Thursday, October 28, 2010
It was my first time inside a television studio in more than eleven years. That self-imposed drought ended in a big way this month, not at some small-market network affiliate, but at one of the biggest media outlets in the country.
I’d never even watched a full episode of Oprah… but all of a sudden I was chosen to be a participant in not one, but two tapings that the producers were calling “historic”. An estimated 10,000 men applied, but only 200 were selected. Don Shetterly and I were among them.
Harpo Productions took care of everything. They paid for the flight. They arranged for a Lincoln Navigator to transport us from the airport to the four-star hotel. They paid for the room, and even gave us meal vouchers. They arranged our transportation to the studio, and then back to the airport. It cost us nothing, but in a way, all 200 of us paid a price. A huge price. We are all men who survived childhood sexual abuse.
Getting selected wasn’t easy. All of us had to answer some extremely personal questions. We all had to share our stories with the producers – stories that nearly all of us kept inside for a long time. How and where we were abused, and by whom. How it affected our lives – the shame, anger, rage, dysfunction, depression. How it took a toll on our personal and professional lives. And – here’s the good part – how many of us have overcome these things, and have gone on to lead productive lives, despite having parts of our childhood stolen away from us.
There was never any doubt Don would be selected. His abuse was extreme, and the effects, including a conversion disorder that left him paralyzed for weeks, made him quite the X-File. My abuse happened over a much shorter span of time, but anyone who saw my occasional newsroom mood swings (and the times when I’d lose all confidence in myself) might have been tipped off. I’d worked countless child abuse stories in my time in TV news, including a news series on the topic with former anchor Giselle Fernandez. Yet I kept my own story to myself, like so many others who’ve lived with the shame. Well, those days are gone forever. I flew to Chicago, fully prepared to tell my story to millions of viewers, should Oprah decide to call on me.
I’m not an early riser, but on this day… I had to be. Our bus left at 5:30AM. Sharp. Upon arrival at the studio, we had to stand in line for a security check. We didn’t have to remove our shoes and belts like we did at the airport, but cell phones and pens were confiscated. We were then whisked upstairs for a very quick breakfast of bagels and bananas. Those who weren’t fast eaters had to choose between the two, since time was so limited.
From what I understand, the vast majority of Oprah viewers – and audience members – are women. The studio has just one men’s room, which has no urinals and just one toilet. No way was that going to cut it! So just this once, the ladies rooms were opened to the men. I can now say I used the women’s bathroom at the Oprah Show. Hey, they told us this was going to be a special show!
Both Don and I wound up sitting three rows in back of where Oprah was standing. I enjoyed watching the Teleprompter, and the way the famous host used, and sometimes didn’t use it. It was fun to watch the producers, director, floor director, and everyone else. TV production was a huge part of my life for so long, so it’s natural that I watched the behind-the-scenes goings-on as much as I watched the actual interviews.
I know how hard it is to coordinate a show with just a few in-studio guests. I can just imagine what it takes to fly in 200 participants, get them where they need to go, ON TIME, and make it all come together. I wouldn’t want their job, for all the bagels and bananas in the world!
The first show opened on a poignant note. We had all provided a picture of ourselves at the age when the abuse was occurring. The show’s producers had those pictures blown up, and turned into large posters for us to hold up and show. It was hard for me to look at that little boy’s face. All I could tell him (me) was “I’m sorry I hated you so much”. I still struggle with that sometimes.
Even though we came from different backgrounds – a superstar Hollywood actor/director, a former NFL football player, and a celebrated gospel singer were among those in that studio – we had a lot in common. Some of the men are just starting their journey, and are still going through their own private hells. Others of us have been dealing with the issue for a while, and our focus has shifted more toward recovery, forgiveness, and moving forward.
TV is TV. People have short attention spans, so every segment has to be compelling. That means focusing more on people whose lives continue to be filled with turmoil, and less on those who’ve turned the corner. I would have liked to have seen more on recovery, healing, and thriving, but I’m not complaining. I’m just honored to have been part of a group of men that is taking their power back. We all stood tall that day, and we will continue to stand tall. I couldn’t think of a better reason to return to a TV studio.
Oprah, featuring 200 male sexual abuse survivors, airs on November 5, 2010. The second part airs the following Friday, November 12.
(Thanks to Donald D’Haene for the Harpo picture.)