Listening To Patients: Slowly Recovering From Sexual Abuse By A Teacher

Daniel (Courtesy via Dr. Annie Brewster)
Daniel (Courtesy via Dr. Annie Brewster)

Daniel went to the same Boston-area private school I attended for high school. I was older by a few years and don’t remember him well, but he seemed like a happy enough member of our school community. It wasn't until last year, 30 years after graduating, that I learned about the abuse.

In middle school, Daniel was molested by an English teacher. Students, faculty and administrators stood by — most of us oblivious, but some aware — all silent and all somehow complicit.

Now 45, Daniel shares his story with strength and compassion, speaking out straightforwardly and unapologetically about this trauma and the effects it had on his health. He has not only recovered, but is also helping others who have experienced similar abuse, or are at risk of it.

Trauma associated with the abuse of a student by a teacher is especially insidious, as the perpetrator is often a respected authority figure, someone the student wants to please, and typically held in high regard.

For Daniel, it was difficult even to label what was going on as abuse. Instead, unconsciously, he internalized shame. Years of depression and anxiety ensued, as well as an ongoing journey of recovery. Today, Daniel says that the struggles he has faced — though unwanted — have made him stronger and ultimately, healthier by encouraging depth of perspective, self-knowledge, resilience and empathy.

Recent reporting by The Boston Globe has highlighted the prevalence of sexual misconduct by staff at New England prep schools, with over 100 private schools identified as potentially involved in such incidents over the past 25 years, and more than 300 alleged victims coming forward.

In most cases, like Daniel’s, school administrators did not intervene to stop the abuse when they should have. Allegations were not taken seriously, and abuse survivors are justifiably angry. But Daniel would say that our school responded admirably with compassion, respect and action when he approached administrators regarding his abuse a decade ago and more than 18 years after it occurred. The school, with Daniel’s help, has become a role model in guiding other schools through this process.

Daniel recently brought a civil suit against his abuser, and is satisfied with its settlement. Recent changes in the law extending the statute of limitations on sexual abuse of minors allowed him to bring the suit, and still more such legal changes are likely in the coming months.

Daniel says that recovery, both from depression and trauma, is nonlinear and involves slowly naming and making sense of what has happened. With time, he has learned to integrate the complexity of his situation, to appreciate his vulnerability and his strength. He is a survivor of trauma, and so much more. No one part defines him. In this acceptance, he is whole.

Headshot of Annie Brewster

Annie Brewster Physician
Annie Brewster is an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, a practicing physician at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, and the founder and executive director of Health Story Collaborative. She is co-author of "The Healing Power of Storytelling: Using Personal Narrative to Navigate Illness, Trauma and Loss."



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