In 'Sliver Of Sky,' Barry Lopez Confronts Childhood Sexual Abuse
Originally published on Thu January 10, 2013 8:03 pm
Barry Lopez is known for writing about the natural world. His books include Arctic Dreams and Of Wolves and Men, where he explores the relationship between the physical landscape and human culture. But in a new essay in the January issue of Harper's Magazine, Lopez writes that he was sexually molested by a family friend when he was a boy, and says the man was never brought to justice.
The abuse began when Lopez was 7 years old. The man, named Harry Shier, oversaw the alcoholism treatment for a relative of Lopez's mother at the sanatorium Shier supervised in North Hollywood, Calif. He presented himself as a doctor. Lopez writes that Shier said there was something wrong with Lopez, and that the rape was treatment for that problem.
"I was a child," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "I was 7 years old, and the world of medicine and the world of treatment and the world of how we take care of each other was a tabula rasa for me. I knew that when I saw these degrees from prestigious institutions — all of which were fraudulent — on his wall that I was in the hands of somebody that I knew the adult world respected, and as a young person trying to learn the world, I was trying to understand things that were new to me, and that just fell into that category.
"I think one of the things that's difficult for adults to understand about pedophiles who really prey on children is that the child is not an adult, so the perspicacity and the insight and the intuition that an adult might have in a situation like this [to] sniff the fraud out before it takes on the scope that it did for me and for others — you can do that as an adult but you can't do that as a child. And a child can be manipulated 10 ways to Sunday. All the while, the child is trying to pay attention and trying to understand a foreign world, and this was just part of that foreign world."
Shier, Lopez says, pretended to court his mother, who was recently divorced and struggling financially. And so, Lopez says, "[Shier] was extremely good at creating an atmosphere in our home where he would be highly regarded and appreciated by my mother and, you know, trying to control me was as simple as keeping a ... dog in a box. You're just a prisoner of something you can't understand."
Lopez, who lives in Oregon, says this piece is the hardest he's ever written.
"The advantage that I had," he says, "is that I've been a writer all my life, and I had somebody at Harper's — Chris Cox — who was an exceptional editor, who could do what I could not do, which is I could not find and hold the emotional distance that I needed from this material in order to write about it in the way that I thought I had to, which is, in the end it's not about me, it's about us."
On the difficulties of self-protection for young victims of sexual abuse
"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. ... So what you really want, in the simplest terms, is for somebody to believe what happened, to take you at face value and not to manipulate you in a courtroom, for example, to seek justice."
On whether he blames his mother for not intervening or understanding what was happening
"The whole mindset of being a victim and pointing at somebody else and accusing them — that's not a very productive place to go, and it's certainly a terrible place to stay. We're all of us human, and we fail — we fail miserably in moments when we wish to show how we love. So I don't know what happened for her. All I really wanted from her was clarity. I wanted to be able to say to her, 'What happened to you during these years?' and 'Are you OK?' But couldn't, you know. She was dying of cancer in a hospital in Manhattan, and I sat with her off and on almost every day. And I asked her if she wanted to talk about what happened in California, and she didn't or wouldn't answer me. She just turned away and wept, and then she died."
On how the outside world has helped him cope with the turmoil of his inner one
"I know this: That when I was so compromised as a child that there was no zone of safety for me, no place was safe and especially adults weren't safe for me, the thing that felt safe in the sense that I felt that surge towards lyricism when ... I saw something outside myself, the world beyond the self ... and I felt this surge of lyrical pleasure in the way the wind sounded, for example, in eucalyptus trees. I knew that I could carry that with me. I could carry it as a memory, and I could carry it as a structure to help me build a safe place in the world."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Why do monstrously abusive relationships persist between people, and how did my guest, Barry Lopez, become trapped in such a relationship? That's one of the larger questions Lopez wrestles with in his personal essay about being repeatedly raped by a pedophile over a period of four years, beginning when Lopez was 7, in 1952.
Lopez is best known for his writing about the natural world. He won a 1986 National Book Award for "Arctic Dreams." In the January edition of Harper's, he writes in-depth for the first time about the abuse and the ways in which it shaped his life. The pedophile was Harry Shier, a doctor running a sanitarium near the Lopez home in California's San Fernando Valley, where Shier supervised the treatment of people with addiction problems, primarily alcoholics.
One of Shier's patients was the cousin of Lopez' mother, which is how Shier entered Lopez's life. Lopez would learn many years later that Shier's medical degree was fraudulent; that before moving to the sanitarium in California, he'd worked in Canada, where he performed botched surgeries on the groin areas of boys. After leaving Canada, Shier did time for raping a boy in Colorado. And when he worked at the sanitarium in California, Lopez was not the only boy he abused.
Barry Lopez, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's been a really long time. I'm glad for the chance to talk with you again.
BARRY LOPEZ: Well, me, too.
GROSS: I think we agree - you and I - that there's no need to drag you, in this interview, through a traumatic retelling of the details of what happened to you. So let's not go there. But there are a few things I think we agree our listeners should hear, just about the context of what happened to you; so we can understand how you were changed by that, and how it's affected your understanding of child predators.
So - you know, like, abusers who are priests or famous - a famous football coach, or you know, people like that, the man who abused you was an authority figure. He was a doctor who ran a sanitarium, who became friends with your mother, who helped her financially. Did that make it more confusing - that you were being hurt by somebody who had great respect by the adults, from the adults that you knew?
LOPEZ: Well, that's part of the nightmare of something like this, I think, Terry. Often these figures have worked very hard to create a position in the society of which they're a part where they're perceived as loving and supportive and civic and beyond reproach, and that's the cover they need in order to get away in these gray areas where another adult might say wait a minute, what are you doing? They're just not questioned.
GROSS: Did it also make it difficult to come forward and talk to anybody about it because - were you afraid nobody would believe you because he was so respected, or maybe it would hurt your family in some way?
LOPEZ: I was, but you know, 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.
And that's the case I think for most victims of predatory pedophiles. You're too young to understand how to protect yourself, and you get caught up in this incredibly complex web of allegiances. You're developing your own identity as a human being. 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 just - 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.
GROSS: You were seven when this started. How did he get access to you?
LOPEZ: Manipulation. And I think he's an archetypal figure. He had his antenna up for a family situation like mine - myself, my younger brother and my mother, really kind of struggling to make ends meet. And he stepped in as a beneficiary.
GROSS: And your father was gone, so...
LOPEZ: My father had, yeah, he just abandoned us.
GROSS: A man in the family was probably welcome.
LOPEZ: I don't know about a man coming into the family as much as somebody who could take off - take some of the financial pressure off for my mother. He manipulated her emotionally and psychologically. I can see that now at a great distance, and me too.
He was extremely good at creating an atmosphere in our home where he would be highly regarded and appreciated by my mother, and trying to control me was as simple as keeping, you know, a dog in a box. You're just a prisoner of something you can't understand.
GROSS: And he would get you alone on the pretext of let's go get some ice cream or something like that.
LOPEZ: Yeah, where I was separated from anything that provided any zone of psychological or physical safety.
GROSS: One of the really disturbing, one of the so many disturbing things about the story is that he basically told you what he was doing to you was therapy, because - and you knew he was a doctor, and he ran a sanitarium, and your mother's cousin was being treated there. So like in what way could he convince you that, you know, sexually assaulting you was actually therapy that you needed from a professional like him?
LOPEZ: Well, I was a child. You know, I was seven years old, and the world of medicine and the world of treatment and the world of how we take care of each other was a tabula rasa for me. I knew that when I saw these degrees from prestigious institutions, all of which were fraudulent, on his wall, that I was in the hands of somebody that I knew the adult world respected.
And as a young person trying to learn the world, I was trying to understand things that were new to me, and this just fell into that category. I think one of the things that's difficult for adults to understand about pedophiles who really prey on children is that the child is not an adult. So the perspicacity and the insight and the intuition that an adult might have in a situation like this and sniff the fraud out before it takes on the scope that it did for me and for others, you can do that as an adult, but you can't do it as a child.
And a child can be manipulated 10 ways to Sunday. All the while the child is trying to pay attention and trying to understand a foreign world. And this was just part of that foreign world.
GROSS: But he - it sounds like he not only manipulated you, a seven to 11-year-old child, over those four years, but he manipulated your mother. You describe him as doing almost courting behavior with her.
GROSS: And she - you know, your father had left. So she was single. She was supporting you and your brother and of course herself. And, you know, her cousin had moved in with you as well. So it was a lot of responsibility. And you know, he was there to be helpful, he helped her a little financially. And I don't know, reading your essay, it seemed to me like he was doing all of that to get access to you, that he was really playing her, and she didn't know it.
LOPEZ: Well, something that is a centerpiece for all pedophiles and psychopaths is indifference to the fate of any other human being. They're simply not capable of understanding not only that what they're doing is wrong but not understanding why anybody would object. And they're free to do whatever they want to do because they feel no ethical or moral restraint.
So when we think of the ways in which we manipulate each other in the everyday world, that's not this kind of manipulation. This is manipulation that is in the land of murder and other felonies. We're not talking about somebody trying to gain advantage, you know, by presenting a good face to somebody you want to have a date with or something like that. This is predatory behavior, and it's lethal.
And again, you know, what I would underscore, Terry, is that when you see these cases come along that have a very high profile like the Sandusky case, we tend to deal with it in a knee-jerk and emotional way, and that's all laudable, and the outrage that's expressed about people who prey on children is. But the question I and others have to ask is: And now what?
This is like having a person loose in society with another kind of gun, who every day shoots a child and every day is given a pat on the back by the community in which he finds himself, and this goes on for five or 10 or 15 or 20 or 60 years. And then in the end there's regret. Nobody says very much about the hundreds of children that that person decimated.
I mean you don't - you don't come back from molestation the way you come back from, say, I don't know, surgery. You're damaged for the rest of your life. And for the rest of your life you must find some way to cope with what happened. It's like somebody lit your face on fire, and in the wake of that, you've got to look in the mirror and find another identity.
You - something is taken from you that leaves an empty place, and nothing, nothing will ever fill that empty place. It's gone forever.
GROSS: I think I know what you mean when you say something was taken from you. I think several things were taken from you.
LOPEZ: Well, certainly innocence is gone, and sexual and gender confusion is introduced. But those are - 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. Another person who says I know what you mean in the world, I know what your effort is, completely outside whatever your career or family relations are, what you mean as, if you will, a spiritual entity - that is part of what is set fire to you when somebody treats you like a ragdoll.
You have no voice. You have no physical ability to resist. And later in your life, if you're able to bring this out and get that conversation out of your head and talk to somebody else, so often one way or another you're not believed. Somebody else will tell you how to tell the story who didn't go through the experience.
GROSS: My guest is writer Barry Lopez. He writes about confronting the trauma of sexual abuse in this month's Harper's. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: My guest is the writer Barry Lopez, and he has an article, an essay, a personal essay, in the January edition of Harper's called "Sliver of Sky: Confronting the Trauma of Sexual Abuse." And it's his story of being sexually abused between the ages of seven and 11 and what the repercussions of that have been in his life and what he sees when he looks out on the larger issue of sexual abuse in our culture today.
When you were living in California between the ages of seven and 11, you were abused by this man who was passing himself off as a doctor and had a prestigious position in a sanitarium. Your mother remarried and moved to New York, where your stepfather was. And of course you and your brother moved to New York with her, and finally you were away from him, you were rid of him.
And then sometime later he shows up. He's befriended your stepfather. He's back in your life again. He tries to abuse you, but this time you kind of fight him off, you take a baseball bat and swing at him. And he flees and doesn't come back into your life.
You decide to tell your stepfather. What was the turning point for you of deciding to say something to your stepfather, and why was it your stepfather as opposed to another adult, including your mother, that you could have gone to?
LOPEZ: If I'd gone to my mother, I thought it would have killed her. I did not know if she knew what was going on later in my adult life. It's very hard for me to believe she didn't know, and it's not up to me to try to explain what was going on for her psychologically and emotionally. Despite the physical pain and humiliation that I was subjected for those four years, in my child mind I thought this doctor was trying to help me and cared for my fate, which of course he didn't. I was just an object like a vase on a table.
It occurred to me when I was 17 that there must have been other boys. Not only must there have been other boys, but because of my silence, those boys were being subjected to what I went through in the very moment I had that insight. And that's what tore me up, that by my own silence I had let this man go on preying on young boys.
So I went to my stepfather because he was the authoritarian figure in my life and told him what had happened, and I asked him to help me to, to help me bring this man to trial, my willingness to testify in court, and I asked him at the same time to never, never tell my mother, and that if he came to a point where he felt it was necessary for him to tell her, then I would be the one that would do it.
I was going through this with her and my brother. He wasn't part of the situation. He was innocent at that time of all of this. And he in some ways was a headstrong man, and he ignored my pleas and went about solving this in his own way, which was ultimately to ensure that this man was never caught and never went on trial, and in a way I was told to shut up.
I was told that my life had turned out well. You know, I was the president of my prep school in New York and et cetera, and how could I be complaining. And because he had a certain authority, psychologically, for me, he was - by asking my mother to marry him and moving us 3,000 miles away, he was the one who extricated me from something I couldn't extricate myself from.
And that played heavily on my heart, and I thought, well, I'm just going to have to find my way through this on my own.
GROSS: I think one of the issues that faces anybody who's been abused is when you're ready to come forward and say something about it, then what? What happens with that? Where do you take it? And what are your concerns about what the ripple effects of where you take it will be?
In your case, you go to your stepfather, you tell him the story. He tells you he's going to go to California and talk to the detectives there and see what he can find out and so on, and he does fly out to California, which is where the abuse took place, and nothing ever happens. What did you find out about his interactions with the detectives that he spoke with?
LOPEZ: You know, Terry, it's all speculative on my part. Until he died, I tried to get my father to tell me what he did when he went out there and talked to those detectives. And he told me a dozen different stories, and I know that what he finally decided to do when he got there was something that he was ashamed of.
He made decisions about the situation that suited him and really were a betrayal of me.
GROSS: My impression from your article, so tell me if I'm wrong, was that when you told your stepfather, he believed you, and he went to the authorities in California and told them, but he decided not to pursue it, he decided not to press charges. And I'm not sure whether he was trying to protect you and trying to prevent you from putting you - from being on the witness stand or whether he was trying to protect himself and the rest of the family from going through something public and emotional and maybe having their reputations tarnished, because I think there was even less of an understanding then than there is now about what child abuse is.
LOPEZ: I think you're right. I don't think in the end - for him, because I became successful as a student and prep school - and, you know, had a - my life changed completely, leaving California in a lower-middle-class environment and moving into a brownstone on 35th Street in Manhattan and going to debutante balls. My life changed so dramatically that he was able to catalog these changes and say: Look, see, see, it's worked out just fine.
And I think he convinced himself that my pain and confusion was not very important and what was more important were things like satisfying his own sense of justice. And a complicating factor for him was that he was a person with a very high profile in Alcoholics Anonymous in New York City and basically in the region from Philadelphia to Boston.
He was widely known and widely respected. And a complicating factor for him was the fact that Harry Shier - who was the faux physician who abused me - ran that sanitarium mostly to treat alcoholics. And my father's, stepfather's primary allegiance was to a person he continued to believe was a legitimate doctor.
And because he treated alcoholics, his work, ultimately, for my stepfather was more important than whatever it was that I went through, which he could not understand or sympathize with.
GROSS: Barry Lopez will be back in the second half of the show. His article about confronting the trauma of sexual abuse is in the January edition of Harper's. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with National Book Award-winning writer Barry Lopez, who is best known for his non-fiction works about the natural world. In the current edition of Harper's, he writes in depth for the first time about being sexually abused as a child over the course of four years. The pedophile, Harry Shier, who has since died, was a fraudulent doctor respected for his work at a nearby sanitarium treating alcoholics, including a member of Lopez's extended family, which is how Shier befriended Lopez's mother, who at the time was a single parent. Lopez kept the abuse a secret, until he was in his late teens, after his mother remarried and the family relocated from California to New York. He told his stepfather what had happened, but his stepfather decided not to press charges.
Say your father had pressed charges on your behalf, and that there was a trial and that you had been able to take the witness stand and tell what happened, and that your abuser would have been prosecuted and convicted. What would that have given you? You can't know for sure, because you didn't live it, like you can only speculate, but...
GROSS: ...I'm sure it's something you've speculated a lot about in your life.
LOPEZ: Well, your intuition about that is right. I've basically been silent about this all of my adult life. And one of the things that precipitated my decision to write this story was that - this was before the Sandusky thing broke. In fact, this article - I wrote this piece before the Sandusky thing 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, 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, un-judged relationships with other people, and then you can - you have a chance to develop again a sense of self-worth, and sense of place in society. So what you really want in the simplest terms is for somebody to believe what happened, to take you at face value and not to manipulate you in a courtroom, for example, in order to seek justice. What you really want is to stand up and be heard and believed. And once you can accomplish that, then you can go on and rebuild a life.
GROSS: You talk about the importance of being heard. When you told your stepfather what had happened, you told him don't tell mother, but if you do feel she needs to be told, let me tell her. And he didn't follow your wishes. He told your mother. He didn't tell you. He told her, but you found out he told her.
GROSS: And it sounds from your article that she was never able to talk with you directly about it, not even when she was dying. Do you have a sense of why she was unable to talk with you about it?
LOPEZ: It would be disrespectful for me to speculate about what she went through. She was a single mother with two boys, working two jobs and working a third job in our home as a dressmaker. She was trying to do the best that she could do. Probably she did know what was going on, and probably she looked the other way. She wouldn't be the first who do that. And I'd be in a perilous position to point a finger and say: You did this, and I was harmed.
The whole mindset of being a victim and pointing at somebody else and accusing them, that's not a very productive place to go, and it's certainly a terrible place to stay. We're all of us human, and we fail. We fail miserably in moments when we wish to show how we love.
So I don't know what happened for her. All I really wanted from her was clarity. I wanted to be able to say to her: What happened to you during these years, and are you OK? But she couldn't - you know, I - she was dying of cancer in a hospital in Manhattan, and I sat with her off and on, you know, almost every day. And I asked her if she wanted to talk about what happened in California, and she didn't or wouldn't answer me. She just turned away and wept. And then she died.
But I, you know, I - you can drive a knife in your own chest by hating people and thinking in terms of who the enemy is and who's right. We're every one of us imperfect. We're every one of us, in some way, wounded animals. The most important thing is to take care of each other. And, you know, there are some things you can't forgive. You try very hard and you cannot, so you make your peace with that.
Even though this is a story about something that happened to me and was awful, this story's not really about me. The story is about our failure to take care of each other. And so my mother failed to take care of me, and then the point would be what? I don't have any need personally to go after somebody and say they did the wrong thing. What I'm most concerned is how can I keep myself together and write in a way that helps other people understand what it is that they want to do with their lives.
So she failed in a certain way, I guess. But my stepfather failed, too. You know, as you said, I asked him never to tell her, because he would not know how to manage, in that moment, her sense of despair and guilt. But he went ahead and did, as he always did, exactly what he wanted to do, no matter what he promised you. And she fell apart in a restaurant in New York, and it was so bad they took her by ambulance to Bellevue and tried to stabilize her.
And she called me - I live in Oregon, and she's in New York. She called me that night and she said: I know what happened to you. That's all she said. And that meant, I think, that she couldn't bear it if I decided - like some dimwitted, arrogant individual - to punish her for that. You're not interested, I think, in punishing somebody. You're interested in rebuilding yourself and becoming a functioning and contributing member of an adult community. And in my case - and I think everybody who's been through what I've been through - you're also keenly interested in watching. I am so watchful around my grandchildren and so prepared to question somebody who has what strikes me as a strange, unusual, inordinate interest in my grandson.
GROSS: In 2003, you decided to really investigate - yourself - what happened...
GROSS: ...to the man who abused you, and what his history of abuse was. And you found out some interesting things. You found out he did have a history. You found out he was a fake doctor, that a lot of his credentials were fake, that he had performed surgeries in the groin area of boys that he wasn't qualified to perform before he even came to the United States. This was in Canada.
GROSS: You found that he abused other boys. You found he abused your brother.
GROSS: What - was it - I know it caused you great sorrow to know that he abused other boys. Was it helpful in any way to know that you were not alone, even if you didn't know the other boys who suffered the same fate?
LOPEZ: You know, Terry, I don't know that I've ever asked myself that question. I guess what I would say is that one of the hardest things I've ever done is to write this piece. The advantage that I had is that I'd been a writer all of my adult life, and I had somebody at Harper's - Chris Cox, who was an exceptional editor - who could do what I could not do, which is I could not find and hold the emotional distance that I needed from this material in order to write about it in the way that I thought I had to, which is - in the end, it's not about me. It's about us.
But when I dug into Harry Shier's history, you know, it made me literally sick. But I guess I just developed a sense that I had to push through. I had to push through, and I think subconsciously I was thinking I have to find a way to tell this story, because it's archetypal, and in order to do that I just have to go to the wall. You know, in a parallel universe, I have always been afraid that, you know, somebody who's traveling to really remote parts of the Earth all the time, I have been terrified of being at sea in a big storm. I mean, you know, a Beaufort force 11 storm. And finally, I had to face that one day. And it was one more time when, in order to get my work done, I just had to make it through.
GROSS: My guest is writer Barry Lopez. He writes about being sexually abused as a child in the current edition of Harper's. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: My guest is writer Barry Lopez. In the current edition of Harper's, he writes in depth for the first time about being sexually abused as a child by a fraudulent doctor over a period of four years, starting in 1952.
You first started to research the story of Harry Shier, the man who abused you in 1989.
GROSS: That happens to be the year we first - I first interviewed you.
GROSS: One of the things I often think about as an interviewer is everything that I don't know.
GROSS: I always think like there's so much I don't know about the person I'm interviewing.
LOPEZ: Oh, of course.
GROSS: And even if the interview goes well, there's so much I'm just, like, never going to know.
GROSS: I went back, and I listened to that 1989 interview.
LOPEZ: Oh, really?
GROSS: Yeah. And so that's the year that you're starting to investigate who abused you. You're not talking about it publicly yet.
GROSS: You know, like no one really knows about this. But you said a couple of things that seemed so germane to me in terms of who you are as a writer and what you've investigated in your life as a writer. And I just want to play an excerpt of something. This is actually an excerpt of a reading that you did. So you had just published a collection of essays, and I had - and the essays were about traveling around North America.
GROSS: And I'd asked you to do a reading from the essay called "Gone Back into the Earth," which you had written after traveling with the musician Paul Winter, who likes to play, for instance, with wolves. He's recorded, like, with wolves.
LOPEZ: Yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: ...so he's very much, you know, how music connects to the natural world. And so here's a reading from your essay, "Gone Back into the Earth," which is about traveling with Paul Winter to the Grand Canyon.
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LOPEZ: (Reading) The living of life, any life, involves great and private pain, much of which we share with no one. In such places as the Inner Gorge, the pain trails away from you. It is not so quiet there or so removed that you can hear yourself think, that you would even wish to. That comes later. You can hear your heart beat. That comes first.
GROSS: So that was Barry Lopez on FRESH AIR in 1989, reading from an essay written earlier in the '80s. And Barry Lopez, hearing that last night, after having read your essay about being abused, being sexually abused as a child, when you're speaking of the private pain we share with no one and needing to be in a place that is, you know...
GROSS: ...kind of vast and magnificent...
GROSS: ...and not filled with other people...
GROSS: ...you know, where there's a sense of, you know, that you can hear the thoughts, but you can more importantly or first hear, like, your heart beat.
GROSS: And so, you know, you said that you wanted to take the darkness that you experienced and turn it inside out.
GROSS: And did writing about the natural world help you do that?
LOPEZ: It did. But, you know, in some way, you're kind of giving me credit for something that I was too stupid to really understand when I was younger. I know this, that when I was so compromised as a child, that there was no zone of safety for me. No place was safe, and especially adults weren't safe for me.
The thing that felt safe - in the sense that I felt that surge toward lyricism when I saw something outside myself, the world beyond the self, and I was - I felt this surge of lyrical pleasure in the way the wind sounded, for example, in Eucalyptus trees. I knew that I could carry that with me, and I could carry it as a memory and I could carry it as a structure to help me build a safe place in the world.
I mean, after a prolonged period like this - four years of being abused - you're faced with a rebuilding task. And so you gravitate toward things that help you understand how you must rebuild and how to get on with it and which shelf to put which thing on. So I had this strange insight, and that is that I hadn't - the end of it wasn't that I had been brutalized. The end of it, really, was that I'd been given a gift, and I now, as I grew into adulthood, I had to find some way to take this darkness and turn it inside out.
My desire in my life - I mean, the great metaphors for me have been the metaphors of the natural world, and the natural world in Southern California was the only thing I think really that kept me sane as a child. I did not trust the adult world. It was of no help to me. But my embrace of elements of the natural world, the weather, the appearance of wild animals in the regions where I lived, that was all grace for me and kept me from falling further into that abyss.
So when I - you know, in my late teens and early 20s when I really started writing with a purpose, my effort was to understand what it means to be tolerant. What is it that human beings mean when they speak of justice? And, you know, beyond Aristotle, if you will, what is beauty all about, and why do we crave it? And why do some of us destroy it?
But you can't just talk about abstractions like that - if you're not a philosopher - as a writer. You have to find a context that allows the reader to move into the landscape that you've created and say, oh, yes. I know that. Or, oh, that's interesting.
And my effort, I think, as a writer for all of my adult life is I have no interest in being the writer or the reader's authority about anything. I hope, in nonfiction, to write in an authoritative way and to earn the trust and respect of a reader. But mostly, what I'm interested in is being the reader's companion. I want a reader to feel that there is room for them - for their intellect and for their imagination - in the prose that I try to craft on a page.
And in the end, the only thing I can do - I, Barry, can do - I am not a therapist. I'm not an activist. I'm just a writer. And the only thing I can do is what I did on these pages in Harper's, which is to say this happened to me. I know many of you have experienced this. Here's what I've been thinking. What do you think?
GROSS: My guest is writer Barry Lopez. He writes about being sexually abused as a child in the current edition of Harper's. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: My guest is writer Barry Lopez. In the current edition of Harper's, he writes about being sexually abused by a pedophile over the period of four years. When we left off, I had played an excerpt of a reading Lopez did on our show back in 1989.
In the reading that we just heard an excerpt of, and you refer to the private pain we share with no one, one specific private pain - the pain of being abused when you were young - has now been shared. You write about it in the current edition of Harper's magazine. What has - has that been transformative for you? You've written about it before, but not quite - not nearly at this length, and not at this level of reflection. It's been more referred to in a couple of previous essays than been the central focus of the actual essay. So has the writing itself and now the publication and sharing of that story been transformative?
LOPEZ: I can't say yet, because I feel like I'm right in the middle of the rapids. I think I might've been a little bit naive about publishing the piece in this sense. In the world that I live in - and to some extent, the world you live in - we're able to control the expression of our thoughts and our emotions. You know, basically we edit. And in that world, with a good editor, I felt comfortable. I did not feel like I was being run over by my own emotions. If there is going to be some transition here for me, I don't see the outline of it yet. But I do know that it has been much more difficult for me on a day-to-day basis now that this piece has been published to understand how to marshal and where to put my energies.
I have received in the mail letters from people, you know, Terry, they would break your heart. I can't do anything. I'm not a therapist. I'm not a counselor. I'm not somebody who's capable of walking into a court, probably, and becoming some kind of an expert witness. That's not in my gift. My only gift is to be able to tell a story that helps somebody manage something that is intimidating and terrifying. But that's the only thing that I can do.
And the transition for me will be, knowing myself, can I address other issues of struggle and pain that I think I share other human beings? And again, that kind of presumption that you have as a writer, that you're not writing about yourself or for yourself, but you're writing about a common dilemma that everyone is immersed in, can you enter that place and write with eloquence and clarity? I pray that I can. But this - publishing this piece has - I have felt this sense of falling backward, to be honest with you, of going back into these places I have not been for years where I'm terrified.
GROSS: Still terrified?
LOPEZ: It never leaves you. The best you can hope for is the maintenance of your own integrity. And really what you pray for is the company of people who pass no judgment.
GROSS: Barry Lopez, I really want to thank you for trusting me and for trusting our listeners with your story. And I want to thank you for writing it.
LOPEZ: Well, thanks for having this program, Terry. You give me and other people a chance to explore this question of who are we and where are we going.
GROSS: Barry Lopez's article about confronting the trauma of sexual abuse is in the January edition of Harper's. You'll find a link to an excerpt of it on our website: freshair.npr.org.
I'd like to end today's show with another brief excerpt of a reading Barry Lopez did on our show back in 1989 that has new meaning for me after reading his Harper's article. This is from his book "Arctic Dreams," which won a 1986 National Book Award.
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LOPEZ: No culture has yet solved the dilemma each has faced with the growth of a conscious mind: how to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in all life, when one finds darkness not only in one's own culture, but within oneself.
If there is a stage at which an individual life becomes truly adult, it must be when one grasps the irony in its unfolding and accepts responsibility for a life lived in the midst of such paradox. One must live in the middle of contradiction, because if all contradiction were eliminated, at once life would collapse. There are simply no answers to some of the great persistent questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of a leaning into the light.
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GROSS: You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org. And you can follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.