Silent No More: Psychologist Howard Fradkin helps victims of sexual abuse find their voice

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly
Dr. Howard Fradkin

Even as he counseled patients to overcome traumatic experiences, Howard Fradkin couldn't admit that he had been sexually abused as a child.

"The most common reaction to abuse is to deny it, to push it away because it is so uncomfortable, so shameful, so embarrassing," the Columbus psychologist says. "Most men bury it for as long as they possibly can."

In 1983, Fradkin was 30 years old and had been a licensed psychologist for a year when he told a colleague about what he experienced throughout his childhood and adolescence at the hands of several trusted adults. The adults had convinced him that the behavior was normal. The colleague told him it was not.

"Like many survivors, it was probably at least a decade or two after the abuse that I was able to acknowledge it," he says.

The gentle, soft-spoken therapist, now 60, spent years in therapy to deal with his own torment. And he made it his mission to help others, becoming a nationally recognized authority on the treatment of male survivors of child sexual abuse.

In an office on South Front Street in the Brewery District, he and a team of psychologists, counselors and social workers operate Affirmations: A Center for Psychotherapy and Growth. Although the center deals with a wide variety of mental health issues, Fradkin estimates 75 percent of his patients are adult survivors of child sexual abuse-and most of them are men.

Fradkin doesn't discuss the details of his abuse. He doesn't want to interfere with focusing on the stories of each client.

"What's important for them to know is that I'm a survivor like them, that I've experienced the abuse, the betrayals and the aftermath. I'm not just approaching it as an academician or someone who's read about it in books," he says.

In fact, he's written his own book, "Joining Forces: Empowering Males Survivors to Thrive," published last fall.

The message of the book is the same one he impresses on his clients: Those who suffer the trauma of childhood victimization-which often leads to substance abuse, dysfunctional relationships and mental-health problems in adulthood-can recover. But healing can't begin until the victim breaks his silence and rids himself of the secret that is the source of his suffering.

Abuse is traumatic for victims no matter who they are, but Fradkin says it's even more shameful for men, "because of the message in our society that men are supposed to be strong and in control of everything, especially sex. … Being a victim means you're weak, you couldn't protect yourself."

The most commonly cited research contends that one in six boys and one in four girls is sexually abused by age 16. But statistics from those who investigate the cases show that boys report abuse much less often than girls. Local evidence, both statistical and anecdotal, supports this.

The most comprehensive work with child victims in Central Ohio is done at the Center for Family Safety and Healing at Nationwide Children's Hospital, where police, prosecutors, counselors, case workers and medical professionals work as a team to assist victims and their families. Of the 894 youths from Franklin County who came to the center in the past six years and disclosed sexual abuse by an adult, 18 percent were boys. The Columbus police sexual assault unit reports that about one in 10 of the child sexual abuse cases it investigated last year involved a male victim.

"Anecdotally, a lot of abuse of males goes unreported," says Columbus police Sgt. Mark Kaeppner.

Because the overwhelming majority of child sexual abuse is committed by men, male victims face another stigma, he says. "Parents have told me that they fear that prosecution would publicize the case and result in others questioning the sexual orientation of their son," Kaeppner says.

Regardless of gender, victims typically wait weeks, months or years before disclosing abuse-if they ever disclose. The statute of limitations for prosecuting sex crimes against children in Ohio is 20 years; the clock starts running when the victim turns 18. But a delay of just 72 hours means that physical evidence likely is gone; in many instances of abuse, there simply is no physical evidence.

In eight years of supervising the Franklin County prosecutor's special victims unit, assistant prosecutor Daniel Hawkins can count on one hand the number of adults who have been able to prosecute someone who sexually abused them in childhood. "The statute of limitations only gets your foot in the door," he says. "You still have to prove the case."

Prosecuting the abuser can be therapeutic, Fradkin says, but it's not a necessary part of the healing process. Forgiving the abuser also is an important step for some survivors, while others bristle at the idea.

"I believe self-forgiveness is what's essential," he says. "Many survivors blame themselves for what was done to them or for not protecting themselves or for not speaking up. They need to forgive themselves."

Lifting the stigma, preventing abuse and helping adults recover are the goals of MaleSurvivor, a nonprofit organization Fradkin helped found in 1995. Since 2001, the group has hosted Weekends of Recovery at locations throughout the country. The three-day retreats are designed for a small group of survivors to interact in a safe, nurturing atmosphere, surrounded by nature. Survivors tell their stories in small groups and employ healing techniques from meditation skills to art therapy. In one exercise, each man designs a T-shirt with a message he wants to convey about recovery.

Many of the participants stay in touch, creating an informal support network. By the time the 50th weekend takes place next month in New Haven, Connecticut, nearly 1,000 survivors will have attended.

"Many of them have been isolated, they haven't had anybody to talk to," Fradkin says. "So by the end of the weekend, they have someone they can call or email and say, 'I'm having a tough time today.'

"They find that they can carry that support around with them long after the weekend is over."

John Futty is a reporter covering criminal justice at The Columbus Dispatch.

"You don't have to do it alone."

Daniel Adams

Daniel Adams' memories center on the living room chair where the molestations began. His abuser was a man trusted to take care of him at the family's home in Perry, Ohio.

"I was 7 years old and I believe it only lasted one summer," Adams says. "I knew something wasn't right, but it was our little secret. I was a very needy child. I was extremely shy and quiet and I didn't have a lot of friends. I really needed that attention. You're manipulated so it seems like you're a party to [the abuse]."

One of the sexual assaults was so painful that Adams fought to get away from the man and threatened to tell on him. "That ended it," he says. "He wouldn't touch me after that. He wouldn't play with me." Instead of relief, Adams felt a sense of loss. "I liked the attention, not the sexual component, but I needed the attention and it was gone."

It wasn't until he went off to college in Columbus more than a decade later that Adams discovered how heavily the secret weighed on him. He first revealed the abuse during a conversation with his college roommate. "I ended up giving him graphic detail of what happened to me and I broke down crying. It was horribly painful. It took me a while after that to decide what to do about it."

Increasingly depressed and confused, he eventually called 1-800-4-ACHILD, a national child-abuse hotline. "I spent hours and hours on the phone with those people," he says. "They saved my life."

That was 20 years ago. The 42-year-old Pickerington resident, who works in information technology, has been in and out of therapy ever since. "It doesn't take everyone 20 years," he says. "Everyone goes through the stages at different speeds. But I don't think we can do it by ourselves."

He is even more convinced of that after attending three Weekends of Recovery, first in 2004, and after participating in group therapy with other survivors. "I don't think the shame actually goes away until you start telling people about what happened," Adams says. "People need to have positive experiences where they can tell their story and have people believe it and not be shamed by it."

Adams realized in college that he is gay but knows the abuse didn't affect his sexual orientation. Instead, it robbed him of self-confidence and his ability to trust others.

"I always had a tough time connecting with people," he says. "I'm 42 and I've been in one real relationship."

Just two years after he entered therapy, he decided to prosecute his abuser, whom Adams declined to identify for this story. The man confessed and was sentenced to three and a half years in prison. "It was a positive experience because the legal system protected me and believed me and they did something," Adams says. "But the trauma of it was intense."

Therapy and his work with other survivors have left him "feeling more and more confident" and willing to go public with his story.

"I don't want anybody else to be in the spot that I was," he says. "I want people to know that there are others out there like themselves, in all walks of life. I don't want people feeling alone. There are a lot of people out there to support you. You don't have to do it alone."

"The more you say it, the more you face it."

Lou Castelli

Lou Castelli was so emotionally removed from those around him that his wife referred to him as "my pet rock" and "Mr. Spock," the "Star Trek" character who repressed his feelings.

"The joke was that if you did an EKG on him, it would be a flat line," Barb Castelli says.

Lou doesn't argue with the description.

"Even to this day, I'm not crazy about people getting close to me," he says, sitting beside his wife on a couch in their Worthington home. "Barb used to always say to our girls, 'Dad doesn't like to be touched.' "

After 25 years of marriage, Barb could no longer handle the emotional distance between them. They both remember the day she confronted him-Easter Sunday 2010. "I said, 'I can't do this anymore,' " Barb recalls. "There was no marriage. We never fought, nothing like that. It was just two people living in a house. I said, 'I want a marriage. I want a husband.' "

She badgered him for months, demanding to know why he couldn't be open and truthful with her. He responded by retreating even more. The breakthrough came that October when Lou, who specializes in business turnarounds, was on a business trip to China and the couple decided to communicate only through email.

"I was burned out, it was the end of the trip and we'd had a particularly difficult email exchange going back and forth and I just said, 'How's this for truth? My cousin molested me,' " he says.

"I didn't know what to do with it," Barb says. "But I knew things were starting to make sense and I knew we needed to get help."

Without her persistence, Lou says he never would have found his way to Fradkin, who has guided him toward healing. Now 59, Lou started his psychotherapy two and a half years ago with no idea that the sexual abuse he endured as a boy was controlling his life. The memories of abuse had been buried for decades, hidden in what Lou calls "the dark room in my head."

He was sexually abused from the ages of 11 to 13 by a male cousin who was about 18 when it started. The cousin died several years ago, before Lou revealed the abuse. It never occurred to Lou to tell anyone what had happened. "It just goes in the dark room and you shut the door and it didn't happen and you don't think about it and you don't have to deal with it," he says.

Psychotherapy forced him to deal with it. He remembers his initial sessions with Fradkin as "gut-wrenching." But nothing prepared him for the experience of attending a Weekend of Recovery in 2011. "I look back at that weekend and say that really was the true beginning of my recovery."

The most cathartic moment was the session in which the men broke into small groups and took turns sharing their stories with other survivors.

"As you watch these people and hear their stories, you're hearing their horror and you're living your own. Those sessions are awful, just awful. But they are exhilarating at the same time. It's better than drugs because you've got this weight off your chest, this secret shame you've had for 45 years," he says. "The more you say it, the more you face it, the less impact it has on you."

Lou is a different man as a result of the recovery process. "He's demonstrative. He's loving, in a way that he wasn't able to be before. He's calmer. There's a peace about him," Barb says. He has disclosed the abuse to some of those closest to him, including their three daughters.

Barb and the wife of another survivor have started a support group for partners of male survivors. The couple also plans to bring Darkness to Light, a national sexual-abuse prevention and education program, to Columbus.

"Unless and until I can proudly stand in front of anybody and not have this scarlet letter on my chest, then I'm going to be a captive forever," Lou says. "And so I'm compelled to tell, I'm compelled to disclose. Or I'm damned to be Mr. Spock, a pet rock, not very deep, for the rest of my life.

"That will be my salvation, trying to communicate to others that you don't have to be tortured by this."

"I learned to feel again."

Kristofer Johnson

It took several years of psychotherapy before Kristofer Johnson was ready to prosecute his father.

"It takes a long time to get to a healthy point where you're ready for that stage," the 36-year-old Brewery District resident says.

His father sexually abused him from about the age of 7 until Johnson left his family's home in Coshocton for college at the Newark campus of Ohio State University. The molestations went on for so long that Johnson asked a college counselor whether what he had was a normal relationship between a father and a son.

With the counselor's encouragement, Johnson disclosed the abuse to his two sisters and his mother. His father didn't deny the abuse. He even participated in a family counseling session. "I just remember my sisters were crying and my mother was trying to stay strong and it was a very dysfunctional appointment," Johnson says. "I remember my dad saying we didn't need to go back, we're fixed. He wanted it to be over."

For many years, it was. Johnson tried to go on with his life, but found himself unable to establish meaningful relationships and turning to alcohol for episodes of binge drinking. "Alcohol was my choice of distraction for a very long time," beginning in high school, he says.

Johnson, who is gay, sought counseling to deal with relationship problems, but all his issues kept going back to his father. "I still had a lot of anger toward him. I didn't understand the effect it was having on me," Johnson says.

Attending a Weekend of Recovery nearly three years ago was "a breakthrough," he says.

"I had never met other people who had experienced anything like me. It gave me a sense of belonging that I had never felt in my life. That's where I learned to feel again. I knew what empathy meant, but I never felt it until that weekend."

Johnson had the support of his mother and sisters when he reported the abuse to Coshocton police two years ago. His mother and father had divorced by then. His father, who already had admitted the abuse to the family, agreed to plead guilty in Coshocton County Common Pleas Court. He was sentenced in March 2012 to 12 years in prison.

The decision to prosecute "was not stemming from anger," says Johnson, who didn't want to mention his father's name. "It stemmed from a very healthy place in me. I just felt this sense of justice for that child inside. I had to jump in later in life and defend that child, take care of that confused kid."

His anger issues have faded, as has his abuse of alcohol. He is speaking out because he wants others to know "there's light at the end of the tunnel. The truth is, you don't fix this problem and close the door and move on," he says. "It lives in you and you need to be aware of that. But I'm in a good place.

"I was the prisoner for many years. I was the prisoner until recently."

Local and national resources for victims of child sexual abuse

Report abuse

Call your local police or children services agency.

For Franklin County Children Services, call 614-275-2571.

The 24-hour emergency hot line is 614-229-7000.

Weekends of Recovery

Male Survivor

Darkness to Light

The Center for Family Safety and Healing

Myth vs. Truth

Setting the record straight on common misbeliefs about perpetrators and victims of child sexual abuse

Myth: Most sexual abuse of boys is perpetrated by homosexual males.

Truth: The vast majority of abusers are not homosexual. They are pedophiles.

Myth: Boys abused by males are or will become homosexual.

Truth: There are different theories about how sexual orientation develops, but it is unlikely that someone can make another person homosexual or heterosexual.

Myth: Boys who are sexually abused will grow up to become abusers.

Truth: While past sexual victimization can be a factor in making someone more sexually aggressive, most children who are sexually victimized never perpetrate against others.

Myth: Children are most likely to be sexually abused by a stranger.

Truth: Research shows that about 85 percent of child molestation is committed by a family member or someone the family knows.

sources: MaleSurvivor, One with Courage