My brother Jim, the youngest of the older group of five Dolan’s, spent time in prison on drug trafficking charges. It’s where he learned to cook so well. He was talented, an exquisite writer, drop dead gorgeous and had a powerfully troubled past. My brother John revealed to me the number of police officers that were dispatched to arrest Jim.
I always remember wanting to hang around him and his friends because they all seemed so cool. On top of all that, his teenaged male friends were so cute. That definitely appealed to me as an elementary school aged gay boy. But he was a part of the older group of my ten siblings, and our paths would never really cross.
After sharing that I forgave him, he stepped toward me and said, “I have no idea where you get your strength. You’ve come out, left a marriage and now you forgive me.” With that he turned and walked back into the kitchen.
Sometime in the late 1990’s, here in Vancouver, my friend Nancy said to me, “It must be tough, as a man, not being able to talk to other men about sexual abuse. My women friends and I have been talking about it for ages.” I had chosen to dive into some therapy work related to my experience of sexual abuse.
One of the biggest challenges, as my therapist Jamie told me, in dealing with sexual abuse for gay men is a factor called ‘liking it’. I remember this deep sense of shame mixed with terror as I recalled my feelings connected to being sexually abused. I must have been the one who was bad because sometimes I enjoyed it.
The perpetrator of sexual abuse, especially with a gay boy, often is the only one to know that the boy is actually gay. I remember those horrific whisperings that were so confusing to me. The theme the whisperings centered around was ‘secret’. “Don’t tell anyone; this is our special time,” he always whispered to me.
What I did not know existed was a dynamic of power; that he always knew I was gay and used that against me, in the absence of me really knowing I was gay. So now I had a double secret and he knew that too.
So for a lot of my formative adult years I actually carried three secrets. I was gay. I had an experience of sexual abuse, and I liked it sometimes. There were few cocktails parties I attended that this could be fodder for small talk.
Some weeks after that Easter dinner that Jim prepared, while still living in Calgary I had retrieved a recorded voicemail message from him. It was simple, short and very succinct. “Tom, I’m just calling to tell you I love you.” Although I felt fear hearing his voice, I do remember thinking how nice of him to tell me that. As quickly as the message ended I dialed his number in Victoria, got his answering machine, and simply said, “Jim, I love you too.”
Later that night, at exactly 11:27pm, the phone rang. For some reason I said to my friend Mark, “That’s not good news.”
Sheryl had spent four years with my brother Jim. She and I had never met, but we had spoken on the phone several times. Sheryl’s voice quivered, “Tom, Jim attempted suicide tonight. The doctors tell me he will not survive.”
Suddenly the voicemail message he left made all the sense in the world. I reminded Sheryl, where I read this I do not know, that one of the last faculties to go as our bodies begin to shut down is our hearing. “Please tell Jim you love him. He’ll hear you,” I told her. With that Sheryl hung up.
At 3:53am the phone rang, “Tom, he’s gone.“ I asked, “Did you tell him? Did you tell him you loved him?” Amidst uncontrolled fits of tears, she uttered yes.
As I made my way through the airport in Victoria I instinctively went right to Sheryl. We had never met, but I knew her. She and I would work together in arranging Jim’s funeral.
Sheryl shared some heartwarming and heart wrenching stories about my brother. She opened my eyes to a world he had created with her, her two daughters and their life in Victoria. She also shared that she felt Jim had many secrets. One in particular he did tell her was that he would not live to see his 40th birthday; he died weeks before at age 39.
After meeting at the funeral home and making some arrangements, we took a break and went for a ride. I sensed there were some things I needed to tell Sheryl that might lighten my heart, heal me and reveal to Sheryl some of Jim’s shadows.
Sheryl told me that Jim was immensely proud of me. She also said that I was the first gay person she had ever met. She added a comment that stunned me, “Jim told me one day, not too long ago, that he thought he might be gay or that perhaps he was attracted to men.” She wondered if he’d ever said anything to me.
Suddenly I remembered Nancy’s words, “It must be tough, as a man, not being able to talk to other men about sexual abuse.”
I started to cry and asked Sheryl to stop the car. As I turned to her, eyes filled with tears, I shared this; “Jim sexually abused me when I was little. It went on for a long time, it stopped and then started again when I was in Grade 10.” We sat in silence.
I really had four secrets. I was gay. I experienced sexual abuse. I liked it. My brother Jim was the perpetrator.
I realize today that out of the terror, attraction, secrets and dark shadows of sexual abuse, I learned how to forgive. His last words to me were, “I love you.”