Surviving Childhood Sexual Abuse
FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
I'm Farai Chideya and this is NEWS & NOTES.
Continuing this month's Sex and Sexuality series, we've got a special conversation on protecting children's bodies. We're talking about child sexual abuse, and we're talking with a man who has walked that stony road. Dominic Carter is an anchor and reporter for New York One, an award-winning cable channel that covers New York City and its environs. He's also a survivor of child sexual abuse by his mother. He's recently released a memoir titled "No Momma's Boy: How I Let Go of My Past and Embraced the Future."
Dominic, I'm so glad to have you on.
Mr. DOMINIC CARTER (Author, "No Momma's Boy: How I Let Go of My Past and Embraced the Future"): Farai, I have to tell you that it's good to be here. And I have achieved many things in my career as a journalist, but it's an honor to appear with you. And I hope that the listening audience can really appreciate how fortunate we are to have a person like you hosting this program.
CHIDEYA: You are so sweet. You're so sweet.
Mr. CARTER: Well, it's the truth. It's the truth.
CHIDEYA: Well, back at you, man. I really appreciate - I miss New York One, because I'm now out on the west side, so I miss it. And I always enjoy seeing you. But anyway, to move on to the topic of your book, I just want to say that it took so much courage - I can't imagine - to write this book.
But there's a moment early on in the book where you ask your mother - her name is Laverne - Laverne, why did you do that to me? And I want to know, first of all, what were you referring to?
Mr. CARTER: What I was referring to specifically is a lifelong secret. And the fact, Farai, after it happened was almost worse than what actually did occur, because it stays in the back of your mind your entire life. And what I was asking her is, why did she find the need to sexually abuse me? And out of respect for your audience, I won't go into the full detail of what she did. But she suffered from mental illness. In fairness to her, she was on severe psychiatric medication. And at the age of seven, she instructed me to come to her bed when she was in the bed naked and told me to take my pajamas off. A little child, seven years ago old, you do exactly what mommy tells you to do. And that's what happened in my case.
CHIDEYA: The details, which you are not going into, are very graphic. And this was not something that was just, you know, just a touch. This was intense. And you said that what happened after you asked the question was in some ways as bad or worse. What do you mean what happened after you asked the question?
Mr. CARTER: When something like this happens, it stays, and - her only response to me, it took me years to confront her - and her only response was, boy, leave me alone with that. And for years I agonized, Farai, from age seven to my teenage years. And I listened to the last panel. They were very insightful in terms of communicating with young kids and so on. And that's exactly what you need to do. There has to be an open dialogue.
But at the age of 12, when my friends were talking about possibly dating young ladies and so on, I knew that I had this dirty little secret and it involved the strongest bond that one could imagine, the bond between mother and child. And so I go from - you know, I only met my dad once or twice in my life, grew up poor in New York City, but I was fortunate enough to go to college and get an education and make it as a journalist.
And so as I'm making it as a journalist - I'm traveling to the White House, traveling around the world - I still have in the back of my mind this secret, and that's what I mean by this great agony that I lived in. And what happened in my case is I just decided one day I didn't want to hide anymore. And I feel free for the first time in my entire life.
CHIDEYA: I want to loop back to that freedom. But your mother - you found out, you got documentation that your mother tried to kill you. And you also found out or - I mean, yeah, found out I guess is the term - about what happened when she dated a man named Eddie. Tell me what happened between Eddie and your mother, and to the children.
Mr. CARTER: Well, Eddie was a very abusive-type man who ended up doing five years in prison for some type of inappropriate contact with my sisters. So the cycle continued. And to this day I still don't know exactly what he did because my sisters - when you're the victim of sexual abuse, sometimes you feel as if it's only you against the entire world and you don't feel comfortable talking to many people.
So, for example, my situation - the therapist, she may - if she's listening to you right now, she's finding out - the therapist that I went to for the first time in her life - that I was sexually abused by my mother. I was so embarrassed by it. I never discussed it with her. But as far as my sisters, this man who was my mother's boyfriend started inappropriately touching them. That's as far as I know. But he also ended up doing five years in prison, so it just repeated itself all over again.
CHIDEYA: And you write about going up there and kind of handling some family business. Do you - tell us what you did, and do you regret how you handle it?
Mr. CARTER: Well, in the situation as it relates to my sisters, again, you know, so here it is, I'm a journalist and I've made it in the number one market in the world. The New York Times is writing that I'm the most important black journalist in New York.
And, you know, I'm reaching these milestones in terms of my career. I'm interviewing Nelson Mandela, I'm doing on and on and on, Farai, and yet I always felt like the projects of New York City were pulling me back to the projects in terms of what was going on with my mother. And, you know, I would be on television, and I'm Dominic Carter on television, and at 3:00 in the morning I would be in my office crying like a baby almost as if I was a child, that seven-year-old kid wondering why this had to happen.
So you asked about the situation with this man, I did take matters into my hand. One day I got off the television, took of my tie, and did what - I'm not saying it's right, and I regret it - and it got very physical between me and him because I went and beat him up with my suit on. But what I just want to point out - because I know time is short - what I found out in the year 2001 was even more of a shock than what already occurred in my life.
It was when I started researching my mother's life as a journalist. I already knew growing up that she suffered from mental illness, but I didn't know the full extent of it, Farai. And in 2001, I started researching hospitals all across this country and documents started coming back from facilities in Georgia, where my mother was a teenager. When she should have been going to the prom, she was instead in straitjackets and receiving electrical shock treatment.
And in those documents in 2001 I found out as a grown man reading this for the first time that when I was two years old - now these are not my words, not her words, these are the words of experts in medical records - she attempted to strangle me to death, and the only thing that stopped her was when I woke up in tears and some neighbors heard her and called the authorities. And she was locked up in a psychiatric ward for that. Until recently, I didn't even know what paranoid schizophrenia was. And when I was two, she also heard voices telling her to throw me out of a window.
And so I learned all these things - I knew about the sexual abuse - but I learned all these things just a short, what, seven years, six years ago.
CHIDEYA: I want to do two last things before we let you go, because we could talk all day about this. One is that you have a dedication in your book, and you thank your grandmother and your aunt who were so instrumental in raising you to be a successful man. And you say, and finally, to my mother Laverne Carter, after all these years I have forgiven you. May you rest in peace. What does that forgiveness mean to you?
Mr. CARTER: Well, one has to understand that for years - and I can deal with this now - for years, I hated my mother for what she did to me. The bond between mother and child, there is no stronger bond. I'm not saying that this is right, Farai. But dads come and go - I'm not saying it's right - but dads come and go all the time. There is no stronger bond between mother and child, and my mother broke that bond and I greatly resented her all my life.
And it was only after I've - she never shared with me that she had been in psychiatric institutions all across America. It was only after I received those medical records after she was already gone. So I say to people, one, get help if you're being abused. Two, be careful with your relationships in terms of, you know, anger. If you're angry at some person, try and work it out. Because when my mother left me, I didn't speak to her. I refused it when she died. I refused to take her telephone call, and a month later she had deceased. And so I was just angry with her for all that had existed in my life, but I can say this: I had to forgive my mother, Laverne Carter, so that I could finally start the process of healing myself. And today, for the first time in my life at the age of 43, for all that I've done, I'm finally free in my life.
CHIDEYA: We are really closing in on time, but I can't let you go without talking about your family. You have a loving wife, you have two teenage kids, young man, young woman. How did you teach them to be safe in their bodies?
Mr. CARTER: Well, and this is one of the things that I touch on in the book. And as you might imagine, sexual abuse is something that's very, very, very sensitive to me. From a very young age, toddler on, listening to the last panel, I taught them starting with my daughter. I would say, well, point me, where can nobody touch you? And I'd point to her chest area. And I would say teachers, because it's people that gain kids' trust that violate them, and that could be anyone.
And then I'd point to her private area, and she'd point there; and then I'd point to her rear and she - I did this with my daughter and my son, and I did this up until - she's now a sophomore up at Syracuse University. I did this up until when she was probably a sophomore in high school. But I'm very serious about it. And when the kids would joke and think it was a game, I would get very serious and say, no, kids, this is very serious. If anyone ever touches you here, you have to tell mom and dad right away.
CHIDEYA: Well, on that note, Dominic, thanks for sharing from the heart.
Mr. CARTER: Thank you so much. And please keep doing what you're doing because we need you.
CHIDEYA: Oh, you bet I will. You take care. That's New York One anchor and reporter Dominic Carter. He's the author of "No Momma's Boy: How I Let Go of My Past and Embraced the Future." He joined us from NPR's New York studios.
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