By the time DFW.com talked with Dale Hansen about his Sunday night Thank God for Kids commentary in which he revealed that he had been sexually molested as a child, it was Tuesday morning, and Hansen started off sounding a little groggy.
It was hard to blame him. He'd spent a good deal of Monday responding to e-mails, returning from an evening station Christmas party to stick around till 2:30 replying to people who wrote in. His responses may have been as short as "Thank you very much. Dale." But he'd read them all, and by that time, he'd received more than 1,000. And he says more than half of them would begin with people telling their own story about how they'd abused.
"One of the most staggering e-mails I received, and I didn't see it last night till after 2 in the morning, was from a high-school friend of mine," Hansen says. "One of my best, best high-school friends. He's been to the house, he's been down here in Texas 20 times, every time I go back home for whatever reason, we get together. ... And he sent me an e-mail saying 'Oh my God, Dale, I can't believe it. It happened to me, too. Can you imagine, Dale? In little old Logan, Iowa.' I just about broke down crying."
Hansen has been doing a holiday-period "Thank God for Kids" since 1982, and he says that in the e-mail era, most of them have generated about 150 to 300 e-mails. He wrote one about troubles with his children a few years ago, and that generated about 900 e-mails. But this has exceeded that, and the e-mails are still coming in. He spent about 4 to 6:15 p.m. Monday doing nothing but replying to e-mails, and when he had to go on the air, there were nearly 300 more new ones to deal with.
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One writer said he'd kept his secret for 61 years (Hansen spoke out after 53). "I wanted you to be the first to know," the writer said. "If you're telling, I'm telling, and I want everyone else to know." Another said it happened to her when she was 8. She's now 31 and said she would tell her husband and family.
"One woman writes where she was molested by her grandfather," Hansen says. "Her stepdad then beat her up when she did tell, because it ruined the family. So he spanks and beats this little 12-year-old girl for telling, and they know [the grandfather] did it -- and then two years later, [the stepfather] raped her." He also heard from people in Panama and Switzerland.
This was, Hansen says, one of the reactions he was looking for -- to get other people to tell their stories, to get things out in the light, to tell their families and loved ones. But another common reaction was praise for having the courage to speak up on the air about his own experience. But Hansen says he doesn't think courage comes into it as much as some people think."
"I've heard that so many times, and while it's incredibly flattering, I don't see it that way," Hansen says. "I didn't write it thinking that. I guess in part because it was 53 years ago; in part because as bad as it was, it wasn't as bad as I know other people had to deal with. I did feel, and I've heard this a lot, that maybe if I'd open up, it would help other people deal with the shame that I know other people feel. And it's somewhat what I did feel all these years."
Hansen says he was inspired to write the commentary after having had several arguments with friends about the Penn State scandal, in which he's heard people ask why the alleged victims of assistant coach Jerry Sandusky didn't speak up earlier and questioning whether they were telling the truth because they took so long to speak up.
"I would sit there, knowing full well that, no, they don't [tell]," Hansen says. "That was my primary reason for writing it. I wanted to try to explain in my little way that we do keep this in the closet. We do keep this hidden. And kids suffer as a result of it, because they don't tell, they're afraid to tell, or they think they shouldn't tell. And I know for a fact that's the way it is for a lot of them."
A key point of Hansen's commentary was to encourage parents to talk to their kids, and perhaps more important, to let their kids know not to be afraid to talk to them. But he also knows that there may be other reasons that children who have been molested are afraid to talk.
"If I accuse you of stealing my money, the immediate response from everyone is not that I'm a liar," Hansen says. "You get the so-called benefit of the doubt in terms of innocent until proven guilty, but I doubt that everybody in town would call me a liar. ... But I know for a fact that kids are referred to as liars, that 'They're making it up, they're trying to get attention.' It's this hidden problem in our society, and my God, if my e-mails are any indication at all, it's a problem that's completely out of proportion."
Reaction -- on DFW.com and elsewhere -- to Hansen's piece has been so strong, it may qualify Hansen's commentary as the top local-media story of the year. Most reaction has been supportive; some commenters (here and elsewhere), however, have criticized Hansen for making himself part of the story. Which he cops to. And which he's OK with.
"That's a pretty standard criticism I get for a lot of things I do," says Hansen, who's known for his outspokenness. "I think I have a certain freedom in sports that people don't have in hard-core news, and certainly when it comes to commentary, and I think it's the reason I've been doing it for 30 years in Dallas. I believe I connect with my audience more than other people do, and I do it because I wear my emotions on my sleeve."
Here's Hansen's segment again: