Playing Along to Stay Alive: Surviving Molestation

This story was written and performed by Darrin Larson for the live, personal storytelling series Oral Fixation (An Obsession With True Life Tales) at The Winspear Opera House in Dallas, on March 17, 2014.

The theme of the show was "Elephant in the Room."

Trigger warning

"Darrin boldly describes the fateful New Year's Eve when, at age 14, he is forced to deter a molester and then struggles to deal with the shame that follows," says Oral Fixation creator and director Nicole Stewart. "What a brave move it was for him to stand on stage and recall that terrible night and then share how it shaped his life and informs his parenting. Read his story here and don't miss his performance in the video below."

An hour after ringing in the new year with my first full can of beer, I no longer feel the pleasant numbness that crept over my 14-year-old body and made me laugh and talk too much. There's now a big, walrus-bearded man lying in bed next to me, his stale breath sailing into my face as his fingers circle uninvited beneath my T-shirt. His hand has found an area unprotected by clothing, bones, hair, or solid muscle, and he traces rings that radiate outward from my belly button like a target.

"This will help your stomach," Sid whispers.

It's a softer voice than the one that booms over the counter when he's selling burgers and cokes to us at the lodge near our weekend cabin, where he jokes with the crowd of kids in wet bathing suits while the moms read books on lawn chairs down by the lake.

Earlier in the night, when we were sitting around his family room drinking beer, I told him I didn't want to get sick. My older brother spent the night hunched over a toilet the first time he got drunk, and as my own buzz was kicking in, I suddenly worried that I would lose it also.

But my stomach is fine. I stopped after one beer -- apparently I'm a lightweight -- and I wasn't worried about throwing up by the time I walked into the bedroom to go to sleep.

When he got he got into the bed with me, I thought it was a joke, like he was pretending to not know that he was in the wrong room, but then he inched in next to me, placed his hand on top of my T-shirt, and started rubbing my stomach.

His fingers began tentatively, with small side-to-side motions that barely went up or down. My heart began to pound, but I remained motionless, as if my stillness could stop him from doing whatever a grown man does when he crawls into bed with a 14-year-old boy. Then his arm slid under my T-shirt, and I felt cold air on my skin as he placed his hand directly on my belly.

Oh God, no.

We're in his son's room -- Nick, a guy I barely know. He's a year or two older than me, smells like cigarettes, and looks half-wasted a lot of the time. He invited my older brother over for New Year's Eve, and I tagged along when I found out there would be beer. We've known Sid for a while, and we like him because he's always saying funny, sarcastic things out of earshot of our parents. We only met Nick a few months ago, when Sid adopted him.

"Man, you're so lucky," I told Nick when we got to his cabin. "Your dad is cool with you drinking." He nodded and gave a short laugh. I hadn't said anything about the beer to my parents. "We're going to watch TV and hang out," I told them. Unlike Nick, I normally played by the rules.

Now Nick is passed out in a bed on the other side of the room. My older brother is in the same condition in the other bedroom, and my parents are miles away, beyond the snow, trees, and darkness surrounding this cabin. That's where I should be, in my own bedroom, on the top bunk with my younger brother snoring below and our dogs sleeping on the floor by the heater.

It's quiet except for Sid's heavy breathing and the things he says in a hushed voice to make me think this is normal. His hairy, beer-bellied wall of a body stretches from the foot of the bed to headboard. He's at least a half a foot taller than me and three times as heavy, and though I could outrun him on the track or soccer field, I feel trapped and powerless here.

I can't push his hand away or tell him to stop rubbing me -- that would make him mad. I hide my repulsion, my fear, my knowledge that what he's doing is wrong. See, no problem -- I won't tell anyone. You won't have to kill me.

"Does it feel better?"

"Yeah," I say, hoping it will make him take his hand off me and get the hell out of the bed.

His hand keeps moving, though, and my boxers, which I wear around my house at night like pajamas because they cover up what is private, now feel so thin and unprotective.

Maybe he's not trying to do anything.

No, he's going lower. Oh God, please make him stop.

His hand finally brushes against the top of my underwear, and I feel the waistband give. A bolt of panic shoots through me and words spill out of my mouth before I can stop them.

"I'm fine. My stomach is fine." I try to say it gratefully, sleepily, in a way that won't provoke him.

I roll over on my side toward the wall, and my abrupt shift causes his hand to fall back. I brace myself for him to follow, to ignore my words, but he doesn't. He sinks back into his side of the bed and after a few minutes of shifting and settling, he becomes still.

I'm not going to fall asleep. I can't or else his hand will be on my body again, tugging at the elastic boundary that separates inappropriate from criminal. He seems like he's asleep, but I won't look and risk stirring him.

After a while, he begins to snore, and my heart descends back into my chest and slows to a resting rabbit pace.

I drift in and out of sleep waiting for morning to come -- and for my brother and Nick to wake up so I'm not all alone with him. Staring into the darkness all around me, I'm hounded by the thought that I wouldn't be here if I hadn't wanted so badly to see what it felt like to get drunk. I try to pray, but it doesn't work the way it did when I used to ask the small framed picture of Jesus I made in Sunday school to please keep me from getting leukemia like that kid at school. I seem too old for that God, and he seems far away.

By the time the morning light pierces the room's darkness and secrecy, my muscles are drained from hours of trying to stay alert. I hear my brother get up to go to the bathroom, and when he's done, Nick follows. I quietly slide to the foot of the bed, careful not to wake up Sid, climb out, and go to the hallway to wait for my turn.

I will not go back in the bedroom or any place alone with that man ever again.

Sid takes us back to our cabin and I pretend like nothing happened as we say goodbye. When my parents ask how things went, I say nothing about the fingers tugging at my boxers. Or the beer. They all go together at this point -- things that shouldn't have happened -- and I'm keeping them all a secret.

A couple of days later, we leave our cabin and make the four-hour drive home, farther and farther from Sid. School starts and life gets back on a schedule, and I eventually start to feel like my old self. But underneath it all, in the place where my voice lives, I've changed. I don't trust grown-ups the way I used to, and I've lost some of my sense that bad things won't happen to me.

Several years passed before I told my parents about that night. And when I did, I didn't even call it what it was. He didn't cross the line and touch me there, so I said, "I was almost molested." My mom sounded so devastated that I just left it at that.

But he did cross the line. I was too old to have someone rubbing my tummy to make me feel better and too young to consent to what he wanted to do that night.

For the longest time, I felt weak for not telling him to stop. I didn't understand why I just lay there. But as I went back to that night in my mind, on the page, and in a therapist's office, I came to see that what I was doing was trying to survive. I didn't want to be one of those kids they find buried somewhere after they've been molested. If I acted like there was no problem, there should be no reason to kill me.

That night and for years afterward, what he did to me somehow became something I was ashamed of. But it was his actions that were repulsive, not mine. There was nothing for me to feel guilt or shame about.

I don't know what became of Sid, but I know what became of me. I worked hard at shedding my innocent, good-kid skin -- it protects you only when you live in the shadow of mom and dad, not when you have to hold your own with other kids or men who want try to crawl into bed with you. Beer, pot, and anything I could pour into a Coke seemed to be the ticket out of childhood for a while, but eventually I didn't need them to feel like I was living life on my own terms, standing on my own.

And standing on my own has put me in the position to stand up for others, whether it's in my career as a public servant, the classes I teach on resolving conflict, the causes I support that combat child and animal abuse, or the stories I tell in front of a microphone.

When I became a father, I made sure my daughter would know how to stand up for herself -- and how to listen to the voice inside her that will protect her.

"I didn't tell anyone about what happened to me, and I should have," I told her. "If anyone ever tries to do anything to you, tell them they can't. Tell them no. And don't be afraid to tell me. I'll believe you."

Because of what happened to me that night, I understand why people who've been molested are sometimes afraid to speak up. And that's why I tell this story -- for me and for them.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-656-HOPE for the National Sexual Assault Hotline.