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After Childhood Abuse, 'Times' Columnist Says He Chose Life Over Vengeance

Charles Blow says he was 7 years old when he was sexually abused by a cousin. His new memoir, Fire Shut Up In My Bones, is about what he says happened, his recovery and his bisexuality.



September 24, 2014

Guest: Charles Blow


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. You might be surprised to hear that the new memoir by New York Times columnist Charles Blow begins with him in his car on his way to shoot and kill a man. That man is Blow's older cousin who sexually abused Blow when Blow was seven. Blow, who was 20 when he was prepared for vengeance, turned back and never pulled the trigger. He finally realized he couldn't continue to live his life through the eyes of a seven-year-old boy.

Blow's new memoir is about how this incident of sexual abuse, followed by a period in which he was bullied into keeping it secret, left him confused about his sexual orientation. Blow now sees his orientation as bisexual - fluid, but with more of an attraction to women than men. His memoir, "Fire Shut Up In My Bones," is also about growing up poor in rural Louisiana, where he writes, (Reading) infidelity was a license to kill. I had learned early in life that the wages of betrayal were meted out at the end of a gun barrel.

Before we hear the interview, I want parents of young children to know we're going to have an adult conversation, but it will not be explicit. Charles Blow, welcome to FRESH AIR. Why did you decide to write this very personal book?

CHARLES BLOW: In 2009 there were two little boys who both hanged themselves. They didn't know each other. They were both 11 years old. They hanged themselves 10 days apart from each other, and they had endured relentless homophobic bullying. And they thought, apparently, that that was the only way out. And I thought in that moment, one - I know that pain. I know what that feels like. I know what it feels like to not think that you have another option. And I thought this can't happen on my watch - that if there's something that I can do - in this case, writing this book about my own struggles - then I have to do it.

GROSS: So tell us what happened to you when you were seven and your cousin abused you.

BLOW: My parents had separated. My mom had moved out of the house with my brothers and I. We had moved into a house that had been my great grandfather's. My great uncle still lived there. He couldn't read or write. He needed someone to take care of him. We needed a place to go. So we moved into that house.

And it was a very difficult move for me. I was always a relatively quiet and introspective kid. And now I was a very lonely, introspective and quiet kid. And no one recognized that kind of loneliness in me. And I didn't - I wasn't even old enough to articulate it.

And one summer, a cousin came to stay for a couple of weeks. And he made it clear that he wanted to play with me and hang out with me. And it thrilled me to no end because I just didn't have anyone to play with. My older brothers were doing older brother things. They were going out in you know playing and venturing far from home in a way that I couldn't at that young age. And I thought it was fantastic. I later would come to understand or believe that he had designs on abuse from the moment he arrived.

And one night - we shared rooms, and I shared a room with my oldest brother. And he - because the cousin was hanging out with me to such a degree, he gave up his spot in the bed and said you can sleep - you guys are hanging out, so you can sleep in there. And we were sleeping together, and I woke up in the middle of an abusive episode. And it was the most shocking thing to me. I couldn't figure out what was happening. The words to even make it stop wouldn't come. I couldn't - you know, as a seven-year-old mind, I couldn't articulate what I was feeling, what was happening, how to make it stop.

And from that point - you know, after I made clear that I - you know, the next day that I just - he asked me again if I would like to engage in that. And I said no. And he never spoke a kind word to me ever again. And I think, in some ways, the abusive episode - it wasn't the most extreme case of abuse. You know, I've read a lot of instances of abuse, and some are much more shocking than mine. But I think that for a child, it is much more about the betrayal than it is the abuse. It is the betrayal of trust - when you trust someone and...

GROSS: How old was your cousin when this happened?

BLOW: I don't know the exact age. My recollection is he must've been about six or seven years older than me. He too was a child, which I think is a very important point - which is that I think that we kind of think of abuse too often as just being between an adult and a child. And very often it is one child - an older child and a younger child. In fact, the age with the largest number of abusers is not an adult - it is actually 14 years old. And half of all abuse of children -abused children are under 12. And of that cohort, the age with the most abused kids is actually four years old. So it's very often an older kid and a younger kid.

GROSS: When you were seven and your cousin abused you, what, if anything, did you understand about sexuality - heterosexuality or homosexuality or sexual abuse - anything related to sexuality?

BLOW: I understood sexuality and attraction. You know, as agrarian society there are animals everywhere. Animals do not - they're not discrete. They have sex when you watch. So you understand that animals and humans - in one way you're an animal - have sex. So you understand sex in its broadest concepts. And I understood - you know, because it's a heteronormative society, you see people pairing. You see your parents pairing. You see affection between people. I had had crushes all the way from kindergarten. I remember several crushes, including the kindergarten teacher, who I think every little boy had a crush on.

But that was my understanding of sex - was that - what I saw that between actual people was the most intimate thing was that they kissed. So that's all that I could think of when I thought of people being together. So I - and there is such a small town that we had no openly gay people. So I had never seen that. I had never even entertained the idea that a boy could be attracted to another boy. So that was the first introduction to that concept.

GROSS: Do you think the cousin who abused you was gay? I mean when he became an adult - I assume he lived to adulthood - did he identify as homosexual?

BLOW: I have - no, I don't believe that he did. I have no indication that he did, and I'm not sure that he was. One thing about abuse is that abusers don't necessarily assign sex or attract it specifically to sex. They're attracted to children. And not all of them have a preference.

So they may not identify. It may not in fact be gay or bi or - they're just pedophiles. They're abusers. And I think we have to think of it that way and not necessarily that people who abuse children have a sex preference. Sometimes they don't.

GROSS: But he was just like 13 or 14. So he was, as you said, a child himself.

BLOW: He's also a child. And I think that that's what makes it a difficult conversation. How do we treat children who behave in that way? How do we punish them if punishment is necessary? It is a child. To what degree is it completely misdirected experimentation - an inappropriate experimentation and exploited experimentation...

GROSS: And bullying.

BLOW: And bullying, but he is a child to.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is New York Times columnist Charles Blow. He's just written a new memoir called "Fire Shut Up In My Bones." And it's a book about his childhood including how he was sexually abused when he was seven by a male cousin and the impact that that's had on his life ever since. Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is New York Times columnist Charles Blow. His new memoir is about how he was sexually abused by an older male cousin when he was 7 and how that affected his life and his own understanding of his sexual orientation. I want parents of young children to know, we're having an adult conversation, but it won't be explicit.

You write that you were afraid that you had caused the abuse, that somehow you gAve off a signal without knowing it. I suspect that's a common feeling among children who've been abused, that somehow it was their fault, that they gave off a signal. What made you think that as a 7-year-old?

BLOW: Well, I think part of it is that people don't talk about childhood sexual abuse. It is, unfortunately, incredibly prevalent, and yet no one speaks of it. And people rarely speak of it to children, although 70 percent of all sexual assaults in America happen to children - not to adults. And so you're not prepared for it, and so you feel alone. You can't imagine that this has ever happened to any other child, and you - at least in my case - you think if it hasn't happened to anyone else that I know of, what could I have done to make it happen to me? I couldn't put in - you know, this is a kid thinking - but I couldn't assign the blame to who - to whom it belonged, which is the cousin, and say, this is not something that I did but something that he did. I just kept thinking, I must have done something to make this happen to me.

GROSS: So you were so confused and so wounded by all of this, you actually at the age of about seven or eight, you considered suicide.

BLOW: Right.

GROSS: You were going to take an overdose of aspirin. What did you even know about suicide at that - I mean I'm just thinking of you at the age of seven dealing with being sexually abused, dealing with suicide, these are things children should not have to think about at all.

BLOW: Exactly. And I'm not even sure where I picked up the concept. I'm not even sure...

GROSS: What - of suicide?

BLOW: Of suicide. I'm not sure where I picked up the word or that I knew that pills would do it, but in that moment I was at a skating rink. Someone had agreed to take us to the skating rink in the neighboring town and we - it was so rare that we got to go somewhere like that, that I didn't want to go - but I had a headache, so I put a bottle of aspirin in my jacket pocket. And after, you know, it was a great time we were having a great time. As I remember I was having fun and I exited the rink to take some aspirin because the headache was coming back. And just - it fell on me as if I had been thinking about it and planning it. That I should just take them all and be done. That the agony and anguish at what he had done and the bullying was just too much for me to deal with and that this would be a way out of it. And I think that - particularly for small children, that that can happen and that was part of the rationale for writing a book. Small children don't always write suicide notes. You don't always know what happened, why did they do what they did? And...

GROSS: Well in your case you wouldn't have written a note, you would've still kept it a secret probably, right? Even if you could've written a note, would you've said that in a note? Even if you could've written a note, would you have said that in a note? If you probably could've said it in life - right?

BLOW: Who knows? Who knows what you would've done at 7 or 8-years-old.

GROSS: Yes. (Laughter) Yes.

BLOW: But, you know, it's not- it's not - I think that I think about it now. And I think people think about it now, as rational adults. The 8-year-old mind is a mysterious thing.

GROSS: Yeah.

BLOW: So I don't know what I would've done. But I know that this book becomes the note. It becomes the note for the child who didn't do it.

GROSS: What stopped you from doing it?

BLOW: It was very fluky. You know, one of my mother's songs came into my head. She sang, you know, soul music and do- right songs. And she also sang gospel songs. And one of those gospel songs came into my mind, and I assumed that it was God. I thought, you know, God is saying, you can make it. And I just put the aspirin back in my pocket, and I went back onto the - to the skating rink, you know. And it was that in addition to not knowing the answer to questions that an 8-year-old asks - is it going to hurt? Is my mom going to cry if I'm dead? You know, I decided against it.

GROSS: You were abused a second time by an uncle. Well, he tried to abuse you.

BLOW: He tried. It was not a...

GROSS: Yeah, go ahead. You knew how to get out of the room.

BLOW: Right. I mean, the great uncle who was still living in the house when we moved in, he had his own room. And I - as I mentioned before, I shared a room with my oldest brother. But when my oldest brother went off to college, I was about 10 years old. And the room that we shared is actually the room in which my great grandmother had died. And I hated being in that room alone. And so at night, I would gravitate to someone else's room. And it wasn't a large house, so there were only a few places to go. And sometimes, I would go into his room. And he would, you know, tell me stories about when he was a kid. And it just felt fantastic. He - when I was a really small child, 3 or 4, he was my babysitter. So, you know, in my mind, he's my buddy. He's my babysitter. He's my best friend. And I felt incredibly comfortable and incredibly safe in his room. I never thought anything of it. And he would tell stories. And he smoked a pipe, so he'd clean his pipe. And sometimes, I'd just fall asleep in the bed. And it felt like the most natural thing to do. And one night, I woke up, and I felt his hand moving across my hip. And my heart sank. And my - my skin went cold. And I knew exactly what was happening 'cause I had - I had been in this spot before. As I write in the book, the flesh remembers things. And without saying a word, I just got up and walked out of the room. And I never went back into his room and never slept in his room ever again.

GROSS: So much for trust, right? This is someone you really trusted, a member of your family.

BLOW: That was difficult. I mean, it - you know, whereas the first incident kind of broke my spirit, this broke my heart.

GROSS: So you're 10 at this point.

BLOW: Right.

GROSS: And you started from - I mean, from here on in, you started questioning, in your own child way, what your sexual identity was. I mean, you weren't asking it in an adult way, but...

BLOW: Yeah, I don't think I was - I don't know if it was even questioning as much as it was trying to figure out, number one, why me? How could this happen not just once, but twice? - from someone else also in my family. What did it mean? Also, now the idea that men and boys could be attracted to each other is a very present thought in my mind, that that sometimes enters my mind and trying to figure out what does that mean for me as I develop into an older boy and a man of my own.

GROSS: Did you think that because you were quote, "chosen," by two people - by, you know, one boy and one man, to be the victim of their abuse, that somehow that meant that you were probably gay? That they - that they saw something in you, and they knew something you didn't know?

BLOW: That's close. I mean, I think that it - I felt that I was emitting some sort of signal that suggested that my body was a playground for them. And in my mind, that was not true - and that what Chester had done, I had not liked. And that I had not, in any way, been moved by it - that this didn't come to me as some sort of revelation of, although this was horrible, this is something that I could really get into. And, in fact, my only crushes that I'd ever had had been on girls before that. So I just couldn't figure out what to make of it.

GROSS: Charles Blow will be back in the second half of the show. He's a columnist for The New York Times and author of the new memoir, "Fire Shut Up In My Bones." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with New York Times columnist Charles Blow. His new memoir is partly about something he pretty much kept secret until now. When he was 7, he was sexually abused by an older cousin who bullied him into not telling anyone. When he was 10, he escaped his great uncle's attempt to abuse him. These incidents weighed heavily on Blow and left him confused about his own sexual orientation and whether it was influenced by being abused. The memoir is called "Fire Shut Up In My Bones." I want any parents of young children to know that we're having an adult conversation. You had sex when you were 11, for the first time, with a girl. And thinking of all the things...

BLOW: We'll call it that.

GROSS: Yeah, it didn't quite work out. (Laughter).

BLOW: It didn't quite work out.

GROSS: The act did not get completed. You were, like, just, like, too young - didn't know what you were doing.

BLOW: Right.

GROSS: But - I mean, but you tried. And I just think of all the things you went through at such a young age. I mean, being sexually abused and then - 11 is so young for sex. I mean, sex is a pretty big deal. And...

BLOW: It's a big deal.

GROSS: Yeah.

BLOW: And - but in a way, it was kind of a hyper-sexualized environment where adult men would ask you, from the time that you were able to be out of earshot of women, whether you had a girlfriend, were you getting some. I mean, that was the kind of normal conversation of barbershops and of men standing around beneath sweetgum trees. And if you weren't, you know, they'd say there's something wrong with that boy. So you kind of felt like this was some sort of expectation, that this is what was done.

GROSS: Is that why you wanted to have sex?

BLOW: That wasn't why. I mean, I really - (laughter) - I was very interested in this young girl.

GROSS: (Laughter). OK.

BLOW: And she seemed very interested in me. And it was the first time I had ever had an actual kiss, which was an explosive experience for me. I just - it, like, blew my mind. I didn't know that that was even what happened when you kissed. So I was very much into it. After our failed attempt, you know, I thought I was Superman. I was running through the street, jumping up and down. People must have thought I was crazy when they saw me.

GROSS: So let's get to the point where you - you're on your way to kill your cousin Chester, your cousin who abused you when you were 7 and he was about 13. You get a call from your mother that Chester's visiting. You hadn't heard his voice in years. She puts him on the phone. He wants to say hello and talk with you. And you are so angry. You're about 20 at this point?

BLOW: Yeah, probably 20. Yes.

GROSS: You're in college.

BLOW: Yes. And I didn't know that he was going to be on the phone. She just said, there's someone who wants to speak to you.


BLOW: And so, you know, there's silence on the phone, and I hear the voice. And I immediately realize that it's him.

GROSS: And you decided you were going to kill him. And you happened to have a gun.

BLOW: I'm not even sure I decided. It just - yeah, it just...

GROSS: Right.

BLOW: It came over me in a - like, a rage in a moment. Yes. But I guess decision would be the right word. I decided I was going to kill him.

GROSS: And why did you want to kill him? Why wasn't hanging up on him...

BLOW: It's not rational. It's not rational. But in that moment, in that flash of kind of white-hot anger, my only thinking is that this person has destroyed my life, that all of the years between 7 and 20 have been filled with some levels - sometimes tremendous levels - of fighting back against what I felt was the damage that he had done to me and that if I removed him from the world, I would remove my pain from the world.

GROSS: You had a gun. What were you doing with a gun?

BLOW: My mom had - well, first, you know, I mean, this is northern Louisiana, middle of nowhere. Everyone has guns. Our house was full of guns. It was, you know, we hunted. And you keep the vermin out of the garden or whatever. So there were guns everywhere. So it wasn't like we didn't have guns. But this was a handgun. And when I was going off to college, my mom gave me a gun - gave me the handgun. She says, you know, just in case. What the just in case could possibly have been, I have no idea. And I didn't even keep it in my apartment because I didn't want it to be in the house - 'cause you move around so much in college. I didn't want it to get left somewhere, somebody to find it. So I just kept it in the car, under the seat. And strangely enough, I wasn't the only person that I knew that had a gun. People had guns. And I never touched it, used it. The only time that I remembered that I had it was when I would wash the car. And I'd have to vacuum under the seat, and I'd have to move the gun out of the way to vacuum the dirt under the seat. But that's why I had it.

GROSS: So did you ever get to the point of thinking, say I do shoot him. What happens next - prison, ruining the rest of my life?

BLOW: I - you know, some parts, some fragments of those thoughts went through my mind. But, you know, this is - this is three minutes. I - you know, the distance from my apartment to the exit that I took and decided not to do this was three miles. And I was probably speeding, so it probably took two minutes; I don't know. There's so much going through my mind. It's not like I can lay it out and, you know, have a - make a list of pros and cons on a notepad. But in that moment of turning off, I had to decide, like, what are you doing? You can't keep living your life through the eyes of a 7-year-old boy. Yes, you know, this person has done a bad thing. They don't deserve to die for what they've done, and you deserve to live in spite of it. And you have a life. And you can't give this person so much power and so much agency over that life that they take that life away. And I had to make that choice.

GROSS: So you turned around and went home?

BLOW: I turned around and went home.

GROSS: Good.

BLOW: Yes, good. (Laughter).

GROSS: So you think of yourself now as bisexual but in a lopsided way - like, bisexual but leaning much more toward women than men - but accepting the fact that sexual orientation isn't necessarily just one thing.

BLOW: Yes, it's not binary - and that it's a spectrum and not a hierarchy and that some people are fixed along the spectrum. And some people, like me, are fluid along the spectrum. There can be moments in your life where you may feel attracted to someone depending on circumstance, depending on the person of one gender or another, and sometimes where that is less of an influence in your life.

GROSS: Is it hard for people to accept that? - 'Cause even though there's a B for bisexual in LGBT, a lot of people, including a lot of gay people, don't really accept bisexuality as a true orientation. They think no means you're probably gay.

BLOW: I think - listen, I think that you're absolutely right to say that. There is a lot of bi-phobia and bi-erasure...

GROSS: Right.

BLOW: That exists in society. But I find it to be a tremendous distraction from living your life, so I don't give any kind of energy to that. I don't give energy to the constant discussion and constant defense of identity. I am who I am. I have - this is a lived experience for me. I'm not a 14-year-old boy. I'm not a 24-year-old young man. I'm 44 years old. This is it. If something changes next year or decade from now, I will happily, you know - hopefully, you'll have me back on the show. And I'll say that this has changed for me. However...

GROSS: You could just tweet it. (Laughter).

BLOW: Exactly. But it hasn't changed in 44 years.

GROSS: Yeah. So I don't know what people want me to say. I find it to be, you know, kind of a ridiculous, sucking conversation that drains away the energy from you, to have to constantly define yourself by defending yourself. I won't do it.

GROSS: My guest is New York Times columnist Charles Blow. His new memoir is called, "Fire Shut Up In My Bones." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Charles Blow. He's a columnist for The New York Times and the author of a new memoir called "Fire Shut Up In My Bones." And it's a memoir about his childhood growing up poor in an African-American, rural community in Louisiana. A lot of the memoir has to do with the repercussions of something really awful that happened to him when he was seven. His older cousin sexually abused him, and that had a huge impact on Charles Blow's life.

Let me read something you write toward the end of your memoir. You write that you still blamed your cousin Chester for your peculiar sexual identity, but that probably wasn't completely accurate. You write abusers don't necessarily make children different in that way, but rather they are diabolically gifted at detecting that kind of difference, often before the child can see it himself. Can you elaborate on what you're saying there?

BLOW: Right. So what the data shows us indisputably is that people who will later identify as LGBT have disproportionate rates of having been victims of child sexual abuse. So there are two ways to think of that, one of which I completely disagree with and one I agree more with.

On the one end is that the abuse is making these young people LGBT. The science for that is completely flimsy. I completely disagree with that idea.

On the other side, and I think where we have - kind of reorient the thinking - is that children who will eventually identify as LGBT are more likely to be targets of sexual predators. And if you think of it that way, it changes our concept of how we need to nurture and care for children who are different.

GROSS: Elaborate on how it changes it.

BLOW: Because if you look at it that way, you realize that in some cases - not all, of course - in some cases the predator is targeting children who they already see as kind of having some characteristics that will later be different and that that difference means they are isolated. That difference means that they are already outside of the social mores - that the predatory behavior is somehow now justified because this person is already outside the norm, and what I'm doing is outside the norm, and somehow this is all making sense.

Now, don't ask me to make all of this make logical sense because it doesn't. It's a predator thing. But if you think of it that way and say that people who will later identify as LGBT are more likely to be targets, then it means that we then have to care for them more. We need to make more space for them to be heard, to have conversations about how you protect yourself - that if something ever happens to you this is what is proper and this is not OK - that if something happens to you, you have someone you can turn to - an adult who loves you just as you are, and you can feel safe and comfortable coming to speak about what is happening in your life. And I think if we reorient and think about it in that way, then we help these children.

GROSS: Has it been liberating for you to think that your bisexuality - that the homosexual part of your bisexuality wasn't created by being sexually abused? That maybe the abuser recognized part of your future orientation and preyed on that 'cause I guess I'm asking...

BLOW: It may have been that. It just may have been isolation. It could have been a lot of things. But, like I say, it is possible because I want to open up a conversation about the possibility that it exists.

GROSS: The reason why I'm asking if that could possibly be liberating is that what - however you identify sexually, it's nice to think of that as something inherent in you and not something that was the result of damage created by being abused.

BLOW: It is absolutely - what you want is to have the power of saying that who I am is because of me and not because of someone else. But what childhood sexual abuse does, very often, is it takes away the natural development into who you would most naturally become. It takes away that chance for you to slowly come into it and to experiment and - you know, whatever you do on your journey to identifying as you will identify. And you can never get that back.

And so what this process has been for me - not just writing a book, but living my life for the last, you know, 20 years - has been unraveling those two things that I had braided together a child and saying - being able to say this is likely who I was always going to be. And isn't that beautiful? And isn't that an amazing person? And I like this guy, you know? And being able to stand up and say that to myself and look myself in the eyes in the mirror and say I like the person who I have become and that is who nature meant me to be is a beautiful thing and a powerful thing.

GROSS: You hid the fact that you were abused from your mother, and you told her during the process of writing this book. Knowing that you were going to reveal it in the book, you had to tell her.

BLOW: Right.

GROSS: What was her reaction?

BLOW: She's stunned. I actually told her on the phone.

GROSS: Intentionally, to distance things a little bit?

BLOW: No, it wasn't. I was having a conversation with my agent. We were going through the process of getting the book in shape to deliver to publishers and see who was - which publisher would be interested in it. And I said oh yes, and by the way I just got to tell my mom this, you know, whatever. He says, well, maybe you don't tell right now because you'll edit a lot between now and then. This won't be the final version, so - and it was something about someone saying keep something from your mother. That didn't sit right with me.


BLOW: No one tells me not to tell my mom something. I'm not keeping anything for my mom - even though I had been keeping it from her for 40-something years. So I just pulled over. I was in the car. And I pulled over, and I called my mom immediately, and I told her everything that was in the book. And, you know, I had never seen my mom cry as a child - I've seen her cry one time as a child. It was my first memory. And I could tell that she was crying on the phone. And that, you know, was almost too much for me. And the only thing that I remember her saying - she said other things, but the only thing I remember saying was, and you thought you couldn't tell me? And, you know, that hurt because I did think I couldn't tell her.

GROSS: And how did it change things to tell your mother?

BLOW: It's just - you know, it's been hard for her. It would be hard for me to hear that one of my children was hurt in my house and I didn't know it. That's hard to hear. It's hard to hear that someone who you have loved your whole life did cause the pain. That's hard to hear.

GROSS: My guest is New York Times columnist Charles Blow. His new memoir is called "Fire Shut Up In My Bones." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is New York Times columnist Charles Blow. His new memoir is about how he was sexually abused by an older male cousin when he was seven, and how that affected his life and his own understanding of his sexual orientation.

So there's this little moment in your memoir. You're being recruited by the CIA, and you have to take a lie detector test.

BLOW: Yes.

GROSS: And I think this is actually hysterical.

BLOW: (Laughter).

GROSS: The question - correct me if I have the question wrong. But the question is like, have you ever slept with a man? Do I have that right? Oh - have you ever had sex with a man?

BLOW: That's my...

GROSS: Which is it?

BLOW: Some variation of that. This is 25 - you know, 20-something years ago - some variation of that, yes.

GROSS: OK, OK. And so first you answer - you're trying to think, like, how do I answer this?

BLOW: Right.

GROSS: You hadn't exactly had sex with a man.

BLOW: It's not a sex - it's not a man.

GROSS: Right.

BLOW: He was a boy at the time. I didn't consent. There was no - you know, it wasn't ever completed. So what do I say?

GROSS: Yeah.

BLOW: And the agita is building up, and I can hear the machine start to scratch even before I say anything. And I say one answer, and it's scratches like crazy. And I turn around to the guy and I just...

GROSS: You answer no first, and then - yeah.

BLOW: Yes. And then I say - everything spills - like, everything I've never told anyone, I tell to this guy who could not care less.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BLOW: And I beg him to let me take it again and - which was, I think, not protocol. But he did. And then I answered - the second time I answered yes to the question because I said no, produced a wrong question. I answered yes, and it still said I was lying.

GROSS: I think that just kind of sums it up - that there's no yes-no category to describe your experience about whether it was sex or not - about whether it was homosexual or not.

BLOW: Right, right.

GROSS: What's your take on that? I mean on that - about the wisdom of the lie detector? (Laughter).

BLOW: I still don't know what to call it. First, I mean there has to be a yes-no answer. And, you know, I think that you would have to ask it differently. Have you ever been abused - sexually abused?

GROSS: Right.

BLOW: And that would be the right question to ask me. And then that probably would have just discharged the anxiety I was having about that question. Then I could've answered a second one. Have you ever had consensual sex? And that I could have said no. And then it would have been correct, you know? You know, what was I, 19? - probably 19 - 20 years old at the time. So I could have answered the questions.

GROSS: I just think that's so interesting. OK, so you - and you never worked for the CIA.

BLOW: Oh no, they did not want anything to do with me at that point.


GROSS: OK. So you're a columnist at The New York Times. So I'm wondering, in your Sunday column in The New York Times, you wrote about some of the things you write about in your book - about being sexually abused...

BLOW: It's an excerpt from the book so it's almost directly from it.

GROSS: Exactly. Right. And, you know, your fluid sexual orientation, you mention in there. And it made me wonder, now that your readers know that your sexual orientation is fluid and that you consider yourself bisexual, are you getting propositioned a lot by men...

BLOW: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...Who didn't realize before that you were, perhaps, an option?


BLOW: I've heard this. And every time I hear - friends have said, oh, my phone's ringing.

GROSS: Yeah. Maybe propositioned isn't the right word I'm looking for. You know, get me - people feeling you out like, maybe you'd be interested in having dinner?

BLOW: I'm not dating. (Laughter). I just say I'm not dating.

GROSS: Right. (Laughter). OK, you've told us so much about your childhood and the ordeal that you went through - you know, being abused. How has that affected what you choose to write as a columnist and what - you know, some of the points you want to get across?

BLOW: Well, I try to write out of the experience of my life. I mean people often think of the column as being a numbers column 'cause I do use numbers in the column. I used data as support in graphic form. But for me, the column has always been about beliefs, behavior and biography - that I focus a lot on polling because I want to know what people believe and why they believe it. And I write about behavior 'cause I want to know how those - the belief systems influence behavior in everything from the way you vote to the way you live out your life. And I get into many of these subjects through my own biography.

So the column itself has basically been memoir to some degree. I write right a lot about disadvantaged people, particularly vulnerable children because I feel that that's who I was. That is familiar terrain for me. And I try to write about things that are very close to me because I want people to feel the passion that I have for the subject. And I think that that makes for the best columns.

GROSS: So what does it feel like to have taken this thing that you kept secret from nearly everybody your whole life, and now made it really public through your memoir and through publishing an excerpt of your memoir in The New York Times? You know, how does it feel?

BLOW: I'm still a little numb, I have to say. And I don't know how to experience it. You know, I just - I've been trying to just stay home and go through the normal routine and cook my kids dinner and, you know, just be dad the way that I've always thought of myself. So I really haven't registered what it means, and I'm not sure when I will fully register what it means.

GROSS: What kind of feedback are you getting so far from your readers in The New York Times?

BLOW: It's overwhelmingly positive - almost all affirmations. I've just been blown away by it. I was very ready to receive hate mail or, you know, kind of hateful mail. And after the excerpt ran - and none of it came. I mean, I get really horrible feedback on pretty much everything I write that's political because, you know, that's the nature of politics. Half the people agree with you, half don't. So, you know, I just have figured that it would be something along the same lines. But there was just no negative e-mails in my inbox. I didn't even know what that meant.

GROSS: Charles Blow, thank you so much for talking with us. I really appreciate it.

BLOW: Thanks for having me.

GROSS: My pleasure. Charles Blow is a columnist for The New York Times and author of the new memoir "Fire Shut Up In My Bones." You can read an excerpt on our website,, where you can also download podcasts of our show.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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