FamilyLife Today® Podcast

The Healing Journey

with Bill Harbeck | November 9, 2011
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Imagine hiding a secret for 21 years. That's how long Bill Harbeck was married before he told his wife about his past sexual abuse. Today Bill shares how he brought his secret to the light and the steps he took to find healing for his life and marriage.

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  • About the Host

  • About the Guest

  • Imagine hiding a secret for 21 years. That's how long Bill Harbeck was married before he told his wife about his past sexual abuse. Today Bill shares how he brought his secret to the light and the steps he took to find healing for his life and marriage.

  • Dave and Ann Wilson

    Dave and Ann Wilson are hosts of FamilyLife Today®, FamilyLife’s nationally-syndicated radio program. Dave and Ann have been married for more than 38 years and have spent the last 33 teaching and mentoring couples and parents across the country. They have been featured speakers at FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway since 1993 and have also hosted their own marriage conferences across the country. Cofounders of Kensington Church—a national, multicampus church that hosts more than 14,000 visitors every weekend—the Wilsons are the creative force behind DVD teaching series Rock Your Marriage and The Survival Guide To Parenting, as well as authors of the recently released book Vertical Marriage (Zondervan, 2019). Dave is a graduate of the International School of Theology, where he received a Master of Divinity degree. A Ball State University Hall of Fame quarterback, Dave served the Detroit Lions as chaplain for 33 years. Ann attended the University of Kentucky. She has been active alongside Dave in ministry as a speaker, writer, small-group leader, and mentor to countless wives of professional athletes. The Wilsons live in the Detroit area. They have three grown sons, CJ, Austin, and Cody, three daughters-in-law, and a growing number of grandchildren.

Imagine hiding a secret for 21 years.

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The Healing Journey

With Bill Harbeck
November 09, 2011
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Bob:  For years, Bill Harbeck did not share with his wife about his experience of being sexually abused as a child.  When it finally came out, Bill wanted to sweep it under the rug, to pretend like it was really no big deal.

Bill:  What had worked for me for 21 years was the safe place to go.  So, I went back there and started to shut down again—moved to a new community, a new position in Arizona, and had the opportunity to start all over again; but the secret was out, much like the marriage.  This was now, “Oh, it is out.  Let’s move on.  Let’s pretend like it never really happened.” 

It wasn’t until 2004—eight years after—that I came home; and she had bags packed and said, “Alright.  Either you’re going to get some help, or I can’t do this anymore.” 

Bob:  This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, November 9th.  Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine.  Today, Bill Harbeck joins us to talk about how his wife Jill helped him shine a light into the dark places of his soul.  Stay tuned.

Welcome to FamilyLife Today.  Thanks for joining us.  This has been a—well, it’s been a sober week to hear recounted a story that as you said, Dennis, is both sad and evil.  It’s a story of a young man growing up who was abused by a family member from the time that he was an early teenager all the way up until he was married at age 19—about the repercussions of that sexual abuse that he experienced on his life, on his marriage, until the point that he finally brought it all out in the open, and God began to do a redeeming and restoring work in his life.

Dennis:  Bill Harbeck joins us again on FamilyLife Today to continue this story.  Bill, as Bob said—this just stirs up a lot of emotion in me—maybe it is because FamilyLife has a ministry to orphans.  We know what happens to orphans who aren’t protected by family members.  We hear about the sex slavery—a trade that is taking place—and the evil that is perpetrated on children; but your story is a story of a little boy who was protected, and it still happened to him. 

So, the broadcast today really is, I think, in some ways to moms and dads, who are raising the next generation of boys and girls, to just be vigilant.  Pray about the friends your kids have, the family members that they develop relationships with.  Keep your relationships intact with your kids. 

Your book, Shattered, was really written as a story to share, not only what happened to you, but what happened to a young man growing up in his marriage who didn’t expose the evil that was done to him.  Your story was that you married Jill when you were 20.  You were married for how long before you told her of the sexual abuse?

Bill:  Twenty-one years.

Dennis:  Twenty-one years.  How did it impact your marriage?

Bill:  We had a marriage that looked from the outside as if it was all together, as if we were living out the good, Christian marriage—the elder in the church, the Sunday school teacher, the family that sings and travels together.  We were what my parents were—the pillars in their church—we had become in our church.

Bob:  You’re the basketball coach at Wheaton College—

Bill:  Yes. 

Bob:  —one of the leading evangelical Christian colleges in America.  You, also, were a school administrator and a basketball coach at a number of Christian high schools.  Again, the impression that everybody has is, “The Harbecks, if you need some help in your life, if you need somebody to help you with spiritual guidance and counsel—” 

Dennis:  “They’ve got it together.”

Bob:  “—you should go talk to Bill and Jill Harbeck because, obviously, they’ve got things working.” 

Bill:  We should have written a book then.  (Laughter)

Bob:  Did anybody outside of the family know that there was anger going on in your marriage?  Did anybody know that you were distant and the marriage had its cracks in the foundation?

Bill:  No.  None of my friends or relatives would have known.  Jill may have shared with her sister.  Her sister and she are very close, but I don’t think it was anything that anyone would have thought twice about.

Bob:  Why didn’t she blow the whistle on you?  I mean, why didn’t she, at year ten go, “I’m telling folks.  I’m doing something here?”  Do you know? 

Bill:  I think, we both grew up in the same environment.  Her parents and my parents even went to the same high school.  So, there’s this long-standing tradition of, “I don’t walk out on a marriage.  This is the way—you get married like our parents did—and they stay married forever.” 

Bob:  You don’t talk with other people about what’s going on.

Bill:  No.

Bob:  You just kind of—you suck it up and you move ahead.

Bill:  Image is everything.  Her family grew up as a ministering family that travelled all over, as a singing family.  Everything was about what they looked like and how it was presented to the community.  So, she, in that sense, was coming in with me the same way.  We—this was about what we looked like to the community.

Dennis:  You had to spend a lot of emotional energy keeping the image together.  Was that exhausting?

Bill:  Yes.  In fact, the most difficult part in all of this was keeping the secret because you had to be conscious every moment of not letting down your guard to let people see what was really going on.  Eventually, 21-years’ worth of that wore me down to a point where I just couldn’t do it anymore.

Bob:  What was the straw that broke the camel’s back with Jill that forced this out in the open?

Bill:  I left Wheaton College—left education for a year—got out there and slowly just started to deteriorate—even less communication.  I just shut down completely.  The children noticed it.  She noticed it. 

It was tearing me up to a point where, “Look, it’s either going to be me—.”  I remember standing on the railroad tracks in Wheaton, just contemplating this, “I can get this over real quick and easy.”  The children kept—in my mind—saying, “No, no.  I can’t do that to them.” 

So, we were out for lunch or dinner at an Olive Garden restaurant.  It was building, and building, and it just burst out. 

Dennis:  You are talking about May 26, 1996—

Bill:  That’s the day.

Dennis:  —after you’ve been married 21 years.

Bill:  It would have been 21 years in August.  Yes.  We were coming up on our 21st anniversary.  I had literally reached a point of explosion inside.  It was so pressurized (I guess would be the word).  I had to get it out.  I couldn’t keep this a secret anymore.  I looked—I just blurted, “I was abused as a kid.”  The next 15—I can’t recall the time—I couldn’t speak after that.  The emotion was just flooding out in tears and almost shaking. 

She wasn’t quite sure what to say.  She said, “What are you talking about?”  Slowly, got out what exactly had happened.  I left that position the next month to take a position in Arizona where we’ve been for the last 13 years; but the healing journey began that day, May 26th.

Dennis:  Obviously, Jill was completely stunned at the lunch.  In the days that followed, what was her response?  How did she process it?

Bill:  Jill is a registered nurse, and she has the gift of mercy.  So, she was going to fix me and restore whatever it was that had injured and wounded me.  She went systematically to work.  She confronted my uncle.  She told my mother.

Dennis:  Wait a second.

Bob:  Wait a second—yes.

Dennis:  Let’s go back to the uncle. 

Bill:  Yes.

Dennis:  How did she contact him?  What happened?

Bill:  She wrote a letter, without me knowing—a certified letter.  She sent it off.  She got a response from that.  Then, she shared with me, my mother, and grandmother what she had done.  In her mind, she was going to help me get whole again.  “Why wouldn’t everyone want to know what happened to you?”

Bob:  So, she wrote a letter to your Uncle Sam.  “The secret’s out.” 

Bill:  The secret’s out.

Bob:  “Bill has told me what happened.”  Did she vent; do you know?  Was it—

Bill:  There were many words in there of, “How could you have possibly done something like this to an innocent little boy?”  

Bob:  Did you read the letter before she sent it? 

Bill:  No.

Dennis:  Did you read it afterwards?

Bill:  I didn’t read it until years later. 

Bob:  She sent it registered.  You said she heard back from him. 

Bill:  She didn’t—just the card, just the receipt card.

Bob:  Just the receipt thing—Your letter was delivered, and he had signed on it. 

Bill:  Yes. 

Bob:  He never called.  He never wrote back.  He never—there was nothing.

Bill:  He never acknowledged it.  Shortly thereafter, he passed away in the hospital.  He had admitted himself and stopped eating.  He starved himself to death.

Bob:  Do you look at that letter as a triggering event?

Bill:  I do.  I think the truth was now out.  He was well into his early 70s by then.  If I came out, the idea that the others would come out probably—I’m speculating—probably was enough to say, “That’s it.

Bob:  Jill didn’t just go to him.  You said she went to—was it your mother, your grandmother?

Bill:  Unfortunately, that backfired.  The family did not accept that well.  I had a hard time with it, too, because I was caught between those.  So, for the next eight years, I shut down again. 

Dennis:  Well, now, wait a second.  Your grandmother reacted, and there was a reason for her reaction.

Bill:  Right.

Dennis:  There was a secret—

Bill:  Yes.

Dennis:  —that the family had been keeping for years. 

Bill:  Sure.  Well, I found out since then, yes.  There was abuse that had taken part within that—family members that my grandmother—she was one of eight or nine.  So, there was abuse that had gone on within the family as her—

Bob:  Her brother was not the only one who had abused.

Bill:  There was abuse within that extended family.

Bob:  So, to bring this to light would open up the whole thing.  Your grandmother didn’t want the lid off of that.

Bill:  Any part of that.  No.

Bob:  Were you okay?  I mean, here is Jill on a crusade to get this out in the open.  Was she doing this with your agreement or doing it whether you like it or not?

Bill:  A little of both.  Part of me knew, “I needed to do it.”  The other part was still holding on to, “I’m afraid to let this out.”  It did.  It sent me back into the old behaviors, and I started to shut down again—moved to a new community, a new position in Arizona, and had the opportunity to start all over again; but the secret was out, much like the marriage.  This was now, “Oh, it is out.  Let’s move on.  Let’s pretend like it never really happened.” 

It wasn’t until 2004—eight years after—that I came home; and she had bags packed and said, “Alright, either you are going to get some help, or I can’t do this anymore.” 

Bob:  So, bringing it out in the open didn’t make everything work?

Bill:  Unfortunately, no.  For me, it was such a long period of time of having lived that way that my behavior had actually molded itself into my own protective behaviors—wrong, but still protective.

Dennis:  I’m wondering about Jill and how she’s processing this personally.  I mean, first of all, she’s lived for 21 years with a man that had a huge secret that you didn’t divulge to her.  Now, you’ve got it out in the open, but you are still hiding.  She really must be a remarkable human being to have hung in there and stayed in that situation with you.

Bill:  Yes.  She’s amazing.  Even today, she’s texting me saying, “I’m praying that what you’re doing there will benefit others, the way it’s helped us.”  So, you can see that’s who she is.  I’m moving forward in this ministry because she’s back there pushing.  She’s back there supporting.  She’s doing what she’s always done.  It has not been easy.

Dennis:  I don’t hear that at all.

Bill:  The last 15 years we’ve had some real, real tough moments where we’ve had to spend time away to just walk through the tears.  This was my responsibility.  I sinned against my wife for all those years.  Now, I have to reconcile, “Yes, I was a victim and she—I should be able to get away with this.”  I had to understand that, “No, what you did to your wife was unacceptable.  You need to repent from that.”

Dennis:  I want to stop you there because there are some who are listening who are going, “You sinned against your wife?  How did you sin against your wife?”

Bill:  Emotionally, physically, all the things that belong within God’s design of intimacy, I withheld from her.  I had no right to do that.  We were in a marriage together.  My body, my soul belongs to her, but I withheld that.  That’s not right.  That’s sinning against her.

Dennis:  So, to that man or woman today who has that secret locked up, there really is the issue of obedience to God.

Bill:  Absolutely.

Dennis:  Bringing your spouse into the sorrow, the sadness, the anger, the grief of that evil.

Bob:  It is part of the two becoming one; isn’t it?

Bill:  Absolutely, I have no right to withhold those things from her when she has all the right in the world to know that and would have helped me through that the first two years of our marriage.  We would have saved so much of that trouble and turmoil if I had just let it out early on.  When I didn’t, and it transferred—now, we’ve spent—I think the healing journey is more excruciating than the actual abuse itself.

Bob:  Wow.

Dennis:  I’m thinking of a burn victim—

Bill:  Yes.

Dennis:  —how a burn occurs instantly and, then, how the healing process is so excruciating; except, this is an unseen wound of the soul brought into the marriage.  I’m also thinking about when we stand before a pastor—we take the other person’s hand and we say, “For better, for worse, until death do us part.”  We have no idea what the other person is bringing into the marriage. 

We may be in denial about what we’re bringing into the marriage, but it is the commitment to love and to journey on in grace that ultimately can bring the healing.

Bill:  Yes.

Bob:  Your first attempt at counseling did not go so well.

Bill:  No.  It was just shortly after the meeting in May.  The counselors, for whatever reason, decided that this was some type of demon possession issue and wanted to spend time exorcising out of me.  So, I fled from that just out of sheer anger.  I said, “No.  You don’t get this.”  It helped me defend my position against counseling with Jill for the next eight years.

Bob:  Yes, that is what I’m wondering.  It shut you back down.

Bill:  Shut me back down.

Bob:  So, eight years later, when she said, “We are going to see a counselor.”  This time, the counselor was able to get you started in the right direction.

Bill:  Right.  Remarkable couple—that met me right where I was—but was not sympathetic or not really compassionate in terms of the healing process.  In fact, told me, “Jill came down here to be healed.  If you don’t want any part of this; fine.  You can just leave.  We’ll take care of her and bring her home.” 

My competitive nature at that moment said, “No, no, no.  You’re not going to win this one.  I need to be in control of my own healing.”  She handed me a book from—that Dr. Allender had written called The Wounded Heart.  I read the book through the night, the entire evening.

 We met the next morning and went to work for a couple—two, three days—of really intense searching into my soul.  She walked me through that.  That began the real process of healing.  I’m seven years down the road from there and still working on it.

Bob:  Still on the journey.

Bill:  Still am.

Dennis:  You’ve articulated the excruciating pain of healing.  Can you articulate the delightful celebration of healing, as well?

Bill:  I can tell you that in my marriage, which is 36 years now, the understanding of intimacy the way, I think, God designed it (or as close as I could get it as a human) sexually, intimately—only happened two or three times—where that experience— where I felt an intimate connection.  I can tell you, now, that that is happening for us almost on a regular basis—that my wife and I intimately are connected physically, spiritually, emotionally. 

I can’t even share with you the joy, the satisfaction, the peace that has come with that, after all these years.  I just wish I had 50 more to live with her.  (Laughter)  So that we could share this—what we have now from what we experienced for those years.  It has led me into this ministry to reach out to kids, in particular, that are at the stage I was at—or men, most of them are men between 42 and 55, who are just for the first time letting it out.  I know right where they are. 

There is another piece in this, too.  Maybe it’ll help.  My daughter—I have a disabled daughter—came into my life just a few years before I exposed this.  She is severely disabled; and she has taught me, over the years of the healing journey, that this is really all about dependency. 

She’s completely dependent on my wife and me for her daily needs.  She reminds me every day, “Dad, you’re completely dependent on God, whether you want to admit it or not.  Your healing is only going to come from Him.  Just like you take care of me, He will take care of you.” 

Dennis:  Wow.

Bill:  So, her piece in this whole healing journey is so important and crucial that I clearly see God’s hand at every one of the different stages.  What He has from here—I’m excited about knowing just because I’m in a good place right now. 

Dennis:  I wish our listeners could see your face.  There is a big grin on his face right now.

Bill:  That’s correct.

Dennis:  You’re smiling at the future.

Bill:  Yes.  There’s still the journey, and there is still the pain.  I said—even before when you asked me—I don’t really feel what I used to feel.  I remember it.

Dennis:  It no longer has you imprisoned.

Bill:  I’m not in bondage anymore.  I’m not being held by the Enemy.

Dennis:  I think the message for the listener who is thinking of his or her own sexual abuse right now is, “You aren’t alone.  You are not the only person—”

Bill:  No.

Dennis:  “—and there is a God of grace and compassion.”

Bill:  There is hope.

Dennis:  There is hope.  Bill, thank you for—

Bill:  Thank you.

Dennis:  —giving hope and sharing about the God of all hope and how He brought it to you.  You’re a good man.  I want you to know I’m sad for what happened to you.  I really am, but I’m really proud of your courage.

Bill:  Thank you.

Dennis:  Way to go.

Bill:  Thank you.  Thank you for having me.

Bob:  Well, you need to know you’ve helped a lot of folks this week who have tuned in and listened to the program.  In fact, I have been reading some comments online on our website at  They’re down below the transcript of today’s program.  There is a place for folks to leave comments.  There are folks who have been leaving comments, talking about how much this program has helped them.  I appreciate you sharing with our listeners; and thanks for writing the book, too.

The book is called Shattered.  In it, Bill Harbeck shares the story that you’ve heard him tell us about this week.  It would be a great book for you to read if you have experienced sexual abuse.  Let me also recommend Dan Allender’s book, The Wounded Heart, which we also have in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center.  These are both great books for folks who want to experience a kind of breakthrough that you’ve experienced as an adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse.

Go to for more information about both of these books.  You can order them from us online, if you’d like.  Again, it’s; or call toll-free 1-800-358-6329.  That’s 1-800 “F” as in family, “L” as in life, and, then, the word, “TODAY.”

On behalf of those listeners who have benefitted from what you’ve shared with us this week, Bill, I want to say, “Thank you,” to those of our listeners who help support this ministry.  Your financial participation, your support of FamilyLife Today, is what makes programs like this possible.  You should know that you are just one of a small percentage of folks who don’t just listen but who help pitch in to make the program possible.  We’re grateful for your financial support.

In fact, this month, if you can help us with a donation, we’d like to send you as a thank-you gift of our own, a copy of Barbara Rainey’s devotional guide for families called Growing Together in Gratitude—seven stories that you can read as part of family devotions or just at the dinner table to help cultivate a heart of thankfulness in all of us.  Along with the book, we’ll send some Thanksgiving prayer cards.  Again, it’s our way of saying, “We appreciate your support of this ministry.”  It’s always great to hear from you. 

You can donate online at  When you go to the website, just click the button that says, “I Care.”  You can make your donation from there; or call 1-800-

FLTODAY and make your donation by phone.  When you get in touch with us, let us know that you’d like Barbara Rainey’s devotional.  We’ll be happy to send it out to you.

Now, tomorrow, we want to encourage you to be back with us as we are going to talk to a couple of moms who had the experience of watching their teenagers begin to experiment with illegal drugs.  We’re going to hear about how that impacted their family and about God’s work in their life during that time as well.  I hope you can tune in for that.

I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team.  On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine.  We will see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today

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