Letter to the Editor
The Sunday Express (St. John’s, Newfoundland)
24 September 1989
[Note from Sylvia: St. Bon’s is St. Bonaventure College, a boy’s school in St. John’s Newfoundland once operated by the Christian Brothers. Some of the Christian Brothers who worked at Mount Cashel orphanage also taught at St. Bon’s]
Today, as I sit in my house in California, I am reminded of growing up in Newfoundland‑ and some of the very deep pain I experienced as a child student at St. Bon’s.
I turned on the television this afternoon, finding Oprah Winfrey interviewing people involved in sexual abuse (victims and perpetrators) and had the opportunity to hear the tragic story of Shane Earle, a story not so different from my own, for which I have always carried shame. It changed the direction of my life in so many ways.
When I was 11 years of age my parents switched me from Winterton school to St. Bon’s; as my Dad said, it was time to become a man. On my first day at St. Bon’s, in my first class (which was religion, by the way) the Irish Christian Brother addressed the class, saying: “Boys, we have Little Lord Fauntleroy with us this year… Come’ up here, O’Dea.”
I walked to the front of the class, to be told by the Brother to hold out my hands. Now, at Winterton School, when the teacher wanted to see our hands, it was to check our nails for cleanliness, so I held them out, nails showing, backs up. The Brother looked at me perplexedly and said with hostility, “Turn them over.” I was extremely nervous and feeling quite intimidated as I turned my hands over, exposing the palms, whereupon this man proceeded to hit each hand eight times with a leather strap. Prior to this moment I had never been struck in my young life, and I was so terrified I urinated on the spot, adding tremendous embarrassment and shame to my terror as my urine stained the entire front of my light gray pants. The Brother then told me to leave the room, as he mocked my childlike reaction to this scene.
As I stood sobbing uncontrollably outside the classroom, not knowing where to go or what to do, a high-ranking Brother spotted me and took me under his arm, comforting me. He took me to his office where, as I sat on his lap, he fondled my genitals and pressed his erection against my little buttocks.
Thus began a pattern of terrorism that continued for two years, most of the details of which I have blocked out — stuffed deep inside and have chosen to forget because the pain was so great and the terror so immense. I was beaten often, molested more often, observed the most cruel treatment imaginable of other children, and, as a child, I lived almost every moment at St. Bon’s in terror of being abused or of witnessing the abuse of another. Because of my guilt and shame and threats from the Brother, I was unable to tell my parents what was happening. The first time they heard about this from me was in a letter I wrote them on my 40th birthday last year. This letter (last year) incidentally was written from a recovery hospital where I was a patient recovering from alcoholism and drug addiction.
In this year of sobriety since then I have learned that alcoholism and drug addiction are merely symptoms of a truly deadly disease – secrecy. I am as sick as my secrets. And because I was threatened with HELL itself if I shared that secret, my disease of addiction started there on that Brother’s lap. My personality changed on that lap and Brian O’Dea became a different little boy — he began stealing large amounts of money from his mother’s purse, stealing alcohol from his father and selling it to construction workers, drinking it himself, stealing a valuable coin collection from his little brother and giving it away, buying things for other children, looking for real love in people, pleasing, becoming what others needed him to be but never becoming Brian.
As I was drinking alcohol at an early age as well as smoking cigarettes, I was a ripe candidate for the drug-laden ’60s, abusing any and all drugs. All of my talents and abilities got lost in a sea of drugs for the next 20-plus years. I was so confused and sick that even a lengthy stay in prison did not stop me. I was in jail for trafficking in the early ’70s and continued to use drugs even in there.
I am told by psychiatrists and Psychologists that this type of behavior is very common in victims of physical abuse as children. And when the child is unable to find a safe environment to dump this garbage and needs to stuff the guilt and shame, drugs and alcohol are the perfect tool for such a job. So the direction my life took for 29 years began on the lap of a sexually-abusive Irish Christian Brother. Today some may go to jail, but they cannot give me the years I lost running scared under the influence of cocaine and alcohol, the years I never got to grow up into an integrated human being, the years I lost in total self-abuse.
There is a quote of Friedrich Nietzsche that goes: “It takes just such evil and painful things for the great emancipation to occur.” Presently, I am writing a play for television entitled, “Of Such Evil and Painful Things” which I hope will be shown on television in Newfoundland. The play portrays my last cocaine binge, in particular the last three days which were spent hiding out behind closed curtains, filled with the pain of wanting to stop and not being able to stop, finally ending in my heart stopping. Doctors believe I should have died but today I am alive and sober. There is a tantric saying, “That by which we fall is that by which we rise.” Today I understand just what that means.
This disease has been fought with losses, the greatest of which being the loss of two wives and two children, but today I am alive and living my life fully, sober one year and now getting to spend some time with my children finally. With the help of a 12-step program of living, I am in recovery and surrounded by like people and perhaps through my pain, my children will not have to live as I have lived.
Finally, when I was able to share with“my mother just last year what had happened to me as a child, she responded like any mother of a hurting 11-year-old would respond. She said, “You’re a brave little boy, dear.” But this 40-year-old little boy knew exactly what she felt and meant.
There is a line from George Thatcher that has sustained me often and I will close by sharing it with you: “I am not going to make you cry because you have shed enough tears, but somewhere along the line there is a joy for you which will surpass all that pain, and only be possible because of it.”