THE WORST KEPT SECRET
Updated: Dec 29, 2020
There are a few books I can’t bring myself to read. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is one of them. There is nothing in me that wants to spend my time looking at a dystopian world that enslaves women and removes the choice of how they use their own bodies, even if the heroine is awesome. Won’t read the book, won’t watch the show. I recently asked a friend who is into both if I should put my judgment aside and give it a try. She’s a prolific reader; something I admire her for. Her answer, “No, don’t do it”. She knows me, knows my story. Sat at my trial and listened to my testimony and held me afterward in the atrium as I sobbed uncontrollably. This is not a book I need to read, not now. Maybe never.
This same friend recently gave me the book Know My Name, by Chanel Miller. I will read this book, but it sits on my table unopened, spine unblemished. It whispers to me, telling me not to forget it’s there. How could I forget? Mostly it sits unread because I feel it will consume me, and I have my own writing to do right now. It feels like it will be a colossal undertaking and emotionally challenging, so I’m waiting. At some point the whisper will become a holler and I will spend a couple days engulfed in her world.
For research in my own writing work, yesterday I read a PhD thesis, written in 1987 by Martin John Costello, about John Clark Donahue and the CTC scandal. I’ve known about this thesis since it was written. Back then, I didn’t want to read it. I was too numb, and honestly didn’t want to wake up to the full truth. I’ve been looking for it in the past couple years, because I was ready to see what this man had to say about JCD and what he had created, but I kept coming up short. Someone would say they had a copy but then they couldn’t find it. I tried to find it on Amazon, located it, then was told they didn’t have it. A week ago, a copy was given to me by a friend. I finally sat down to take it all in. I found myself yelling at the pages while I was reading it. There is a copy that can be checked out of the U of M library of you are interested.
The question of “how did this happen” has been asked over the years. “Why didn’t anyone do anything?” I feel like I’m getting closer to that answer for myself. It is clear to me that the entire community was groomed by JCD, that his public charm was powerful. So powerful in fact that the therapist who was charged with treating him after his sentencing was so won over by John, a criminal who had spent decades abusing children, that after eight months he recommended early release from the already ridiculously short sentence of one year. In the margins of my copy I wrote, “Boy, did John pull the wool over this guy’s eyes.” The judge agreed with his recommendation. John had faced seven felony charges and could have been sent away for as much as twenty years, but he was allowed to plea bargain, spent eight months in jail, and was required to do community service, and several other community restitution efforts that he never even fulfilled.
John was embraced back into the theater community almost as if nothing had happened. As for the victims, some of them have killed themselves because of what they experienced at CTC at the hands of John and others, while others teeter on the verge of complete ruin. PTSD is real folks, if you want to know more about it in relation to sexual trauma, read The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk, MD. In fact, read it even if you aren’t interested because it’s information you should have, whether or not you yourself have ever experienced trauma or been sexually assaulted. I guarantee you, there is someone in your life that you care deeply about that has. This book will help you understand them.
In this thesis, I read about two men who were arrested in 1982 for child trafficking who named John as a perpetrator in a child trafficking ring and participant in child pornography. Apparently, John had been under suspicion of being part of child trafficking and child pornography as far back as October of 1961. One of the men arrested was the drama teacher at South High School, Terry Hanson. (Ironically, Terry directed me as “Nancy” in the Urban Arts Summer Theater production of Oliver, the summer before he was arrested.) This confession happened during the time that JCD was being investigated by the BCA. During the time that Jina was being trafficked and filmed. During the time that CTC’s board went to John and told him that he was being investigated instead of setting up protections so the kids would be safer. I think there was something dark and ugly, very deeply entrenched in the Minnesota arts and education communities, in law enforcement, that could have been exposed at that time, but wasn’t. There were people at the time trying to do the right thing, trying to speak the truth, but the truth was being suppressed. I think it’s important to ask, “Why?”
As I look back, why my lawyers didn’t choose to incorporate the information about the child pornography ring into my trial is a bit baffling to me. Jina testified at my trial and was never asked about this element of her experience at CTC, of being drugged and filmed for sex videos at the age of 15. I speculate that it is because this system, the ring of perpetrators and their pornography endeavors, was too much to bring into the fold of my story. My lawyers argued to me that it would have muddied my case. They were there to win my case, to tell at least a portion of the truth about CTC, as much as would be allowed in the courtroom anyway, not expose a child trafficking ring. Unfortunately, I think bringing that evidence into the courtroom would have proven the case of liability on the part of the theater and not just the negligence piece. John had used his position and prestige to hide his real purpose of having unlimited access to children. The theater was making money hand over fist, it had international attention and critical acclaim, and no one wanted to investigate the rumors because, if they were true, their money maker would go away. If that’s not liable, I don’t know what is.
To say everyone knew is a bit erroneous. Everyone knew about the rumors, even in theater communities across the country. As far back as the early 70’s, John’s exploits were referred to as “The worst kept secret in Minneapolis”. Wayne Jennings, the director of education at CTC even said he heard the rumors. By the way, he and one of the conservatory school teachers, Scott Creeger, were acquitted back in 1984 for failure to report on a technicality in the mandated reporting law. A law that was changed right afterward by the MN State Legislature specifically because of the outcome of the Jennings/Creeger cases.
I do believe there were people at CTC that were truly there to be part of what they considered magical. One former colleague of Johns said to me a few years ago that being asked to be part of the acting company was like, “Picasso asking you to come and play with paint.” John was revered, even up to the end. In 2016, After Rosy Simas called attention to the fact that John’s photo was still hanging on the wall at Rarig Center, a student at the U of M asked one of the faculty why his picture was still up and asked for it to be removed. She was told it wasn’t up to him and, “Hasn’t the guy suffered enough already?” Of course, comments like this are insulting to those of us who knew the dark side of John, but in light of the fact that the full truth about JCD has been suppressed and rape culture hasn’t had room for truth telling until very recently, I can see why people would say such things. Makes me want to punch them in the face, but I get it.
People turned their backs on what was obvious to some of us because they wanted to be part of the “glory”. Parents wanted their children to attend the school because of the prestige, and because their kids, most to them pushed out of the main stream in public schools because they were weird or “theater fags”, felt like they finally belonged somewhere. Students assumed that being sexual with adults was normal because it was all around them. It was a perfect storm for distracting from the deviance of what was happening in bathrooms, and the trap cellar, level five of the stairwell, or when John locked the door to his office from the inside.
John had ulterior motives when he surrounded himself with children, and he hid them behind a gilded curtain. In some of his writing, John refers to himself as a magician, raises himself to the level of cherished story teller, a valued member of the community, and most of us bought it. He was able to get away with his criminal activity, literally for decades, because he knew how to manipulate the people around him. In that way, he was a genius. During his sentencing in 1984, the judge said, “…you created a fantasy world of Children’s Theatre… and then you took that fantasy and perverted it.” And countless people suffered because of it. We will never know exactly how many.
He was also a genius in the way he surrounded himself with amazing talent and claimed their brilliance as his own. He made us believe that it was our presence there at CTC, under his guidance, that we would find our artistry, that we were special and no one else would understand how special it was there. That we would flourish because of his tutelage and the unique environment he provided for us, free of limitations. But the truth is, our gifts, our talents, were already within us when we showed up, ready to bloom. He didn’t instill anything in us, we had it already, waiting to surface. It wasn’t him that gave us our value as artists, it was our own willingness to mine that resource within ourselves that made us come alive as artists. Some say they owe their lives to him, that they found themselves at CTC. I say we owe him nothing. He used our gifts as a shield to his own deviance, adults and children alike. He provided safe harbor to criminals. Tony Steblay was hired in the early 80’s to be on staff at CTC, less than two years after he was fired from Hopkins Eisenhower High School for sexually assaulting adolescent girls in his theater program there. John put predators in our midst and gave them fishing rods.
The six other men that were exposed and charged through the BCA investigation were all either acquitted or their charges were dropped. I have no doubt that if any of the girls that were raped by McLean would have had it in them to expose him at the time, he too would have gotten away with it. Why? Because there are larger powers at work here. The public files showing John’s conviction in 1961 no longer exist, they have been missing since 1987 when the thesis was being researched. Files don’t go missing for no reason. The BCA files from the 80’s, and grand jury testimonies from the investigation of what was happening that were supposed to be in the public files were not there when my lawyers went to get them in 2016. There is a reason that the videotaped criminal report that Jina gave to a police officer in 2016, about what McLean did to her, didn’t get filed. There is something larger at work in this town. Something is happening and we need to pay attention. Again, we need to ask, “Why?”
But times are changing. In Altoona Wisconsin, the superintendent of schools, Dan Peggs, was arrested last Thursday on charges of sex trafficking and child pornography. He faces up to life in prison for the trafficking charge and 15 to 30 years for the child pornography charge. Sadly, I’m not surprised in the least that they would find someone with that much power over children accused of these things. At the time of this alleged assault he was the principal of the high school. Predators go where children are. That is a fact. They hide in plain sight and pretend to be an advocate for children. The reason he is being exposed? The girl he raped and filmed came forward and told someone. This is incredibly unusual, to have a child come forward so soon after the abuse happened. (If you wonder why that is, again, read The Body Keeps the Score.) I believe her willingness is, in part, because of the wave of truth telling that is happening in the world. The MeToo Movement is empowering young people to use their voices. We are experiencing a sea change, and it has the power to change the system.
It is young people, and truth tellers of all ages, that are going to make the difference. Awareness and trauma informed practices in law enforcement and legal proceedings that will change the game and make the legal process more humane for victims of sexual crimes. It’s our own willingness to not look the other way, to be empowered bystanders and stop accepting unacceptable behavior in our society. I’m thankful for this sea change. It’s about damn time.