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I wrote this when Shawn Hornbeck was first found. I was horrified by the fact that some people were asking, why he didn’t leave. Shawn recently did an interview with 48 hours and his parents were on Dr. Phil, and so the story once again has resurfaced and the question is still till this day, being asked. I am still horrified by the fact that anyone would ask that question. They do not understand horror, terror, fear, and the incredibly toxic hold perpetrators have on their victims. Abducted or not, most of us who were abused do not tell. What in the world would make anyone think that a child would try and get away once they have been held captive,threatened with death, raped, and sodomized for hours on end? 

Shawn’s Story: Healing My Own Childhood Wounds (Revisited)

By Stephanie Gagos

The AOL headlines are hard to miss, “Two missing boys found alive”. I am immediately drawn to the story of Shawn, the boy missing since 2002 and found alive in the home of a 41 year old man. Eleven at the time of his abduction, Shawn is now a fifteen year old with a story he doesn’t really want to tell. And who can blame him with the reception he is getting. From the moment of his recovery, questions swirled about why he didn’t leave, or call home. Apparently because he had “physical” opportunities such as access to the Internet and freedom to ride his bike, these are considered valid questions.

I am at first surprised then angered by these questions posed over and over by most television news coverage and articles. They seem to be the burning questions on America’s mind, and for me, they are reminiscent of the question asked of many, if not most sexual abuse survivors: “Why didn’t you tell?” or the questions asked of rape victims: “What were you doing walking home late at night alone? What were wearing? Why didn’t you scream? Did he have a gun?”

I hear about the Oprah interview and feel relieved the truth will finally come out for those who do not already know that truth (of course I consider myself one the ones who do). As Oprah engages in this same line of questioning I can feel the tension rising within me. I am uncomfortable and I dare say if I had hackles they would have been up, way up.

Knowing that Oprah is asking the questions she believes her audience wants to know does not reduce the emotional impact. At first I am feeling a sense of betrayal by my idol, my fellow survivor. Of all people I figure she should say something about the ludicrousness of these questions. I want her to say that she knows but still has to ask. Instead it is as if she too wonders why. I want her to tell everyone about how we often have to keep the secret, about the fear and terror, about the psychological chains. I wanted her to point out how interesting it is that we are even asking these questions of the victim.

Instead she remains the impartial journalist throughout. I just want to jump in there and say it myself. In those moments I can feel so many emotions bubbling up to the surface and I begin to understand that this is all about me, about my own incest and abuse, and about where I am in my own healing. I know that she is not in the space of anger and outrage, while I am just beginning to touch the surface of mine. I know even in the midst of my outrage and tears, that I am projecting onto Oprah, the parents, the perpetrator and Shawn , the characteristics and roles of the people in my own story. Oprah becomes the friend who asked why I didn’t tell, the parents become my father who seemed too fragile to tell, the perpetrator becomes my perpetrators and I become Shawn.

It is as if all the dynamics play out for me on the screen as I watch this interview. All my suppressed responses to the players in my story come to life inside of me and I become deeply overwhelmed.

I want to scream out the following to the world, which I later recorded in my journal:

Did we forget he was kidnapped by a 41 year old man and what he was most likely taken for? Is our denial so deep? Do we not know anything about psychological terror and how you do not need to be physically bound and silenced to feel as if you cannot move or speak?

And while these questions are being posed to his parents, they are really being asked of a child, abducted by a man, held captive and most likely violated by him for over four years. This is who we are really asking. The fact that people are more focused on the victim and not on the alleged perpetrator, who stole this child from his family, is what makes it so hard for victims to come forward in the first place.

And let’s be honest what are we really asking, what is it we really want to know? Are we saying that it is suspicious that he didn’t leave? And if we are saying that it is suspicious, what are we really saying? Are we saying he must have wanted to stay? Just asking these questions implies blame. It puts the responsibility on the child for not having told rather than the perpetrator for having committed the crime in the first place. It goes even further in that it has the hint of, well maybe you liked it and that’s why you didn’t tell. People may not actually say this out loud but they do think it and many survivors have even heard this said to them unfortunately.

What enrages me even more is how oblivious everyone is to the ludicrousness of these kinds of questions. It’s being asked with the air of it being a good question. What makes us wonder about this? Is it because we cannot comprehend the magnitude of being held mentally and physically captive that long? Is it because we don’t want to ask the real question, the unimaginable one: What did he do to you all those years?

As I watch the interview with his parents and aunt, I feel a deep sense of sadness. As his mother expresses: “I want to know as much details as possible, as much as I can bear to know”, it is clear that Shawn will probably never be able to tell all of what happened to him, not that he would truly want to anyway. As his aunt says, “He has said he doesn’t want to see the sadness in his mother’s eyes anymore and his father’s. He wants to give them some peace and he just wants to see them smile more”, I feel that deep sense of aloneness one feels when you don’t want to hurt or burden you’re loved ones with your darkest hours.

It brings me back to wanting to protect my own father from the full scope of what happened to me and wishing I didn’t have to and that for once someone would protect me. As a young woman I tried to tell him about my grandfather, my mother’s father and I’ll never forget the pain in his eyes. I knew I could never tell him about the other eight men.

I allowed the tears to flow as I thought about how even as an adult I still felt like I had to keep the secret, like I didn’t want to say too much for fear of being told that I need to get over it, being misunderstood or scaring people away. I cried because having to keep secrets and believing I had to protect others almost killed me. I cried knowing that there is so much to tell, so much Shawn may never tell because others will not be able to handle it, because nobody really wants to hear about that.

I could see his future full of suppression and attempts at putting “it” behind him and finding that there is no escape from the memories inside his head that come alive in his body. Mind you that at that moment I am projecting on to him what I experienced. Now with some distance I know this does not have to be Shawn’s experience but in that moment I was fully immersed in my own pain and what I believed would be his. I was feeling the heartbreak not only for him but the young 15 year old girl I once was and for the woman that kept running from the memories for over two decades.

By the time Shawn walks in a little hunched, his head slightly lowered and before he even utters a word, I sob uncontrollably. He doesn’t talk about what happened to him, but I know… I just know. I didn’t have to ask the question or hear the answer to know that Shawn’s real story was a horror story. The way he sat forward in his seat, with a defensive edge, the warning and fear in his eyes that said, don’t ask, please don’t ask.

The thought of this boy with this man for all those years with complete access to him any time he wanted made the tears flow harder and the ache stronger. My heart ached in a way that I had not allowed it to ache for me. I ached for the easy access my own molesters had to my young body. I ached for the little girl I could have been. I ached for the eleven year old Shawn and the eleven year old me, both skinny and vulnerable, easily manipulated through words, overpowered and silenced by shame and fear.

For most of my life, I was numb to my emotions when it came to the men who violated me as a child. As I watch the interview, I begin to feel an intense anger toward the alleged perpetrator. The word bastard escapes my lips, a word I have never used when referring to my own molesters. In that moment of intense emotion I rage against the man who took Shawn’s freedom and the men who took mine. Shawn’s story allows me to experience the anger and rage that was within me all along. In these intense moments, I rage against the men whose actions created the lies of my insignificance and unworthiness. I rage over the injustice of my own stolen innocence and over the power taken from me in those moments of perversion and the years of powerlessness afterward.

I rage against the question asked of me by some of my own family members: “why didn’t you say anything?” I raged against the injustice of it all, against the society that still didn’t get it, that still didn’t truly understand what it means to be sexually violated and the psychological prison such violations create. I raged at a society that would even ask a 15 year old boy who was kidnapped at 11 and who most likely was repeatedly violated in more ways than we can imagine, “why didn’t you come home?”

Much of what I could not feel for my own molesters and for myself, I was feeling for Shawn and his perpetrator. I needed to FEEL for someone else in order to FEEL for me. This process was not about self pity, but experiencing the anger over the lack of understanding, the hopelessness and powerlessness I felt when there was no one to turn to, the rage against my abusers and the heart wrenching sadness for the broken child I once was. Even though my wish is that there never was a story for Shawn to tell, I am grateful for him. Through him I was able to heal parts of me that I could not heal on my own.

Today, Shawn Horneck was able to tell his parents what happened to him and he is doing very well. And I am immensely grateful to him.