The courage to reveal

A Sicklerville man discusses his childhood sexual abuse on "Oprah" this week, along with entertainer Tyler Perry and 200 other male survivors.

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Being taped for the show, Rhett Hackett says, was life-changing: 'I did it because I want to create awareness.'

Six months ago, Rhett Hackett would have shunned the harsh glare of television cameras and the scrutiny of public attention.

But now Hackett, 41, says he is proud to have participated in a taping of The Oprah Winfrey Show slated to air Friday (4 p.m. on ABC) - a discussion with, among others, entertainment mogul Tyler Perry about men who were sexually abused as children. Winfrey herself has previously spoken of her own childhood sexual abuse.

Perry revealed his abuse, and the lingering effects on his adult relationships, during an Oprah last month. The Friday broadcast is a continuation of that discussion.

Hackett, who lives in Sicklerville, is the circulation sales manager for Philadelphia Media Network, publishers of The Inquirer, the Daily News, and philly.com. He came to Winfrey's attention in August through the support website malesurvivors.org.

He says he was in his 30s by the time he started to confront the reality of the abuse he endured for five years, starting at age 12. His abuser, an older man who was trusted and liked in the Jersey Shore community where Hackett grew up, died two years ago, long after criminal charges could be brought and before Hackett could confront him.

"All those years I thought I was the only one" living with guilt and shame, Hackett says. His marriage had suffered as a result. "And I didn't know what to do."

Psychiatrist Brendan Greer, chief executive officer of the Council for Relationships in West Philadelphia, says the number of childhood sexual-abuse victims is not known because underreporting is common. Greer is not Hackett's counselor, but has treated many sexual-abuse survivors.

Males are probably less likely to report their abuse, Greer said, "because our culture makes it more difficult for men to admit to being taken advantage of and hurt in this way."

Hackett said his efforts to heal led him to attend two weekend retreats for male survivors led by counseling professionals. He also put his experiences in writing, in a book he showed to his wife.

"He had told me about the abuse before," said his wife, Sheryl, 45, who participated in a show that will air on Nov. 12 in which couples discuss the impact of the abuse on their relationships. But "I never knew the magnitude, and once I did, that helped me understand what set him off - why he would become suddenly distant."

But putting it all down in print made him feel vulnerable all over again, Hackett said. It "left me feeling so much more exposed. All the defenses and the masks that I'd built up since I was 12 were stripped away."

His flashbacks of unwanted memories returned.

"I couldn't sleep. I ground my teeth until they broke. I was scared to death.

"At one point, I suggested to my wife that we separate. I couldn't believe she would really want to be with me. . . . I didn't want her to stay with me out of pity. I just wanted the pain to stop."

The couple will mark their 20th wedding anniversary in December.

During the taping last month in Chicago, they had a chance to speak with some of the 200 male survivors in the audience.

"Some of the men hadn't been able to work in years. Some hadn't even left their homes," Hackett said. "But they talked" on the program "because they wanted to be heard."

Being taped for the show, he says, "was a life-changing experience. I did it because I want to create awareness. There hasn't really been a focus on the male side of this problem."

The 2002 publicity about abuse by priests in the Roman Catholic Church opened the way for more public dialogue and understanding, Greer says.

But recovery from childhood trauma is a journey without a definitive end, he says. Scars will always remain.

"I realize now that all along I was looking for a finish line," Hackett says. "But there is none. The effects of this will run for the rest of my life."

Still, the Hacketts plan a small gathering at their home on Friday, where some friends and family will learn for the first time about his childhood abuse and his appearance on Oprah.

"I think now that everything is out in the open and he doesn't care who knows, he can be himself and we can move on," Sheryl Hackett says. "I have really high hopes for our future together."

Already, her husband's decision to speak out has brought one more man forward.

"When my wife was on the phone with her mother in Florida, telling her that I was going to be on the show, my elderly father-in-law was in the next room.

"Because of his age, we weren't going to tell my father-in-law about the abuse or my appearance on Oprah. But he overheard the conversation.

"And he said he was also sexually abused as a child and that he'd never told any one. Even his wife never knew."

 


Contact staff writer Dianna Marder at 215-854-4211 or dmarder@phillynews.com. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/diannamarder.