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Frank Spinelli’s memoir is about suffering sexual abuse as a child; the rupture it caused within his family; and his journey to wholeness, a goal attained only after harrowing effort.
The book unfolds on several disturbing levels. These intersect and present the consequences of damage done to a boy unable to defend himself against his molester or even to be heard when he did find the courage to speak. But to fathom his sad nightmare of feeling “like a garbage bag left out on the curb,” it’s crucial to situate the author’s background, for this constitutes the ground upon which sordid betrayals occurred.
Born in 1967, Frank Spinelli grew up on Staten Island—the child of Italian-born parents who saw America as the Promised Land. His dominant mother, never fluent in English, and his kindly but detached father reserved a special awe for priests and policemen, seeing in them a correlation to the authority of a distant Pope.
Effeminate, comfortable with girls and more drawn to playing with dolls than playing sports, Spinelli’s pre-pubescent sexuality triggered a family crisis. When his father succumbs to his pleas and lets him have an Evil Knievel action figure—a doll—his mother retaliates by signing the child up for the Boy Scouts, thereby unwittingly inviting a tragedy.
The leader of the Scout troop is a decorated cop. He is also a pedophile. After first selecting his prey, he grooms Spinelli’s parents before plucking their apprehensive eleven-year-old. Unable to articulate why he feels so uneasy, the child can neither explain his dread nor protect himself.
In the most wrenching image of the book, Spinelli describes pressing his face against the closed screen door of the house, paralyzed by the approach of his abuser while paradoxically—because sexually abused children accommodate (i.e., adapt to terror in order to survive)—idealizing his stalker as his hero.
Torn between misplaced loyalty and the awareness that something is terribly wrong, the boy signals for help by wetting his bed. Instead of rescuing him, his family chooses Denial. It’s only when the mother of a friend being abused by the same man wins his trust that Spinelli admits what the terrified woman coaxes out of him. The abuser is promptly fired and the child’s ostensible torture ceases, but he then finds it extremely difficult to relax and pee when in a public place.
Through accordion-like contractions, we follow Spinelli’s career as he becomes a successful doctor and, later, an acclaimed author with the 2008 publication of The Advocate Guide to Gay Men’s Health and Wellness. The ability to sustain intimacy proves elusive but he’s wonderful at nurturing friends. Happily, once in his forties, he finds his soul mate and life partner.
Still, upon hearing that his abuser is continuing to molest and now lives with three mentally challenged teens, Spinelli embarks on a quest. This is the heart of the book. It’s part therapy, part rescue mission, for, as he confronts his past, old guilts are exposed and his relationship with his partner undergoes strain as he faces his demons and grapples with his need to heal.
Spinelli perseveres, pursuing his molester through a grindingly slow legal system to see justice served at last. Herein, his tale of a society’s failure to protect children and its unwillingness to question the apparent respectability of chosen authority figures reaches a satisfying terminus.
Pee-Shy does have limitations. Too often, youngsters speak like adults; dialogue feels like a means to an end—the most credible voices being campy exchanges between the author and his best friend; significant related issues (e.g. chronic alcohol abuse) are alluded to, and yet then go ignored. But the strengths in Spinelli’s memoir lie in the pervasive ghastly web to which he was consigned as a child/victim; his courage in facing it; challenging it; and being willing to share his recovery. He does all this with fidelity to the tough demand of telling complex and unvarnished truths while fighting his way to wellness.
By Frank Spinelli
Paperback, 9780758291325, 344 pp.