Behind the Black Curtain

CONTENT WARNING: This pieces contains descriptions of sexual abuse and trauma. It is written with the intention to help others who have been through similar experiences.

Photo by Brett Falcon

The onset of fall brings forth some of my favorite things in life, most notably the change in weather, the color of plant life, a more enjoyable wardrobe, my favorite kinds of food to cook, new artistic inspiration; all sorts of things. But this time of year can be complicated for me emotionally, as I’m sure is the case for many people. The onslaught of one holiday after another can reintroduce a lot of feelings and memories, both good and bad. As much as I love the fall, it\’s always been a bit of a struggle for me to get through ever since the age of 13. It was around this time of year, when I was 13 years old, that my youth minister/first music teacher at Loganville First United Methodist Church, Ray Clark, began to sexually abuse me.

I\’m not writing this to share in detail the nature of abuse and trauma I endured with him; that\’s for me and my therapist to unpack. The reason I\’m writing this is to share my story about how I managed to expose him years later as a sexual abuser. I hope this story will inspire others who have survived abuse to feel empowered to take steps toward healing in whatever way that means for them.

I do have to back up for a moment, though, and tell you that my relationship with Ray ended explosively, a year after the abuse started, in the fall of 2001. It was equivalent to a really nasty break up. Again, I will spare the details and context of what happened, because what\’s important to know for later is that I severed my relationship with him rather abruptly, and that resulted in my family leaving the church shortly thereafter. Although I was too young to process how incredibly dark and fucked up our relationship was, I suppose I started to sense deep down who Ray truly was and the effect he was having on my life. When I ended it I told my parents all of the horrible things about him and his emotional abuse, but I omitted everything sexual. Ray always framed it as something that we would get in trouble for if anyone ever found out about; so out of fear, guilt, and shame, I never spoke a word about it to my family until 2013, when I was 26 years old. I write this at 32.

Ray would occasionally message me over the years on Facebook saying this and that, reminiscing on the past and congratulating me on all I’d accomplished musically. He could see on Facebook all the stuff I was up to, like majoring in music, teaching drumline, playing in bands, etc., but I never responded to any of the messages he sent. In early 2013, I began paying attention to his Facebook page more closely as I noticed he got back into teaching middle and high school band. I was concerned because he’d post pictures of himself with younger male students and it reminded me very much of my years with him in youth group and taking music lessons. I saw myself in those kids and wondered how many of them he abused or was currently abusing.

I realized that if I opened up and came forward with my experiences then I might be able to do something to stop him.

I started to feel a sense of responsibility to those kids I was seeing in the pictures with Ray. Knowing he was still out there in the world and working a job that put him around children made me sick to my stomach. I realized that if I opened up and came forward with my experiences then I might be able to do something to stop him. After some research and speaking to a few specialists and a lawyer, I learned that my age put me beyond the statute of limitations to file a criminal and/or civil lawsuit. At that point, I didn\’t know what would be the right avenue to go down since I wouldn\’t get any support from the legal system. I figured the best thing I could do, at least personally, was to open up to my family and friends about what happened and seek therapy to start working through it.

After doing those things, months passed and it’s now February 2014. It occurred to me one day to call the police department in Darien—the town that Ray lived in—and tell my story to someone at the precinct and just see what happens. I ended up getting on the phone with Detective Nick Roundtree, which resulted in about two hours on the phone with him telling my story in rich detail, as well as answering a lot of questions from him. 

A crucial component of our phone conversation involved telling him about a former student of Ray\’s from the early 90\’s, who I know Ray abused as well. In this story, I will refer to him as William. While I was being abused by Ray, he always referred back to him and William as being close in the same way he and I were. As I grew older, I realized that William was another survivor of Ray, just like I was. Darien—where Ray lived in 2014—is a coastal Georgia town near all of the places Ray grew up and taught in the early ’90s when he met William. When I told Det. Roundtree about William, I said I always felt like he probably went through something very similar to what I went through. I told him there’s a good chance William still lives in Darien, and if they were to track him down and get him talking, then they might get a similar story from him. A day later, Det. Roundtree called me back and told me they indeed tracked him down, got him to open up about it, and sure enough, his experiences with Ray were pretty much a carbon copy of mine.

Since I wasn\’t able to take any legal action against Ray, Det. Roundtree and I figured out a different path. It involved getting Ray to acknowledge the abuse that occurred between us in the form of tangible evidence, which would be shown to the Darien school board and lead to an immediate termination/resignation from his teaching position. As we hatched these plans, Det. Roundtree and his partners were investigating Ray’s current students, trying to determine who might be his victims at the present time. They spoke to these students in the hopes that kids who might be current victims would feel safe enough to come forward, along with the encouragement of my story. If someone came forward and wanted to press charges against him, they could because they would have been within the statute of limitations.

But first, we had to get Ray to acknowledge the abuse he inflicted on me when I was younger. The only way to do that was to have me meet up with him in person, wear a camera/microphone (a wire), and get him talking. The idea of this filled me with endless dread, but I had to try.

Photo by Brett Falcon

In order to do this, I needed him to feel comfortable and in control. I needed him to feel like he was still the one in charge and in the right; otherwise, it could seem suspicious that I’d just show up after all these years. So I messaged him where he was most accessible: on Facebook. From this point forward, I played a character of sorts in all of my interactions with Ray. In my message, I apologized for the way things ended between us. I said I felt like the end of our relationship was my fault and that I had carried that guilt for years, and because of that I missed out on years of friendship; one in which I could’ve shared my musical journey. He was my first music teacher and I\’ve done so much with music that it felt wrong to not be able to share that with him. Saying these things to him made me want to retch, but I knew it was required to take the next steps. I ended the letter telling him I\’d love to meet up sometime and grab a beer with him—just one old friend to another.

He ate it up. He completely bought in and was exactly where I needed him to be. I waited a day to respond and told him, “As a matter of fact, my band is playing in Savannah in a few weeks, but we have an off day. It would be easy for me to pop down I-95 and grab dinner with you.” Obviously, none of this was true. But it gave me a believable excuse to be so close to him geographically. We then made plans to meet up.

Before I left town, I sat down with both of my bands at the time and told them about my past with Ray and what I was about to embark on. I asked them to send powerful energy my way at 7:00 p.m. the next day since that’s when I would be meeting with Ray. I will never ever forget standing outside the police station wearing a camera wire an hour before I was supposed to meet Ray, getting a barrage of incredibly supportive and encouraging texts from my friends who were thinking of me. I can\’t properly put into words how important that was at that exact moment. I couldn’t have faced this without knowing I had so much love, support, and encouragement from those I shared such an intimate bond with. I am eternally grateful.

It took every ounce of focus I had to keep my shit together, and it was a mind-fuck.

I got to the restaurant at 6:50, and at 7:00, I saw him walk through the door towards my table. He was wearing a dark green-blue short-sleeved polo with a Jesus cross necklace hanging in the middle of his chest. Knowing what I know about him, he almost seemed like a cliché youth minister pedophile. Sitting with him over dinner was, needless to say, an awful experience. Clearly I knew what kind of person he really is, but I was surprised at how disgusted I felt just talking with him as one adult to another. I realized he is a very self-involved, grandiose man who speaks of himself and his influence on people very highly. I leaned into that, feeding his appetite for praise, making him feel validated. It took every ounce of focus I had to keep my shit together, and it was a mind-fuck. Sidenote: watching him eat an entire pile of fried oysters and French fries was vomit-inducing.

He started to reminisce on old times, and that seemed like the perfect moment to bring up memories of when we engaged sexually. My task was to get him to acknowledge an example of our sexual interaction, the age I was when it happened, and the general time of year. He wasn\’t very responsive to my first few tries, and I was getting worried that he might be hesitant or suspicious, but I couldn\’t let fear cloud my mind. I had to keep going.

In that moment, something I hadn\’t thought about in years struck me: the memory of an experience I had with him that could be the perfect setup. But I had to frame it naturally, as if I was remembering a funny story with an old friend from back in the day. I started laughing and tapped his arm with the back of my hand and said, Oh man, do you remember that time your mom and her friend were visiting you in Loganville for Mother\’s Day? I think I had just turned 14, so it must\’ve been May of 2001… but we were waiting on them to show up at your house before we went to lunch, and you and I started messing around on the couch. We were watching that porn you used to put on and you had just started going down on me for a few minutes and then we heard your mom knocking on your kitchen door! I couldn\’t believe how horrible the timing was and how awkward it was once they came inside. Do you remember that?! 

And finally, with everything out there on the table that I needed him to acknowledge, he said, Oh my God, I do remember that! I can\’t believe how lucky we were!

The surge of adrenaline I felt in that moment was indescribable. I got exactly what I needed from him and could finally relax into this victory, knowing his world was about to be turned upside down. My mind was racing, and I don\’t have a clear memory of the small talk we had after that admission from him. I do recall that before we parted ways, I made empty promises with him, telling him I’d visit that summer and teach his drumline for the high school band he worked with. He said it would be such an honor to finally share the field together as equals. In my mind I laughed, but to his face I told him the honor would be mine. I knew that after tomorrow, when the truth about him would unfold to the school board and everyone else, there wasn\’t a chance in hell he would ever teach again. Making false plans for the future with him was pretty gratifying for me, and I hope he remembers that moment as clearly as I do.

Photo by Brett Falcon

There\’s so much more to tell about the way things went down after that night, but for the sake of time and page length, I will be as concise as possible. The next morning, Det. Roundtree went to the school board with the video footage taken the night before and played it for them. After seeing it, they ordered Ray to be removed from his class at once. The detectives wanted a chance to speak with some students in the hopes of making sure anyone currently abused by Ray would feel safe coming forward in light of his inevitable termination from the school. Det. Roundtree requested that the school board let Ray continue to teach until the end of the day, giving us time to speak to as many students as possible—at least the ones we thought were likely to be his victims. In the end, none of his current students came forward or admitted to anything. Regardless, by the end of the day, Ray was shown the video from the night before and was given the option to resign or be fired. Of course, he resigned right then and there.

There was one student left we hadn\’t spoken to yet—one of Ray’s former students who was, at the time, enrolled in a university a few hours away. I’ll refer to him as Robert. He agreed to meet with us, so Det. Roundtree and I drove out there and spoke with him. He detailed the nature of his former relationship with Ray, and after sharing my own story and how he had just been exposed, Robert opened up about the abuse that he experienced. Due to his accounts and his age, he would be able to file a case against Ray in court. He felt hesitant to do so, but eventually agreed, saying he would like to help send Ray to jail.

Later that night, Det. Roundtree convinced Ray to speak with him at the police headquarters. Ray talked a lot about his former relationships with William and me, which eventually led to Ray opening up about his relationship with Robert. They spoke for a long time, but eventually Ray confirmed in detail how they had crossed a line together sexually. His corroboration warranted an immediate arrest, and he was cuffed and hauled off to jail.

The story of Ray’s trial gets very complicated, and the reasons behind that would warrant another article entirely. For now, what\’s important to know is that Robert ended up not wanting to testify against Ray for reasons that I can only guess are rooted in fear, guilt, and shame, just like I’d been rooted in myself. I don\’t judge him for that, but of course I wish he had been willing to take the opportunity to help bring justice to this monster who has hurt so many people. I’ll say without reserve: Ray deserves a far worse fate than what he received. 

Ray was offered a plea deal in light of everything and ended up only spending six months in a probation detention center (diet jail, basically). He was then sentenced to 20 years of probation, and is on the sex offender registry for life. I don\’t know exactly what Ray is doing with his life right now, but I hope that, because of what we were able to accomplish, he never has the opportunity to teach or work with children ever again.

I will never forget how good it felt to free myself of this prison of experiences.

What happened to me was something I carried as a burden, something I hid from my friends and family for far too long. Once I realized that coming forward didn\’t have to feel like me telling this enormous secret, but could actually feel like a mission to try and stop this person from hurting anyone else, the idea of being honest in the face of fear, guilt, and shame became much more tolerable. I will never forget how good it felt to free myself of this prison of experiences, and how surprised I was at the reaction of my loved ones and the outpouring of support I received after everything went down in Darien. I will never forget how it felt to be standing outside the police station before meeting with Ray and getting all of those texts from my loved ones, knowing that there are people in my life who support me and root for me and were thinking of me in that very moment when I needed them the most. That holds a space in my mind and heart that is far more powerful than the mark Ray left on me; it’s shown that being open is what helps me heal. And although I will never erase the trauma, today I can manage it.

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