mental health podcast - madness2magic

I’m with Crazy: A Love Story (Ep6) Leaving Neverland

I hadn’t planned on doing a podcast on this particular topic – that of sexual predators and sex abuse — and for some of you, you may wonder what this has to do with mental illness and caregiving, and to that I’ll give a simple answer – A LOT. Having just watched for the second time the HBO Documentary “LEAVING NEVERLAND” – something I encourage everyone to do – it brought back for me the very same swirl of emotions that I experienced when I was 14 years old trying to navigate not only my mom’s schizophrenia, but also my own sexual awareness and very confusing relationship with an authority figure who was 40 years old. He was a father figure, a friend, a protector…just as much as he was a young girl’s fantasy, a flirt, and at best an inappropriate sexual game player. I stop short still of labeling him “sex predator” even though from the documentary, so much points to him having been just that. 



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Hi, and welcome to Madness To Magic, and my podcast, I’m with Crazy: A Love Story. I’m your host, Paolina Milana, author of “The S Word”.

This show is for those of us who find ourselves surrounded by madness and wanting to find the magic within. We’re going to come together here as caregivers to those who have been diagnosed with a mental illness. Maybe it’s someone in the family we’ve been born into. Maybe it’s someone we love. Maybe it’s someone we work with. Maybe, even, it’s ourselves. Whether we’ve been thrust into this caregiver role or taken it on by choice, this podcast is where we’re going to share our stories and learn to realize the magic in all the madness we may have been experiencing. I promise you, it can be done. So let’s get to it.

Hi everyone. Thanks for joining me again. Today’s podcast is one I’m feeling compelled to do. I hadn’t planned on doing a podcast on this particular topic, that of sexual predators and sex abuse. And for some of you, you may wonder what this has to do with mental illness and caregiving. And to that, I’ll give a simple, a lot. I hope you’ll stick with me as I explain what’s on my mind and in my heart right now, having just watched for the second time, the HBO documentary Leaving Neverland. I’m not sure if you listeners have seen it. But if you have or if you plan to, I can promise it will change your perspective on so many things. The reason I’m talking about it today is because secrets suffocate. That’s in part what Leaving Neverland revealed, and it’s what my book, The S Word is about.

The S Word is a memoir about secrets. But the reason I called my book The S Word is because of everything involved in keeping those secrets. And just so happen in the writing of the book that I realized that so much of what my story was about included words that begin with the letter S. So yes, it’s about schizophrenia. And yes, it’s about growing up Sicilian. And yes, it’s about shame and stigma and seduction and sex. Watching Leaving Neverland brought back for me the very same swirl of emotions that I experienced and made me realize that, A, I wasn’t alone. B, what I went through isn’t exclusive to culture or gender or status. C, that the people involved, everyone involved has both good and bad in them, both predator and prey, and it can be at the same time. D, that what I had gone through and felt and still feel today is normal and that it’s not over, maybe it’ll never be over.

And then finally, that it wasn’t my fault. Now, I’m sure you’re wondering what it is. If you’ve read my book, you might have a sense of what I’m referring to. If not, let me set the stage. So my family was struggling when I was growing up. My mom’s undiagnosed mental illness was taking its toll physically, emotionally, financially on all of us. We kept it all a secret. What happened in the family stayed in the family. Sicilians call it cosa nostra. But we took it to the extremes. I was 13 years old when I forged my birth certificate to get a job at the local doughnut store. The year was 1978, the internet didn’t exist, no social media, no cell phones. Actually, at the donut shop where I worked, we didn’t even have a phone. We did, there was a push button phone on the wall, but the owners had disabled it so that you couldn’t call out.

So it really wasn’t much of a phone at all unless you are clever enough to know how to make it work another way. And if there’s one thing that I pride myself at being, it’s clever. People have said that I’m resourceful, but I’m clever and resourceful because I learned throughout my life how to be in order to survive no matter what. So when I was working at that donut shop late one Friday night, all alone with just the radio to keep me company, I retreated into a world of my own where it was safe to sing out loud and dance and just be me. At the time, I remember singing and dancing to songs like, I want to kiss you all over and Hot Child in the City. I was a teenager becoming more and more sexually aware. I thought about the cute boys in my class as well as the hot dads whose kids I babysat, the sexy teachers, and even our young priest about whom I fantasized when I went to church.

It was my time to be age appropriate and not have to think about caregiving or the madness that awaited me when I got home. All the more ironic then for mental illness to come find me during that fateful Friday night. I remember I was singing and dancing to an all time favorite band, Styx. They had just come out, I think with Grand Illusion. Styx was the first live concert I ever went to. My brother Rosario and my older sister actually took me to see them at the Rosemont Horizon for my 12th birthday. We sat on the main floor in folding chairs and I got to stand on that chair and sing as loud as I wanted to and shake my behind and just go crazy, all the things my mother wouldn’t have approved of. She had thought that I was sexually promiscuous and who knows what else. I think that’s why I loved the band Styx so much. That concert was my very first and was one of the few times in my life up until that point when I could enjoy being normal or at least what I thought normal was.

That’s why I think I made sure always to sing out loud whenever a Styx tune came on. And that’s exactly what I was doing when I was all alone at that donut shop at the age of 13. That song came on the radio, and I was belting out my best version of Styx’s Fooling Yourself. And there’s this whole part, blow, blow, blow, blow, blow. And then I just remember at the top of my lungs, I’m singing that and I turn around and there’s a guy who enters in. And this man came out of nowhere. There’s no car in the parking lot, no headlights in the glass windows that would signal a patron arriving. I don’t even remember. The door to the donut shop had these little tinkling bells attached to it.

So every time you’d open it up, they would kind of tinkle, sort of like It’s A wonderful Life, Clarence, the bells, angels. Every time a bell rings, that kind of thing. That’s always what I would think of when I would hear them. But this time there was nothing, didn’t hear a thing. Maybe I missed it because I was singing in my own world. All I know is that I simply turned around and he was there. He was pacing back and forth, back and forth, back and forth the entire length of the shop. Only his pacing was more a shuffle. And the only thing between me and the man was the counter. I remember for a moment I was completely paralyzed. Fear just completely took me over. And at that moment, that man stopped and he turned and he faced me, and we just stared at each other. He was just like a blank face.

He was older, older than my papa. So we’re talking, I don’t know at that point, I don’t even know, 50, 60, somewhere around there. Older than 60, I’d say, maybe a little younger. He was fatter, pretty rotund. He was taller, he was a big guy. Definitely a good six inches at least taller than I was. And it’s possible maybe that I saw him as so big because I was so very alone and small then. I remember his hair was wispy. It was like standing straight up, permanent state of attention, every strand though was saluting its own captain going this way and that. It was already gray, excuse me, and kind of matched what I remember his tee shirt was. Maybe used to be white, but it was gray. It was stained with remnants of meals from days gone by maybe. He sported these pajama bottoms, and they were nearly worn through. They were kind of like faded blue stripes.

And I remember on his feet, he had these like tattered Brown slippers. Very bizarre since outside it was slushy gray snow that was still on the ground. It was cold winter when he came through. He reminded me of a used washrag, even his pajama bottoms were all wet soak through from having walked, I’m assuming through the snow. I had found my voice and stammered out, “Can I help you?” And that started him shuffling, pacing back and forth again. It was then that I noticed his wristband, he had a hospital wristband. And immediately I thought to myself, “I know what I’m looking at here.” I was still very much afraid, but a strange sense of comfort almost came over me. I thought, “I’ve been here before with my mom, and I knew what I needed to do. I needed to get help.”

Now, as I told you earlier, the phone had been disabled in the place. But I knew, clever me, I knew how to make it work. So I dialed 911 by depressing the switch hook, and that’s that part of the phone, for those of you who only use cell phones, the part of the phone where the headpiece sits on it. That’s how you hang up a phone, a traditional phone. And if you click that very fast according to the number you’re trying to dial. So if you’re dialing 9, you click it nine times really fast, then one, then one, the call will go through. And that’s exactly what I did. And it did, it went through. And moments later, two officers show up and they introduce themselves. Now, I’m changing the names. And this full story and how it unfolds is part of my book, The S Word.

But the two guys, there was Officer James Brown and Officer Tim gunner, and they were both kind of the same age. I don’t know if I realized it right at the moment that I saw them, but they were late 30s, early 40s. Officer Brown was black, African American and his uniform showed off every muscle. Officer Gunner was taller, he was much more slender, equally muscular. And he had strawberry blonde hair, the bluest of eyes. He had this Cheshire Cat like smile, and he had a swagger of kind of, I’ve been around the block, and I carry a gun. He reminded me of Clint Eastwood, and I loved Clint Eastwood. My papa and I would regularly sit up late nights to watch his movies, especially the westerns. The Man with No Name, that was papa’s favorite. My favorite was The Outlaw Josey Wales.

But this guy just, boom, made me think of Clint Eastwood. And I watched as the two officers kind of took charge. They asked me about the donut shop owner, how to get ahold of him. I had no clue. Soon after Officer Brown, he was kind of tending to the guy who had come in with the hospital bracelet, and they had called for an ambulance I think. And I saw Officer Gunner brush some hair off his shirt sleeve and he put his hand over the receiver. I think he was talking, I don’t even know who he was talking to. But I remember him talking, putting his hand over the receiver, turning to me and he whispered that he single, had a couple of cats. I nodded, I liked cats too. It was just a, I don’t know, silly thing that I remember. And Gunner and Brown, they were asking the man questions. They weren’t getting any answers. They put handcuffs on him. The man never said a word, he just kind of kept rocking back and forth.

After a while, the ambulance came, took him away. Officer Brown went with, but Officer Gunner stayed behind. And obviously, I never gave another thought to Officer Brown or to the man who was taken away. My thoughts were instantly consumed with Officer Gunner, who for the first of what would be many times over the course of a year, sat himself down on the first pink stool in front of the curved white counter and ordered a coffee, black with two sugars. And he ordered a strawberry ice raised donut. I remember thinking to myself, this was funny. And I remember laughing, he had asked why it was so funny. I just said, “Nothing,” and asked if it was to go. I think the reason I found it so funny was here is this big kind of cop and he’s having the same doughnut like a little kid would order.

The ones that the parents picked out, the dozen donuts after church. And that’s what they wanted, the donuts that were strawberry iced or sprinkled, the kid donuts. So anyway, hindsight had I been paying attention, I might have connected the dots, but didn’t. When I asked him if he wanted it to go, I remember he said, “No, I think I’ll have it here with you.” And there was a deliberateness to his responses. I served him the doughnut on a plate. And I remember because nobody really came in, the coffee had been on for a long time. So I said, “I’ll make a fresh pot.” I was pulling the basket out of the coffee maker. And I casually kind of turned to him and said, “If you want,” because then I’m thinking, “Wait, maybe he’s fine with this coffee.”

He’s a cop, I kind of assumed that he drinks old coffee all the time. And so I said, “If you want, Officer Gunner.” And I remember he paused and gave me this look that, who, just unsettled me. And he said in two simple words, “I want.” And they’re innocent words, I want, I want, I want. But that whole look and the tone, it made me turn away and blush. And so I kept my back to him while I was brewing the fresh coffee. And he said to me, “Hey, it’s just Gunner, you can call me Gunner, what’s your name?” And I answered him, I don’t even think I turned around. I just said, “Well, my name is Paolina, but people call me Paula because it’s easier,” which all of that is true. And he came back and said, “Well, Paolina,” and he emphasized the pronunciation of my word, Paolina, “this is the best donut ever created, so good.”

And he exaggerated how he was eating it. If I had to pick one word, it’d be he devoured that donut. And he said strawberries were his favorite. He was licking his fingers clean, licking his lips. I know it sounds odd, but that visual, just all of it, just the whole first time meeting him just sticks in my mind. So anyway, lots of thoughts, feelings raging through me. Best way to describe it, I was unnerved. I’ve used the word jumblies before. When I was a kid, I used to say, “He gives me the jumblies.” For Officer Gunner, it was that and then some.

So I quickly grabbed an empty coffee cup, I put it under the flowing stream of coffee. I’m not even waiting for it to be totally done. I give him the sugar, the spoon, everything that you’re supposed to do, and then I stepped back. And I realized I was stepping back as far as I could. There was a refrigerator there. And not necessarily sure why, but every part of me as much as I was forcing myself back, every part of me wanted to cross the counter. That I remember. And I said something really kind of what I thought, was professionally adult. I was kind of like, “Well, if you like strawberry donuts, we’ve got strawberry jelly filled donuts.” I just said some stupid stuff. He laughed, he drank. And then he started asking questions about if I was here by myself late at night always.

He said other kind of questions about my schedule. And I answered nothing totally unusual. I remember though at that point, pretty quickly, I saw over his shoulder a car headlights. It happened to be my papa, he would come and get me at the end of the night. He would signal, my dad three times flashing the lights so that I knew that he was there and that it was him. So I kind of pointed out the window and said, “Oh, that’s my father. Usually he sits with me, but lately hasn’t been able to,” that kind of conversation. So my dad comes in, I remember just being really nervous and blabbering. And I don’t remember what else other than the feelings.

My dad comes in, and usually he sat in the very same seat that Gunner was now occupying. My dad didn’t think anything of it. Sat in the one right next to him, leaned over, gave me a kiss. My dad always would say, “How’s my baby girl?” And I loved that honestly to feel like I was cared for by somebody, his child, his baby girl, sort of like the George Bailey, It’s A Wonderful Life Zuzu. I always felt safe. And this night with him coming in and saying that as much as I know I was a little bit embarrassed because of Officer Gunner, I also really needed to hear that, and I think maybe needed him to hear that. So anyway, so I introduce my father to Officer Gunner, and Gunner extends his hand and he says again, “Nice to meet Paolina’s father.”

And he said something about, “You have a very adult daughter,” he’s going into kind of a little bit of what had happened. My dad, English was not his first language, so he really didn’t understand a lot of the conversation, didn’t understand adult, what is he saying, kind of thing. Just a big question mark on my dad’s face. My father, I remember in his broken English, he thanked him, “Thank you, ufficiale.” He called officers, ufficiales. And he said something like, “I know she’s so smart.” And then he was kind of going into his apologies why he couldn’t be there, his own work, the family, et cetera. And Gunner said to him, “What’s your name?”

My father told him, “I’m Antonino, Tony.” And he said, “Okay, call me Tim.” Just a back and forth kind of the adults talking. And he said that if he wanted, if my father wanted, he could drive by there every night, he could stop in, keep an eye out on our girl. I know he called me then on our girl here every night. And then he was kind of turning to me and saying, “And you can start to teach me how to speak Italian.” Because during the conversation I had said some things to my father to translate in Italian. And my dad again was like, “What is he talking about?” Because he was kind of talking fast. And I was thankful that my dad kind of didn’t know English as much as I was wishing that he was a little more on top of it.

So anyway, at the end of the day, really when I think back on it, it was that moment when Gunner offers to come and keep an eye out on our girl and stay with me in place of my dad. And my dad is so grateful for it because here’s a police officer, an authority figure who you trust will do the right thing and protect. And so my father said, “Yes, yes, please, if you could come stay with her.” So hindsight, 2020, that pretty much was official permission for Gunner to keep his eyes on me. And again, I know I’m 13 at this point, turns out Gunner was 39 at this point. And at that point, it excited me as much as it kind of scared me.

I remember thinking to myself, “Okay, I’m damsel in distress. The girl with the heart of gold, she can take care of herself, she can fight back all foes.” But sometimes you get in a little bit over your head and you need Gunner to swoop in and rescue. In my mind, in my 13 year old mind, all of this kind of fantasy going on in part because one of my favorite, favorite movies, even to this day is the very first Rocky movie. And if you remember, there’s a scene where Rocky and Adrian are alone. Remember she’s a shy kind of a plains spinster kind of person, and they’re alone in his apartment. And he corners her, he’s wearing just his wife beater undershirt. He raises his arms, hangs them from whatever it was, a pipe from the ceiling.

And his entire being is threatening to swallow her up, and she’s kind of backing up. And he says, “I want to kiss you. You don’t have to kiss me back if you don’t feel like it.” That’s when their first sexual encounter happens. I was only, what, 11, I think when I saw the first Rocky. But when I saw it, I wanted to feel what Adrian felt. And here with Gunner, I was feeling those same feelings. I had never before really felt something like this for a grown up man and never felt it. The first time I felt something like that was Rocky. So Rocky watching him, that whole kind of Adrian being ‘taken’ and how she was completely changed afterward.

So afterward, she has new hair, new clothes, new attitude, everything has changed for the better. And in watching the movie, so too was I. And then, just fantasy land. I thought that being taken and being better is always kind of how it worked. But again, that’s fantasy. And I didn’t know any better at that age. So anyway, Gunner being 39, he should have known. So anyhow, for months after that, Gunner would come sit with me at the donut shop. It was just him and I alone for hours talking, and he felt super safe. We were on par friends, confidants. And at the same time, he felt super dangerous. So one night I had been in the back room and I don’t know, I was doing something. I remember hearing those angel bells on the door ringing, announcing somebody’s arrival. And I had barely crossed the threshold from the back room to the front room where people come in, and suddenly I stopped because there was Gunner.

And the difference here was gunner was just standing there, not sitting on his usual pink stool at the counter, not even waiting on the other side of the counter where people come in and sit. He had crossed the threshold to where the cash register is, where the coffee maker is, where the lowboy glass case with the donuts are. He was just standing there behind the front counter just inches from me on my side of the counter. And I remember thinking immediately, “Wow, you crossed a line, that’s a line you never crossed before.” And he said, “Do me a favor, would ya?” And that’s how it all started. That’s how our relationship kind of crossed over a line. So I remember he wasn’t even really looking at me. He was so nonchalant about it. And all those warning voices in my head like, “Hey, there’s something wrong with this,” or danger, Will Robinson, kind of thing.

I think because he was so flippant, so nonchalant like it was no big deal. I just thought to myself, “You know what, this is your silly 13 year old fantasy brain kind of going off, this is nothing. This is normal, you’re just not normal.” So then as I was watching Gunner, started pulling links of scotch tape from the dispenser. So we had a scotch tape kind of dispenser. It’s the one that kind of, you just pull the tape when you box up the donuts and it seals it. And he was just acting like he belonged there. He was in my space where I worked uninvited. I remember he even grabbed one of the strawberry ice donuts that he loves so much with his hand from the display rack, stuffing it into his mouth with one hand, pretty much swallowing it whole, again, exaggerating. It was all kind of fun and games.

And excuse me. While I didn’t know exactly what to say, I did know that he was somewhere where he didn’t belong at that moment. So he took those long strips of tape, each one he pulled it out like a foot long. And he started lining them up against the top edge of the glass counter and they were just dangling like the streamers, the hang off, the olden day handlebars of a bicycle. At least they used to do that when I was little. And he just kept pulling those long strips of tape and lining them up on the counter. And I pretty much just watched kind of mesmerized, paralyzed, not quite sure, just not quite sure of what was going on.

And he walked himself backward, continuing to make himself at home. Actually pulled out a mug, poured himself a cup of coffee. He comes back, and I think he put some sugar in. Again, just as if it was a normal kind of thing. He returned to his task at hand with the tape. And he didn’t ask, he just reached out to me. He took both my hands in his, he lifted my arms, bending them at the elbows and positioned my hands in front of his chest almost as if he would be placing handcuffs around my wrist. And with one of his hands holding one out stretched of mine, he took those long strips of tape, sticky side up and he began wrapping them over and over my hands from the tips of my fingers to the base of my palms. So he didn’t give me a chance to ask what he was doing, but the look on my face must have been clear enough to ask the question.

And he said, “I need your help in getting rid of the evidence.” That’s what he said, he was smiling. He was kind of puffing up his chest when he said it. And that’s what he called it, the evidence. Now, I knew that Gunner had cats. He had told me our first meeting pretty much. And even if he hadn’t told me, I do remember the number of times he would come into the shop, he had cat here visible on his uniform. Anybody who was paying attention knew that he had cat hair that covered him. So again, in my mind, I’m like, “Okay, I guess whatever’s going on here is legit.” So I relaxed a little and Gunner said something like, he just needed a friend to help him brush off all the hair. He didn’t notice how bad it was until he got in there under the lights.

Actually, he may not have even said that. I think honestly that’s what I was kind of justifying in my head. But anyway, he pulled me up by my waist a little closer to him. And both my hands now were fully wrapped in the tape like mummies, sticky side up. And I just remember thinking, I should say something like the cat’s got my tongue, which is sounding stupid right now. But I just remember thinking, “Why can’t I say something?” Gunner placed my taped up hands palm side down onto his chest, and his hands were guiding mine. And he began to use me to stroke him. Now, it was the first time I’d ever had my hands on a guy’s chest, let alone anywhere else. Not even my papa or my brother had I ever touched anywhere near like this.

And it was the first time I had really even touched Gunner anywhere other than maybe his arm or something, even accidentally handing a cup of coffee or something. Now, he had always given me the jumblies please. And this again took it to a whole different level. And I remember him looking at me and just continuing to stroke his body with my hands. And he said, “This is what happens when you love your cats.” And then it dawns on me that the tape covering my hands is pulling up the fur. And so again, there’s that teeny bit of, “Okay, all alright, I get it. This is normal.” And then he said, “Thank you for helping me with my pussy problem.” Now, to be honest, I have no clue if back then I knew what that word meant, maybe I did. I really don’t know whether I did or didn’t.

I can’t even be certain that it would’ve mattered not for any other reason. I am not sure, honestly, that I was kind of putting two and two together and just equating all of this with me or the dance we were dancing. I don’t know. Honestly, looking back, I don’t know. So anyway, Gunner restrung the tape, he re-wrapped my hands. He pressed them and dragged them all over his chest, his arms, his thighs, his back, his buttocks. And I just let him. Once the tapes got full of cat hair, he just kept reapplying. And I just kept following his lead and stroking him all over, right there, right there in the donut shop.

So my hands were at his mercy, so was my mind, obviously. And honestly, he taught me how to stroke nearly every inch of his entire body under the guise of ridding him of cat here, clever. And honestly, I don’t even think it lasted that long, just long enough to do the job, long enough to actually plant seeds of seduction, desire and doubt. Kind of making this seem normal, but maybe it wasn’t. And then doubting that I thought that it wasn’t normal. So all that said, honestly, I was super excited over all of it. I do remember my hands pressing against him, the feel of his muscles, what I was actually touching. I remember all of that. I knew too that physically for me without me being touched, there were things going on in my own body. I could feel myself just kind of being swept up and totally out of control and having no clue what I was doing, but in so many ways on board with it.

So as the time went on and this game of sexual innuendo, flirting got more and more tangled up with this image of him as my protector, my friend, another father figure, all of that just kind of like swirled and got meshed up together. I felt more and more uneasy. It was just weird. And even when Gunner would come in and flirt with others, there was this whole pang of jealousy that came into it. So anyway, Gunner’s 40th birthday was coming up, excuse me. And the more he talked about it and the more he went on and on about what he wanted for his birthday. He would say, “I’m looking for something special,” for days leading up, “I want something special.” And the more he said that, the more kind of the fear started to take hold.

Now, joke of jokes we have, or we had a donut that we would call the today’s special. And as much as you want to think, “Okay, maybe he’s talking about a donut,” he’s not. So I thought to myself, “I need to be smart here and have a plan.” So like I said, I was clever. And I remembered Gunner just telling me how much he loved Fleetwood Mac. And so I thought, “Okay. Fleetwood Mac had just come out with an album called Tusk.” And I thought, “All right, I can afford that, I’ll buy that.” And then as the kind of funny something special, I thought I would give him that with a today’s special donut with a candle, ta-da, and I’m done. And then I went to a card shop and I was kind of like, “I need a card that says happy birthday and is platonic, brings everything back to earth to be honest, and divine inspiration.

I find this card and on the front it had this big fat, sugary, jelly filled donut. And the words on the front said, turning 40 is like a jelly donut. And then you open it, and the jelly donut, it’s got a bite taken out of it. And it’s oozing with jelly now, and there’s crumbs all around. And the inside of the card says the best part is in the middle. And I thought, “Excellent.” This is how to turn this from maybe a not so normal scenario that’s going on to something very, very normal. So I thought, “Here’s a message from God. I’m not going to be abandoned, he’s with me. This is going to go fine. I’m just going to give him the gift. Here’s your something special, and we’re done with it.”

I have a tickle in my throat. So I remember that he was coming in for his birthday. I thought, “Everything is going to be fine, I’ll even sing him happy birthday.” I’m not sure if I really believed everything was going to be fine. But anyway, he comes in that night. He immediately steps behind the counter, and again, we’re alone. And this time I was really afraid, just really afraid. And he did again what he had come to do, pulling the tape from the dispenser. His smile, his line as he would tape my hands up, help me solve my pussy problem kind of thing. And I remember that I was kind of like, “Wait, okay.” I had the images of Rocky in my head. I had the images of what this should be and feel like, and it didn’t. I was like, “Wait, okay, this is Gunner.” And then the more that I looked at him, the more I was like, “Wait, I’m seeing something else in this Gunner.” And I kept retreating, he kept advancing until I couldn’t back up any farther.

So I never told anyone what happened on that first night. And actually after Gunner left, after it was over, my father came in to come and collect me as normally would happen. And I waited for my dad to notice, notice me. Surely, he could see what had just happened, see that I was different, see something. And instead, my dad was so focused on what was going on with my mom and everything. He actually unknowingly added insult to injury because he had come up with a plan for us to commit my mom to a psych ward. She had gotten so bad and we needed an enforcer to trick her and tell her that he was there to help her, protect her from us. And so my dad decided that Gunner would be perfect for him. And he asked me, begged me to ask Gunner to help him commit our mom to the psych ward.

So at that point, any thought of telling my dad just immediately disappeared. Now, much later on, I tried to tell my brother. And I remember he responded with something like, “So what, the guy diddled you?” And immediately I dropped that conversation. I know neither meant anything. Silence is a choice, and sometimes it’s the only choice at the time. You don’t even realize what it is doing to you, but you do know or you assume what telling will end up doing. And that would’ve been a disaster.

So after a decade or more of therapy and another decade of writing my memoir, The S Word, I did put pen to paper and shared what happened with Gunner. And it’s funny because somewhere inside me ever since to this day, there still exists that shame, the blame, the thought that all along, hey, looking back, I kind of knew what was going on. I have to take some ownership here. The thought that it was my fault, at least in part. Now, I knew intellectually he was the adult, he’s 40 years old, I think at that time I was actually 14, and that it was wrong. But that didn’t stop me from watching him flirt with others even afterward and get jealous and then wishing he would come back to me for more. It was kind of crazy.

And the reason I’m talking about this now is I felt compelled to do this podcast because everything I have been feeling related to this experience in my life is everything that the two men who were sexually abused as young boys by Michael Jackson also felt and experienced. In that Leaving Neverland documentary, I saw and heard their stories of how this larger than life figure manipulated and seduced and played on their emotions to the point of making these children complicit and willing participants in adult sex acts. I saw how the shame of it and the secret impacted their lives. Now, I’ve said it before, silence suffocates me, suffocates everybody. My book, The S Word: A Memoir About Secrets that’s what I tackle because we kept everything secret, my mother’s schizophrenia, even the Sicilian kind of code, the cosa nostra.

And all of this that went on, the sexual awareness, my mother thinking I was promiscuous when I wasn’t. Yet here there’s this entire sexual abuse kind of happening, which it’s very difficult for me to even use the terms sexual abuse because of how it came to play. So anyway, I say this because madness, which Madness to Magic, this podcast, it comes in many forms. And I think what makes it so maddening and so shameful is that there is no cookie cutter label or identifier. There is no one thing that’s going on at any time. There is no, you’re all evil or you’re all good to watch out for. There is no specific look for the predator, be it sexual or otherwise. There is no specific look for someone who does have crazy voices going on in their head. From the outside looking in, could look great.

Look at the number of people recently who have committed suicide, Kate Spade, Anthony Bourdain. From the outside looking in, Robin Williams, for God’s sakes. Everything’s humor and laughter and success and parties and Facebook posts, and you just don’t know. And back then, even more so because there wasn’t Facebook or the internet or anything like that. So I realize all of this, and yet constantly we’re chastising ourselves. I know I did because we should know better. We chastise others, why didn’t your mom protect you? There were questions about that in the Leaving Neverland documentary about the moms. When my book came out, people said, “Gosh, you guys really, what were you doing? Some of the stuff was so stupid, and your dad, he didn’t protect her,” et cetera.

Well, that’s great. We blame others when we haven’t walked in their shoes. We assume we know what we would do if we did. And the truth is you don’t, you don’t know because you don’t even realize it’s going on while it’s going on. This whole thing with Gunner really as it was going on it, what it really was, how it was going to impact me. It didn’t register, it didn’t register. I was so confused over authority figure, father figure, friend, mentor, and then this whole other sexual side. And honestly because I was a 13, 14-year-old who was behaving more adult like, a job at that point when I shouldn’t have even had it. And then all the responsibilities at home with immigrant parents and just with my mom’s crazy. I already was acting, behaving older, I had adult tendencies. So anyway, I guess I’ve said all this. One, I felt moved to talk about it. Two, I realized from Leaving Neverland that we can love and hate the very same people at the very same time.

Likewise, we can be love and we can be hate at the very same time. We can’t control the external forces that come our way. That is a given good, bad, ugly, we just can’t. All we can do is learn to navigate the madness and to care for ourselves and be compassionate for ourselves and for others because we don’t know what they’re going through while it’s happening. And what I find really helpful is sharing our stories with others in the hopes of sparking the little bit of magic that can be found, the lessons that can be learned because it’s there. I know it is, I’ve seen it with my own book. I now see it with Leaving Neverland, and I hope you all see it with this podcast too. So leave me a comment if you like, and hope you are well.

Thanks so much for listening to Madness to Magic. In my podcast, I’m with crazy, a love story. I believe we’re all here for a purpose, and I know that this is part of mine. Please share this with anyone you think might benefit or might even have a story of their own to share. You also can visit me at or check out more of my stories, including info on my book, The S Word at I hope to hear from you and to join forces with what I consider a unique caregiver tribe as we all learned to embrace all of ourselves. To have compassion for others, and to come into our full power by the grace that is both madness and magic. Until we meet again, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite mantras. Be bold and mighty forces shall come to your aid. Thank you.

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