The mother of a man who says he was sexually abused as a child in a Berkshire County elementary school paid for two billboards this winter to call attention to the case.
The mother's goal is to bring her son's alleged abuser to justice. But the billboards have had another impact: helping adults who were sexually abused as children feel less alone.
The son, who attended the Sheffield Center School in the 1970s, pushed a memory of being sexually abused there as far from his thoughts as he could, throughout his childhood and beyond. NEPR is not naming the man, at his request, because he wants his identity protected.
By the time the man reached his mid-40s, nightmares — which had always plagued him — got worse. He said he felt like he was in an icy river being electrocuted.
“You feel like you're screaming inside, but you have to be quiet,” he said.
He had been quiet — and alone with his pain — for decades, never telling anyone what had happened. Finally in 2016, at age 46, he told his mother. It was like extracting a long-buried splinter.
“That feeling of not having that thing trapped inside of my head was, that was when the splinter came out of my brain,” he said. "And regardless of the infection that was involved, it was out.”
He felt relief. And understood. He talked to others — first the police, then a therapist. He began to recall small details from a day he says he was sexually abused by two men who worked at the school: an ashtray, a tape recorder, the smell of Polaroid film, and a question he asked.
“When they were done doing what they were doing, I wanted to know why they were taking my picture. And that's when the threats really got like, ‘You won't tell. We'll get your mother. We'll get your brother, and we'll get you,’” he said.
After telling his mother, he went to the Sheffield police.
'It hit a wall'
On Route 7, Sheffield Police Chief Eric Munson III pointed down the street from the police station to where the Sheffield Center School used to be.
“That’s where the incident happened,” he said. “The billboard incident, we’ll call it.”
Munson said the man filed a complaint in 2016 with the department's sexual assault investigator.
“He started investigating it, checking up on leads,” Munson said. “Then he consulted with the district attorney's office. And that's when we learned that because of the age of the case the statute of limitations had kind of aged it out. It hit a wall.”
Under Massachusetts' statute of limitations law, a district attorney or the police must file charges in criminal court within a certain number of years after a sexual assault takes place. But it’s complicated. Different sex abuse crimes have different statutes of limitations.
New laws allow more time before charges need to be filed. But the date of the abuse, the type of abuse, and the date a new law went into effect all help determine if a case can be brought. And if a suspect leaves the state before the statute of limitations is up — that stops the clock.
A civil case can be brought against a perpetrator until a victim turns 53.
The billboards go up
Besides the Sheffield police, the son reported the abuse to other agencies: the state police in Massachusetts and in New York, and even the FBI.
But nothing happened — law enforcement didn’t file criminal charges. So the man’s mother, Sharron Morgan, took action.
Morgan paid for two billboards in different locations on Route 7 in Great Barrington. One was up in January, the other in February. They read: "DID SOMETHING HAPPEN TO YOU in the Janitor's Room in Sheffield Center School?" with an image of a camera and photographs.
“I was very angry,” Morgan said. “Because every law enforcement agency that we contacted — and I'm talking about three different states — rebuffed us. The FBI, included. And — what do you do?”
Morgan said she believed there had to be other victims. She’s seen the movie, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” about a mother who put up billboards to spur police to solve the rape and murder case of her daughter. Morgan said she felt her billboards could draw attention to her son’s case.
“I felt like we needed corroboration, and I didn’t know how else to get it except to advertise it,” she said.
Her son didn't like the idea of the billboard. He said it creeped him out, and still does. But Morgan convinced him.
"Mom kind of said, 'Well, maybe we need a little nudge to ask people to come forward, that maybe they were just too scared to, like you were,'" he said.
Other victims come forward
Morgan said five men and six women contacted her after the billboards went up.
One of them is a 67-year-old woman who said she was shocked when she first saw the billboard. NEPR isn’t naming the woman, at her request, because she doesn’t want to be identified.
“I started to shake throughout my body — like, tremoring,” she said.
The woman said she was abused at the same school as the son — in the janitor’s room and the boy’s bathroom — multiple times in the early 1960s. She doesn’t think her perpetrator was the same as the son’s. He says he was abused about 18 years later. But like him, she still suffers.
“This experience of being molested completely threw me into a tailspin, and I've never really been able to stop the tailspin. So, you know, I just live my life, and do the best I can,” she said.
After emailing Morgan, she said she felt relief.
“It felt like, you know, somebody finally turned the water on in the desert,” she said. “It just was awesome to have empathy and also a message of hope.”
Hope that someday she would no longer be weighed down by the trauma she still experiences.
The power of empathy
Amherst clinical psychologist Steve Brown specializes in helping victims of trauma, including sexual abuse. He said the antidote to silence and shame is human connection for survivors of abuse.
“They go from many, many years of marinating in their own head about ‘Was I to blame? Was it my fault?’ To the act of actually having the words cross their lips,” Brown said. “And it's an amazing transformation to see the way in which people begin to feel empowered.”
Brown applauded the mother who listened to her son and took action.
“When you disclose and talk with others, then someone is holding it with you,” he said. “To have someone hold it with you, and to see the reaction in another person's face of empathy, of respect, of even celebrating you for coming forward — that is immensely powerful."
Morgan said it’s up to the survivors to decide if they want to contact the police. She isn’t doing that on their behalf.
Police Chief Munson said if the billboard brings in new information, that could reopen the investigation.
“And take it to another level. Meaning: we would interview that person, get statements, fact-check, things like that,” Munson said. “Then, I think — then we could go, after trying to secure either a search warrant, or bringing the subject in for an interview.”
The son, who turns 50 in September, said he's much better than he was.
“That means it can be better for somebody else, too, because now they’re not out there alone, either,” the son said. “And it’s a crappy thing — but it’s a good thing.”
He said he doesn’t want there to be others who were abused as he was, but there is relief he is not alone.