A year ago, we learned that Luke Heimlich, a star pitcher for the Oregon State Beavers, was convicted of sexually molesting his 6-year-old niece when he was a teenager. He confessed, was placed on probation, sent to counseling, and was required to register for five years as a sex offender. He did everything that the state of Washington required of him, and none of what it did not, including notifying his team of the crime, until the news was leaked through a bureaucratic error. Then early last month, he sat down for a series of interviews with the New York Times. Now 22, he wants to clear the air because he wants to play in the majors.
He told the Times that he is innocent; he only pleaded guilty to protect his family. He couldn’t comment on the specifics of the incident, because there was no incident. “Nothing ever happened,” he said. Heimlich is widely considered a top-100 draft prospect. Rumors have it that he’ll be selected somewhere today, the second day of the draft. Attorney Sheryl Ring recently explained the legal status of his case, showing us how, from a legal standpoint, Heimlich cannot now re-litigate his case.
He decided to do just that, however. When he sat down with the New York Times, he tossed his case into the court of public opinion. There it lives, with people only too glad to accept the challenge and conjecture. Just read the comments on Ring’s post. Or don’t. I tried but I couldn’t get far. I longed to see evidence of an overwhelming public commitment to protect the victim, but I didn’t. It’s all about Heimlich; is he guilty, is he innocent, should he pitch, how well could he pitch …
Do we only care about little girls until we want to win baseball games?
I, too, am a victim of childhood sexual abuse. I generally stay private about it; it’s not a trauma I want to revisit. But there’s something about the Heimlich case that is pushing me to open up. I am aware that players are human beings, which means that inescapably, some portion of them are victimizers. Some are victims. Some are both. Sometimes I know the details. I’ve seen more than one player receive convictions or suspensions for terrible crimes. But to my knowledge, there are no other felony sex offenders attempting to reverse their convictions in the New York Times before they are even drafted. If the team I rooted for drafted Heimlich, the statement would be clear: winning is more important than the safety of children, the pain of survivors, or the people who help them carry on. It will reopen one of the oldest wounds that survivors bear. No one cares about you.
On the weekend that the Times was in town, Heimlich took the mound against Arizona State. The reporter witnessed nearly 3,000 fans standing to cheer his name. How are survivors supposed to react when they see that? It makes me anxious.
We pay for what our abusers did. We spend our lives paying for it. Most of us stay silent, but Heimlich’s niece told her parents what happened. Her father, Heimlich’s brother, called the police, but most members of the large family sided with Heimlich. They shamed and marginalized an innocent 6-year-old girl. By disbelieving her, they abandoned her. Ultimately, her parents divorced.
What if she blames herself for that? I endured a lot because I believed that if I didn’t, my parents would divorce. It never occurred to me that if they had, it would not have been my fault. It never occurred to me that I was innocent. Survivors need to hear that we are innocent, that we did nothing wrong, that we were not to blame, that we are not liars, that we matter, that we are loved. I’m quite a bit older than six, and I still need to hear those things. I need them to be frequently reinforced. The legacy of self-loathing that accompanies sexual abuse is very powerful stuff, and we are endangered when abusers are showered with praise.
We’re endangered anyway. Sometimes we think that we will never be safe or secure. Compare the case of Luke Heimlich to that of Junot Díaz. In his now-infamous personal essay “The Silence,” published in the April issue of The New Yorker, Díaz confessed to his own experience of sexual abuse. Raped at eight years old, Díaz achingly describes the wounds his rapist inflicted. “I can say, truly,” he writes, “que casi me destruyó.”
None of the details are the same as mine, but the suffering that Díaz describes is, in a word, mine. Childhood sexual trauma, whatever the form, leaves the same mark. It imprints itself upon you, forcibly becomes part of who you are. It steals your life.
Díaz addresses his essay to someone he calls “X,” a young man who attended a book reading several years ago. X needed someone to see his pain and thought Díaz could do it. Quietly, he asked, “Did it happen to you?” But Díaz couldn’t cope. He responded with what he calls “evasive bullshit.” Now he’s burdened with regret as he remembers. “I wish I’d told you the truth then,” he writes. “You looked abandoned … I never really did forget how you walked out of the auditorium with your shoulders hunched.”
The image of that abandoned young man pierces me. The most crippling legacy of childhood sexual trauma is not the depression that eats your days, weeks, and years. It’s not the self-loathing, the confusion, the fear of love, or even the suicidal ideations. The oldest, deepest root in an abuse survivor is the fear of abandonment. It is the root that will not wither.
It has so much control of us that we remain silent. We never share our stories, for fear that it will drive those around us even further away. Instead, we live as if already buried—provided we live. We become amnesiac, acting out of our pain, cutting, drugging, drinking, and destroying. We shrink from intimacy. We can’t figure out how to navigate the terror.
Sometimes, we perpetuate our abuse. We abuse others. The reactions to Díaz’s painful confessional reveal him to be a survivor who harmed both himself and others. He forced himself on women, casually dismissed them, and verbally abused them, violating their personal space, their trust, and their hearts. We aspire to hold people responsible for their actions, and in Díaz’s case, we are doing that.
But it’s confusing. In the midst of the revelations of his own violations, for which he must be held to account, I am afraid. Díaz openly acknowledges that his rape turned him into an abuser. He publicly accepts his responsibility for his wrongs. The public response has not been warm. Meanwhile, Heimlich represents the opposite. He is a convicted abuser who denies his wrongs. And thousands cheer for him, because unlike Díaz, whose job is to reflect us through art, Heimlich’s identity is almost inconsequential. His purpose is to win baseball games. How can I weave these two realities together without being shoved into fearful silence?
I think back to X, shoulders hunched, looking abandoned. I long to hug him and tell him it will be okay. He could be any one of us, molested, raped, or sodomized as children, now struggling with the consequences. We are uncounted because we are too ashamed to speak. Instead we act out in self-loathing and despair. Some rage, transmitting their abuse by verbally and even physically abusing others, lovers, spouses, their own children. Others break the chain, but turn the knife inward. We self-abuse and we enter abusive relationships. How many of us are addicts? How many of us are suicides? How can we know, since survivors are too ashamed to speak?
Childhood trauma launches a cycle of trauma, whether that is ongoing self-abuse or the abuse of others. The harm that is done is permanent. However, the cycles can be broken and they need to be. We need to create an environment to make that possible. Forgiveness is closure and peace, and survivors need that. We’ve been hurt enough. We should not have to live out our lives, broken and unredeemed.
We can’t expect victims to extend grace to their victimizers, or watch others cheer them on toward their own glory. No one has to forgive Díaz for what he did to them. Díaz does not have to forgive his rapist. Heimlich’s niece does not have to forgive her family or the thousands who cheer him at baseball games. She doesn’t have to forgive her ex-uncle Luke. The whole ugly web of abuse is simply unforgivable, all of it, the abuse, its legacy, the pain that divides us.
From the very center of our pain, we have one, terrifying hope. Tell the truth. We have to tell our stories, and to be able to tell our stories.
The reactions to Heimlich and Díaz are chilling, as are the reactions to any number of people who have dared speak out against popular and important figures. But we have to muster the strength to tell the truth. We have to help people understand the reality of what it means to live as a survivor and to struggle to reclaim our lives. We have to tell our stories if we are going to fully feel our humanness. We have to tell our stories in order to protect others. We have to start confessing, whatever truths our stories contain, so that we and others may live. Survivors can undo the cycle.
But at what price? Must we watch as young pitchers are cheered by adoring fans? Must we watch the fall from grace of a once widely-adored writer after he tells his—our—story? Will we be abandoned all over again?
These are the risks we take. It could be worth it. When Heimlich’s story became public last year, a nasty local discourse erupted—inevitable when sports is involved—but in the midst of it, there was also healthy discussion about childhood sexual trauma. In an opinion piece for The Oregonian, John Canzano wrote:
On my radio show on Friday, we took calls from a mostly male audience that defended the victim. I was moved by the discourse. It was authentic, charged in the right direction and included some powerful moments from callers. Some called in to share their stories of abuse. Others, their anger … Listen here if you’d like.
He also wrote:
Justin Myers, my colleague and friend at 102.9-FM and 750-AM, hosts a brand new show with DeVon Pouncey weekdays 9am-noon. They’ve only been on air for five days, but Myers delivered a haymaker on Friday. He spoke openly about his own repeated abuse at age 5 in what was a powerful segment of radio. There are no winners in this story. But one of the things that has come from it is the sharing of stories such as this.
There are no winners, this is true. It took some time, but I finally found a capable and caring professional to help me. One of the hardest sessions we ever had was the one in which he had to tell me that the damage done cannot be undone. We can layer joy into my life, quite a lot of it in fact, but the abuse made me. Not a day will go by, not one, when I won’t have to wisely and intentionally act to make sure that I am going to be okay. Just for that day.
This is so much easier when we don’t have to do it alone. That’s why we have to speak up. We need people talking, sharing, and hopefully, connecting. This is how we care for ourselves and restore some life to what was lost. It’s how we protect others. It’s how we transform the strangely opposed realities of the Heimlich and Díaz cases into a rational, powerful discourse about protecting children in peril, and prevent those cases from multiplying.
And it’s also why the simple act of accepting Heimlich into the membership of baseball, into the caste of people whose talents we root for and whose successes we celebrate, abandons those of us who have suffered in the way that Heimlich’s victim has. Baseball struggles with the concept of ethics between the white lines: the occasional matter is decided by unwritten rules, and the rest are referred to the written ones. Beyond that, winning is everything, and fans are carried along by that same momentum.
But winning is not everything. We’d really like the world to be black and white, especially when it comes to morality, but it’s not. We are complicated, messy creatures. If we can take each other in, with empathy and caring, then maybe healing can finally begin.