Globe Editorial

Brown sheds light on common, but often untold, abuses

(Brendan Smialowski for The Boston Globe
February 18, 2011

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DURING HIS campaign last year, Scott Brown raised some eyebrows with his sharp depiction of his parents as negligent guardians, saddled with many unhappy marriages. In his new memoir, he fills in some of the details — and they suggest he may have been kinder than his parents deserved. The young Brown apparently suffered extensive abuse — physically, at the hands of two stepfathers; and sexually, when he was fondled by a camp counselor. The revelations fill out Brown’s personal story, and make his rise to the US Senate all the more impressive. His evident dedication as a parent is testament to his ability to put his past behind him.

Brown deserves credit in another way: For underscoring, yet again, that teenaged boys, as well as girls, frequently experience abusive sexual experiences. Estimates suggest that approximately 17 percent of men faced unwanted or abusive sexual experiences before age 18, yet the topic remains freighted with macho taboos. This serves not only to enable some abusers, but to prevent men who were traumatized — as Brown says he was — from discussing their experiences openly, in ways that would put them in perspective. Brown was 10 and spending the summer at a religious camp on Cape Cod when a counselor fondled him in a bathroom. Such advances happen more often than people think, and can leave a deep shame: Studies show that men who have experienced sexual abuse are at a higher risk of substance abuse, depression, and suicide — especially if they leave the abuse unaddressed.

Brown’s life is proof that men who’ve experienced such unwanted touching, along with beatings and many other forms of abuse from a tattered childhood, can go on to lead happy lives that include healthy families and successful careers. And there’s a lesson in Brown’s story for parents, as well: In some cases children can be targeted for abuse simply because they lack parental support and supervision.

As senator, Brown can and will be judged on his record in the Capitol, which includes some disappointing stances on health care and unemployment benefits, along with a praiseworthy willingness to look beyond the usual ideological barriers. It’s a mixed story. But as a public figure, his easy self-confidence, leavened by self-deprecating humor, has been at the core of his appeal. Now his constituents know the source of that confidence — his strength in overcoming a truly awful childhood. It’s an inspiring story.