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.
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.
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: email@example.com.