relay, and Half scheduled for Oct 30 and 31 was canceled due to the Nor’easter.

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.  

Race Director Jack Afarian called off the marathon for safety reasons after meeting with Falmouth Police.

“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.

Ed Giordano of Falmouth Running Club organizes gallons of water for distribution to residents.

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. 

Jennifer Gilbert helped her husband, Stephen Bird, transport and serve soup and chowder.

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.

Falmouth residents gratefully line up in front of Gus Canty Community Center for hot soup and clam chowder.

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.

Anthony and Isabella Bauer were among the volunteers helping out on behalf of Falmouth nonprofit Inspiration is Everywhere.

“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.

Samantha Bauer heats up chowder base prepared by Stephen Bird.

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.”

Stephen Bird was happy to see his efforts put to the best possible use when the Cape Cod Marathon decided to offer his 200 gallons of soup and clam chowder to residents who lost power in last week’s Nor’easter./Sarah E. Murphy

Stephen Bird: Ending the Stigma of Sexual Abuse

By Sarah E. Murphy

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. 

Steve Bird at 13, when he moved to Falmouth

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.”

Photo by Sarah E. Murphy/2021

Additional Resources 

If you are a victim of sexual abuse, you are not alone, and help is available. 

Contact SNAP (Survivors Network of Those Abused By Priests) for information, support groups, and more relating to any kind of sexual abuse, not limited to clergy. 

If you’re suicidal, depressed, or simply need someone to talk to, contact the Samaritans via phone or text: (877) 870-4673 (HOPE). Available 24/7.

If you want to talk to someone who can empathize, contact Steve Bird via text at 508-524-2153 or email: sippewissettoyster@gmail.com.