The men who participated in the Bristlecone Project are to be commended and applaud for sharing their story so other men can find the courage to heal.
They are a courageous group who are no longer willing to be silenced by stigma and shame. They’re men who confront the past, but who walk forward into the future.” — David Lisak, Ph.D., Bristlecone Project Founder
Only when he began to confront what had been so long hidden did David begin to free himself from its effects.
Sexually abused at the age of five by a young man who boarded with his family, David kept the abuse hidden for 30 years. The abuse shaped much of his early life. It intruded into his relationships and fed his isolation and self-doubts. It also fed his desire to be entirely self-sufficient and independent. Only when he began to confront what had been so long hidden did David begin to free himself from its effects.
He turned from farming to psychology, resumed his university studies, and became a clinical psychologist. He transformed his early traumatic experiences into a career [in] research and clinical work, focused on trauma. David has studied the long-term effects of abuse on men’s lives as well as the behavior and characteristics of rapists.
He works tirelessly to increase public awareness of sexual violence and its impact, and has worked with organizations which focus on helping men who have suffered sexual abuse, first with Male Survivor, and now with 1in6. In 2012 David launched The Bristlecone Project, which aims to introduce men who have been sexually abused to each other, and to their larger communities.
Mark Godoy, Jr.
“I can talk about it. It’s still really painful…but if I keep talking about it, something will click…”
Mark channeled his emotions into other pursuits. He excelled in track and field, earning a college scholarship and then a bachelor’s degree. Then he went on to graduate school and earned his master’s degree in animation. In graduate school, Mark began to confront the legacies that had haunted him since childhood.
Mark still struggles with self-blame, and he still contends with the anger. But Mark also has an arsenal to draw from as he pursues his path to healing. His sharp and fluid intellect, which allows him to observe his own reactions, and to understand his personal struggle in the context of the larger forces that influence him.
And he has his art. From early [on] in his childhood Mark found an outlet for his emotions in his art. He drew incessantly and his talent emerged. Mark has used those talents to help his own healing process. He also draws on his talents to express his feelings about the killings of Black men and women by police officers. He is working on a series of portraits of victims, including one of Matthew Ajibade, the brother of Mark’s friend who was killed in Savannah, Georgia.
“That’s what I’ve done my whole life. I’ve just figured stuff out…I’m at the point where I can talk about it. It’s still really painful. I still get pissed off…But if I keep talking about it, something will click…”
And it is. Mark is speaking to high school students about his experience, simultaneously healing himself and opening a door to healing for other young men.
“I’m trying to use my art as a way for me to heal.”
Faith and poetry are giving Kirk the strength to confront the abuse that marred his childhood.
For decades after he was sexually abused at the age of eight, Kirk had closed himself off from other people and shut down his emotions. He lived “in a world of secrecy.” It was an adaptation that allowed him to succeed and move forward, academically and then professionally, but it was also an adaptation that kept his heart and soul in a deep freeze.
By his fourth decade, it was an adaption that had run its course. Kirk was married, but his emotional disconnection, and the behaviors it led to put his marriage into crisis. And that crisis, in turn, put Kirk into crisis, the reckoning with the childhood trauma that he had so long avoided.
Prodded by his wife, and increasingly by his own urgency to heal himself, Kirk began seeing therapists. That process taught him, for the first time, how to express “what’s inside of me.” Not only the pain that is the legacy of his childhood trauma. Not only his feelings. But much more. Kirk found his faith, and in turn, his faith gave Kirk both inner strength and connection with other men who, individually and together, commit themselves to a “walk of faith.”
Kirk’s journey has led to some surprises. A man with no interest in or proclivity for poetry, he suddenly became a vessel for it. It started with a dream that woke him and left him feeling compelled to write down what he dreamed was written on a scroll. So he started writing and was stunned to see a poem unfold before him. And the poems keep coming, by now about 250 of them. Kirk is beginning to plan his first book of poetry.
Kirk does not know what other surprises might lie ahead as he walks this walk, but he knows that the man who walks is a changed man.
A penchant for poetry and an operatic voice have helped Michael to heal the deep wounds inflicted on him from a childhood scarred by incest and betrayal.
How do you claw your way out of a childhood scarred by incest, and in the years following marred by repeated experiences of abuse and domestic violence? For Michael, it has been a long and sometimes rocky journey, but he has found peace in an unexpected place: his penchant for poetry, and an operatic voice that transports him (and everyone within a wide radius!).
Michael grew up in a family that was enmeshed in multiple generations of incest. The grandparents who abused him also sexually abused his mother. It was only the first of many depredations that he suffered, but it was the most deeply scarring. How do you live with the knowledge that your mother failed to protect you from someone she knew to be a predator? Not easily.
Little surprise that relationships have not been easy for Michael. Learning to trust. Learning who to trust. Learning that there are people who seek out those with vulnerabilities in order to exploit and abuse them.
Now married, a step-father and a grandparent, Michael is enjoying being ensconced in a family of his own choosing. And he has found outlets for his pain and pathways to healing himself. He has studied music, and the use of art to heal wounded souls. He has written poems that safely house his anger. And he has released the beauty of his own soul into his voice, a voice that can fill a room with the full panoply of emotions – including joy.
“The process of getting clean […] that’s what actually, finally allowed me to talk about what happened to me.”
Mitch is clawing his way back. He fell into a deep hole – sexually abused as a child and then addicted to heroin as a young adult – but he is pulling himself out of that hole with courage and determination. And the good news: Mitch is only 22. Plenty of time for a fresh start, and this time with some hard-earned wisdom.
For years, Mitch pushed the memories of the abuse as far away from consciousness as he could. But still, they tormented him. He secretly felt enormous and irrational guilt, as though somehow he was responsible for the abuse that was inflicted on him. The breakup of a high school relationship plunged him into despair, and from there into addiction.
After three years in that abyss, Mitch found within himself the courage to confront first his addiction, and then the childhood trauma that had given birth to it. One major turning point: a therapist who was simultaneously persistent and patient. A therapist who, when Mitch could not utter the words he needed to say, gave him a pad and a pen so that Mitch could begin his disclosure with single words.
It was the opening he needed, and he has not looked back. As the months of sobriety roll on, Mitch is beginning to look forward to a life without addiction, and without the crippling secrets that tormented his youth.
“I don’t want people […] to have to hold that in their minds and keep it there, suffering with it by themselves. “
A deep spiritual connection, inner strength, and intelligence have guided Hart from severe trauma to a present filled with compassion and professional accomplishment.
For years, Hart believed that the abuse he suffered “had stolen all of me,” but a profound experience taught him otherwise. It was a Wednesday night meeting of a men’s Survivors of Incest Anonymous group. It was during the Easter season. The spiritual, “He Would Not Come Down From the Cross Just to Save Himself,” was resonating in his mind, and for days it had haunted Hart. He took a break from the meeting and went into the men’s room. In the mirror, Hart saw a vision: a cross, and a man on the cross, and the spiritual playing over and over in his mind. And then the man on the cross morphed into a four-year-old child, the same age as Hart was when the sexual abuse that scarred his childhood began. And in the instant of that vision, Hart understood that the abuse had not stolen all of him; that a spirit had always been there, a part of him, protecting and guiding him. Decades later, as he recounts this, Hart is filled with emotion, the meaning of that vision still deeply resonant.
Guided by that spirit, and relying on his inner strength and intelligence, Hart has successfully navigated these challenging waters. He is a man who suffered childhood sexual abuse and adult rape in a world struggling to accept that men too are sexually assaulted. Hart is a black man living in a country that still struggles to acknowledge the profound depth of its long history of racism.
Today, he is an attorney, a professional actor, a poet, and the CEO and co-founder of Hart Learning Group, an executive coaching, and corporate consulting firm.
He first spoke publicly about his sexual abuse on BET’s Our Voices and stood with 200 other male survivors in the final season of the Oprah Winfrey Show. Hart continues to speak, and shares his “poetry with a purpose,” with groups and conferences around the country.
This Story includes a description of sexual abuse
“The grace of God can really reach from heaven down to the earth. And saved my life.”
Charles Dickens wrote stories about childhoods like this. Actually, Dickens’ stories were not permeated with the kind of horrific physical and sexual abuse that Jean-Paul endured. Jean-Paul was born into a family that was riddled with addiction and generations of violence and abuse.
One scene: Jean-Paul, 12 years old, lying semi-conscious on the floor in a spreading pool of his own blood, after a savage beating by his own psychotic mother. Hours later, his father awakens him and tells him never to speak about this to anyone. And a second: alone with his father in a remote, northern Ontario cabin, forced to masturbate his father, terrified that he would otherwise be killed in an alcoholic rage.
There were many years of struggle, years of addiction, delinquency, suicide attempts, and of violent behavior (he became a gang leader). Nights spent alone in a bed, hugging himself, weeping. But there were also angels – a guidance counselor, a doctor, a police officer, nuns – who brought grace into Jean-Paul’s life at crucial moments, who no doubt saved his life. At age 19 he attended a weekend Catholic retreat and, for the first time, experienced the love of God. He never again used drugs.
And now this scene: Jean-Paul, age 19, at a psychiatric hospital to see his mother for the first time in five years. She is a shattered shadow of herself. She begs his forgiveness. And Jean-Paul embraces her and gives her his forgiveness. After having the spiritual experience that cured his addiction, “I knew a little about forgiveness.”
Today, Jean-Paul helps to protect the Governor-General of Canada, he speaks publicly about child abuse, giving hope to others, and he remains faithful to God and to the boy who survived a childhood beyond Dickens’ imagination.