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A Hole in the Heart

June 13, 2010

An Advocate for the Abused
Traumatized by His Own Past

Despite the decline of newspapers and – sorry to say this – of the general quality of newspaper writing, there is still some great journalism being done both nationally and at the local level. Some of the best seems to show up in long-form pieces. With the web arguably taking over the market for immediacy and brevity, maybe writers capable of pursuing a story in depth over time are getting a better shot at the paper press’s decreasing pages.
            In any case, take a look at Bella English’s moving exploration of childhood sexual abuse, torture, and PTSD for The Boston Globe, The hole in the heart of a star.” It’s the story of Eric MacLeish, one of the lead attorneys for victims of sexual abuse in the Boston Catholic Archdiocese.

“The very first case haunted him: a client who, as a 9-year-old boy, had been raped by the Rev. Bernard Lane at St. Anne Parish in Littleton…Over the years, he’d heard plenty of shocking case descriptions and appalling details; this was not the worst. But that day the image of that boy’s lonely suffering triggered feelings he couldn’t quite explain; in the years ahead, it would follow him, break him, and change him…
          “For the past six years, MacLeish has battled severe post-traumatic stress disorder…When he finally figured out what was wrong with him, the pieces all fit and the memories crystallized: He himself had been sexually abused as a child…”

MacLeish’s sexual abuse occurred at a British boarding school he attended at the age of eight, yet he managed to repress it for forty years – until his work on the cases of Boston’s child victims rekindled his pain. I was personally struck – hard – by one short, almost throwaway paragraph:

“For nearly five years at the Vinehall School in East Sussex, MacLeish says, life was a ‘horrible, horrible nightmare.’ During an interview at his Plymouth State office, MacLeish, 57, pulls up his shirt to reveal rows of faint horizontal scars that line his back. ‘The headmaster was sadistic and caned us,’ he says.”

I guess I had always thought of caning as a kind of odd British rite of passage, or as schoolboy bullying on the order of noogies and wedgies, not as something that would leave permanent scars – not as the torture it is. Though there’s evidence in the article that the school’s headmaster and his wife had taken steps to get rid of at least one sexually abusive staff member, evidently caning was taken as a matter of course – even approved.
            Read English’s piece for its revealing and compassionate portrait of a man whose memories of abuse and torture have been tearing him apart – and for its cautionary story of the way the inappropriate behavior of a “helping” professional helped to compound the damage.

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