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Author's memories spur new novel

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When former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky went on trial in 2011, and was eventually convicted on 42 criminal counts of sexually abusing young boys, the case hit a little too close to home for former Moorhead resident Michael Henning.

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For most of his life, Henning had been carrying around a secret — a secret he buried so deep that he’d never even told his own family.

In 1964, while he was a student at Sharp School in Moorhead, Henning was the victim of sexual abuse at the hands of his third grade teacher.

“I have never told my parents, or my siblings, about the abuse I suffered,” wrote Henning in the epilogue to his first published novel, “A Secret in the Heartland,” a murder mystery which was released in March of this year.

“I never told my first wife about any of my issues. They will only know about this secret I’ve carried all my life when I finally publish this book.”

This teacher’s abuse of his former charges was something that the students and staff at Sharp School had long suspected, but until Henning’s book was published, they had no clue that he had been one of the victims.

“I had never told anybody,” said Henning in a Tuesday interview.

Sandusky’s trial and subsequent conviction “just brought it all to the surface,” he added.

Those feelings formed the genesis of Henning’s book.

“I started working on it in October (2012),” he said. “It came together pretty fast … I had a story that needed to come out.”

Henning’s former classmate, Detroit Lakes resident Nancy Wichmann, learned his story before their fellow Sharp School alumni did, through a chance Facebook encounter.

Henning, who also attended junior and senior high school with Wichmann, had posted something about his upcoming book on a Facebook page that had been created for their 40th high school reunion.

“He said that he was writing a book about Moorhead and Sharp School, and wanted information to help clarify some facts for his book,” Wichmann said.

“I was writing back to him about everything I knew. He e-mailed me and asked, ‘Do you know of any scandals?’ I said, ‘Of course. We all questioned what had happened to our third grade teacher.’”

Wichmann recalled that it was “kind of a mystery. All of a sudden, our third grade teacher was gone. He’d been replaced without any explanation, to the students, or the parents. Rumors started circulating around school, but no one really knew the facts of who was involved, or what had happened. We just heard that it had something to do with little boys.”

After that exchange, Henning’s next response was to e-mail Wichmann a copy of the epilogue to his as-yet-unpublished book, in which he lays out the story of his abuse.

“I, too, had been violated while in the third grade,” Wichmann said — not by their teacher, but by a friend of her family’s whom she had “considered as a grandpa. I could relate (to what he had experienced).”

That common thread in their past formed a bond that has only deepened over the past year, she added.

In fact, Wichmann was one of the first to have the chance to read Henning’s entire novel, before it was published.

Though “A Secret in the Heartland” is entirely fictional, “the idea for this story came from thoughts I have had over the years when the memories of my real experience would work their way to the surface,” Henning wrote in the book’s epilogue.

“It was very therapeutic for me,” he said during Tuesday’s interview.

Unfortunately, it didn’t make all of the negative feelings disappear.

“I thought I had put it behind me, but I tell you what, releasing this book and talking about what happened with other people showed me just how much I hadn’t dealt with it,” Henning said.

One important lesson that he learned, he added, is that it’s not a good idea to let such secrets stay buried indefinitely.

“It’s an important subject and I think a lot of people want to bury it and say I don’t want to talk about it,” he said.

“We all have different ways of dealing with pain but I think the worst thing we can do is internalize it all and try to handle it alone, because there are many, many people around us who are willing to help if we will let them.”

Ultimately, he said, while it’s a person’s “trials and tribulations” that helps to build their character, it’s not the sum total of who they are.

“It’s really easy to be a victim, to say ‘Poor me,’” Henning said. “I’ve chosen not to be a victim. I’m not a victim, I’m a survivor and I’m going to make the best of it.”

As for his book, Henning said, he’s received a lot of favorable responses so far — especially about the fact that he manages to keep the answer to the “whodunit” question a surprise throughout most of the story.

“It’s really hard to tell people about the meat of the story without spoiling the plot, but there is a surprise ending,” he said. “The person you think probably did it isn’t the guilty party, it’s somebody else. And I think I did a pretty good job of surprising the reader.”

For those who would like to discover the truth behind “A Secret in the Heartland,” Henning will be signing copies of his book at Zandbroz Variety in Fargo this Friday, Aug. 9 beginning at 6:30 p.m., and again at Book World in Detroit Lakes on Saturday, Aug. 10 from 1 to 3 p.m.

“It’s also available on Amazon, and on Nook and Kindle,” Henning added.

Follow Detroit Lakes Newspapers reporter Vicki Gerdes on Twitter at @VickiLGerdes.

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