A Secret Nation: Talking with Barry Crimmins

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Today’s podcast “Breaking Silence,” is with Barry Crimmins.

A couple of weeks ago, I hadn’t heard of Barry Crimmins. A periodical search for new DVD releases brought Crimmins’ and Bob Goldthwait’s documentary Call Me Lucky to my attention. I saw the trailer, found a download, and watched the film soon after that. What got my attention wasn’t the usual reverential retrospective of a little-known but much-admired (especially by his fellow comedians) comic, but something that transpires halfway through the trailer and the film. In 1992, Barry Crimmins publicly disclosed having been raped as a four-year-old child, and soon after he became involved with a  case against aol.com, who were hosting pedophile chatrooms where child porn was being exchanged and children were being lured. It was this that got my attention.

Call Me Lucky is a powerful portrait—it gets to the raw quick of systemic abuse by focusing on a single person in a way that more far-reaching and generalized exposés simply can’t (the information is too overwhelming for one thing). I was moved to tears throughout the film, not so much by any one moment (though it has its share of searing speeches by Crimmins), but by the way Goldthwait builds both to and on the foundation of Crimmins’ big reveal. (Crimmins’ early comedy acts included scathing indictments of—and even mini-history lessons about —US politics, which probably accounts for why he didn’t become a bigger “name” than he did.) The film conveys Crimmins’ pain frankly, without embellishing or sentimentalizing it (it lets Crimmins convey it). It shows that it was always there, bubbling under the surface and seeping into his public performances, until one day the dam burst and the outrage found—or admitted to—a wider and deeper context.

My only complaint about Call Me Lucky is that it goes on too long. It reaches a natural climax when Crimmins revisits the basement where the rape occurred, where he speaks the line that gives the film its title. That’s a wrap right there, and at that point Crimmins’ and Goldthwait’s testimony is complete. But the film continues for another ten minutes, during which the various talking heads (Crimmins’ fellow comedians mostly) eulogize about what a hero Crimmins is, and I started to wonder, Did he die? It’s a mistake to think we need to be told this when the film, and Crimmins himself, have already done such a powerful job of showing us, and it has the effect of diminishing what’s gone before rather than tying it up as Goldthwait seems to intend. But this is a minor quibble, and maybe the filmmakers wanted to give their audience time to reconstitute themselves, after the emotional whirlwind they have been through.

The timing of speaking to Crimmins was significant for me. Having gone out on a limb by talking to Ann Diamond about MKULTRA, and having been publicly looking into the Hampstead ritual abuse case, I was feeling like I might have endangered the credibility—or the safety—of the podcast. Talking to someone who went that much further out on a limb, and whose public career not only survived but was transformed into something more meaningful and real, something closer to Crimmins’ own soul, his lived experience, seemed like the perfect amplification of my own transmission, at this time. Maybe even it is an indication of things to come?

The more my own writing and podcasting becomes concerned with sexual abuse and the ongoing crimes of State and beyond, the closer it gets to being a personal journey of healing, integration, and transformation, but also to disclosure of my own past (first and foremost to myself). Crimmins’ mission can be summed up by a phrase he uses a couple of times during our talk, “breaking silence.” Being a lone voice crying out against systemized abuse of power and the concealment of it—which begins with the family itself, when it’s impossible as a child to BE that voice—is an intrinsically frightening thing. You simply don’t know how the room will react. Maybe you are surrounded by perpetrators and don’t know it? Or maybe even your fellow abused, after a lifetime of silent complicity, will choose to side with the perpetrators and turn on you?

This is not what happened to Barry Crimmins. He found a chorus of supporting voices, hence the film. Call him lucky, but I prefer to think that it’s more the way it has to be, that one of the primary reasons for imposing silence (besides covering up the crimes) is to prevent those who have suffered such abuse from realizing that they are not alone, and just how not alone they are.

There is an entire secret nation which the abused belong to. Each voice that speaks up both strengthens and is strengthened by the ones who came before. Speaking up may never change the abusive system of power itself (I can’t yet share Crimmins optimism about that). But it does reveal another, subtler, deeper world that exists beneath this one, and that is there for those of us who are willing to go, all the way into and through the wound of this world.

3 thoughts on “A Secret Nation: Talking with Barry Crimmins

  1. I listened to this podcast last night. It was great. Mr. Crimmins seems compassionate and has a surprisingly positive outlook. You asked to know if anyone is “out there”, so I’m letting you know I am. I find your podcasts rewarding, challenging and evocative. I enjoy your honesty in your quest for discovering, recognizing and integrating all of your facets. I wish you well in your excavations and thank you for inviting others to share in them.

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