It was a bizarre statement—coming from my abuser, former Pingry Assistant Principal and convicted pedophile Ted Alton, when I called him on the telephone decades after the abuse.
At the time I made that call, I was having a really hard time in life – struggling in my career, in my marriage, and inside myself (with what I now realize were symptoms of the abuse he inflicted upon me, like low self-esteem and depression).
Before the day of that phone call, I was never able to bring myself to utter a word about the abuse to anyone. I was so fearful of being judged and did not have the capacity to wrestle with such complex issues alone. Over the prior decades, I had effectively kept my demons at bay, hiding the truth about what had happened to me.
But that day, something was different. On that particular day, thoughts of “Ted,” Pingry, the school-sponsored Boy Scout troop, and Camp Waganaki washed over me like a tidal wave—as if it all happened yesterday. So, on that day, in a moment of weakness (or clarity), I decided to call Alton.
I found Alton online – his information was publicly available (as a registered sex offender). It was easy. He was living with his father, who answered the phone.
Since that day, I have asked myself over and over why I called Alton. What was I looking for? In the last year, since coming forward as a “Pingry Survivor,” I now know it was simple: I was looking for an apology.
But no apology came that day. Instead, in typical Ted fashion, he manipulated the situation and turned it all around. I can’t recall exactly everything that was said because I was so distraught at the time. But one thing he said to me I will never forget: “I always knew you would be a survivor.”
I hung up. I realized in that moment it was a pointless exercise. There was nothing Alton would do — or maybe could do — to fix the past. He wasn’t the all-powerful figure I thought he was during my childhood.
I carried Alton’s words from that day with me. And now, when I see that we have become known as the “Pingry Survivors,” I think about what Alton said that day. And I realize that it was true. In fact, it has come to mean so much more than whatever Alton meant or intended during that phone call.
Today, there are 18 survivors in our group. Each was sexually abused by Alton at Pingry between 1972 and 1979. When this obsession first overtook me and led me to hire my lawyers at Crew Janci, I felt alone. Then we began our investigation, working off of the leads that I could provide my lawyers. Our investigation brought this issue out into the open. And, in response, Pingry launched its investigation (roughly a year after ours began). Pingry’s letter to alumni — and the anger triggered by the school saying that it only “recently” learned about Alton—provoked others to join our effort. And now there are 18 of us, the “Pingry Survivors.”
So, what does it mean to be a Pingry Survivor?
At this point, and in a strange way, I feel blessed to be a survivor. In our group of 18, most of us are part of a so-called “open group”. We are known to each other and have all talked – some on the phone, some in person —and shared parts of our experiences with each other. As of today, I have met almost all of the other guys. And I will tell you that we are joined for life. I knew a few of these guys as a kid from camp or school, but most I did not. Now, as men in our forties and fifties, we know we share a deep bond that we did not choose.
To be a Pingry Survivor, first and foremost, you have to check the shame at the door. And I think this is the hardest part for all of us. Why else would the many other victims not come forward? When I write down the names I know of, and think about the years and the access Alton had, I estimate there must be 100 victims — no exaggeration.
But I understand the others’ reticence, their silence. For men who have been sexually abused, there is so much shame and loneliness that it’s almost unbearable.
In acknowledging the shame and realizing that I wasn’t alone, I found that maybe I do have another purpose. As a clinician, I was trained to heal, and that is what I think this process that I helped start has been able to do for others and, ultimately, for me.
Look, because we were Pingry students, the outside world assumes we are a group of privileged white guys. But to meet these guys and hear their stories, it is clear that these guys are anything but a stereotype. We have been living with something that we thought (and hoped) was behind us; all the while, over the decades, it has quietly eaten us alive from the inside out. The stories are all different, but in some ways they are the same. Common themes include depression, anxiety, sexual confusion, marital conflict, anger management issues, addiction – and the list goes on and on.
But, for me, to be a survivor has meant to help others heal, to process their pasts, all in the hopes of a chance at a better future. In so doing, we all feel part of something greater, and have finally started to embrace some of the memories of good experiences we had at that time that were buried and overshadowed, much like the photos locked away in musty basements and attics in New Jersey.
Though this process if far from finished, I have already seen so much on this journey. So much has already changed.
I have seen a man who I love as a brother (or more so) tell me a year ago he couldn’t have anything to do with this and avoid all contact with me. He has now come full circle. I have never seen him more confident and sure of himself as he is now.
I have seen a man face his fears and muster the courage to sit his children down and tell them his story for the first time in his life.
I have seen a man who works in the field of mental health use his past to help the lives of his patients and his community.
I rarely cried over the past 30 years. I think people saw me as cold, unfeeling. Maybe I saw myself that way too. I now realize I am not cold or unfeeling. I now realize it was a defense mechanism to keep those feelings of shame suppressed.
The empathy I have for these guys is like none other. Their stories make me cry. I have cried more in the last year than I have cried in my lifetime. I am finally able to experience emotions I had locked up for so long. And it feels unbelievable.
And, to this day, I still blame myself for the abuse. When will that self-blame go away?
The beauty of being a survivor, for me, has been to feel compassion for all of these other guys and somehow help them heal. These guys were innocent, smart, good kids who did not deserve any of this. I hope that recognizing that about my fellow Pingry Survivors will someday free me from the nagging self-blame.
I hope and I pray that countless others come forward and share their stories—with us, with their families or with a therapist. It is imperative that everyone be given the chance to heal, move forward, and stop those continuous subconscious loops of shame, denial, avoidance, and self-destruction. That is what becoming a Pingry Survivor has done — and is doing —for me.