Keeping the Secret
About the Guest
Keeping a secret is difficult. Especially if that secret is abuse. Sexual abuse survivor Bill Harbeck talks about the idyllic life he led as a child of the 50's and 60's and the predator that gradually cornered him into a web of lies and secrets.
Keeping a secret is difficult.
Keeping the Secret
Bob: As a child, Bill Harbeck experienced something that no child ought to experience; but something that, in our culture today, is a growing reality for young girls and an increasing reality for young boys. Bill Harbeck was sexually abused as a child, and the abuse left scars.
Bill: I entered into marriage at the age of 20, assuming that, now that the abuse was over, everything was going to be just fine. “Now, I have intimacy the way God designed it and all of that is in the past. I can just forget about it—and now man and wife.” The first week of my marriage was a shocking awakening of how my behavior had been molded into what I was going to be as a husband sexually within a relationship that was completely dysfunctional.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, November 7th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. We’ll hear Bill Harbeck’s story today about how, as a young boy, he experienced childhood sexual abuse. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. There are folks who have been called in life to walk down a path that is a difficult and a painful path. Sometimes we look at that, Dennis, and we say, “That just doesn’t seem right or fair.” And in a lot of ways, it’s not right and fair. It’s a manifestation of the evil age in which we live; and yet, we can’t somehow draw the conclusion that God abandoned them on that path. But there can be a redemptive purpose that comes out of walking on a painful journey.
Dennis: We’re going to talk about a subject today, Bob—that might be appropriate for perhaps younger children—who ought not to hear such discussions—be given something else to do as we chat about this. We’re going to talk about a subject of sexual abuse. It’s a pervasive issue in our nation and, frankly, in the world.
Statistically, 39 million Americans, and this is a very old statistic here, are survivors of childhood abuse. It’s estimated that the number could be three times that number. We have a guest with us who, frankly, has done a courageous work. He has written a book about his own experience.
Bill Harbeck joins us on FamilyLife Today. I have to tell you, Bill, I really admire your courage in creating this book and sharing your story. I think it’s going to bring hope and healing to a lot of people.
Bill: Well, thank you. Thank you for having me.
Dennis: Bill is the Director of Holding on to Hope Ministries, which is a ministry dedicated to helping people who have been sexually abused. For 32 years he was an educator. He’s been a coach. He and his wife Jillian live in Arizona, and he has written a book called Shattered: One Man’s Journey from Sexual Abuse.
You say in the book, Bill, that you grew up in Cleaverville. Now is that Cleaverville, Arizona? Texas? What part of the country is Cleaverville?
Bill: Actually, it was just outside Chicago, but very similar to living with Leave It to Beaver and all the guys in the Cleaverville neighborhood. It was a wonderful place to grow up.
Bob: You grew up in a Christian home. Your mom and dad were active in church and really took their faith seriously.
Bill: They did. I began in church, literally ten days after I was born—perfect attendance for 11 years in Sunday school—had wonderful mentors in Lance Latham and Art Rorheim, the founders of AWANA. So yes, my parents were the pillars of our local church; and so I grew up in that tradition.
Bob: That foundation in your life was something that, as you look back on the path that you were asked to walk, that foundation helped preserve your emotional sanity later in life; didn’t it?
Bill: Exactly. Everything that I had learned in those Sunday school classes, and AWANA clubs, and church services was enough to help me when the moment of the most pain came and kept me stable.
Dennis: Bill, you said your parents were pillars. When we speak of sexual abuse, one of the words that pops out is the word “protector.” Were they your protectors as well?
Bill: Unfortunately, no. Mom and Dad didn’t know about it. Had they known, I believe yes, they would have stepped in immediately and rectified everything; but my silence from them kept the opportunity from them to be the protectors they were without even knowing.
Bob: Your silence was an issue, but were there telltale signs that they could have or should have noted looking back? I guess hindsight is 20/20; but in your situation, your sexual abuse happened at the hands of an uncle who had a special relationship with his nephew. It appeared to everybody like this was just a good healthy relationship; right?
Bill: Absolutely. Very normal. We did a lot of things together. He took me places, gave me opportunities to do things that other 12-, 13-year-old boys didn’t get. Mom wouldn’t think anything of it. We were a family that always housed members when they came to town; so they stayed with us.
Nothing was out of the ordinary, until the abuse began to happen when I was 13, 14, and I had some physical issues, and I had some anger issues, and I had some rage things that started to come out. My parents thought, “Well, he’s just a teenager, and he’s just going through puberty, and he’s going through changes, and he’s an athlete so he gets mad.”
Looking back, all those were signs and symptoms of what I was dealing with. Mom struggled. My mom is my great champion now to help in moving us forward, but it’s taken her a long time to understand that, “No, it wasn’t her fault,” and, “She didn’t fail because she wasn’t there for me.”
Dennis: As I read your story, one of the things your uncle did was he took you to kind of high-adrenaline, high-entertainment value experiences that a 13-, 14-year-old boy would love. So you loved going there; but in the process, he had another agenda.
Bill: Yes, he was a groomer—what we term in this sexual arena—a groomer is someone who will develop trust in a target that they have over time—could be a week, could be four or five years—before any actual abuse takes place. In my case, it was about a year-and-a-half, two years, where I was driving cars—muscle cars of the late 60s and all kinds of activities that you don’t get to do when you’re 13.
Bob: So there was 12 to 18 months where what was being implanted in your mind is, “My uncle is a guy who gives me opportunities to have fun and excitement that other kids don’t get.”
Bill: That’s exactly right.
Bob: Tell us about him. He was in the military; is that right?
Bill: Yes, correct. He was an enlisted man in the military, Air Force. His responsibility was to maintain a lot of the things at the base. He gave me the opportunity to go on base one time and fly a jet simulator. I was 14. No civilians were allowed to do that. It was great fun.
Bob: He was unmarried?
Bob: Had never been married?
Bob: And he came and stayed at your house. Like you said, your family just welcomed the relatives in. In your case, your mom said, “You’ve got a double bed. He’ll sleep with you.”
Bill: That’s right, and we didn’t think anything of it. Very small house—three bedrooms. My sister wasn’t going to stay with my uncle, and it was just the two of us. So it didn’t even dawn on her that that would be something inappropriate.
Bob: And did it happen a number of times with nothing inappropriate going on? Did your uncle sleep next to you and nothing happened?
Bill: Absolutely. It went on for a year.
Dennis: And then in 1968 he shows up in a brand-new yellow Ford Mustang—comes to your house and things change.
Bill: Things changed that weekend—inappropriate touch that was shared with me—that, “This is the way family members can show affection.”
Dennis: Is this what groomers do to boys and girls? They find a way to control their thinking?
Bill: It’s all about control. It’s really not about sex; it’s about control. It’s about them being able to manage that (usually) youngster because they’re in a position of learning trust. They’ve trusted their parents; they’ve trusted someone else all their life. Here’s this authority person now in their life.
Then, when they do, you’ve begun the conflicting emotions that go on between what’s right and what’s wrong; but, “This was the person I trust. So if I say something, there’s no way my parents are going to believe me. They’re going to believe him because he’s the adult; he’s the authority; he’s the older figure. So I’ll just keep this to myself.”
Bob: How often were you seeing your uncle? Was it once a month, couple times a month that he’d come up and the two of you would get together and go do something exciting?
Bill: It was more of a seasonal thing. Once the spring hit in Illinois, when it starts to warm up, then it would become once or twice a month through the summer—so from April to September. Then the frequency came when he invited me to come down and spend time with him. So I would go down to his place, sometimes for weekends. The intensity and frequency picked up even more in those times because now I was outside the reach of my family and parents.
The final one came when we went on a trip to Hawaii together—which I dreaded the idea of going—but how do you turn that down? When he approached my parents, he said, “I want to show him Pearl Harbor; and we can spend the whole week together, and I’ll pay for the whole thing.”
Dennis: I’m listening to this story, and I read about it as well, and I have the same emotion as I’m reflecting on it. I’m just saying, “This is evil. It just feels like from the pit of hell, frankly.” Both Bob and I are good friends with Dr. Dan Allender. He says that sexual abuse is the hardest stone the Devil of Hell throws at a boy or a girl growing up. You understand that statement; don’t you?
Bill: I do. I sit here, even as you’re saying it, and it begins to trigger some of those old emotions of the pain, of the sheer terror some days of knowing what I was going into, and not being able to do anything about it.
Bob: There’s a term that counselors use that you’ve learned over the years, and it is part of what you did as a coping mechanism. It’s the term dissociate, where you in those moments—it’s almost like traveling outside your body, and something’s happening, and you’re detached from what’s happening to you; right?
Bill: It happened clearly on the Hawaii trip. In fact, the last time I remember the abuse was one of those moments. I had grown to the point of understanding that I could do that. I could separate my mind and my experience from the moment as if it was not really happening. That probably is what drove him away from me because I was no longer even in the process of engagement whatsoever. I was there, but I wasn’t there.
Bob: This is going to sound like maybe it’s the wrong thing to ask, but you were looking forward at some level to going to Hawaii and seeing Pearl Harbor. Was there any part of you that looked forward to the abuse?
Bill: Not the abuse in particular; but let’s face it, this was a sexual issue and there’s pleasure involved. And the great ambivalence is that the pleasure is designed by God. He gave me that as a gift; and so yes, looking back, there’s a part of that that says, “This is going to be great;”—but there’s that other part, that ambivalent part of, “This is also evil,”—and they’re both going on at the same time.
Bob: And wiring into your psyche—this sense that something is evil and pleasurable, and distorting your picture of human sexuality as a teenager. What that carries over, then, as a young adult, as a married man—it really does set a pattern that you can understand where someone’s life becomes shaped around this mixed message about their sexuality.
Bill: Totally. I entered into marriage at the age of 20, assuming that, now that the abuse was over, everything was going to be just fine. Now I have intimacy the way God designed it; and all of that’s in the past, and I can just forget about it—now, man and wife. The first week of my marriage was a shocking awakening of how my behavior had been molded into what I was going to be as a husband sexually within a relationship that was completely dysfunctional.
Bob: You were aware of that?
Bill: I think, within the first week or two, I realized that I was going to be an aggressor. I was going to be hurtful, but I was also going to be detached. This was going to be about me and not about my wife.
Dennis: We’re going to talk more this week about the rest of your story and how it impacted your marriage, and the healing that ultimately came to you. But I want you to speak to that listener today who is hearing you talk about this and, perhaps, they’ve never said anything to anyone. They’ve hidden it like you hid it for a number of years and, like you did, well into your marriage.
What could you say to that person today to offer hope and healing, or at least the beginning of the process of that?
Bill: We say over and over, “You’re not alone.” Most of—at least I always felt that I was the only person this ever happened to, and no one would understand, and no one would be able to sympathize or feel for what I went through. It’s the opposite.
The whole key is saying something for the first time and letting it out. It has to be within a context, I think, of a person that you know you are safe with. For me, it was my wife. I couldn’t have shared it with anyone else; but having it out that first time was as if the entire world had been lifted off my shoulders, finally.
Dennis: The challenging thing about that, though, is that involves trust.
Bill: It’s all about trust.
Dennis: And trust has been betrayed over a seven-year period in your life with this man. I can see how there would be two major streams, like currents of a river, going in opposite directions. It takes a lot of courage to admit this and talk about this, even with a person you consider to be safe.
Bob: Did you try to send up flares when you were a teenager? Were there times when—you said with your mom—you said, “I don’t want to go;” but did you ever come close with a family member or a friend saying, “I’m just going to get this whole thing out in the open?”
Bill: Once with my father. I can picture it; it was on the way to school. He said, “What is wrong with you? Why these attitudes? Why? You’ve never been like this before.” And I said, “Dad, if you only knew.” He said, “Knew what?” I said, “Well, some things you just don’t know.” I came so close to wanting to say, “This is why.”
Later, in my marriage, one of the standing jokes between my wife and me is she would say, “I know everything there is to know about you.” And I say, “You never know everything.” So many times, at the end of that statement, I just wanted to say, “This happened to me when I was a kid. You don’t know, and this is something I’ve kept a secret.” It had to be hundreds of times I just wished I could have said it; and finally; it happened one day in an Olive Garden restaurant.
Bob: Was it just the intense sense of shame? Was it just, “I can’t tell this because it’s such a shameful experience”?
Bill: That’s it. Your shame has a way of convincing you of the lies that, “You’re dirty; you’re disgusting; you’re bad; it was your fault; you asked for this.” All of those lies build up, build up, build up, and you just can’t get to that moment of saying, “Wow, this happened to me.”
Dennis: One of the ways we can counter lies is with the truth; and the truth is that God hears our prayers, and He knows what’s going on in our lives, everything. I’m just wondering right now, Bill, if you would pray for that person who is locked up in this hidden tragedy of evil. Would you pray for that person right now?
Bill: I’d be honored. “Father, I just pause for the moment. There are hundreds, millions of men out there who right now want so desperately to speak out and say something. Lord, speak to their heart through your Spirit. They are Your creation—designed—t here’s only one—we’re not in competition with each other. You love each of us because You designed us to be in relationship with You. That’s what we so deeply want; and abuse cuts that off, gets in the way, and keeps us from wanting to reach out to You.
“So for that man, woman, child, whatever age, whatever experience, whenever it happened, if they’ve never spoken up, Lord, Spirit, give them the courage in this moment to find that person they can reach out to and say, ‘Hey, this happened to me. Could you pray with me and just help me walk through this?’
“Lord, I know You do it. I’ve seen it happen so many times and the joy that comes is worth the pain for the moment. I pray that would happen right now to so many who are listening, Lord. Amen.”
Dennis: You know, as you were praying, I kept thinking a prayer like that—a person who has been trapped—God is the ultimate One who is safe. It’s the Enemy who is trying to rob you of intimacy with your God and an authentic relationship with Him. It could be, the first step you take is talk to God about what happened; and ask Him for the courage to tell one person very, very soon.
Bob: As you’ve seen, Bill, in your own life and your experience, and as you share in your book—when you have that courage and when you do open up and when light is shined into that dark place—that’s when God can do a redemptive, restorative work in a person’s soul.
I’d just encourage listeners, if you have had an experience like the one that Bill has described, or if somebody has been brave enough to share their experience with you, get a copy of Bill’s book. It’s called Shattered. Read through this book because, not only do you share your story, but in the midst of the story, we see how God works in a person’s life and soul to bring restoration to a life that’s been damaged by sexual abuse.
We’ve got copies of the book Shattered in our FamilyLifeToday Resource Center. Go online at FamilyLifeToday.com for more information on how to get a copy of the book. Again, it’s FamilyLifeToday.com.
There’s also information there about the book, The Wounded Heart, by Dan Allender, which I know you benefitted from and which is a book that we’ve recommended to many folks, throughout the years, who have wrestled with having been sexually abused as a child. Again, find both titles at FamilyLifeToday.com; or call us toll-free at 1-800-FLTODAY, and we can get you information on how you can have these books sent to you.
Let me quickly say, “Thank you,” to those listeners who get in touch with us from time to time to let us know how God has used the ministry of FamilyLife Today in your lives. One of the things I like to do, Dennis, is go to our website—and right below where the transcript for each day’s program is printed, there is an ongoing series of comments that folks will leave for us about a particular program. So we get some instant feedback from folks about how God has used today’s program in their life. I’d invite you to go to FamilyLifeToday.com and leave us your thoughts about today’s program if you have a few minutes to do that.
I also want to say, “Thank you,” to those of you who help support this ministry. Your financial support of FamilyLife Today is not only what keeps us on the air in this city and in our network of cities all across the country, but your financial support also makes our website available. It makes our iPhone® application available. It makes it possible for this daily program to be heard by more people, and we appreciate that support.
This month, if you’re able to help with a donation, we’d like to send you as a thank-you gift a book that Barbara Rainey wrote to help encourage families to cultivate a spirit of thankfulness, of gratitude in the hearts of their children, and in the hearts of Mom and Dad as well.
It’s a devotional book called Growing Together in Gratitude. It features seven stories that can be read out loud at the dinner table or during family devotions—all of them designed to help us understand what the Bible teaches about gratitude. And along with the book, we’ll send some Thanksgiving prayer cards that you can keep with you to remind you to be thankful and to express your thanks to God.
You can make your donation online at FamilyLifeToday.com. Simply click on the button that says, “I Care,” and that will take you right where you need to go to make your online donation. Or call 1-800-FLTODAY; make a donation over the phone. If you call, be sure to ask about the devotional book, Growing Together in Gratitude, so that we’ll know you’d like to have it sent to you.
Let me just say how grateful we are for your partnership with us here in the ministry of FamilyLife Today. We love hearing from you.
And we hope you can be back with us tomorrow when we’re going to hear more from Bill Harbeck. We’re going to continue to hear his story this week, and I hope you can stay with us for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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