On the surface, Dr. Frank Spinelli had it all: a thriving medical practice, a comfortable home in Manhattan, a budding relationship. There had been darker times — at 11 his Scoutmaster, Bill Fox, molested him, causing years of mental and emotional damage — but on the surface it looked like Spinelli had moved on.
Then the unthinkable happened. Spinelli accidentally learned that his former Scoutmaster had adopted fifteen boys in the decades since they last crossed paths. Some of those boys were mentally challenged. One adoption in particular earned his abuser a national Father of the Year Award and a book deal.
“I became obsessed. I went crazy,” Spinelli says from his office in New York. Thirty years prior, when Spinelli told his parents what happened, the local Boy Scouts organization convinced his Italian immigrant family to let them handle it. Fox was a respected police officer in the community, and these things needed to be handled delicately. But, as with many abuse stories, that really meant covering up the incident, pretending like it never happened. “I knew he’d abused other Boy Scouts, and now that this man had children in his care, I had to stop him. No matter what.”
This is the story that unfolds in Pee-Shy, Spinelli’s gripping memoir about bringing his molester to justice. The title refers to Spinelli being paruretic, or unable to urinate in public, which affects nearly 17 million adults, many of whom were molested as children. When Spinelli learns about Fox’s new life, his condition worsens, exacerbated by the fact that he can’t press charges because the statute of limitations has passed in New York. So Spinelli sets out to find other abuse victims who will come forward — which proves more difficult than he expected.
“A child molester is usually someone the parent or child knows,” he explains. “Most likely the parent introduced the child to the molester, so this person is someone you trust. And when you realize this person has betrayed that trust, it rattles the foundation of your family and community. So what happens — let’s say with a church, the Boy Scouts, a sports team — the system will try to minimize the controversy as a way to protect itself. In reality, they’re not doing anything. They need to protect the child, and they need to report it as a crime.”
Part of protecting the child involves understanding the psychology of abuse, as well as destroying myths about the subject. For example, in the case of male-boy molestation, most perpetrators do not identify as being homosexual. That’s because being gay or lesbian is a sexual orientation, but sexual abuse of children is a psychopathology. It’s a crime.
Child molesters will often live within a construct of heterosexuality. Indeed, Spinelli’s abuser often went to great lengths to mock gay men and assert his heterosexual prowess, theoretically because heterosexuality is perceived as being “normal” and upstanding within a community. It’s part of why these people become so deeply trusted and given positions of authority. (For a fascinating examination of this concept, read Malcolm Gladwell’s story “Jerry Sandusky and the Mind of a Pedophile” from The New Yorker.)
Because the child sees this person as an authority figure, the young person can be groomed into wanting to please or protect the abuser. The child will sometimes blame himself for any perceived wrongdoing. And, according to Spinelli, what made his situation so insidious wasn’t just the sexual contact, but Fox’s psychological manipulation.
“Bill used other Boy Scouts to bully us,” he explains. “He created a hierarchy, where good boys rode in the front of his car and got ice cream, but bad boys rode in the back.” In the book, Spinelli recounts instances where some Boy Scouts who Fox was abusing would tease and torment him in order to score favor with the Scoutmaster. Ironically, this made Spinelli want to please Fox more — for both friendship and protection — even though he hated what they were doing.
“To me, that was more horrifying than any kind of sexual situation,” Spinelli says.
As the story plays out, Spinelli’s journey becomes more intense. After numerous dead ends, victims and their families unwilling to admit the truth, death threats, and Spinelli harming his own relationships with family and friends, he finally confronts Fox. This is a victory in itself; most survivors never get that opportunity. As Spinelli says, “Once I saw Bill — old, barely able to walk — he didn’t seem so scary. Once I saw the real him, it freed me. I was able to take back the power he had over me.”
Does Fox end up in jail? In a tension-fueled scene, Spinelli is able to get the evidence that eventually leads to Fox’s conviction. But, according to Spinelli, that isn’t the real point of Pee-Shy.
“I really want to encourage survivors to come forward to tell their stories,” Spinelli says. “You have to come forward and tell your story, and not feel shame, and not blame yourself and not feel victimized. I think more and more if we just do this, there will be a shift, and as a society we will take abuse more seriously.”
Pee-Shy by Frank Spinelli