Bill Zeller was a brilliant graduate student who could unwrap the mysteries of the digital world but was unable to find comfort and joy among people. The words of his poignant suicide note, in which he discussed his childhood rape by an unnamed man, will be parsed by many looking for an answer, a perpetrator, or a moral. Most of us will be tempted to point the finger at his parents, therapists or neighbors, and leave it at that.
But there is a lesson in Bill Zeller’s death even for the most loving and involved parent.
Parents play a critical role in ensuring their child’s sexual health and safety and are remarkably diverse in their ability to do so. Imagine a bell shaped curve; on one end of the curve are parents responsible for sexual abuse and the neglect of sexual pain described by Zeller. On the other end we find dead silence around sexuality. Parents and caretakers of children must find their place in the center.
Children need loving, trusted adults to provide age-appropriate knowledge and language about every part of their body; silence and ignorance about sex are among the weapons used by molesters to coerce child victims into compliance. In his suicide note, Zeller described his parents as fundamentalists and it’s clear that he didn’t trust them (he wrote in his note that he hated them). But parents of all religions and belief systems can and must protect their children with knowledge, language and comfort. All children deserve to live in a community where adults are aware of the signs of sexual abuse and know the resources available to a child victim and his family.
The trust of your child, their willingness to speak with you about what’s important to him or her, is one of a parent’s greatest assets in protecting their children against the hopelessness and pain that so many children experience and that drove Bill Zeller to take his life.
So Why Don’t We Talk?
Parents tell me that they just wouldn’t know where to start if they wanted to have a conversation about sex abuse. If they’ve never had a conversation with their child about sex, they don’t want their first one to be about molesters. Many parents just don’t want to think of sex and their child at the same time in any way at all.
Parents can fool themselves into thinking things will be fine. Some parents will wait until their kids get to school and hope their district provides a good child safety program. Maybe the scouts will have a special program, or the Sunday school. But programs provided by strangers discussing concepts that may be completely foreign to your child can’t possibly have the same effect as a loving dialog; there is no substitute for a permanently open line of communication with parents. Parents delay opening up that line when they’re scared that they won’t be able to handle what comes in. Parents need strategies and tactics to help reach and teach their child.
The Courage to Be Uncomfortable
It can certainly be uncomfortable to look closely at our own thoughts and feeling about sexuality and sex abuse. Along with the reality that sexual issues are shrouded in secrecy, many people enter adulthood with painful memories of their own. In every community people have been scarred through unreported assault from an adult, sexually oriented bullying, sexually explicit and violent language, or date rape. Even without these negative experiences coloring our own perspective, talking to a child about sexuality can be tough.
But we need the courage to be uncomfortable. Keeping our kids sexually safe and healthy requires an extraordinarily brave commitment to self-awareness and healthy family intimacy.
I don’t want to join the on-line chorus of people trying to guess who did what to Bill Zeller. Whatever it was destroyed his spirit and ultimately cost him his life. A friend confided that Zeller’s story was his story and implored me to use my voice as an experienced professional to see if we could make anything decent come from this tragedy. Adults are responsible for keeping children safe and in memory of Bill Zeller, I implore them to learn how. In that spirit I issue this call to action to all parents to find their place in the middle of the continuum; to find the courage to face their discomfort, the resources they need to maintain the sexual health and safety of their children and the consciousness to recognize a child bearing the scars left to strangle the spirit of Bill Zeller.
May he finally find peace.
Read Zellers final words at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/01/07/bill-zeller-dead-princeto_n_805689.html
The Sex Information and Education Council of the US http://www.siecus.org/
The American Academy of Pediatrics http://aappolicy.aappublications.org/cgi/content/full/pediatrics;108/2/498
Prevent Child Abuse America www.PreventChildAbuse.org
Dr. Janet Rosenzweig is a 30-year veteran of child welfare and youth serving programs. She is committed to bringing the best possible information to parents to help them raise safe, healthy, happy kids.
This post is based on a column that first appeared in the Princeton Packet 2-8-11