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Advice Columnist Couldn't Reveal His Secret ... Until Now


Now we go behind closed doors. That's the part of the program where we talk about issues that people often keep private. Our guest today is used to dealing with sensitive issues. Steven Petrow is an advice and etiquette columnist who's just moved his column from the New York Times to the Washington Post.

For some time now in columns, he's been helping readers navigate sticky situations, especially involving LGBT friends and relatives - things like whether to be alarmed over a gay son's much older boyfriend or how seriously to take an older relative's anti-gay rants. But recently, Petrow decided to let his readers help him deal with a secret he has held tight for 50 years. He'd been molested as a child. He recently told his story in a piece titled "The Truth Is, Some Secrets Must Be Told." And Steven Petrow joins us now to tell us more.

STEVEN PETROW: Nice to be with you, Michel.

MARTIN: What do you think made this the right time to write this now?

PETROW: I was writing an essay about a cancer I had had a while ago, and I picked up a novel and was reading that concurrently. And there was a line in this novel that said from the protagonists, if I can't ever tell anyone the true story, then no one will ever know me. And that line really kind of hung with me. And the reason it did was because I've talked about a lot of things in my life in other essays - about having cancer, about my relationships, anxiety - but I had never talked about being molested. It had been a secret. I had been in that closet, and it just seemed like it was time to dethrone that tyrant and see what happened.

MARTIN: How is it now talking about this with me? I mean, sometimes it's one thing to write something down. And I know that writing it down itself took some courage. But how is it talking about it?

PETROW: Part of my impetus, probably a large part, was to raise my hand and to say I had been a victim of sexual molestation as a way to help others find their own voice. And it's been very gratifying and very painful to me to read the stories that have come my way. But I hope that the telling of my story will help others, especially will help men who I think have even more difficulty in some ways talking about these kinds of issues. And it's not a topic that is often talked about with men. So it's been a good week, Michel.

MARTIN: For those who haven't read the piece yet - and I hope that people will - would you just briefly tell us what happened in as few or many words as you feel are appropriate? And I don't want to lead you where you don't want to go. So just tell me...


MARTIN: Tell me what you feel like telling me about what happened.

PETROW: And the story is really about the process of coming out about this and telling my story less so about what actually, you know, happened when I was 8. And I think that the reason I did it this way was I thought everyone who is going down this path, you know, has their own road. And I wanted to set a little bit of a roadmap and also show some of the blocks that I had along the way.

You know, it was very early on, maybe when I was 32, that I told a close friend of mine this news. And she confided in me that she had had a similar experience. And we were the only two who knew each other's secret. And then for reasons not related to this, she committed suicide. And so I was alone. And then after that I told a lover who betrayed me by trying to blackmail me into getting back with him with this secret and threatening to tell my entire family. And actually, Michel, he sent a postcard to my office calling for a meeting of sexual abuse survivors at my apartment in the West Village in New York.

So I definitely had some road bumps along the way. But at the same time, after that, I started talking to some close friends who had turned out I could trust to others who had been molested and going to therapy. And all of these things eventually helped me to get to the point where I was ready to talk about what happened - what my grandfather did to me when I was 8 years old.

MARTIN: You know, I have to say - and I think that some of the people listening to our conversation, particularly people who know your work, will be so surprised by this because they know you as a person who is willing to share things about your personal life when you think that they will be helpful but also a person who has advocated for other people and has been very comforting to other people when things like this have happened to them. And you've said to other people - you know, friends, readers, you know, listeners - to say look, you have nothing to be ashamed of. Let it go. Get the help that you need to make it right.

And you even talk about having sought professional help, but you couldn't even bring yourself to tell your therapist what happened. And I just have to ask, why do you think that is?

PETROW: I had so much shame, to be honest. And even going to a therapist and sitting in that chair, you know, one of the first questions they always ask you is why are you here? You've picked up the phone. You're going to pay the money. And I went to several sessions where I just wasn't able to say the words. So I had to write the doctor a note that I then read during that session and that opened the door for me and allowed me to sort of get over that big bump.

MARTIN: Now, I have to ask a difficult question. And the reason I'm asking is that I'm feeling that other people are probably having this question themselves. There are people who draw a direct line between being molested and being gay. They think either you were molested because you were gay or that you are gay because you were molested. And I have to ask whether you think that concern about that thought process is part of what kept this hidden.

PETROW: I appreciate the question, first of all. And I guess let me try to answer it this way. When this happened, I was 8 years old. I was a little boy. I was a nonsexual little boy who was a towhead and could barely write in cursive.

I don't think what happened had anything to do with my sexual orientation. I think that pedophilia is a very - well, I know that pedophilia is a very different - it's a mental condition. Homosexuality is no longer a mental condition as it was actually back in that day. And that it's not a choice. It's not a result of what happens to you. It's, you know, it's who you are.

I was born that way - the gay way. But I understand that there's, you know - there's confusion and sometimes people make - mistakenly make the link between a pedophile, like my grandfather, and gay folks. They're really very different as I know you know.

MARTIN: But that's my question is that you think that's part of the shame factor. I mean, one of the things you wrote about in your piece is that you had a friend who - and you didn't identify who molested her - but we know for a fact that women can be molested by other women and we know that young boys - boys as young as you were have also been molested by older women, right? So it's not necessarily a same-sex phenomenon. But I know that there are people who think that it is.

And so it just makes me wonder whether part of the shame factor in keeping this hidden is that because you're a public figure, in part, you don't want to play into a narrative that you know some people have. And it feel - it's almost like a loyalty piece. Do you see what I'm asking? Do you think that's part of it?

PETROW: I do. And, you know, it's interesting. My friend Julie who did take her own life, she had been molested by her grandmother at an early age, and she was quite heterosexual through her life. I did want to go back to, you know, something else that you brought up which was for years, I had been putting myself in my stories and often trying to use my life history as a bridge in my work.

And that's why I've written about having had cancer. That's why I've written about having an anxiety disorder. I had never brought this into any story because of the shame and because I wasn't ready because I was afraid. And I have to say, I think I was probably more afraid than I was shamed as time went on.

MARTIN: What do you think you were most afraid of?

PETROW: I think, Michel, that what I was afraid of was that people wouldn't love me. And that that came from a place of not being able to fully love myself while I lived in that dark place. You know, in the story I talk about a dream. And in the dream I'm in a classroom. I'm about the same age that I was at the time. And my grandfather comes into the classroom and is looking for me. And I go with him without saying anything. And then he's looking for another, quote-unquote, "victim" who is my friend - you know how people wind up in your dreams. My friend Charlotte (ph) all of a sudden she's in my dream, and she says to him, no, I'm not going to go with you. And so there was the shame in that.

But it was interesting. When Charlotte read that, she said, you know, in our dreams each character is a manifestation of the dreamer and that that was really another you saying no, which was comforting to me in a way that I had never looked at that story or that dream and had worried about that dream a lot over the years.

MARTIN: Is there something that the people who love you could have done differently to make this easier for you so that you didn't have to carry this around so long by yourself?

PETROW: Looking back, yes. I wish I might have been able to do this earlier, but that's not a fruitful conversation for me. I'm glad that I'm at this point in my - you know, in my journey and looking forward to, you know, the road ahead where I'm hoping that this secret will dissolve and continue to dissolve by putting the light on it, by talking about it, by not living in this dark closet any longer.

MARTIN: Steven Petrow is an etiquette columnist. He focuses on LGBT issues in his column "Civilities" for the Washington Post. He's the author of several books including "Steven Petrow's Complete Gay And Lesbian Manners."

The piece that we are talking about ran in the Washington Post on the Tuesday, April 29th editions. But it is available now online. And he was kind enough to join us from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Steven Petrow, thank you so much for speaking with us. Thank you for writing this piece.

PETROW: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.