THE OPRAH WINFREY SHOW. 4 p.m. tomorrow, Channel 6.
Rhett Hackett's childhood ended when he was 12 years old.
That summer, Hackett was sexually abused by a male neighbor, a summer resident in Hackett's Shore community of Forked River, N.J. Hackett's life was irrevocably altered.
But as part of his ongoing healing process, Hackett, now 42, will appear on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" in a two-part episode on the survivors of male sexual abuse, airing tomorrow and next Friday. Hackett, who will be featured in a taped interview segment and was in the audience for the tapings, currently serves as the circulation sales manager for the Philadelphia Media Network, which owns the Philadelphia Daily News, the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philly.com.
Winfrey is no stranger to the topic of sexual abuse. During a 1990 episode of her show, Winfrey broke down and admitted to being a victim of sexual abuse herself. But these episodes mark the first time Winfrey will focus on men who have been abused by men.
Statistics released by Winfrey's production company, Harpo Productions, estimate that one in six men are sexually abused by another male before they are 18. There were 200 men in the audience for each show, all abuse victims.
"They thought they were going to struggle to get to that number," Hackett said. "But it was the complete opposite. They were completely overwhelmed."
The idea for the two-part episode came from an article in O Magazine that looked at the effects of male sexual abuse on the victims' romantic relationships. Last month, filmmaker Tyler Perry, whose latest movie "For Colored Girls" hits theaters tomorrow, went on "Oprah" to discuss his own abuse as a child and suggested that the talk show queen dedicate an entire episode to the article's topic. But the night before the show was set to tape, Winfrey decided that there was simply too much for one episode and split it into two.
Hackett found out about the show via a support website called Male Survivor (malesurvivor.
org). He "wholeheartedly" applied for a spot in the studio audience as a way to create awareness. "We teach what we accept," said Hackett. "If I accept being silent, then I'm saying it's acceptable for this to happen."
Hackett talked with a sense of pride about being able to discuss his "Oprah" appearance, posting the news on Facebook and revealing the information to his family and friends. He even had a party last week to disclose his "Oprah" appearance to some guests who weren't aware of the sexual abuse. He's had to travel down a long road to get to that point.
"I was always looking for a finish line. Like a cold: You take some stuff, it goes away and then you're done," said Hackett. "And I found out that's it not. It forever stays with you, it's an ongoing process. Once you're willing to accept that, things are a lot better."
Hackett didn't reveal his past abuse to anyone until he was 20, to the woman who would eventually become his wife. Like many victims of abuse, Hackett coped via defense mechanisms. "I did everything with the utmost perfection, that way you didn't see any flaws," Hackett said. "If you saw a flaw, then you'd see a crack. If you saw a crack, then you'd see what happened."
But those walls were penetrated when Hackett was in a car crash in February 1996. While he had always remembered the atrocities brought upon him by his neighbor, the feelings started to resonate again. He was seeing visions and having flashbacks; he started to get joint and muscle pain, and would grind his teeth so hard in his sleep they would break.
Hackett's first attempts to deal with his problems only exacerbated them, so in May 2005, he decided he needed to seek professional help. But although counseling was a step in the right direction, it began to tear down the defensive walls that Hackett had spent years constructing, and he found himself considering suicide. A co-worker, the first acquaintance Hackett had ever told about his abuse, called him at a critical moment to see how he was doing.
"It's almost like muscle building: You rip, you repair, you rip, you repair, and you get stronger and stronger as you go along," Hackett said. "The rip and repair part is very difficult."
He continued therapy and even felt comfortable enough to confront his abuser, only to find out that the man had died just weeks before.
He suggested to his wife that they go to marriage counseling and consider separating. But the marriage counselor had no idea how to handle Hackett's problems.
Desperate, Hackett did something he'd been terrified to do. Through Male Survivor he found out about recovery weekends, and along with 24 other sexually abused men, went on a retreat. He described it as gut-wrenching, but it also allowed him to see a mirror of his own life, and his own struggles.
"The thoughts, the feelings, the sayings that I had been going through for the past 20 years, that I thought was only me, was now being stated from 24 other men around me," Hackett said. "It was unbelievable."
It was after this retreat that Hackett told his 15-year-old daughter (he told his stepson last year when he considered ending his marriage). Her only question was, "How come you didn't tell your mom and dad? Because I would have told you and Mommy."
It's this culture of secrecy surrounding sexual abuse that made Hackett want to speak out. As a child, Hackett's abuser had persuaded him to keep quiet by telling him they would get into trouble. Later, it was stigma, like the idea that Hackett himself would also become an abuser, that kept him silent.
But Hackett is talking this time.
He was interviewed for both segments of the "Oprah" show. Tomorrow's show deals with male sexual abuse, while the show next week deals with how it affects victims' personal relationships, and Hackett also was flown to Chicago to speak with producers.
Just as the recovery weekend revealed to Hackett that he wasn't alone, the same can be said for Hackett's wife, who saw her marital problems echoed by other interviewees.
"You know they say there's no such thing as a selfless act, because then why would you do it? You do it because it makes you feel good. It is part of the healing process," said Hackett of his appearance on the show. "I understand that not everyone can speak out, but you can make them feel better. They don't need to go on the 'Oprah' show or tell their story to a newspaper, but they do need to tell somebody. This is how we're going to heal."
Hackett is excited to see how people respond to the show. He's already felt some effects. After news spread about his appearance, his father-in-law and a casual acquaintance revealed that they had also been sexually abused as kids, revelations they had kept secret. Even one of the show's producers came out with stories of his own sexual abuse after working with the audience members.
"I'm not going to lie and say I didn't think 'My God, what the hell am I doing?' " Hackett said. "But it was always followed up by 'I need to do this.' One voice is great. Two hundred is better."