The first time Kevin McNeil told anyone about the night he was sexually assaulted, it was like exhaling for the first time in more than 30 years.
He had gone to see his pastor for counseling for problems with his then-fiancee.
They were talking about past hurts. Suddenly, McNeil blurted it out — he had been sexually assaulted as a youth.
His pastor didn’t seem surprised. In his years of counseling, he had heard that story many times. Childhood sexual abuse cases like that had followed people throughout their lives. It destroyed or hurt relationships. It created broken people.
McNeil was broken. His then-fiancee wanted children. He was adamant about not having any.
He would become moody or depressed. Years earlier, he had considered suicide.
“I didn’t set out to tell him about it,” said McNeil, 46, who had never told his family or even his closest friends. Afterward, though, “I felt better. I felt relieved. I didn’t have to hold it in anymore. I didn’t have the shame, guilt and self-hate.”
Today, McNeil, who lives in Lawrenceville with his wife, whom he married in 2018, spends most of his time going around the nation talking to police departments, nonprofits and youth groups about sexual abuse. He met his current wife during a conference in which he spoke about the abuse, and they married.
He wants to educate them about spotting signs of abuse and learning how to help people heal.
Ironically, McNeil, founder of the nonprofit Twelve Project, spent years doing just that as a DeKalb County detective, all the while keeping his own secrets. Experts say it’s not uncommon to keep it a secret.
“It’s been 30-plus years, and I still don’t think I’m totally healed,” he said. “It’s a process.”
These days, the issue of sexual abuse of minors is being pushed into the forefront of a national conversation, particularly in wake of the sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church and the #MeToo movement.
One in 9 girls and 1 in 53 boys under the age of 18 experience sexual abuse or assault at the hands of an adult, according to a 2014 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
And the effects can be devastating, causing depression and post-traumatic stress disorder and resulting in the victim more likely to use drugs, according to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), an anti-sexual violence nonprofit.
For several reasons, the stigma for men can be overwhelming, said Dr. Richard Gartner, an expert on male sexual trauma and author of “Beyond Betrayal: Taking Charge of Your Life After Boyhood Sexual Abuse.”
“Chief among them is our norms about men. When boys grow up to be men, they learn to take care of themselves. Society says they’re not supposed to be victims. You’re supposed to fight back and win.”
The start of a terrible secret
McNeil was 12. A scrawny kid from the Fowler Homes Housing Projects in South Memphis. He had been at a friend’s house lifting weights, something he did nearly every night.
He had been bullied at school and wanted to beef up. His mother always told him to get home before dark, but this night he stayed later than usual.
He was taking a shortcut home behind Booker T. Washington High School, when a stranger, who was in his 20s or 30s, stopped him and asked if he could help him get some weights he had hidden under some bleachers in the stadium. The man was clean-cut, “he didn’t look like someone who was dangerous.”
The man said he had taken the weights from the school gym. Help him move them and McNeil could have some.
McNeil jumped at the chance to have his own weight set at home. The cost would be so high.
The man urged him to check under bleachers in the back of the area. When he did that and didn’t see any, the man attacked. He was forced to perform oral sex and then the man tried to penetrate him.
When the man paused to lower his pants, McNeil seized the opportunity to run with blood on his jeans and no socks or shoes.
When he returned home, he didn’t tell his mother what happened. “When she saw me, she was shocked and surprised,” he recalled. She asked him what happened, and he made up a story about being robbed and begged her not to call the police.
“I knew if I told my family or the police, word would spread,” he said. “I didn’t want to live with that.”
He never saw the man again, but he later heard that another boy was later assaulted. Today he wonders if the two attacks were connected. He wonders if the man had watched him for a while and knew he was into lifting weights, so he knew exactly what words to say.
“My body made it out of those bleachers and got away, but my mind didn’t,” he said. “My assailant’s accomplice (the trauma) followed me home.”
An advocate for other victims
McNeil joined the DeKalb County Police Department in 1998, eventually landing in the special victims unit, where he investigated cases like rape and sexual violence.
“Most detectives focused on the investigation. I focused on the victims. But I still never told my story to anyone on the force. There are perceptions about what a victim looks like. I believed them (victims) and most victims saw that. I wanted to make them feel safe and trust me.”
Since he left his job with the police department in 2017, he has gone around the nation sharing his story and helping others, and he supplements his income as an Uber driver.
Zobida Dat, director of development for the Georgia Center for Child Advocacy, said McNeil’s personal experience made him more empathetic with sexual abuse survivors.
“What’s really special about him is that he was a victim himself,” she said. “And because he was a victim, he knew a lot of things that the families were going through or a lot of the feelings that children were going through. He was able to handle those cases with care and really advocated for those families and helped them get the services they need to start healing.”
McNeil has written and self-published several books, including one for teens, “Kevin the Invisible Boy.”
The book tells the semiautobiographical story of a young boy named Kevin, who is sexually assaulted by a stranger. One day on his way home from school, he meets a man who tells him about a mysterious place called “The Healing Forest.” There, Kevin must grapple with what happened and begin the recovery process.
He remembers watching his mother’s reaction when she read it for the first time a couple of years ago.
She looked questioningly at her son and asked what made him write “a book like that.” He put it on his job. He still wasn’t ready to tell her what really happened that night.
Eventually, he knew he would have to come clean with his mother. He did in 2016 in a phone call.
She cried and wondered why he never told her.
A hesitancy to speak out
Some victims wait years before they can talk about the abuse. Some never come forward.
Advocates for abuse victims say men grapple with their own set of issues.
For instance, after well-known actor Terry Crews divulged in 2017 that he was groped by a Hollywood executive, he received no support for a while.
Crews, 50, who appeared on a recent episode of “Watch What Happens Live With Andy Cohen,” said then black women stepped up to offer their support.
“Black men did not want any part of it. All my support came from black women. Straight up. A lot of guys were just like, ‘Man, you weak. You sorry. You should have hit him. Knocked him out. You should have did all this stuff.’”
Black women, he said, were like, “‘No, no. It doesn’t work like that.’ I was shocked at the split within my own community.”
Gartner, the “Beyond Betrayal” author, said some men have been in their 70s before they open up about abuse that happened when they were children.
One sexual abuse survivor who was in his 60s told his wife about the abuse, but wouldn’t tell his sons and daughters and their spouses because of the societal myth that sexually abused boys almost inevitably grow up to become sexually abusing men and he was afraid he wouldn’t be allowed to see his grandchildren.
They might also question their masculinity.
If a woman suffers sexual abuse, Gartner said he’s never heard that it made her feel that she was not female. With men, they may question whether they “allowed” themselves to be victimized. They may wonder if they are gay or attracted to other men.
He said it’s only been in recent years that organizations that deal with sexual abuse have provided services to men. It can even start at the name. “Some places that started out as women’s centers now work with men but haven’t changed their names. It’s hard for men to go into places that say they only cater to women. It reinforces any feelings they may have about masculinity.”
Gartner knows of another man who called a sexual abuse hotline for help, only to be told that the organization didn’t work with abusers. It took him years to summon the courage to call again.
For McNeil, his goal is simple: “I want to change the public’s perception of what abuse is and what it does to the person — men and women. It affects not just the person but the family and the community.”
WHERE TO GET HELP AND INFORMATION
RAINN, National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-4673
SNAP: 1-877-SNAP-HEALS (1-877-762-7432)
1in6 (the organization helps men who have had unwanted or abusive sexual experiences live healthier, happier lives): 1in6.org
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
Georgia Center for Child Advocacy: 678-904-2880, georgiacenterforchildadvocacy.org
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