Two Men looking out over pier

Men: The Silent Survivors

“Paper Birds”: Caleb’s Story

“The thing about men is, they’re silent survivors.”

Five of us sat in a dimly lit basement. A space that had been empty just a few hours earlier was now crammed with wires and camera equipment. By default, it seems wherever a group of college kids gather, there’s bound to be a frothiness that follows. The conversation, however, was anything but. 

That morning, two of my crewmates and I had made the trek to Bloomsburg from Lancaster County. It was filming day—an anxiously awaited and tirelessly prepped affair that always seemed to go a bit different than as planned. Today, our main task was recording two interviews: a friend I’d met my freshman year of college and her fiancé Caleb, last name Cress.

“Everything was pretty normal.” Caleb had been about 18 when he started dating his ex. The first six months had been smooth, with no egregiously large fights or glaring red flags. About eight to 12 months in, however, that changed. Disagreements turned to bickering, bickering to full-blown fights, till one night, she struck him across the face. “I didn’t even know what to say.” He brushed the incident off as an accident, a heat-of-the-moment, one-time reaction. But what Caleb thought to be the height of the maltreatment he would endure, was really just a precursor to the violence that’d follow. At 18 months in, things got worse. At 18 months in, the sexual abuse began.

“I think the sexual abuse, that’s what really brought me down…that is what really broke me as a person.” April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. On campus I’d walked past teal ribbons and yard signs telling me so. There were conversations and conferences held. None of them though ever seemed to address the issue as it related to the one in 6 men who have been sexually assaulted. In this demographic, an issue already rampant with misplaced feelings of guilt and self-blame is amplified by the false narrative that men can’t be victims and women can’t be perpetrators.

“Not a lot of them come out about it.” Caleb’s words hung in the air, and as they did, you were forced to wonder just how many of your classmates, friends and family members had known this weight, too, yet never let on that they carried it. If perhaps the guy who let you copy his homework in calculus, or the uncle who had a knack for making everyone laugh, bore it too. And ultimately, was the reason they never said anything, was because they feared being labeled less of a man?

Five months ago, it’d been Maddie who I initially reached out to. She’d first been known to me as the girl who sat next to me in my 9 a.m., now a close friend. To Caleb, she was the profile he super liked on Tinder during a shift at Subway. Today, his soon-to-be wife. Last summer, Maddie, Caleb, my roommate and I spent late nights out on a rickety balcony together. It was actually my rickety balcony: I’d just moved into my first apartment and despite the stale smell that always seemed to linger and the fact that we were fairly certain my basement was seriously haunted, I was too excited to have guests of my own over to care.

We got food at the gas station down the street and wandered around campus at night. Together, we talked about things that mattered and things that didn’t. Maddie and I in particular bonded over shared experiences. She was the only one I knew who understood what it felt like to live with somatic memories, or at least the only one I knew who talked about it. When I decided I was going to direct my own documentary on recovered memories, it was her my mind first went to. Enthusiastically, she agreed to be a part, then revealed that she knew someone closely who could also be willing to be interviewed. He hadn’t lived through “delayed recall,” nor did his trauma happen in childhood. But he had dealt with trauma just the same, and given the space to talk about it, he might.

About two months into their relationship, Maddie opened up to Caleb about the sexual abuse she endured as a young child. Her revelations came in bits and pieces. But as time passed and their comfort with each other grew, she shared more and more. Caleb began to share, too.

“We gave each other that time of day, that space to just talk.” Listening, Caleb revealed (as Maddie did too in her own interview) playing a huge role in both their healing. The ability to express what they experienced and for that experience to be acknowledged was a gamechanger, not only for their relationship but for Caleb’s decision to ultimately talk about his past publicly.

During our pre-interview, Caleb revealed to me that when I first reached out to Maddie presenting an opportunity to share his story, he was nervous. In a society that has still yet to believe survivors who aren’t men, he was worried about what it might entail. But upon reflecting on the self-blame and feelings of invalidation he sat alone with for so long in silence, and after experiencing the liberation that came with letting them all out, he decided differently.

“The stigma out there is ‘Oh you can’t be a male survivor. You can’t be assaulted as a male’…but I’m here to tell you that that’s false.” Caleb spoke passionately, and in the darkness of the basement, it seemed suddenly light was coming from somewhere other than the studio ones we’d borrowed from the communications equipment room. “I hope that men who have been through things see this and know they’re not alone,” he concluded, “The stigma is like, ‘You’re a male—you’re not supposed to go through those things,’ but you did—it’s okay that you did…you are not weak, you’re not less of a man.”

Below, you can find resources specifically for male survivors. Abuse doesn’t discriminate, and neither should the conversation surrounding it.

“Bird Bites (Short Audio Clips from the ‘Paper Birds Pre-Interviews’): Caleb’s Story”