Campaign Confidential

Senator Scott Brown's painful disclosure that he was abused as a child has resulted in a national outpouring of sympathy and support. It's too bad he's more interested in using his story to help himself get reelected than to help those who are suffering the way he once did.

Illustration by Louisa Bertman

Illustration by Louisa Bertman

Governor Deval Patrick has described Senator Scott Brown’s candor about the beatings and molestation he suffered as a boy as “very brave.” Senator John Kerry has said Brown’s revelations in his new memoir, Against All Odds, could help those who have endured similar abuse as children.

[sidebar]Of course, Patrick and Kerry were at something of a disadvantage when they offered their fervent reviews, not having actually read the book. But buyer beware: Brown’s memoir might be a voyeur’s delight, but it has no wisdom to impart. No counsel to offer battered women besides making better choices. No guidance to offer children trapped in violent households besides toughing it out. No example to offer sexual abuse victims besides getting on with their lives.

Make no mistake: There can be only compassion for a boy abandoned by his father, kicked around by brutish stepdads, shipped out to resentful relatives by a beleaguered mother, set upon by neighborhood bullies, and molested by a camp counselor. But the bromides Brown peddles as the lessons to be learned—self-reliance and human resilience—undermine the hard-won recognition that violence and sexual abuse are not private traumas to be overcome by force of will; they are pressing public health emergencies that demand a communal (dare I say governmental?) response.

The stories we tell about our lives are always reconstructions, shaped by the life we live now, by the face we want to show to the world.

Scott Brown wants us to see a brave boy, the protector of his battered mother. “Every time he knocked me away, I’d rush at him again, low and fast, like a crazed lion,” he writes of valiantly battling an abusive stepfather. “He was beating the crap out of me, but I knew I couldn’t stop, and with every blow I grabbed and held on.” Brown was six.

Scott Brown wants us to see a fearless soul, undaunted by the size or the strength of his adversary. “As he closed his eyes, I raised the rock high over my head, drove it down into his face and head, and took off,” he writes of an attempted sexual assault in the Malden woods by a knife-wielding teenager. “I heard him howl in pain but I never looked back.” When the bloodied 13-year-old later turned up on his doorstep, Brown did not back down. “I stared at him and refused to turn my eyes away. I wanted him to be as afraid of me as I was of him.” Brown was seven and a half.

Scott Brown wants us to see a defiant spirit, unwilling to be a victim. “And I looked him in the eye and screamed, ‘No. Get away from me. No, no, no,’” he writes of being fondled by a twentysomething counselor in the bathroom of a Cape Cod summer camp. “I yanked my hands away, and there on the institutional-tile floor, trapped by a sink, a toilet, and a mirror, I stood my ground. I tried to push my way by him, he stopped me, and I yelled, ‘No,’ screaming at the top of my lungs. Up until that moment, I don’t think he had imagined anything other than my giving in.” Brown was 10.


Maybe it all unfolded just that way, but what child in similar situations could possibly hope to live up to that larger-than-life example? What message is the senator sending to the child who could not fight back? The boy who could not break free? The girl who was forced to submit?

Did Brown sleep through the clerical abuse scandal in Boston? Did he miss the fight for the Violence Against Women Act? It’s true that “telling” is good, but it’s not nearly good enough for a United States senator who has chosen to market his childhood trauma as an all-American success story.

We do more in 2011 than encourage victims to disclose their sexual abuse. We mobilize resources to support them. We hold perpetrators accountable. Even Oprah is closing up her confessional booth, having exhausted audience interest in a ceaseless parade of celebrity incest and sexual abuse survivors who mistake graphic particulars for political action.

Scott Brown is not Roseanne Barr or Tyler Perry. If he is going to exploit a painful past in the run-up to his reelection campaign, shouldn’t we expect more than the “shocking details” he delivers in his quickie Book of Revelation? We did not spend the past 20 years dragging sexual abuse and domestic violence out of the shadows only to be told that victims just need to suck it up.

No one confuses the memoirist with the historian. But Brown is in the mythmaking business, weaving childhood hardship into a narrative that casts himself as the inspirational hero of his own life. He and his ghostwriter have rewritten the well-worn fable of the American Everyman, an ordinary guy who, fueled only by his dreams and his determination, overcomes the odds to achieve extraordinary things.

But Brown’s emphasis on the individual’s capacity to bend circumstances, no matter how horrific, to personal will is a disservice to those without his remarkable ability to shake off the past. The hundreds of traumatized children counseled every year by Boston Medical Center’s Child Witness to Violence Project. The 30 domestic violence victims in Massachusetts, age 2 to 75, who were sent to their grave last year by their abusers. The thousands of sexual abuse victims worldwide who are forcing the Vatican to confront its decades of complicity in crimes against children.

Brown claims he wrote his book for people like them, to reassure them that “we each create our own playing fields and that we are all capable of overcoming whatever challenges might otherwise hold us back.” Because he “knit back stronger in the broken places,” he tells us he would not change his childhood—not the sexual assaults, not the violence perpetrated by psychopaths against his mother and kid sister. I suspect his mother and sister might feel differently, but this is Scott Brown’s story, not theirs. It is the story of a very special man, unique among the sexual assault survivors I have met during a long reporting career in not devoutly wishing that the abuse had never happened.


So completely has Brown triumphed over the past that, in a speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, he could equate all the publicity generated by his book’s abuse revelations to his halcyon days as a nude centerfold. “I haven’t felt so exposed since I appeared in Cosmopolitan magazine back in 1982,” he joked.

So successfully has Brown remade himself that he sees no contradiction between his mother’s reliance on federal assistance and his support for a political agenda to dismantle the very safety net that put that “government-issue cheese” in his family’s refrigerator.

So effectively has he distanced himself from his predatory camp counselor that he can write that he “purposefully erased his name from my mind” and tell interviewers that while he actually does remember the man’s name, he sees no need to pursue him legally, since “he’d probably be 70 now”—as if child molesters come with expiration dates and he has no responsibility to protect the children his assailant might yet target.

As he travels the country hawking his book, Brown makes much in interviews of his efforts on behalf of child abuse victims. His book, which devotes fewer than six pages to his legislative career in Massachusetts and almost 60 to his campaigns, is a more accurate reflection of his record. Brown was on Beacon Hill from 1999 to 2010 before moving on to Washington. During that decade there were lawmakers who worked tirelessly on behalf of abuse victims, but Scott Brown was not among those indefatigable advocates. That he jumped on an overloaded bandwagon in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis in the Archdiocese of Boston falls somewhere short of leadership on the issue.

President Obama was mocked for “throwing his grandmother under the bus” in 2008 when he mentioned during a campaign speech that she was afraid of black men who passed her on the street. It would take an 18-wheeler to accommodate the family members Brown sacrifices in service of his tale of self-reliance: his vodka-swilling mother, his deadbeat dad, his greedy aunt and uncle, his violent stepfathers.

This is a book about his triumph over their failures. Their moral weaknesses provide the requisite contrast to his extraordinary strength of character. Their life stories matter only inasmuch as they shed light on his stunning success, whether as a centerfold for Cosmo, a Republican upstart in Democratic Massachusetts, or a happily married family man.

Brown makes much of having forgiven his negligent parents—he is magnanimous as well as resilient—but the whole thing is payback masquerading as reconciliation.

His tunnel vision even extends to the supporting cast: a few caring coaches and the judge who gave him a second chance after Brown was pinched for shoplifting at age 13. It is amusing for those who have followed Judge Samuel E. Zoll’s career to see Salem District Court repackaged as Boys Town and a crack legal mind recast as Father Flanagan taking a mischievous scamp under his wing. But how does Brown manage to write a memoir dominated by domestic violence without mentioning that Zoll led efforts to both strengthen judicial protection for victims of spousal abuse in Massachusetts and hold judges accountable who failed to do so? Maybe he doesn’t know. Or maybe Zoll, too, only exists in relation to Brown’s up-from-his-bootstraps story.

Socrates was wrong. The unexamined life is worth living. Scott Brown has put one between hard covers and, with the complicity of a fawning media, dramatically launched his reelection bid for the United States Senate from Massachusetts.