Much acclaimed author Barry Lopez lives now in Oregon, but he grew up in the San Fernando Valley in the 1940s and 50s. He writes in this month's Harper's, not for the first time [see below], about being sexually abused for four years by a North Hollywood sanitarium doctor who pretended to court his divorced mother. The man later turned out not be a doctor, but to be using a fraudulent degree. The abuser, Harry Shier, has died, Lopez writes.
The abuse began when Lopez was seven years old. He talked about the story with Terry Gross tonight on "Fresh Air." Selected highlights:
This went on for four years, and during those four years I think I went through every scenario I could imagine as a child about how to protect myself, but I never found any path to follow where I knew somebody would intervene and protect me. ... Many of the children who end up in situations like this come from families where there is only one parent, and you are trying to figure out who you are when you're also dealing with this traumatic experience, and you're not old enough to frame the question that lets you go to an adult and say, 'I think something's really wrong here.' "
On what is lost to those who are sexually abused:
"Certainly innocence is gone and sexual and gender confusion is introduced, but you can actually talk about things like that. What is taken that you can't talk about is the sense of your own dignity as a human being, and what's taken from you is the ability to articulate your meaning in the world. Everyone wants to mean something in the world, and without having to state it, to have it recognized by other human beings ... and that is part of what is set fire to you when somebody treats you like a rag doll. You have no voice, you have no physical ability to resist."
On what prompted him to write the story:
"I've basically been silent about this all of my adult life, and one of the things that precipitated my decision to write the story. ... I wrote this piece before the Sandusky thing [the Penn State sex abuse scandal] broke so that it wasn't the newspaper story that compelled me to do something — I had become impatient with the cast of newspaper articles that suggested that in the legal pursuit of pedophiles what young men and women were most interested in was winning a financial judgment or in punishing, seeking vengeance. And it struck me that that was the last thing, really, you'd be interested in as somebody who had been serially molested. What had been taken from you was a sense of self-worth and dignity, and the only way you can get those things back is in open, unjudged relationships with other people, and then you ... have a chance to develop again a sense of self-worth.
* Update: David Kipen pointed me to a piece Lopez had written for the LA Weekly in 2002, about his upbringing in the Valley and the role in his life of water and the Los Angeles River. He lived with his mother in post-war Reseda. Excerpt:
Straddling the crossbar of my bike at the foot of a windbreak row of poplars on some dirt road between Reseda and Calabasas in 1953, looking out across the truck farms, walnut groves and orchards, the dark-green reaches of irrigated alfalfa to dry chaparral on the fan slopes of the Santa Susanas, I would wonder where fortune lay for me.
The intimate water of my childhood -- easy to surmise -- was the Los Angeles River. From my house on Calvert Street it was only a short walk to Caballero Creek, a dry wash mostly, but the best-defined stream course on the north side of the Santa Monica Mountains. Caballero Creek empties into the L.A. River just past Victory Boulevard, near Lindley Avenue. Though the river was channeled to the west of Reseda in the late '40s, it wasn't paved, and we hiked it regularly. The soft river bottom formed a sonic tunnel, alive with red-winged blackbirds and house finches, black phoebes and yellowthroats, egrets, barn swallows and teal. To us, the L.A. was a different river here than the one running in a concrete shunt to the east, beyond Sepulveda Dam.
This way of imagining the Valley -- urban and domesticated to the east, wild and agrarian to the west -- fixed my way of seeing many things in life as extensions from a borderland. In grade school in Encino (at that time the most refined of Valley towns), boys like me from north of the Southern Pacific tracks were called dirtballers, kids who fought each other with dirt clods from the fields. We were from the outlands. We didn't build our play forts in backyard trees but out in the open, in decks of baled hay.
He also wrote about Shier in the piece:
The relief I felt at the news that we would be leaving California was the kind of relief an animal might feel if that animal had been electrocuted to unconsciousness every few days by an indifferent owner, and then had awakened one morning to find the owner dead, the cage door standing open. Along with three other boys at the time (whom I've never met, and only learned about years later from two detectives in the Los Angeles Police Department), I had been sodomized repeatedly in the mid-'50s by an older man who ran a drying-out clinic for alcoholics on Riverside Drive in North Hollywood. He preyed, I would now speculate, largely on the sons of single mothers who brought a friend or relative in for treatment. He posed as a compassionate M.D. but was neither. In the way of a true sociopath, a pathological narcissist, he insinuated himself into a family with timely gifts on birthdays, extra cash for groceries and school clothes, and the offer of an evening off for a parent when he would volunteer to take a son "to the movies."
According to the detectives, Harry Shier fled L.A. in 1959, one step ahead of a grand-jury indictment, and not his first. He had fled earlier indictments in Canada and Colorado. He was murdered, the police told me, in South America in 1961.