Exclusive Q&A with Dr Frank Spinelli, Author of Pee-Shy
Dj Buddy Beaverhausen: Dr Spinelli, thank you so much for doing this Q&A with us at Leave It to Beaverhausen and Queens NYC Our City Internet Radio. I was so impressed by Pee-Shy and I have to tell you there is so much in it that I can relate to. The personal insecurities, the misguided (even emotionally masochistic) romantic involvements and -- at the heart of your memoir -- being molested at age 11. What compelled you to write this story in the first place?
Dr Frank Spinelli: I had always wanted to tell my story, but the subject of child molestation has been told many times before. I didn’t think I had anything new to add. Then, in 2008, I discovered my former child molester had adopted a boy 25 years earlier, wrote a book and was awarded Father of the Year. That’s when I knew I had to tell my story. Little did I know that was only the tip of the iceberg.
DBB: Your memoir is very, very candid and, when I read your first draft, my immediate but, at the time, unexpressed concern was whether the public at large was ready for this. However, it is obviously a critical success and very well received and embraced by its readers (five out of five stars on Amazon's customer reviews). Were you surprised by the praise and the reception this has received?
DFS: Yes, surprised and thankful. The literary reviews have been wonderful, but to read reviews by readers is so humbling. Of course, you hope people buy your book, but when someone actually takes the time to write a good review... there’s nothing better than that.
DBB: I know your manuscript went through various drafts, rewrites and perhaps more than one editor. Would you tell us a little about the process of getting Pee-Shy from first draft to final copy?
DFS: I wrote a first draft and my agent read it. Then we had several conversations about what Pee-Shy was actually about. Once we derived that it was about a family in which one of its members suffered a traumatic experience, I went back and focused on that particular part. It’s not just about a boy who was molested. It’s more about how a childhood trauma affects someone well into adulthood, and how that person navigates his life so that the trauma doesn’t define him. I’m very adamant about referring to myself as a survivor and not a victim of child sexual abuse.
DBB: Wasn't there one point where an editor had a problem with the title of the book and suggested you change it?
DFS: My previous agent said, “No publisher will go for that title,” and so for a time, I called it Gone the Son. Then I switched agents. The first thing my current agent, David Forrer, said was, "You need to change the title because it's dreary." I explained that I originally wanted Pee-Shy. He loved it. Fortunately, the publisher did too. Most authors don't have final say in choosing the title or the cover art. I was very, very lucky Kensington shared my vision. Pee-Shy sets the tone of the book. Yes, it’s a serious subject but there is humor in it.
DBB: Gone the Son would be an awful title! Pshaw, thank God it's Pee-Shy! So happy the published book is titled that and it ends the same way you originally wrote it. I think it's the perfect ending and even a touch poetic. Since your first draft, the man who sexually abused you as a child (William Fox, your Scoutmaster) died in prison in 2013. You address that in the book in a single, factual sentence. But how did you actually feel when you received this news?
DFS: I was numb for weeks. My therapist said I was grieving. I remember thinking, grieve my molester? No way. Actually, I was grieving the loss of a part of childhood. Bill Fox’s death didn’t bring me "closure." It simply gave me peace in knowing that he was never going to touch another boy again.
DBB: Pee-Shy has a rather kaleidoscopic narrative of vivid memories and characters. It's poignant, sad but also with flashes of humor. When you sat down to write this book initially, how did things flow from your memory onto the page? Structuring this into a cohesive whole had to have been difficult I imagine.
DFS: Growing up, I read Stephen King novels. He had such a way with writing scenes and dialogue involving children. So I fashioned Pee-Shy like an early Stephen King novel: beginning in the present, flashing back to the past and then returning to the present. For many people who experience a traumatizing event, the memories remain so vivid because the trauma leaves an imprint. I had no problem recalling the events of those two years I was being molested. Conversely, there are individuals who block out the memories of a trauma and, in Pee-Shy, that is made painfully clear in the character of Johnathan.
DBB: Fox's home comes across as a very dark, foreboding place in the book. I know you're a big Hitchcock fan and, what with the bedridden mother, it has a touch of Norman Bates/Psycho to it, doesn't it? In fact, when you first saw Psycho, did it by any chance summon up thoughts of Bill Fox and his house?
DFS: That’s so funny you mentioned Hitchcock and Psycho.... Bill Fox’s home reminded me of Norman Bates’ house, complete with the old woman in the corner. As a child, it was a unsettling place to visit. I never knew what to expect when I climbed up the stairs to his room. I can still see the guns on his desk, the Farrah Fawcett poster over his bed and the drab wood paneling on the walls. That rooms still haunts my dreams.
DBB: Two adjectives that come to mind about this book are "brave" and "bold." Did you sense you were being either (or both) while you were writing your memoir?
DFS: The words that came to mind while I was writing were “obsessed” and “driven.” I was living in a tunnel of focus, completely oblivious to my surroundings because all I wanted to do was write this book. As you know, my husband became ill while I was writing. I incorporated that into the story because I wanted to show how life goes on even though I was working with the police to apprehend Bill. Despite whatever notions I had of being Nancy Drew, I had to stop solving my mystery to be with my family.
DBB: You previously had a success with your wellness manual, The Advocate Guide to Gay Men's Health (available, along with Pee-Shy, at Amazon.com). I seem to remember you once saying that Dr Ruth inspired you to write this. Am I right about this or did I just dream this up?
DBB: Great story! You're donating a portion of your earnings from Pee-Shy to the Gay Men's Health Crisis. Can you tell us a little about your involvement with GMHC?
DFS: I’m proud to be on the board of the first and oldest HIV service organization. Children who were abused are more likely to engage in unprotected sex. The fastest rising rates of HIV infection are among African American men who have sex with men ages 13-24. I've been treating men and women with HIV my entire career. Being a member of GMHC has been a wonderful experience, and so supporting them with the proceeds from Pee-Shy felt like the right thing to do.
DBB: Thank you, Dr. Spinelli. My best wishes for you and this brilliant, new memoir and to Chad, your whole family and, of course, to Hoffman. Now, are you ready to hit the talk show circuit? And, when they make a film version of Pee-Shy, who should direct and who should portray the adult Frank Spinelli?
DFS: Well, it goes without saying that it would have to be an Italian director like Martin Scorsese to capture the family dynamic and who better to play me in a movie than … I don’t know…. James Franco? I mean, if you’re going to make a movie about your life, the guy playing you should be handsome. Otherwise, why bother.