CEASE is proud to present our new ‘Spotlight’ series, a series of interviews highlighting the fantastic work organisations and individuals around the world are doing to combat sexual exploitation of all kinds. Neither religious nor partisan, as a human rights advocacy charity, we are proud to platform the work of different groups and organisations from across the spectrum who have a shared purpose: to end all forms of sexual exploitation. If you wish to be featured in one of our Spotlight features, please email contact@ceaseuk.org

This week, CEASE UK had the privilege of sitting down with survivor, public speaker, former elite athlete, author, and activist John-Michael Lander for our SPOTLIGHT Series. John-Michael discusses the exploitation and abuse that can occur in environments such as schools and sports teams, and how awareness can be raised of this issue, as well as how to effectively combat it.

John-Michael is the author of the ‘Surface Series’, a series of novels that explores exploitation and abuse through the eyes of the character David Matthews. More information can be found here

Please introduce yourself/the organisation name you work under

My name is John-Michael Lander. I am with An Athlete’s Silence. I am creating a voice for the sexually abused by breaking my silence and sharing my story. Through my writing, speaking, and consulting, I help individuals and organizations identify the signs of predatory grooming, manipulation, and stigmatising and assisting survivors (of any abuse) to face the past and help find their true selves.

I am also on the Board of Directors for The Army of Survivors. Their mission is to bring awareness, accountability, and transparency of sexual violence against athletes at all levels. 

As much as you feel comfortable discussing, please tell us about your background/history with regard to exploitation and grooming 

I have battled with finding my true and authentic self. As an elite athlete competing on the international stage in springboard and platform diving competitions, I endured sexual abuse at the hands of my coach, medical team, and benefactors, which resulted in years of PTSD, depression, anxiety, and even suicide attempts while maintaining a functioning exterior facade.

My parents were experiencing financial difficulties, and the sport of diving was rather expensive. After I took eighth at the Jr. Olympics on Springboard, my mother was approached by a lawyer who offered a solution to the family’s financial issues. He said that he knew professionals that could provide monies to help with the diving costs and keep my Amateur Athlete Status. This group of professionals sought out athletes and college students and offered to help pay for their expenses. I came on the Lawyer’s radar after an article ran in the local newspaper. The next thing I knew, the professionals provided support and free doctor exams, medication, and eye exams for the whole family. The professionals took care of my diving expenses, swimsuits, coaching fees, travel, lodging, and medical treatment; all I had to do was “have dinner” with the professionals. What they did not reveal to my mother was that I would have to provide the dessert. 

At the same time, my coach saw my potential and started preparing me for the Norway Cup and Canadian Cup. He approached my mother and informed her that I had the potential for the Olympics and a college scholarship. He insisted that I had to listen and do everything he said and that he would have to take me on overnight trips to practice with the university team. He wanted absolute control over my practices and diet and needed to trust me without outside interference, especially her.

It was after he gained my mother’s trust before he approached me about my potential future. His grooming process was slow and methodical. He started whispering the corrections for the dive in my ear, so the other divers didn’t overhear. He informed me that the teammates were jealous of me because I would compete in Norway and Canada. He began complimenting my diving and started touching me more and more while giving corrections. He started hugging me after a good dive or if I performed well in a competition. As time continued, the attention grew. All this played in gaining my trust and normalizing his actions, words, and touches. On overnight trips, I stayed with him. He introduced me to alcohol and a game he called lick the lollipop. My confused teenage mind thought he really liked me. He informed me that my diving success was not possible without him. He ensured that I understood that he was the only one who believed that he was the only one who could get me to the Olympics and a college scholarship. He made me promise that although his coaching methods may seem odd, I was not to let anyone know about them; he didn’t want his coaching techniques used by other coaches. 

I tried telling my mother about the abuse with the professionals. When I told her that he touched me in certain places, she slapped me and said that he was an upstanding professional in the community and helped the family. I needed to do my part in helping the family. I believed that if she didn’t believe me that no one would. So, I tried to pretend it never happened. 

After winning the gold medal in Norway and graduating with a college athletic and academic scholarship, I moved across the country to attend the University of California, Irvine. I thought it would be a fresh start, a new beginning, and I could pretend the coach and professionals’ issues were no longer a part of my life.

However, the professionals continued to support me while at school. What I didn’t realize was that sexual abuse survivors will subconsciously repeat certain behaviors. I was no different. A grad student started to stalk me, leaving me messages at the pool, my book bag, and my dorm. He tricked me into meeting him, drugged my drink, raped me, and left me on the school lawn. After a humiliating experience at the medical center, they and the police officer told me that it was my fault because men cannot be raped. I fell into a depression and ended up getting very sick. I returned to my parents in Ohio. 

I continued to keep my secrets and never really understood my anger, anxiety, depression, and mood swings. I felt broken, and thoughts of suicide became prevalent. I continued to struggle in silence. 

I returned to California and appeared on General Hospital. I moved to New York and appeared on All My Children, national commercials, the lead in the independent film All The Rage, and originated many New York Stages roles despite my deep secrets. I began finding myself in sexually abusive situations in the Entertainment Business. 

When both my parents became sick, I moved back home to help with the thought of returning to the Entertainment Business later on. During this time I got my BFA and Masters in Education and started teaching high school English. I thought I could handle it on my own and never told anyone.

What inspired or encouraged you to speak out about these experiences? 

As sophomore student came into my classroom, he told me that he was gay. He said that he had a boyfriend, who was older, much older, in his thirties. He told me that he was sexually active and that his mother and grandmother were supportive of this. I asked him why. He replied that this man pays for the groceries and the bills. I informed him that I was going to have to report it. He seemed relieved. As I shared the information with the assistant principal, I was told that the situation was known and there was nothing that could be done since the mother and grandmother were aware. 

As I left the school, I felt disturbed. I started to have flashes and fragmented images from the past, quick little boomerangs. I started feeling the emotions that I had tried to hide and keep hidden. It got so bad that I wrote a note to my partner of 15 years, said goodbye to our two adorable Boston Terriers, and went into the garage to kill myself. As I sat there inhaling the exhaust fumes, I heard this voice say that this isn’t fair to Nathan to find you like this.

The voice continued and said to get up, turn off the car, and go back into the house, which I did. I feel on the living room floor and cried an ugly cry. When I couldn’t cry anymore, I picked myself up and made a promise that I was going to break my silence and tell my story. I wrote Surface Tension about my time preparing for the Norway Cup and the abuse I endured.

I have shared my talk, An Athlete’s Silenceat the 2018 TEDxDayton and was the KeyNote Speaker at the 2019 Coalition to End Sexual Exploitation (CESE) Global Summit in Washington, DC. During this pandemic, I have done virtual talks for PFLAG Dayton, Break the Silence Against Domestic Violence, and have been asked back to talk about Predatory Grooming at the 2020 CESE Global Summit.

What are some of the key elements or components of your work when trying to raise awareness of grooming or exploitation for other organisations/individuals? 

Brent Cary, a hockey player, and I are working on a Predatory Grooming Program to help people, schools, sports teams, parents, teachers, coaches, and organizations recognize the many different grooming types. We stress the importance of understanding that predators use no clear-cut method to groom their targets. Each predator has unique grooming methods and will often change them if they are getting close to being discovered. We provide ways to recognize red-flags, ask questions, what to do if you suspect grooming or sex abuse, who to report to, and how to handle the situation.  

I am in the process of the SOS (Supporters of Survivors) Program that will help the family members and friends understand the effects of sexual abuse and how to provide the support the survivor needs. Research has shown that a person’s (who has experienced sexual trauma) brain will reconfigure itself, like a stroke patient or a person suffering from PTDS. SOS could improve the communication and relationship between the Supporter and the Survivor.  

What are some challenges you have faced in recent months, Covid-19 related or otherwise? 

Covid-19 has provided me the chance to reflect on the areas I still need work. A sexual abuse survivor’s recovery is like an onion; as layers peel back and away, new layers are waiting beneath. This quarantine provides the time to tend and care for those wounds to bring each severed part pack. I am working with Merle Yost and utilizing tools and techniques to reintegrate the parts of myself that I have disassociated. 

As I discover the memories that I have either lost or suppressed, I am learning how powerful I am and how important my story is to share with everyone who will listen. 

Do you have anything in the future that you’re working towards, and are feeling inspired about?

No matter how difficult or frequent the abuse, everyone can have the life they want. It takes the courage to admit it took place, seek therapy, and provide yourself positive self-care. 

Be patient with yourself because the healing journey is a life-long endeavour. Some days will be challenging, but hold on to your dreams and realize that everything comes together like a perfect recipe. 

Please visit my website www.anathletessilence.com and find stories and resources to help you through your journey. 

The photo for this article was taken from An Athlete’s Silence.