Memoir — From the January 2013 issue

Sliver of Sky

Confronting the trauma of sexual abuse

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One day in the fall of 1938, a man named Harry Shier entered the operating room of a Toronto hospital and began an appendectomy procedure on a prepubescent boy. He was not a trained surgeon; he nearly botched the operation, and the boy’s parents reacted angrily. Suspicions about Shier’s medical credentials had already surfaced among operating-room nurses, and the hospital, aware of other complaints related to Shier’s groin-area operations on young boys, opened a formal investigation. By the time the hospital board determined that both his medical degree, from a European university, and his European letters of reference were fraudulent, Harry Shier had departed for the United States.

A few years later, a police officer in Denver caught Shier raping a boy in the front seat of his automobile. Shier spent a year in prison and then slipped out of Colorado. In the late 1940s, he surfaced in North Hollywood, California, as the director of a sanitarium where he supervised the treatment of people with addictions, primarily alcoholics. In the summer of 1952, at the age of seven, I was introduced to him when I visited the sanitarium with my mother.

At the time, I lived with her and my younger brother in nearby Reseda, a town in the San Fernando Valley. My parents had recently divorced, and my father had moved across the country to Florida. To support the three of us, my mother had taken a day job teaching home economics at a junior high school in the city of San Fernando and also a job teaching dressmaking two evenings a week at Pierce Junior College in Woodland Hills, on the far western edge of the Valley.

Early that summer, my mother had somewhat reluctantly agreed to take in a houseguest, her first cousin Evelyn Carrothers. Evelyn, who was my mother’s age, lived an hour away in Long Beach and was struggling with a drinking problem. Her marriage was also in trouble. Mother couldn’t accommodate Evelyn for long in our one-bedroom house, so she began inquiring among her friends about other arrangements. People advised her to call Alcoholics Anonymous. Someone in the organization’s Los Angeles office suggested that she contact the North Hollywood Lodge and Sanitarium.

One morning, Mother drove us all to the facility at 12003 Riverside Drive, known then around the Valley, I would later learn, as “Shier’s dryer.” In those years, Shier was renowned as someone who could “cure” alcoholism. He was also able to relate sympathetically to the families of alcoholics. When we arrived at the clinic, Mother introduced my four-year-old brother and me to “Dr.” Shier. We shook hands with him, and he escorted the two of us to the sanitarium’s kitchen, where we each selected a fresh doughnut from an array laid out on trays for the patients — frosted, sugared, glazed, covered with sprinkles. A nice man. I remember the building’s corridors reeked that morning of something other than disinfectant. Paraldehyde, I was later informed, which Shier used liberally to sedate his patients.

Shortly after Evelyn had, in Shier’s estimation, recovered enough to return to Long Beach — she would begin drinking again and, a year later, would return to his facility — he started dropping by our home in Reseda. He had gotten to know something of Mother’s marital and financial situation from Evelyn, and during one of his early visits he told Mother that he was concerned: her income was not, in his view, commensurate with her capabilities. He said he might be able to do something about that. (Mother’s divorce settlement required my father to send her ten dollars a month in child support — an obligation he rarely met, according to correspondence I would later find.) Shier said that one of his former patients was in a position to speak with the school board about Mother’s value to the school system. This appeal was apparently made, and a short while later she received a small increase in salary.

She was grateful. Harry was pleased to help. Shier conducted himself around Mother like someone considering serious courtship. She was a handsome woman of thirty-nine, he a short, abrasively self-confident, balding man of fifty-six. He complimented her on the way she was single-handedly raising her two polite, neatly dressed sons. He complimented her on her figure. Occasionally he’d take her hand or caress her lightly on the shoulder. After a while, Shier began dropping by the house in the evening, just as my brother and I were getting into our pajamas. He’d bring a tub of ice cream along, and the four of us would have dessert together. One evening he arrived without the ice cream. He’d forgotten. He suggested I accompany him to the grocery store, where I could pick out a different dessert for each of us.

A few minutes after we left the house, he pulled his car up alongside a tall hedge on an unlit residential street off Lindley Avenue. He turned me to the side, put me facedown on the seat, pulled down my pajama bottoms, and pushed his erect penis into my anus. As he built toward his climax he told me, calmly but emphatically, that he was a doctor, that I needed treatment, and that we were not going to be adding to Mother’s worries by telling her about my problem.

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is the author of thirteen works of fiction and non-fiction, including Arctic Dreams, which won the 1986 National Book Award for Nonfiction.

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  • melissa lee

    Being a survivor of sexual abuse from the age of one or two, all the way to 11 or 12, I found, Sliver of Sky, by Barry Lopez a brilliant true story written about his sexual abuse, moving and deeply disturbing… Men often, are often the ones that hold so much in about any and all injustices that they endure as children and as adult males. More than anything I can say about his story is that, I felt him so deeply in this story of abuses not only from the man that stuck, his dick in his ass, but the abuses endured from his mother and step father, I too, would be looking at every man that is near my grandson feeling the energy and possible impending rape…….. Melissa Lee

  • jdawgsrunningblog

    Bumps and bruises and there

    • Maria Muse


    • Tisha Atkins

      I wasn’t expecting to feel the way I do after reading your comment.
      That was…. Amazingly honest and poignant, too. Thanks for taking the time to post.

    • Harold

      Very nicely said.

    • barbara

      Gosh, you have set yourself some heavy duty self-inquiry here. But you address them to YOU. Who is this YOU? And how does being told off by your principal and being suspected of smoking marijuana correlate with the child sexual abuse endured by Barry Lopez? Why do you want this YOU to tell a larger story? Rather confusing and solipsistic; sounds like you feel you are being done unto rather than doing; I suspect this didactic voice expresses a quest for self-clarity. Good luck.

  • Susan

    I was very moved by this memoir. I read it three times.

  • jen-jen

    I am very appreciative of Barry Lopez’s coming out with this. His voice is an important addition to the chorus that is for throwing light on the prevalence of child abuse, including sexual, in this country. No more whispering in the shadows! Freedom comes only with acknowledging what happened. Freedom comes only with coming to terms with it.

  • Susie Survivor

    It’s never too late to seek Peace….Peace that comes not from so called “justice”…but from validation…by speaking out from the ramparts…by bringing the light of truth into the dirty dark recesses of pain, humiliation, lies. & shame…by bringing voice to the orchestrated silence-Like finally waking from a yoo-long bad dream-a terrorizing nightmare-buried deep into the recesses of our memories-which cut into our souls & permeate every aspect of our lives-to finally heal. May God bless & heal the author, Barry Lopez…He is truly a man of depth, fortitude, integrity, & courage.

    ~Susie Survivor

  • Appreciative listener

    Barry, listened to your interview on NPR just now. I believe you. What was done to you was not right. It was beyond wrong and not your fault. You are very courageous and generous in sharing your story. You bring an important issue to light, thereby helping many other people cope with or prevent similar stories. Thank you. Wishing you peace, love, and joy.

  • Maria Muse

    I am bloody pissed that I only got to read one page, because I am not a subscriber!!

    • Mark Lipinski

      Don’t be so damned cheap. If you want to read the article, buy the January 2013 issue of the magazine or subscribe to Harper’s to read their entire archive library (as I have done). Harper’s isn’t publishing the magazine for their health! If you want to read quality writing then you have to pay for it. It’s not so difficult to comprehend.

    • lmonster

      Just check it out at your local library! That’s what I’m gonna do.

    • Fernanda Moreira
  • philabuster

    I am a frequent listener to “Fresh Air” w/ Terry Gross and believe her to be one of the very best interviewers in radio today! She does an incredible job and is so insightful and knowledgable about the subject matter. This interview was so intensely personal that I could not turn it off even sitting in my car (it is where I hear most of the daily NPR chatter) @ my work for the whole show. I have never heard someone with the emotional psychological and spiritual burden that this abuse makes one carry speak in this way. He spoke of his beliefs, his pain, his understanding of all of the facets of that burden and how it affects everyone and all around that one who has that burden. He spoke so eloquently and intelligently and gave me such insight as to the extent of healing and understanding that he has had to accomplish in order to even write about this in such a way. The knowledge that he is in his later years, has been wring all of his life and just now has only been able to do this tells of the dreadful pain that this causes a human, I have it downloaded on my computer to listen to it again. Thank you Barry Lopez and thank you Terry Gross for bringing this to us. A MUST LISTEN TO!!!!!!

  • Sirius 1

    Thankyou for your courage.l

  • gene clark

    Men are sexual beasts. Those who haven’t been convicted of sex crimes either haven’t been caught or haven’t been presented with the right circumstances for committing depraved acts. Make no mistake: nearly all are capable. All males should be castrated. Boys should be castrated at 12 y/o. That’s the only way to stop this once and for all.

  • Betsy Mendelsohn

    was one of the first books I bought for myself back in the 1980s, and I \ became an environmental historian so your writing had an impact in a very good way. Thank you for your writing and your courage. I wish you didn’t have to be so courageous, back in your childhood and even now.

  • Chelseagirl

    Geez, Harpers. At least offer an article only fee for reading the rest of this piece, as a public sevice. I’d subscribe but judging by your cover contents page you only publish work by men so let the dudes subscribe.

  • Stephen Andreski

    Is there a way to purchase just this article or issue?

    • Harper

      Dear Mr. Andreski,

      The issue should be on newsstands for another week or so, but I’m afraid we don’t sell single articles or issues online. We’re considering other ways of getting issues to non-subscribers, but we’re a little ways off from that yet.

  • LAdude

    I too came here via Terry Gross/NPR and am a long time fan of Mr. Lopez. With the recent Sandusky trial and the BBC revelations about J. Savile I am terrified for my own son (8) and have to admit I, now, rarely trust anyone. Damned vigilance. Sad commentary on our culture my friends. Sad world we offer our young ones. I thank you Barry once again. You inspire great hope when this world and this father sorely needs it.

  • DDuece

    I agree with philabuster! Terry Gross is a great interviewer and THAT was an intense interview! Thank You Mr Lopez and Tery Gross

  • Elizabeth Edwards

    It is estimated that there are 264 rapes
    of females occurring each day, which amounts to 11 rapes per hour. By any
    stretch of the imagination, this is an astounding figure when one takes into
    consideration that many rapes have gone unreported. Some critics say that the
    relative inferior status of girls in some cultures makes them susceptible
    because rape is treated as a private matter and remains under reported… To
    read more go to thegreaterbooks and click on “Are Women the Superior
    Gender?: ‘Simple’ facts science has revealed.”

  • disqus_uErxGw6a5W

    Thank you for posting this very important essay to me. Starting over and wiping the slate clean is required – in order to use the first amendment – free speech. My experience was the same as far as the sneaky, creepy, deceptive behavior goes. My experience in the second grade involved the dentist. He had access to drugs to make me numb. It is hard to explain why the essay is about safety and violent type behaviors. Certain people that have mental health issues are not crazy, they know that what they did to me was wrong. This Sandy Hook event was tragic, and it has been a more intense debate than in the past. If you have a memory from a very young age, you may end up having a quiet sensitivity that is very attractive, if you work really hard to help.

  • disqus_uErxGw6a5W

    Barry Lopez this problem cannot be solved, but not really. It cannot be solved for me. My mother could not protect me, even if she was in the room. Who would want a mother to be the witness anyway? However; the women won. This is not a religious argument, but it is a political one. Politics is about all people, not politicians. There is evidence of these crimes in the form of video and photos. These mothers are the only ones who can uncover the criminal paparazzi in this investigation. That is what the young Lady who started the anti-bullying campaign does to help and educate us. Thank you society for not getting at my niece and nephews. The women can see the images and understand; they are not porn, but they are evidence of a crime. It is difficult to see the child, we need to leave the children alone, we need to identify the one behind the lens. That is why I tell my niece to, “Keep an eye out for young Mr. Lanza.” I say,”be aware, not afraid.” This goes for the other young Lanzas, as well. If you want people to like you; you have to like people. Steve of C-SPAN was moderating Washington Journal. The citizens seemed more adjusted. The Uncle Biden speech was effective. More debate about gun manufacturing please.

  • disqus_uErxGw6a5W

    The country has the fears of a child. Wiping the slate clean mean that we have to get rid of some on the unnecessary fears. Fear of Hurricane Sandy fear is justified – for example. Fear is about safety; a safe society repairs its’ damage and builds and manufactures. People do want to help, even if they do not know it. The argument about Sandy Hook and the NRA is being discussed. We have to fill in what Biden did not address. This country needs the ability to manufacture weapons to defend the country. It is a man’s livelihood. It is also not going away; it can be what it should be – about defense. The 2nd amendment is being too offensive. I do not have assault rifles. I do have the cabinet to hold all the weapons. It is made out of solid mahogany. It is the perfect crotch mahogany for my ideal stock of a gun. It is truly a heavier woman, solid and perfectly built. It has Chinese Chippendale ogee feet. It has a lock and key. I only view the collection using the key. It is always locked and nobody can get through my mahogany doors – solid, never made of glass. Our country used to be known for beautiful carpentry – should we include more people in the economy? It could turn the gun debate into one that is more honorable and patriotic. It would also educate children more responsibly.

  • disqus_uErxGw6a5W

    Country are you listening. Is the experience of other classes of people similar? The woman that owns this debate cannot do it all, Lots of people are waiting for happiness. Some of the conservatives have been writing books describing the joys of hating this and that. Are they writing about hating the right things? These conservative women writers have lived lives worthy of lifetime financial compensation from the weight loss industry. What they are lacking is charm. Having a more charming speaking voice and message is something I would like all people to have. The experience for boys and girls is different, when it comes to abuse. Who wants to take their little children to the house of God and educate them to see around corners? Responsible people have already educated their children about safety. When we have lived so many years, why can we not get a better message from the Vatican and religious leaders?

  • disqus_uErxGw6a5W

    This essay is still on my mind. When I was a child, I liked Hitchcock. He was a man of fears. Children need to be directed to produce a better middle class. The fear of the economy is due to yelling, “We are going over the cliff.” When you ask your child what they want to be when they grow up, what do they tell you? We should always listen to what children say. Should we be asking this question to them at all? Yes, but not really, they are too young to know. To relieve fears and instill safety you should educate them. It is easier to cross a bridge than build it; but, child to be a great architect is the very proof that men have good character. If you want people to like you; you have to like people.

  • disqus_uErxGw6a5W

    The women say, “it is different for little girls.” Men sometimes deal with the issue more easily, or do they. The boys are taught to chase the girls; but being chased is different than being preyed upon. Men that abuse children are in fear on full grown women. Hitchcock was paranoid and was mentally healthy; he was afraid of pretty girls. When asked the source of his fears by the interviewer, Hitchcock stated, “I remember being in the crib, and my mother said boo!” Is not this the source of all our fears? Mothers can be overbearing, but not really. Educating your child to be safe is responsible. Young mister Hitchcock also grew up with the fear of guns, police and overbearing government. So how did he deal with his fears? Hitchcock was the great director; but not really, he was so much more with his wife by his side – actually on set. Hitchcock had an eye for the pretty girls; he directed them on film. He looked but did not touch. He truly saw what most men will never get close to. He was a man after all; he did have eyesight. His partner and wife was a witness to his tremendous character. He was charming and never creepy.

  • disqus_uErxGw6a5W

    Men that torture also have a fear of woman, or they should have.

  • disqus_uErxGw6a5W

    I still say that the essay, “Can science explain the ‘empathy deficit’” is important for identifying character and a healthy mind.

  • disqus_uErxGw6a5W

    All of these comments have been a big help to me.

  • disqus_uErxGw6a5W

    We need more hero’s and shero’s.

  • disqus_uErxGw6a5W

    Young adult and children are needed to do video essays for C-SPAN, and Google is also having a contest to find artwork for the Google homepage logo. One child spelled Google using the pirate ship bounty. It is very charming. If I was better with the computer my logo would spell the logo with cats that read Harper’s Magazine. Cheers

  • disqus_uErxGw6a5W

    The flags hanging in front are for the Sandy Hook students – are they not? The Lady Liberty was dressed honorably representing all citizens of all ages. The fashion was a weighted hem and Taylor was perfect. I though the event was like Lenox. Good for flowers at a funeral or any affairs of states. Some of the young ladies needed coats.

  • disqus_uErxGw6a5W

    If you want to send the signed flags to the students that gave their lives for their country, I am sure they would understand the sentiment. I have two flags that hand over the capitol. The documents are signed and numbered by the Acting Architect of the Capitol. His name is Stephen T. Ayers, AIA. My grandmother and my father both died in 2007. The architect of the Capitol – 1793. If you tell the story they will give out the flags to the citizens. They fly a brand new American Flag every day. They fold them in the triangle and give them to Sandy Hook families.

  • disqus_uErxGw6a5W

    Heidi Przybyla Bloomberg News, Congressional Reporter.She started the interview on C-SPAN and gun control. She stated the idea of wiping the slate clean.I do not carry guns, I am a single man. Learned this at six years old. I made my own gun out of clothes pins at six years old. I used the ones used to make wooden dolls. The legs are sharp. I then found the mouse trap ones. Grandma did not want me to pinch my fingers. Grandpa helped me take the springs out of the clothes pins. We made a gun of wood out of the clothes pin two by fours. We set them all up close like domino’s; we glued them all together latter and along the way. See ho told me all about what he new about guns and weapons. You never had to ask my grandfather; he always knew the answer was the message. We used a picture of a gun to copy. My family make the internal combustion engine. The gun was made first. He also helped my make a bird house latter on.

  • disqus_uErxGw6a5W

    cause belli is not the same for starting with a clean slate.

  • disqus_uErxGw6a5W

    tabula rasa

  • disqus_uErxGw6a5W

    Melissa is talking about immigration and what is for those children. People that want to build a bridge – I would define my border with high speed rail. I like Disney – it is a small world. Always and thank you for building within my property line. This younger generation could benefit traveling the lowest of the low – I mean the lower 48 in general. Liberty – Constitution – Born a Citizen – parents smoked; the grandparents smoked also. We used to open doors and light a cigarette; and also – more charming. We used to be able to put a cigarette out any way we want to – too. Now what weapon should we carry? Oh: please Santa, I am late with the list. Please solve all the problems. So, far today – you are doing a good job. Media can be a real Nell.

  • disqus_uErxGw6a5W

    ” Kennedy Center Heart” really got it right at the right time. What does one play at awards shows and funerals? And guns, shootings and children survive. Be careful flying, and going fast, people need to record those extreme sports and carry communications. Bickering adults are refusing to advance.

  • disqus_uErxGw6a5W

    Statuary Hall is quite a quiet event. Statuary Hall is some museum.

  • disqus_uErxGw6a5W

    Anxiety makes a person freeze up, hard like a marble sculpture. Crystal is easier to caver than glass. It is softer to cut and etch, that is why they sparkle. The etching on the Vases is beautiful. I think they are landscapes and architecture. The Capitol with freedom may be on one. Civil war and statue of freedom. Nice speech for the occasion Pelosi.

  • disqus_uErxGw6a5W

    suk tak and lastrovia – cheers

  • Ann

    Is there any way to subscribe or buy rights to view the article outside of the US and Canada? I live in the UK and it does not look like I will be able to read this in any way, which is a real shame. This looks like a moving, quality piece of writing. I heard about Harper’s and Barry Lopez’s writing through Terry Gross’s interview on NPR’s Fresh Air as well.

  • Susan Murphy

    Lopez closes,

    • Susan Murphy

      CORRECTION: “begins to show an usual” in that quote from Lopez’s article should read “begins to show an unusual”

  • Gina Otten

    I am required to do an Annotated Bibliography for a Social Work class. My subject to touch on was Child Abuse and Neglect. It makes response complicated when I only get to read a small portion of this story. I think it is bull that they ended at an area that doesnt really help on a response for my assignment.


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