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Charles Blow's Memoir Reveals Incidents Of Sexual Abuse And Violence


New York Times columnist Charles Blow has become a prominent voice in our country's ongoing conversation about race. But before he grew into the self-assured communicator he is now, Charles Blow says he was a frightened and confused boy, reeling from the sexual advances of close family members and filled with questions about his own sexuality. Blow describes all this in his new memoir. It's called "Fire Shut Up In My Bones." NPR's Michel Martin caught up with the author to learn more. And a note to listeners, parts of this conversation may not be suitable for younger listeners.

MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Charles Blow, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

CHARLES BLOW: Happy to be here.

MARTIN: So let's talk first about the fact that you were molested by an older cousin when you were 7 years old.

BLOW: Yes.

MARTIN: Can you talk about how it happened, if you don't mind for those who are not yet familiar...

BLOW: Sure.

MARTIN: ...With the book and with your story? How did this incident happen?

BLOW: Sure. So a couple of years before my parents had separated, I'd gone from this very nurturing neighborhood where everybody called me Charles Baby because I was not just my mother's baby. I was the youngest boy in the entire neighborhood, and therefore I was everyone's baby, and they all doted on me. And then we leave that space, and all of a sudden, I'm in a neighborhood where that is not the case. And I feel incredibly lonely, and into that loneliness comes a teenage cousin. And he makes it clear that he's interested in playing with me. And, you know, I am just thrilled and particularly thrilled that it's an older person. So now I feel like one of the big boys, and, you know, we play and talk a lot. And one night, I wake up in the middle of an abusive episode by this older cousin. And it is such a devastating betrayal and a shocking thing. And I can't even figure out what's happening, let alone, why would he do this? Was I emitting some sort of signal that I couldn't pick up on that said that this was OK? And it was very traumatic.

MARTIN: Well, one thing you made clear in the book is how you feel this episode then led to a questioning about your sexuality, which you now describe as kind of being fluid. Can you talk about that? And I realize it's a controversial subject...

BLOW: Right.

MARTIN: ...That some people object to anybody making the connection between childhood sexual abuse and sexual orientation, but could you just describe how you see it now?

BLOW: Let me just correct that in saying that I don't today see that there's link, but I think you have to separate what happens in the mind of a child from what you can discern as an adult. I had to learn as an adult that abuses don't necessarily make children different in that way. And I write that in the last chapter of the book. You're probably predetermined to like whoever you're going to like anyway - and that they are diabolically gifted at being able to detect difference in children. Sometimes that's just isolation; sometimes that is kind of budding difference. And that children who will eventually be different may in fact be more likely to be victims of predators than children who are not. And when you look at it that way, it turns it on its head. But I believed it for a very long time that this had caused me to be different. And I think that that is part of kind of the homophobia, misogyny of culture, which is that there are negative effects of childhood sexual abuse and increased rates of suicide and issues with intimacy, but identity is not a negative. Identity is just a difference, and you have to reclaim that and be able to love that in yourself and say that this was probably always going to be me. And this part I can love, and it is not a problem.

MARTIN: So you talked about growing up in an environment that was kind of suffused with sexuality, like, grown men asking little boys if they were getting any, you know, that kind of thing.

BLOW: Yes.

MARTIN: But you also talked about growing up with violence. I mean, your mom carried brass knuckles in her glove compartment at one point. There's a scene that unfortunately too many people have experienced. You know, your dad was drinking, and he pushed your mom.

BLOW: Yes.

MARTIN: And then you went to grab the knife because you were going to defend her, you know...

BLOW: Yes. Yes.

MARTIN: ...You were a little boy. And you talked about your Aunt Trudy shooting at somebody who was messing with her man. I wanted to ask, do you think that growing up with that kind of violence marked you in any way as well?

BLOW: It contextualizes violence for me in a way that I'm not completely freaked out by being around people. I understand that a lot of that is born of poverty and the stresses of poverty - not that any violence was right. It's just that I understood better intellectually that, you know, these people who were acting out of honor, they are people who are acting out of kind of emotional pain. Someone had been hurt and cheated on, and they were being overcome in a moment. And that's what the violence was stemming from. Although none of it is acceptable or right, it's just that I could understand on some level when it was going to happen or when people would switch to believing that it was OK.

MARTIN: Do you think that race is connected to these things? I mean, you've touched on, among African-Americans in particular, some things that are often not discussed outside of the family or the group, right? And sometimes people are very unhappy when they are discussed outside the group, and I just wonder, do you think race is connected to this in some way?

BLOW: Well, I mean, I think that's a larger sociological point which I can't speak to within a definitive. I do know that of the community that I came from, this was not something that was discussed. And I assume that's true more universally, and I'm not exactly sure that that is just a black thing. I don't hear a lot of people talking about childhood sexual abuse in general. I don't hear a lot of people talking about more complicated senses of sexual identity in general. People are lazy. They want to fall back on the lazy binary. It's either over here or over there and nothing in between, and anything that forces me to think and consider and to have to come to know you as a human being and as a person, I don't want to have to deal with because I don't want to have to deal with all the effort that it requires.

MARTIN: Well, as I mentioned, you've touched on just some third-rail-issues, I mean, not just for African-Americans, but for many people. Why did you write this book now?

BLOW: Well, my decision to write it as a memoir happened in 2009 when two little boys both hanged themselves. The kid in Boston's name was Carl. The kid in Atlanta was Jaheem. And they didn't know each other, but they both hanged themselves 10 days apart - they were both 11 years old at the time - because they had been the victims of unrelenting homophobic bullying. And I realized that, you know, I have the language to write about that experience, about the pain of it, what it feels like to be isolated. They may be different from me and how I turned out, but in that moment of deciding to take your life as a very young child because masculinity in your world has been drawn perilously narrow and you need to redefine it as being broad and deep and wide. I knew how to describe that, and I said, OK, I can do that with my story, and there's no reason that I wouldn't do it. You know, if I'm feeling some sort of fear or shame, I don't believe that I should ever feel fear or shame. I think those are corrosive emotions in the human experience, and I don't want to ever be part of it. So I said, of course I'll do it.

MARTIN: Charles Blow is a columnist for The New York Times. His new memoir is called, "Fire Shut Up In My Bones." Charles Blow, thanks so much for speaking with us.

BLOW: Oh, absolutely. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.