THE STORIES ARE CHILLING. TASHA, 15, ABUSED BY A BROTHER WHO probed her genitals with pencils and broomsticks, turns abuser herself, raping a 7-year-old boy. Jill, now 52, once choked to the point of unconsciousness by her father in a dispute over a pork chop, is enraged when her two sons scatter potato chips on her newly cleaned floor. She hurls a curtain rod at her 3-year-old with such force that it pierces his eye and penetrates his brain, killing him.
Those made queasy by the mere outlines of these accounts might still want to turn their TVs on between 10 and 11 P.M. ET on Sept. 4, when—in an unprecedented coup for a prime-time, nonnews show—CBS, NBC and PBS will simulcast Scared Silent: Exposing and Ending Child Abuse, a documentary in which both victims and perpetrators tell their stories. (ABC will air the program at 10 PM.ET on Sept.6.)
The show’s host, who introduces each segment, adds her own story: “I’m Oprah Winfrey, and like millions of other Americans, I’m a survivor of child abuse. I was only 9 years old when I was raped by my 19-year-old cousin. He was the first of three family members to sexually molest me.”
It was in 1985 that Winfrey, now 38, first went public with this trauma while interviewing a guest on her talk show who was emotionally describing her own sexual molestation. Winfrey cried, then spoke of the horror she had concealed for more than 20 years. “I wanted to say, ‘I understand,’ ” she recalls. ” The same thing happened to me.’ I hadn’t planned to say it. It just came out.” Since that day, she has been approached by scores of strangers who whisper, “Can I speak to you?” before confiding their own stories of abuse.
In February 1991, Winfrey turned from private confessor to public crusader after hearing about the murder of Angelica Mena, a 4-year-old Chicago girl who had been molested, strangled and thrown into Lake Michigan by a convicted child molester who lived next door. She hired James Thompson, a former Illinois governor. to help her draft legislation that would create a national data bank of convicted child abusers, allowing child-care organizations to check on the background of prospective employees, and last November testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. “This is not Geraldo Rivera,” says an impressed Sen. Joseph Bi-den, the Delaware Democrat who chairs the committee. “This is something Winfrey does from the heart.”
The bill sailed through the committee, but sank in Congress when it became part of a crime package that included the “Brady Bill” gun-control proposal, bitterly opposed by the powerful National Rifle Association. Winfrey takes little comfort in the legislation’s having “almost” passed. “Almost,” she says, “doesn’t save a child.”
And unspared children, she believes, go on to become scarred—and sometimes scarring—survivors. For years Winfrey was racked by self-reproach because, enjoying the attention, she had allowed the illicit fondling to continue. “A lot of the confusion and guilt,” she has said, “comes to the child because it does feel good.” Winfrey adds, “Every bad relationship I’ve ever been in is the result of my having been abused.” But she doesn’t worry that history would repeat itself should she have children. “What stops the cycle of abuse is awareness,” she says.
It is her desire to heighten such awareness that led Winfrey to become involved with Scared Silent when she was approached through a letter by executive producer Arnold Shapiro (Rescue 911). Once he secured the networks’ commitment to air the program, Winfrey, he says, was his “first and only choice” to act as host. She recalls: “I hadn’t even finished the letter before I said. “Yes.” Shapiro had been able to offer the program free of charge because all its costs were underwritten by the financial services company USAA, whose chairman, Robert F. McDermott, is dedicated to the fight against child abuse.
If the ever combative networks can forgo competition on one weekend for the public good—”I’m so pleased they’ve decided to forget about ratings and all that stuff,” Winfrey says—TV’s activist host might even get Congress to enact her bill. Failing that, she plans to find “a million mothers” of children who have been abused, along with adult survivors of abuse, and mount a march on Washington. Coverage of that might reach an even bigger audience than the millions of viewers expected to see Scared Silent.
BARBARA KLEBAN MILLS in Chicago, ALLAN FREEDMAN in Washington. D.C.