It’s an account of her husband’s experience with the American Boychoir School of New Jersey, where Travis Humphrey says he was molested as a student in the late 1980s.
Photo courtesy of Port City Photography Travis Humphrey is a local musician who performs regularly at venues in Portland and Biddeford.
Travis Humphrey is a well-known Maine musician, who mostly kept his story to himself until Hollywood decided to make a movie a few years ago starring Dustin Hoffman called “Boychoir.” It was a feel-good movie about the power of music, based largely on the American Boychoir School.
The movie did not mention the many allegations of abuse that have been leveled at the school. That angered Humphrey and emboldened him and his wife to speak up. Shonna Milliken Humphrey has written about the movie and her husband’s experience at the school in national publications, including The Atlantic and Salon. This book, a memoir published by Central Recovery Press, tells the story of one couple’s fight for justice and how they reconciled the abuse in order to save their marriage. It is based on a road trip they through took after speaking publicly about the allegations for the first time.
Humphrey, who lives in Gorham and works as foundation relations director at ThomasHumphrey, who lives in Gorham and works as foundation relations director at Thomas College in Waterville. Travis Humphrey performs regularly in Portland at Gritty McDuff’s and the Dogfish Bar and Grille, and in Biddeford at Champions.
Shonna Milliken Humphrey Photo courtesy of Shonna Milliken Humphrey
Q: This is an incredibly honest book about a very difficult subject. Why was it important for your husband to tell his story?
A: “Dirt Roads & Diner Pie” is honest, but I want to emphasize that it is not graphic. Those details – what happened to my husband when he was a little boy studying at the American Boychoir School – are his. Those details are not mine to share, so readers should not fear being confronted with them on the page.
That’s what sets the book apart, I think. It is a difficult subject, but I focus less on the abuse details and more on the long-term effects. Until I met my husband, I had no idea how insidious and long-reaching those effects can be. Child sex abuse among boys is more common than hunger, but there is reluctance to discuss the issue. Any time a strong, brave man acknowledges this experience, it makes it easier for other strong, brave men to acknowledge their experience, too. Q: What is the central message of this book? What do you want people to walk away with?
A: Marriage is an absurd endeavor, but with a sense of humor and perspective, it can also be pretty awesome. I think the central message of “Dirt Roads & Diner Pie” is that marriage brings people to weird places, literally and figuratively, and you have to laugh. My favorite literary passage is when Henry Miller quotes Rabelais in “On Turning 80”: “For all your ills, I give you laughter.” It’s true.
I also hope readers walk away with an understanding that there are good reasons why it can take a long time for victims to acknowledge traumatic experiences, the current justice system can be really messed up, and institutions with reputations for sex abuse must change their approach and philosophies. Q: Your story was fairly public before “Dirt Roads & Diner Pie” came out, because of the “Boychoir” movie. You wrote about it for Salon and The Atlantic as long ago as 2013. What was it like to go public, and how did things change for you and Travis after that publicity?
A: When I had the opportunity to write the piece for The Atlantic in 2013, it was a huge leap in Trav’s healing. We invited that publicity, and while it was a little uncomfortable, the end result was very positive. We received hundreds of encouraging notes.
With the movie and the 2014 Salon essay, it got trickier. We were ready to be done, but also, Trav did not want the American Boychoir School experience to be glamorized in a major motion picture. The idea of it being a recruitment and revenue tool for the school made him sick. So I wrote more, and that’s when the publicity got a little ugly. People affiliated with the Boychoir said some very unkind things about us and our motives.
However, Trav’s big fears were fears that many victims describe: not being believed or having the experience minimized. When those things actually happened in a very big and public way, he was able to step back and observe that, while not exactly pleasant, it also was not as bad as he’d imagined.
The backlash was brief and intense, but – I really believe this – good wins. Anyone who knows Travis understands that he is one of the good ones. Q: You went up against a major Hollywood studio – and won, or so it appears on the surface. Do you feel like you won?
A: I don’t think there are any winners with child sex abuse. Two years after its initial debut, Hallmark acquired the original film, renamed it, and CBS planned to broadcast it this past April during National Sexual Assault Awareness Month. That seemed like a bad idea, so we went back to what had worked before: writing the truth about our experience. I also invited others to do the same.
When CBS abruptly pulled the movie from its schedule, we were happy with that decision, so yes, that part felt like a win. But, that victory also emphasized how those affiliated with the Boychoir and similar institutions deal with victims, and that is where nobody wins. Q: I imagine this wasn’t a book that you planned to write. I presume it presented itself after all the publicity surrounding “Boychoir.” What’s next? Will you return to novel writing?
A: That’s true. I suppose no writer wakes up and says, “Today I plan to expose my marriage’s weaknesses, my personal anxieties and my husband’s deepest shame in a funny memoir.”
When we took the road trip, our biggest goal was to find some sun and step off the crazy train for a few weeks. The idea of writing a book came after we returned home and assessed our list of options. Trav could sue the school in a years-long process that would be handled largely by the school’s insurance company, or he could continue to stay quiet. Neither of those felt particularly satisfying, so we chose to make a new option and own the narrative. Basically, to just say what happened, let a little light into the experience, and hope it might do some good.
As for what’s next, I am working on a nonfiction book proposal about the early years of one particular AmeriCorps program, as well as finishing up a second novel. Once those are finalized, we will see which project my agent can sell first. Q: And what is next for Travis?
A: He recorded his latest project, “The Roadhouse Gospel Hour,” locally with Jon Wyman’s Halo Studios almost immediately upon our return from the road trip. It’s a collection of Americana standards and powerful original material. Travis is currently contemplating some new project ideas while he continues to perform locally.
Q: You are doing a lot of radio interviews. What has the reaction been to the book?
A: My novel, “Show Me Good Land,” was simpler to promote. I showed up, read aloud or talked about craft, and sold books. That resulted in some nice honors, too, like the Virginia Commonwealth University Cabell Award for first novels semi-finalist list.
For “Dirt Roads & Diner Pie,” it is a little different. I do think the book is powerful as a piece of literature, but I can create some social change with this project in a way that is limiting with a traditional novel. The publisher, Central Recovery Press, is a resource for all manner of healing, and having me speak directly with radio audiences throughout the country is an effective way to promote that social change aspect.
This is an edited version of an article first appearing in the Portland Press Herald