I was honored to sit down with Michael Reagan, the son of former President of the United States, President Ronald Reagan for my new series on #breakingfree. Michael shares how he broke free from trauma, conquered his demons and moved forward to establish his Walkway to Victory program.
In Michael Reagan’s book Twice Adopted, he highlights the trauma that has defined and refined him throughout his life. His story includes many difficult and painful chapters, such as being molested and the victim of child pornography as a little boy. After reading his book, I knew he “got it.” He understood not only the pain and struggle of unresolved guilt, past trauma, PTSD and the ramifications experienced of being invisible in plain sight; he also understood the vision and power behind #breakingfree and moving forward to become your authentic self.
His emotions surface as he re-tells his experience. “That (molestation) happened to me in 1954 and it’s now 2019. The pain never leaves you…I think the reason you see me choke up when I tell this story is because I think God wants me to show you the damage he (the molester) truly has done, to a child at that age. And as I say in the book, (this crime to a child) is the slayer of the soul.”
I asked Mr. Reagan what has kept him moving forward to become the leader he is today, “…what happened to me was definitely on that path…to be someone they (other victims) can talk to, who has gone through much of what they are going through today.” He shared a central message from his life story, saying, “If someone says they know how you feel, it is so wrong. So, I started mentoring…I survived to really be in that place, to really understand them.” Reagan’s fight to be here today comes with his vision of purpose. He adds, “I survived also because I have a great wife, a beautiful life, great kids and something to be able to really live for.”
I asked what drives him to make a difference for others and he replied, “You’re a victim. It’s very easy to live your life as a victim…I’ve been there, I did that, I didn’t finish college, there’s a hell of a lot of things I didn’t do in my life because I played the victim role.” He continued, “Now nobody knew I was playing the victim role, nobody knew but I knew, and so I believed I wasn’t gonna have a future, I didn’t deserve a future.” He continues, “Colleen (his wife) held me accountable and said ‘why are you always blaming God’, and I was blaming everyone for my problems. I was always affixing blame somewhere as a victim. So when I talk to people I understand that you are never gonna get over what happened to you. You have to get over using it for failure.” He explains, “So what I do is compartmentalize it and then when I need to bring it out to show others the kind of damage that was done…I just put it in my compartment and when I need to bring it out, it comes out.” His formula for moving forward and making a difference is ingenious and magical, as he elaborates, “You bring it out as a story to help someone else, not as a story of how you failed. Look… I sit back and say… What if? I think there are a lot of things that I wish I had done differently, but the reality is, I always find another way.”
He continues, “you know you are not just dealing with a child and the traumatic things that have happened around their life, but you are also dealing with the adults around that child and they are usually no help.” He continues, “The problem is the adults. You know it’s true. The schools they protect the teachers, the universities protect the professors, the church protects the priests and what have you. Unfortunately, that is what happens because you have adults that are dealing with their embarrassment…just like when Nancy came to the house before I was about to be interviewed for my book… and said, ‘Well I understand that you’re doing Donahue when you get back to New York.’ I said Yeah. She said ‘you know when you get to that part of the book about being molested, you need to remind them that you were living with your mother when that happened.’ The reality of it is that that’s the normal.”
Reagan then elaborates on the difficulty overriding the programing of shame for a victim’s tragedy as society is conditioned to walk around the elephant in the room and pretend it isn’t there. Instead, we focus on the aspect of our life and another’s life journey that is more palpable and sensational for our appetites. “Unfortunately, my name gets in the way, because what happens is, they see me and they just see the political side of my life. I have the political side of my life because of my parents and I have the other side of my life because of my mother. But the reality of it is, I think I have much more to offer on the other side than just the political side.”
Emphasizing how the unseen child cannot heal, he offers “I serve on one of the boards at our catholic church. They adopted my saying …if you can’t see it through the child’s eyes, get out of the room, because those are the eyes that you need to see through. So, it’s hard to help someone if we’re not seeing it through their eyes.”
When asked what advice he would give other victims to #breakfree from their trauma, Reagan offers, “I tell people, you know, I wrote a book. You don’t have to write a book, but…I think that when you write the story yourself, you are more honest, and it flushes things out. In my book, on the outside looking in, when I was writing about the sexual assault and trying to explain it, I mean, I must have rewritten that chapter 20 times. Because you just don’t want to say it and it’s like a breakthrough when you finally say, ‘look what happened.’ Writing a story to yourself is a therapeutic way of really working through it yourself.”
In order to bring to light the magnificent work Mr. Reagan has created while moving forward, I asked about his program, the Walkway to Victory, in honor of the Normandy veterans and their loved ones, and the drive behind it. “I was playing golf with a 28-year-old man… and I said… ‘hey tomorrow I’m taking off for Paris and driving up to Normandy on Saturday because I’ve been asked to raise the American flag at the American Cemetery in Normandy on Sunday’. This young man said, ‘Well, why is there an American cemetery in Normandy?’ He had no idea and…I started think about it and thought, he is probably the normal, because we don’t educate about it. It is up to us to teach the history. Why are we repeating all of this? It’s because we aren’t teaching it and we end up repeating history because no one remembers what happened before.”
“How do you remember these people that you talked about and it’s like forgotten to an extent. (Those who) served in the war, how do we do this? We can start selling bricks (to) remember someone that in fact served in that European theater and it will be there for all time in the walkways at the airport museum.” Sharing the veterans’ response when are they are seen, “They broke into tears, just broke into tears that someone would remember them.” He has also added a scholarship program, for the men and women who served aboard the U.S.S Ronald Reagan.
I told him the laying of the bricks offers a beautiful analogy of laying a foundation for future generations and not letting us forget. We have this opportunity to see through the child’s eyes, in which, the pain is no longer invisible.
Michael Reagan’s journey of #breakingfree from past trauma and triumphantly arriving at his place of authenticity offers a model of hope. He gives people a needed voice. And as a person begins to speak up, or write their story, the multiple traumas they experienced may emerge and they can then be released. His story is about choice and taking a stand. Please know that you, too, can #breakfree and move from trauma to triumph.