If only, as the title of his memoir suggests, Frank Spinelli's significant life problem had just been being "Pee-Shy." But while that is a condition he has suffered from almost all his life - and a painful and uncomfortable one at that - the focus of his moving and gripping book is Spinelli's odyssey to bring his former Scoutmaster William Fox to justice after Fox molested him when he was 11.
Spinelli is now a successful New York doctor and author of The Advocate Guide to Gay Men's Health and Wellness, but in this raw - and also surprisingly witty and warm-hearted - memoir he recounts a childhood freighted with fear and upset that persists into adulthood, until he decides to take action to right the wrongs done to him by Fox.
The memoir is also a portrait of family life - of his ageing parents taking on board what happened to their son - and of Spinelli's own falling in love with his now-husband Chad Schroer. This courtship took place with maximum stress added - not only as Spinelli focused on bringing Fox to justice, but also in the face of Schroer suffering a stroke and having surgery to repair a hole in his heart.
The inability to pee - those who suffer from the condition, Spinelli tells us, are known as "paruretic" - is both very real, but also an expression of Spinelli's frustration and inner turmoil. There are many scenes in the book - including on an airplane, with a queue of people in the aisle waiting for him - with him desperately reciting a talismanic set of words to get him "to go."
Spinelli grew up on Staten Island and never wanted to join the Boy Scouts. He was already bullied at school and was worried about being picked on more. He was happy in his own after-school play-world. But, scared to defy his commanding mother, he was sent to a local troop where not only was he bullied by other kids, but also groomed by Fox. The scoutmaster first tells him that masturbation with friends is part of "boy bonding," which inevitably fascinates a sexually unknowing eleven-year-old Spinelli. This progresses to Fox abusing Spinelli at Fox's home, forcing him to engage in various sexual acts.
The first time this happens, Spinelli writes, "I recall only images, like snapshots from a movie…Bill standing up to remove his pants…dark black pubic hair, my hand wet with milky fluid, and finally me, siting in Bill's truck as he drove me back home." The night Fox first forces Spinelli to give him oral sex is the night Spinelli begins to wet his own bed. He lies to his mother when she confronts him about it, wanting to "protect" her and his father. Later, after he tells his parents the truth, his friend Jonathan tells Spinelli that he and other boys were fucked collectively by Fox and a policeman friend of his.
Later in life, Fox was hailed as a hero when, working as a New York cop, he rescued a homeless boy from committing suicide and adopted him (which he later turned into a book, The Cop and The Kid). This naturally infuriated Spinelli, and the dramatic engine of the book sees Spinelli contacting old schoolfriends and trying to elicit police interest in the many other boys Fox subsequently adopted. He was once named Father of the Year.
The book is a grueling read: it is heartening that the police take Spinelli so seriously, but Spinelli must give them reason to investigate Fox for crimes set nearer the present day - his own crime falls outside the statute of limitations - or get a confession from him. Twice, in nailbiting scenes, Spinelli sets out to get Fox to confess to what he did to him in police wiretaps. The object of these calls isn't simply for Fox to incriminate himself, but for Spinelli to himself hear him confess his own wrongdoing. In the second call, he begs Fox, "Tell me now that it happened and that you're sorry for all of it." Fox eventually says, "If what you say is true, then yeah, I would be sorry."
Ultimately, two of Fox's adopted sons and a third boy came forward to testify that they had been abused by him. At a subsequent trial in 2011, it was after the testimony of one his adopted sons, Shane, that Fox entered pleas of no contest to the abuse charges facing him. "It happened pretty regularly, like every other night," Shane Fox told the jury. "Depended on the mood he was in, I guess."
Spinelli was in court to face Fox, then 66, who was sentenced to between 17 and a half to 35 years in prison. Less than two years after he was sentenced, he died in prison.
"The cause of death is unknown to me," Spinelli told The Daily Beast. "There was a service on Staten Island. I actually called the priest who gave the service and asked him how he felt saying a mass for a man who pled no contest to molesting his adopted sons. I was quite angry. The priest said the mass was to help the grieving family. I asked him what about the victims and their families? He didn’t have much else to say."
For a while, says Spinelli, he was very depressed about Fox's death, "even though I was content knowing he could no longer abuse boys, and yet, there was a part of me that was mourning my lost youth."
Since the book came out, Spinelli has been speaking a lot about child sexual abuse. He says he has been "really focusing on the fact that men who molest boys are not gay; they’re child molesters. It’s very important for us not to assign molestation as a sexual orientation. It is a disease and a crime. What makes child molestation so insidious is that it creates a desire in the child to want to protect and please the molester. That’s why so few children come forward and why so many causes never get reported to the authorities."
Spinelli's intention and hope for the book is to encourage other survivors of sexual abuse to come forward and share their stories. "I want readers to understand that I am not a victim but a survivor of sexual abuse, and despite the years of depression and self-loathing, I was able to overcome it and find love, success, and happiness." A portion of the proceeds from the book will go to the Gay Men's Health Crisis; Spinelli sits on the organization's Board of Directors.
He and Schroer have been together now for six years and were married at City Hall two years ago. Spinelli's mother and two sisters came, along with four of the men's best friends. Schroer is doing "very well" since he had a procedure to close the hole in his heart. He has no residual effects from the stroke.
As for the title of the book, and the scenes of such frustration based around it that he sketches, Spinelli says, "I am less pee-shy today. Although I still use a stall if one is available, I no longer dread using a urinal in a crowded men’s room."