To name
and amend

Francis McWhannell

This text discusses experiences of sexual abuse.

To name and amendFrancis McWhannell

How best to name him? In essence, he was my employer. But perhaps it is more accurate to call him a benefactor. We first met at a funeral. He approached me after the service and observed that he had been wanting to meet me for some time. The context was unfortunate, but you can’t always help context. He suggested that I might assist him with some tasks that needed doing. The pay would be good, the job flexible, undemanding. I was pleased. I was in my early twenties and looking for work that would allow me to concentrate on my university studies. This is the outward, generous face of the arrangement. The benefactor gives primarily to support. What is received in return matters little.

For years now, I have been waiting for something to come out. My experience was relatively mild. I have certainly never contemplated pressing charges. But, ever since it happened, I have been waiting for someone to speak up. I have always assumed that the benefactor approached me mostly because I was young and gay. An older man himself, he was known for enthusiastically supporting young gay men, courting them even. I was flattered. To be approached, I thought, meant to be desired and so desirable.

Shortly after I began working for him, he invited me to drinks, perhaps followed by a meal. I was quick to accept, excited by the opportunity to be present in what I identified as a gay environment, and one less intimidating than a nightclub. At the time, I was in something of a fragile state, fretting incessantly that the natural environment and human society were headed for collapse, while maintaining an intense self-absorption. I was out but not comfortably out. I still got called “faggot” in the street with frequency. I was lonely much of the time.

The drinks were plentiful. I drank willingly, though I was not accustomed to drinking and felt that most alcohol tasted like poison. I think that two other employees might have been present, themselves a couple. I don’t believe anyone else was. Over time, I have grown hazy on some of the specifics. The sensations I remember with clarity. I was drunk but by no means terribly drunk. I expect that I was flirting, with the couple and with the benefactor. If I privately worried that I was unattractive to those I desired, I was aware that I attracted him.

He was talking about an overseas excursion. He was often out of the country. I was impressed and was gushing about the idea of travel. I had been to Europe a few years prior and was still struggling to settle back into life in Auckland. I considered it a backwater—too small, too quiet, too unsure of itself. How I wished I could visit Europe on the regular as the benefactor did. He suggested that we might take a trip together, raising the possibility of attending some cultural event I had never heard of. I don’t recall precisely how I reacted. Probably I said that the idea sounded lovely but that I could never accept, issuing the sort of weak dismissal that leaves the door open.

At some point, he took things further. There was a verbal appeal and a physical one. I can’t be sure which came first. “I know there is quite an age difference, but could you imagine being with me? We could have such wonderful times together.” And an approach from behind. Thin arms wrapping round a thin torso, drawing me against his body with surprising strength. Again, I don’t recall precisely how I reacted. Or, rather, I don’t recall how I reacted outwardly. Inside, I was torn between shock, disbelief that I was being propositioned by a man so much my senior, and a sense of confusion. It was clear that I needed to rebuff him but utterly unclear how to do so.

I don’t remember whether anyone else was in the room when it happened. I think not, but I can’t be sure. I can’t say whether there was calculation on the part of the benefactor. I had been drinking. In principle, I was not in a good position to reject him. However, I don’t think that alcohol was a major factor. I do know that I didn’t feel free to state outright that I was not attracted to him and didn’t wish to be touched by him. I might not have delivered an emphatic no, but I didn’t welcome either advance.

I recall wanting to throw him off yet stopping myself from doing so. I didn’t want to compromise my financial situation. I don’t think I gave any thought to legal consequences or to my reputation. I didn’t want to hurt him. He appeared frail but also emotionally vulnerable. I didn’t want to be rude. There was something imperious about him. He was haughty, wont to make you feel small, but he also seemed sad. Following the occurrence, I found myself trying to imagine the context in which he had grown up.

It can be difficult to apprehend the past, even the recent past. There is often a temptation to intensify its foreignness and distance, to forget constants and nuances in favour of a more clear-cut narrative. New Zealand before my birth was probably less stultifying in its conservativism than my imagination has it. Still, the past few decades have seen rapid and radical shifts in the attitudes, codes and discourses surrounding sexuality and sexual conduct. Since the passing of the Homosexual Law Reform Act 1986, male homosexuality has gained broad acceptance. Abusive behaviours have grown less acceptable. What concessions should be made for those who do not recognise changes in the rules of engagement?

The benefactor was manifestly attracted to men, but it seemed he had never identified as gay—at least not publicly. Nevertheless, he appeared to want to facilitate and be part of a community of men who slept with men. A subsequent dinner party thrown by him was populated entirely by gay men. I struck up a lively conversation with one guest and, after some hours of poking fun at one another, we ended up cuddling on a couch. As I left, I thanked the benefactor for the invitation. He was obviously pleased by the connection that had been made. “This is what these events are all about, you know. I do love seeing young people getting along.” I used to tell myself that his behaviour was as much naive as it was “naughty.”

In the years following the occurrence, I have occasionally brought up the benefactor in conversation, mostly with other gay men, keeping the terms vague. Naivety is a recurrent theme. So is pity. His pursuit of men so much younger than him can at times feel like an expression of some damage. By all accounts, he has few friends. Very seldom does he appear in public with people his own age. In the past, he would be seen at events in the company of a rotating cast of young men. These days, he is more likely to be seen alone.

Another recurrent theme is exploitation. I not only continued to socialise with the benefactor immediately following his advance but also continued in his employ, for over a year. I understood his expectations of me to be twofold. On the one hand, I was to do the set work. On the other, I was to make myself available as something to look at. I was, of course, broadly aware of this situation before I took the job. I remember prancing around in his presence, donning a singlet, rolling up my jeans. I thought I was giving him precisely what he wanted. I felt a curious combination of pride and revulsion at myself. I was unenthusiastic about going to work. But I did go. And I concealed my reluctance.

For a long time, I downplayed my experience, emphasised my complicity, not least because I am quite aware that we are all of us imperfect. But the curious thing is that—despite all the minimising and rationalising in which I have engaged—I remain marked by what happened. To be embraced from behind is a most intimate act. From the right person, from someone you love and trust and with whom you feel safe, it is a wondrous thing. From a near-stranger, it feels like an immense assumption, a violation. You are powerless. My immediate desire was to fling him off. To scream. I did not. Indeed, I can recall no words, have no memory of eating dinner, walking home, getting ready for bed.

Lately, I have begun to talk about the occurrence itself to a select few. I have, I think, been trying to establish whether I was and am too sensitive. What is so bad about a hug, even an uninvited one, even one imposed without the possibility of eye-to-eye consent? But I have never managed to think my way out of a sense of wrongness. I have never managed to shake off the feeling that my experience was legitimate, and that my flirting, my exercising of my sexuality, did not authorise his behaviour, his decision to touch me as he did. Increasingly, I feel a need to share my experience. I imagine that to do so will be cathartic, helping me to move on.

At the same time, and more importantly, I feel a kind of duty. I know that I owe no one my account. However, I suspect that giving it could be of use to people who have had similar experiences. That is to say, I hope that someone might take some comfort from my admission. My desire is not to get even, nor to condemn. We all do things we should not, and we all deserve a measure of privacy. But we also need to be able to distinguish between a minor mistake and something larger and more enduring. And if we are to make such a distinction, I suspect, we need clear voices, rather than murmurs, which can so easily go ignored.

With the passage of time, I increasingly avoided events at which I thought I might see the benefactor. When I had no choice but to attend, I avoided protracted engagement—offered a polite hello, nothing more. A short time ago, however, I felt an impulse to abandon avoidance and accepted an invitation to a dinner he was hosting. I was uncertain of my decision, nearly pulled out several times. Close friends cautioned me against going, but I wanted to know how I would respond to being back in his presence for more than a moment. I wanted to test my sense that my experience was not negligible.

The encounter was much as I had expected it would be. I felt mildly ill but was quite capable of comporting myself calmly. He was cool, which was hardly surprising given the long period of disconnection. When I struck up a conversation with another man, the benefactor insisted on separating us. He made several small jibes, at one point referring to me as someone who “used to be young and beautiful.” I sat quietly, or as quietly as I could manage, while he was praised again and again for his magnanimity, and any suspicions harboured by the other guests were quietly set to one side, like so many filthy dishes stacked in an unseen sink.

Sometimes, we are silent out of generosity. This can be a good thing, a mark of our humanity and emotional sophistication. But we are also, very often, silent out of fear: fear that we will be doubted, accused of making too much of too little, charged with defamation, called out for our own flaws or told that we brought abuse upon ourselves, because we smiled too warmly, peacocked, courted attention. It is so difficult to know whether and when to speak up. Sometimes you have to trust that what you are doing is the right thing and accept the consequences, even as the worry keeps you awake at night, causes you to weep into a toilet bowl.

I have written this text, revised it again and again. I have tried turning my account into a story. I have tried to distance myself from the matter, and to capture something of the sensation of being distanced from myself. I have tried raking over the past objectively. I have looked back on a younger me, judging and pitying in near equal measure. I have thought frequently, if not constantly, about the person behind the benefactor. A whole human. A long life. A head full of unknowable thoughts, memories, doubts and regrets.

I want no financial compensation. That gesture holds no meaning for me. What I find myself wishing for most is an apology, more particularly a public apology, an apology fortified by a promise not to do the same again, an apology I can accept. I am sure I have omitted some details and confused others. But the point is not to give a flawless account. That is no more possible today than it would have been all those years ago. The point is to break my silence. Deep down, I would like him to break his. To own up to his actions, and to show an awareness of their effects. Hardly realistic, I know. But that is the generosity I crave.

The writer would like to thank all those who read
and commented on earlier versions of this text.

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