WAMC's The Book Show Podcast

The Book Show #1553 - Larry Ruhl

Listen here to Larry's interview with WAMC's Joe Donahue on The Book Show.

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Each week on The Book Show, host Joe Donahue interviews authors about their books, their lives and their craft. It is a celebration of both reading and writers.

Larry Ruhl’s new book, “Breaking the Ruhls,” is a profoundly personal account of the impact of complex trauma on a man’s life. Larry’s father sought comfort from his only son, blurring critical boundaries that would prove deeply debilitating. Larry’s mother, with her spiraling, ever-changing mental illness kept the family in a constant state of anxiety.

LGBT Stories Podcast

LGBT Stories- Episode 17- Breaking the Ruhls

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LGBT Stories documents the struggles, hardships, questions, joys, eye-openers and more, that many in the LGBTQI community have faced as they've opened up with the public, their families and most importantly themselves about their true identity, the decision to come out and what life is like today for them.

In todays episode author Larry Ruhl shares an emotional roller coaster of the story with us. In his story he shares the back-and-forth relationship between his mother and father, the sexual abuse he sadly injured by his father, and horrible verbal abuse from his mother.

However, in the end, Larry comes out triumphant! He understands that telling our stories is the one thing that can bring hope an understanding to all.

Sober Gay Man Seeks....What, Exactly, He's No Longer Sure. My Essay in Longreads.

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"A survivor of childhood sexual abuse now in recovery, Larry Ruhl finds himself adrift in the age of hookup apps."

My April essay in Longreads. You can read it here

Junot Diaz Inspires Conversations About Male Sexual Abuse

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Yesterday The New Yorker published a powerful and exquisitely written piece by Junot Diaz. He illustrates how his experience impacted his life and reveals where he still struggles today. At times it felt as though I was reading my own story. I was reminded once again that I am not alone.

Later in the day, a request came in from RAINN looking for male victims of sexual abuse willing to share their stories with Anna Silman of The Cut. Within a few hours we were on the phone. Anna asked the tough questions and I stayed the course with her,. Today the piece went live. It provides an accurate glimpse into what living as a survivor really looks like. I share that with you here.

As always, you can reach me at larry@breakingtheruhls.com

The Grass Gets Greener with Melissa Wilson

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During my recent podcast recording with Melissa Wilson, we covered a lot of topics. Shame, sexual abuse, bullying, and resilience. Melissa navigated our interview with grace and candor. Each time I have the opportunity to share my story, I am reminded that I am not alone whether it's one aspect of my experience or many. It is good to remind myself daily that healing is possible. I can do that by sharing my truth. You can listen here.

 

Breaking the Ruhls Spring 2018 Events

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It’s been a whirlwind of activity since the release of Breaking the Ruhls. I had my first public reading at Rough Draft Books in Kingston, NY on February 25th, hosted by Sari Botton of Kingston Writers Studio. We had a great turnout -- and sold out of all the books!

I’m really excited for what’s to come over the next few months.

Each of these events is near and dear to me, and I’d love to see you there.

March 17th The Golden Notebook, Woodstock, NY at 4 PM

In conversation with Kitty Sheehan.

www.goldennotebook.com

March 23rd Woodstock Bookfest, Woodstock, NY at 8 PM

The Donahue Interview with Joe Donahue of WAMC

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www.woodstockbookfest.com

·      You can also listen to my interview with Martha Frankel, Executive Director of the Woodstock Bookfest, on Radio Woodstock here.

April 14th LGBTQ Center, Kingston, NY at 3 PM

In conversation with Eva Tenuto, Executive Director of TMI Project

May 9th Bluestockings Books, New York, NY at 7 PM

A book reading and Q&A with Eva Tenuto, Executive Director of TMI Project

The book is available for sale on the following sites as well:

Amazon

Barnes & Noble 

 

 

 

Speaking out on Addictions

I had the privilege of being David Wagner’s guest on his Addictions Podcast.  Up until my decision to publish Breaking the Ruhls, I had kept my alcoholism and sobriety as a private matter. Writing the book helped me see the relationship between my childhood sexual abuse and subsequent dependence on alcohol.

David offered me the perfect opportunity to speak openly and honestly about my own struggles with alcohol and my path to sobriety.

Thanks Dave!

MyNDTALK with Dr. Pamela Brewer Podcast

MyNDTALK  with Dr. Pamela Brewer

This was my first recorded podcast interview for Breaking the Ruhls. While I did feel nervous speaking so openly about my experience, I also felt a sense of calm. I’m relieved that after three and a half years, my story is out, and I have broken my silence as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and complex trauma. 

My thanks to Dr. Pamela Brewer. 

Give and Take Episode 80: Breaking the Ruhls, with Larry Ruhl

ABOUT THE SHOW

On Give and Take Scott Jones talks with artists, authors, theologians, and political pundits about the lens through which they experience life. With empathy, humor, and a deep knowledge of religion, current events, and pop culture, Scott engages his guests in a free-flowing conversation that's entertaining, unexpected, occasionally bizarre, and oftentimes enlightening. He likes people, and it shows.

ABOUT THIS EPISODE

My guest is Larry Ruhl. His first book, Breaking the Ruhls, is a profoundly personal account of the impact of complex trauma on a man’s life.

Larry Ruhl’s father sought comfort from his only son, smothering him not only with his affection, but his sexuality―blurring critical boundaries that would prove deeply debilitating. Larry’s mother, with her spiraling, ever-changing mental illness kept the family in a constant state of anxiety. By the time Larry graduated from high school, overwhelming sadness and suicidal thoughts took root, plaguing him for decades.

Breaking the Ruhls will resonate deeply with many who have experienced similar trauma, boundary violations, and abuse within the family. Ruhl mines his own experiences with sexual confusion, addiction and recovery, relationships, career struggles, and therapeutic breakthroughs, while demonstrating it is possible to heal and thrive.

Give and Take

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Three years ago, I wrote out the first and very rough draft of Breaking the Ruhls. The process that unfolded shortly after my stay in the monastery involved trusting someone to not only read what I had written, but forcing myself to listen to her advice about what to do next.

I hired my first editor, and embarked upon turning what I now called my first “purge” into a book. I submitted the draft to the editor, and she prepared a report. I was unprepared for what came back.

I read through the pages of suggestions and ways to formulate structure, but her words made my chest tighten: “You’ve told us your story. Now you need to show us how it felt.”

I understood what she was asking of me. Through tears, I told my husband I didn’t think I could do it. He added to my fears when he said I could absolutely tackle what was in store, but it came down to whether or not I truly wanted to.

For the next eight months, I relived, through writing, the story of my childhood and my subsequent challenges as an adult. Sexual abuse, mental illness, sexuality, and addiction. I struggled to reveal the magnitude of the feelings associated with those times, and even when I thought I had said enough, my editor pushed me further. On a handful of days, I was convinced I’d had enough.

The first half of Breaking the Ruhls focuses on my childhood and life in my parents’ house. Those were the hardest chapters to write. Once I started to write about how that experience affected me as an adult man, I relied more on my therapist for guidance and grounding. A temporary feeling of victory came each time my editor told me to move on to a new chapter, as she insisted on finishing each one before tackling the next. I’ve always needed to stay in motion. I find feeling stuck unbearable. Moving on is what I do best, so this was a challenge for me.

A few days ago, I received my first copies of Breaking the Ruhls.

After a recurring nightmare that I received the book and the title was misspelled, I asked my husband to open the box and double check. He beamed as he looked up, before handing it to me.

An assumption I am presented with often is, “It must’ve been cathartic to write this book.” Truthfully, the writing was not cathartic. It was painful. But now that I have the finished book in my hands, I do feel a sense of relief, or catharsis, as my story now stands on its own.

I did a “Give and Take” podcast interview with Scott Kent Jones the same day I received the finished book. He immediately put me at ease, even as he asked me some tough questions.

I share that podcast here, as it feels like another significant step in the process of healing.  

 

 

Seeking Solace with the Monks of New Skete

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At first, writing my story did not feel cathartic. I struggled to feel safe enough and grounded enough to say all I needed to. Even in my own home. When I set time aside to dive in, I paced, ate, cleaned out a closet, and looked at my phone -- anything to avoid the inevitable daunting task of writing out what I knew I needed to say.

In January of 2015, I decided to go away for a few days, to a safe place where I could write without interruption. I grew frustrated as I searched for retreat spaces, not finding the right fit. I shifted my focus.

I had heard about the monks of New Skete, a small monastic community of Orthodox monks and nuns in New York’s Taconic Mountains. After brief correspondence with Brother Gregory, I decided it was worth the visit. While I myself do not subscribe to any one religion, I held onto fond memories of going to church as a kid: the serene experience drew me in. I felt pulled once again to the music and silent contemplation, and I was curious to learn a new daily structure from these men.

These monks are known for breeding and training German Shepherds as a way to support their community. In terms of their spiritual life, they follow the structure of matins, vespers, and Divine Liturgy. They did not require that I worship with them, but made it clear as an option.

With some trepidation, I made the two and a half hour drive north.

The brothers were warm and welcoming. Some were more gregarious than others, and seemed excited to have a fresh face at their dinner table. Even the more reserved and soft-spoken monks still made it clear that I was welcome.

Over dinner on my first night, they asked me questions. What was I doing there, was I religious, what did I hope to accomplish during my stay, and did I have a family.

I felt my face burn as I confided in them that I am gay and married to a man. I spoke of having been sexually abused by my father and that I was there to write, as I attempted to make some sense and find some peace with my past. I also told them that I am an alcoholic in recovery.

Not only did they show me a great deal of compassion and empathy, but they also shared enough about themselves to let me know I was safe, and understood.

Feeling safe has never come easily for me, but I took a risk and trusted them.

I had not anticipated I would fall so easily into their daily routine. I rose at dawn each day to attend Matins, and spent the time before lunch helping them with whatever tasks needed to be addressed. I could not hide my enthusiasm when I was asked to help feed the newest litter of puppies, and to play in the snow with their regal mother.

The afternoons, after lunch, were mine, and I spent those daily three hours writing ferociously. I was amazed at how much I wrote. The stories of my mother, my childhood, the history of perpetration, my sexuality, and my addiction poured out of me unapologetically. When the tears came, I let them happen without embarrassment. When my hands shook from fear or disgust or rage, I knew I was safe to really feel each emotion.

And after each day of writing, I attended evening Vespers to quiet my mind and release the remnants of what I’d told through my writing that day. By nightfall I was exhausted and slept soundly without interruption.

At the end of my four-day stay, I had written about thirty thousand words.

That this would become the foundation for Breaking The Ruhls seemed impossible, but I could not ignore the feeling of relief the writing had brought.

I knew then, I needed to continue.

 

 

Getting Started

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Without knowing it, I started to write Breaking the Ruhls on Father’s Day, 2014. By the time this always-difficult holiday rolled around that year, I’d seen a lot of changes in my life. I decided to close the business I owned for ten years. I agonized over the decision, a stark contrast from my usually razor sharp ability to make up my mind. As mid-February crept closer, I felt the old pang of anxiety in my chest, and I worried obsessively, “What’s next?”

My shop was the perfect way to avoid my thoughts. Avoiding my thoughts was how I navigated the turbulent waters of my growing awareness of a childhood riddled with sexual abuse and mental illness.  

At just a year sober, this new phase of my life felt like an enormous void, and I had no idea how to fill it. I was terrified to face a future without a way to numb: minus alcohol or the constant distraction of owning a business.

Birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, all held disturbing memories for me. I was raised to nurture my parents, each in their own insidious ways. Though I had been estranged from them for about five years, certain dates still stung. One of the worst was Father’s Day.

As mentions of Father’s Day barbecues and get-togethers trickled onto my social media pages, I felt queasy. I thought of the special “father/son” time between my father and me when I was a young boy. The fear, dread, and anxiety of those days remained with me as an adult man. I wondered if these feelings would ever go away.

That year, Father’s Day fell on a Sunday. I found myself at home, alone, staying off my phone and computer, to avoid the “dad” posts. Anger rose in my chest, as I knew I was held hostage by what had happened so long ago.

I learned through my therapist how powerful a tool writing could be, so I grabbed a blank notebook and pen, and nestled myself into a chair on my front porch.

For years, I wrote things my father had done to me in “check-in” emails with my therapist, on my off session days.

But I had never written out my whole story.

I wrote that afternoon for almost three hours. I vacillated between extreme anger and extreme sadness. When I finished, my hands were shaking, and I wanted only one thing. Booze.

There was no way to anticipate the aftermath of that writing session and the subsequent craving to get drunk, to numb. I wanted to forget all I had written; the raw truth I exposed, if even solely from my own eyes.

I opted for a long walk and an even longer hot shower afterward. For the first time in a long time, I felt something new. Empowered. By confiding my truth, I started to break the rules that plagued me for life.

An unrelenting fear of picking up a drink kept me from writing anything more for six long months. I worried I didn’t have it in me to say what I needed to and remain sober.

But by writing, I found a way to forge a new life that felt terrifyingly free.

I was really telling.

 

 

 

Why I Share My Story

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Why I Share My Story 

By Larry Ruhl 

     As an adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I face many challenging questions. Is it truly possible to move through the shame I carry every day? Can I have a full life without depending on mind-numbing drugs and alcohol? And the hardest question of all: Do I tell? But how do I tell? Who do I tell? What happens if I do tell?

     My decision to share my story was not easy. I‘ve heard I should be over it by now. By this age, forty-five, the pain, confusion, and shame should’ve magically dissipated. They haven’t. But I’ve found safe ways to navigate my world. 

     It’s been suggested I’m betraying my father and my family by publishing Breaking the Ruhls. And those suggestions are from people I’ve trusted. A friend shares her concerns about bullying. But it’s not me she’s concerned about. She’s concerned for my father, the man who sexually abused me. She says if he’s harmed in any way, because I’ve shared my story, the responsibility for that harm falls on me.  I steady myself. Does she realize she’s aligning herself with a pedophile? I ask, “What would you suggest? That I not publish?” She suggests I wait until he’s dead. 

     Did you know people tell actual “jokes” about sexual abuse? Since I’m gay, a friend chose to tell me I got my “experience” early, referring to my father as my first lover. At a party, a man chose to lighten up the conversation around the subject matter of my book by telling an offensive joke about a child and an adult. I hear casual chatter that romanticizes and sexualizes young children, referring to their young perfect bodies. 

     Society continues to blame victims. Shame and guilt are piled on victims, with devastating consequences. Young children are told by the adults who should protect them, to remain silent, to keep secrets. Women are accused of ”asking for it” if they dress certain ways. Adult male victims keep quiet, guilty for not being “man enough” to fight off an aggressor. Those who do finally speak out risk character assassination and worse, at the hands of their more powerful abusers. 

     I grew up with my own Golden Rule, or Golden Ruhl, as my father called it: silence and secrecy. This made his abuse our special covenant. 

     Sexual abuse reaches into every corner of the population, and leads to countless cases of addiction, suicide, eating disorders, depression, and anxiety. And more. 

     My dark rage hums beneath the surface. Alcoholism took me by storm. Anxiety plagued me since childhood, evolving into debilitating panic attacks as an adult. I’ve questioned my sexuality repeatedly. 

     And my father wasn’t the lurking, sinister predator many imagine pedophiles to be. He was a friendly, fun loving, and well-liked guy. He fixed cars for a living, a “masculine” trade. He was an usher in our church, and always willing to lend a hand. Behind the scenes, he was sentimental. He left flowers in my bedroom, instructing me on how to properly preserve them: a way to always remember my old man. 

     By sharing our stories, especially the most painful and shameful pieces, we can shed our own shame and find unity, compassion, and understanding for one another. 

     For me, the camaraderie with other survivors of sexual abuse is paramount. Eye contact often signals understanding and belief without question. Soothing murmurs of “me too” pass among the group, as you describe triggers that still ruin your days.   

     Accepting what my father did has seemed, at times, unfathomable. Accepting my mother’s betrayal has been equally hard. I was groomed to nurture her. In her mind, I was the only one who knew how to make her feel special. In turn, I believed that my mother loved and needed me. That false sense allowed me to feel that I mattered, in her eyes. 

     I’ve grappled with how much my mother knew about my father’s frequent trips to my bedroom. But I was brought up to forgive and forget. I‘ve found ways to achieve the former, but will never allow for the latter. 

     I am a victim of childhood sexual abuse, but I am also a survivor. Each is significant. 

     “Victim” is what I was. It’s still hard to accept. “Survivor” is what I am. I lived through that now unfathomable time, and I do indeed heal. My path to healing has no end date. It ebbs and flows, and changes course at unexpected junctures. But it moves forward, still.   

     I share my story to help others believe that healing is possible.

Q and A with Larry Ruhl

This memoir is so personal and the story is so painful. How did you find the strength to share your story? Did writing it help you heal? 

I have struggled with certain holidays for years, with Father’s Day being one of the hardest. A few years ago, I decided to tackle my anxiety around Father’s Day by writing out, for the first time, what my father did to me as a child. It helped me reclaim something I felt was taken from me and began to erase the tainted feeling I carried. 

Writing the book was incredibly difficult. At first, I was uncertain I’d be able to do it without relapsing with alcohol. But I allowed myself long breaks, sometimes months, between writing parts of the story. I found strength in other survivors’ willingness to speak out, and in my own determination to move forward. The healing I’ve experienced as a result of writing my story happened about six months after I finished. It wasn’t an instant catharsis.


When did you first realize that what was happening in your household was not only not normal, but was physical, emotional, and sexual abuse? 

I remember confiding in my second grade teacher about my parents’ violent fighting. Seeing her face, and having her give me a hug made me understand then something was wrong. But what really allowed that to sink in was my mother’s rage after the school called, and the talk my father gave to my sister and me as a result. 

I felt so ashamed that I had “told” on my parents. My sister’s fear for my safety helped me understand the gravity of what it meant to talk about what happened in our house. In terms of having been sexually abused, it wasn’t until I was abused by a neighborhood boy, as a pre-teen, that I understood what he did to me had already been done to me by my father. 


You spend more time in the book detailing your mother’s mental illness and her resulting emotional abuse than your father’s ongoing sexual abuse. Can you talk about how you chose to describe your experience? 

When I came to terms with the sexual abuse I endured by my father, the acts themselves were concrete and clear to me. It took years to accept, but once I found that acceptance, I was able to start sorting through the impact on me as an adult. 

It wasn’t my intention to focus so much attention on my mother, when I started writing this book. But as I wrote, the insidiousness of her mental illnesses was impossible to ignore. Writing as extensively as I have about her and our relationship, I opened myself up to deeper truths. My mother never protected me as her child. Instead, she found ways to use and manipulate me to her benefit. I believe untangling the effects of my experience with my mother has just begun. 


You talk about how you’ve found a way to forgive your parents, but that you’ll never forget what happened. Can you speak to that? 

“Forgive and forget “was ingrained into my brain from childhood. If I showed anger, frustration, or impatience, my father would call me by mother’s name, to remind me I was out of line. For years, I believed if I allowed my anger to show, I was also mentally unstable. 

The main forgiveness I‘ve experienced is for me. But to no longer carry the hatred I once had for him is an enormous relief. The other facet of forgiveness has been for breaking that pact with him, and understanding that I can forgive him for what he did to me, but I also can live my life without him in it. Ending my relationship with him has been one of the best things I’ve allowed for myself. Forgiving my mother has been harder. I continue to work on that forgiveness, by looking at the most difficult aspects of who she was and what transpired between us. 


Male sexual abuse and paternal incest are shrouded in layers upon layers of shame and secrecy. How did this impact your ability to come to terms with what happened? How can society at large be better about helping victims and survivors of male sexual abuse? 

For a long time, I couldn’t wrap my mind around the unfathomable: my own father sexually abused me. What was equally hard was his behavior that persisted until I ended contact with him. In the beginning, I felt embarrassed to talk about it, feeling in some way it was my fault, or I must’ve encouraged him. 

Working with a female therapist was enormously helpful for me. It was less threatening to open up to her about what happened. 

In terms of what society at large can do, we need to first acknowledge, on a broader scale, that male sexual abuse occurs, and then find ways to support men who share their stories. The stigma that men can’t show emotion or vulnerability must come to an end so men can heal. As a result, we can start to dismantle patriarchy. 


You used alcohol as way to numb yourself to the painful memories of your childhood, to forget. Was it that much harder to break the addiction when the underlying pain was so immense? What had to happen for you emotionally to get off drinking? 

Alcohol allowed me to disappear into a blackout state, and the majority of the time, numb my memories. However, sometimes when it didn’t work, I’d feel the rage and anguish of what I was trying to suppress. This added guilt feelings, since I was acting just like my out-of-control mother. 

As I started to make progress in therapy and healing, my alcoholism took on a life of its own. My blackout drinking became a way for me to just escape daily life. I’d wake up each morning asking myself what happened. 

The idea of getting sober seemed unfair at the time. I believed I was entitled to that vice, even though it was no longer serving me in any capacity. Emotionally, I had to be ready to feel everything without a strategy to numb. Admitting to myself that I’m an alcoholic brought me great relief, but I knew staying sober would require a lifelong commitment. I had to be ready to make that promise to myself.


How did the sexual abuse by your father impact your ability to accept your identity as a gay man? 

I’ve been asked if my father made me that way. And others have made the assumption that I am gay as a result of what happened. 

As I came to terms with what I endured, in my mid-thirties, I felt cursed to be gay, and for the first time I asked myself if it was because of what my father did to me. That questioning was short-lived, as I truly believe I was born gay. But it added to those difficult questions like, did I ask for it? Did I deserve to be abused? 

Because I had sexual relationships with women, again I questioned whether or not I was really gay. I thought it was less shameful to identify as bisexual, despite knowing that I’m a gay man. When I was at the worst juncture of my therapeutic process, I wondered how I could ever be a sexual being without triggers. 

That is a process that is ongoing, and one of the hardest things for me to overcome.


If you could go back and talk to a younger you, still living with your parents and enduring the abuse, what would you say? 

That is a really difficult question for me. I still find it incredibly painful to look at photos of me as a child and I STILL ask myself, “How could this have happened?” So if I were to be able to access that young boy, I would encourage him to stay strong, I would tell him to run away, I would demand that he tell, and continue to tell, until someone was willing to take action. 

For a long time it was easier for me to believe that early intervention wouldn’t have made a difference but I don’t believe that at all now. Early intervention into childhood sexual abuse can be critical for recovery and healing. 


You’re no longer in contact with your parents, but you are close with your sister, who still lives with them. Can you talk about how you decided to move forward with this book? 

Deciding to publish my story was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve had to make. The first conversation between us about the book has stayed with me throughout the process. She asked if I believed my book could help others. When I answered yes, she didn’t hesitate to offer her support. However, we have an understanding that she won’t read it, which I fully support in return.


What do you hope people take away from reading BREAKING THE RUHLS? 

I hope any survivor who reads my book sees that despite harrowing circumstances, healing is possible, that you can lead a full life as a survivor of sexual abuse. 

I also hope my book sheds light on the idea that sexual abuse often happens in plain sight. I hope people will be unafraid to speak up about a situation or a child they’re concerned about.

I also hope it can teach compassion and understanding to the allies, partners, spouses, and friends of sexual abuse survivors.