“I am not convinced the truth can make men free, but I believe it a beginning,” wrote poet Rod McKuen a decade ago. The forum for McKuen’s own verities has long been his autobiographical verse and bittersweet ballads, which translate his deeply personal reflections on love, loss and vulnerability into immensely popular collections of poetry Stanyon Street & Other Sorrows, Listen to the Warm,) and ballads (The World I Used to Know). One experience of his early life, however, remained unspoken. Recently, addressing the National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse, McKuen, 49, disclosed for the first time his own ordeal as a sexually abused child. Growing up in Oakland, Calif., he was also battered by his stepfather, an itinerant construction worker. McKuen has never married, although he acknowledges two children, Jean Marc, 20, and Marie-France, 16, born out of wedlock in Paris. He talked with PEOPLE correspondent Clare Crawford-Mason about a boyhood trauma he shares with an estimated half million American children who are sexually molested each year.
The fact that my stepfather had beaten me up when I was a kid wasn’t hard for me to talk or write about. I had both arms broken and my ribs caved in several times, but physical injuries on the outside heal. Before now, though, I have never been able to come forward and talk about having been sexually abused when I was a child. Those scars have never healed, and I expect they never will.
My aunt, who was my stepfather’s sister, was baby-sitting with me when I was 7. She began to sort of fondle me, and I said, “Don’t do that. I don’t like that.” She said, “I love you. I’m your aunt.” I said, “I know, but don’t do that,” and I finally started getting a little bit hysterical and started screaming. I remember it really vividly, and she stopped and left before my mother got home.
Then about two weeks later my uncle, her husband, took me on a hunting trip near Hoover Dam, and I was really looking forward to it. We got into his pickup truck, and off we went with sleeping bags and everything. I liked him a lot because he told me really good stories, and he was always fun to be with. I loved it when he’d come over to the house and hug me and carry me on his shoulders and take me for walks.
We sat by the campfire until about 10 or 11 o’clock and talked. Finally I got in my sleeping bag, and he got in his. Then he said, “Rodney”—at that time everybody called me Rodney, which I hate—”are you asleep?” I said, “No, I’m not. I don’t know why.” He said, “I’m not either.” We were out in the wilds, and it was a little scary, because there were a lot of animals and night sounds I was unfamiliar with. He said, “I bet you’re scared.” I said, “Oh, a little bit, I guess.” He said, “Why don’t you just come over and get in my sleeping bag?” I said, “Yes, that’s probably a good idea, great.” So I got into his sleeping bag and we each talked. We were very close, of course. That closeness didn’t bother me at all, because this was somebody I loved and trusted.
And then things started happening. He ended up raping me. It was painful, but worse than the pain was the fact that it was happening. All the good things and all the wonderful times we had had together were gone, and I kept thinking to myself, “What did I do to make him turn against me, to make him hate me so much that he would do this to me?” I had already been wondering about my aunt.
I didn’t cry until I got back to my own sleeping bag. He had been satisfied and was just as glad to get rid of me. He certainly didn’t want to wake up with a child whom he had sodomized. In the morning I couldn’t look at him. Then I started getting really mad. I said, “Listen, your wife did something like this too. I’m not going to tell my mother about this, but if you even look at me again, if you come near me again, if you do anything at all, I’m not only going to tell my mother, I’m going to run down the street and tell everybody on the block.” Something told me this was a time for blackmail.
I only saw them a couple of times afterward, and anytime there was a danger of their names coming up, I always found a way to change the subject. But I thought about what happened almost every day until I was in my 30s. All my life I have felt that somehow I did something, that I was asking to be touched, to be victimized, that I must have done something to bring it on. I don’t know how to get rid of that feeling. It doesn’t go away, mainly because you can’t share it. You don’t want to tell anybody because you’re afraid people will think even less of you than you think of yourself.
I am sure that is why I was so confused about my sexual identity. I was frightened by sex, and it wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I had my first satisfactory sexual experience. Also, I’ve always had an inferiority complex, and that childhood incident was one of the things that intensified it, for sure. I think that’s one of the reasons I’ve always worked and never taken vacations. I’m always trying to be as good as everybody else.
Eventually I started to have dreams. I’d find myself getting out of that sleeping bag and going to the edge of a cliff and getting ready to jump off. I started taking sleeping pills, and I knew that people could get hooked on sleeping pills. I was in my 30s. I was sure there was something wrong with me. At about that time I had great commercial success. I stopped the pills and the dreams went away.
I’ve gotten some help now from talking to the people at the sexual abuse meeting. There were 600 people there, all professionals, and I didn’t realize until later that some of them were victims too. I was so emotional because I still wasn’t sure that I hadn’t brought the child abuse on myself. I got the courage to tell about it after I telephoned my children, and they said to go ahead. Now, since I told my story, I’m beginning to believe there was nothing I could have done.
The weeks after I told of the rape were awful. I was on tour for the Child Abuse Committee, and each time I retold the story I felt it more vividly. I had to stop the tour and come home. Now I’m dealing with it better. I have resumed my speeches and am even heading back on the concert trail. Now I am not afraid of anything or anybody.
My advice to a young person who is being sexually intimidated is to tell somebody immediately. If it’s your father or mother, tell the other parent. If they don’t believe you, tell your brother or sister, if you have one. If they don’t believe you and you go to church, tell your minister, tell anybody you trust. As a last resort, go to the police, but tell somebody. Children are warned not to accept sweets from strangers, but nobody warns little sister about Daddy. When I was growing up, incest was considered a joke, something that happened in the Appalachians. Well, it’s happening next door and in the next room. It’s just that nobody ever talks about it.
We need sex education in schools, but we need it at home first. We need parents to learn the names of the teachers who are teaching their children. We need families to question day-care centers, to question other children and their own as to what goes on. We need to stop and think before we do anything in front of the child that may cause that child irreparable harm.
My advice to adults who are sexually abusing a child, or are tempted to, is to seek out help. You are taking away things from your children before they even receive them, and they may never have a feeling of self-respect or self-worth. The best prevention I can think of is for everyone who cares about the human condition to get involved. I think we all have an obligation to make children our business whether they’re our own or not.