Mary Ryan, the sister of U.S. Senate candidate Mike Durant, said her brother lives in a state of denial about their father’s years of sexual abuse and has used his notoriety to publicly discredit her story of abuse, despite their father confessing to Durant that he molested Ryan for her entire childhood.
Ryan spoke to APR in an exclusive, on-camera interview, agreeing to answer questions in response to comments about her made by Durant in recent interviews. Saying she wanted to “tell my side of the story,” Ryan went into detail about the years of abuse she suffered, acknowledging publicly for the first time that she was also molested by her grandfather. She also went into detail about her brother’s decision to turn his back on her .
“I wouldn’t be talking right now if I didn’t feel like I needed to tell my side of the story,” Ryan said. “In these podcasts and interviews he’s doing he is painting me in a completely untrue light. If he’s going to throw me under the bus to get votes, that’s not OK and I need to tell the truth about what’s actually gone on. Otherwise I could care less about his career.”
The sexual abuse of Ryan was first reported on by the Associated Press in the 1990s following a civil suit filed by Ryan against her father. That lawsuit, in which she asked for $5 million in damages, laid out a horrifying history of abuse, in which Ryan’s father, Leon Durant, molested her from the age of 2 until well into her college years. The abuse, Ryan said, was daily at one point.
The AP also reported on Mike Durant’s curious interview with a TV news program, “American Journal,” in 1994, in which he raised questions about the validity of Ryan’s claims of abuse. “I mean, he spanked us when we were little but he certainly didn’t abuse us,” Mike Durant said of his father’s abuse. “He’s not perfect but he’s certainly not the monster Mary is trying to paint him to be.”
The statements were particularly odd because Leon Durant had confessed to Mike three years earlier that Ryan’s allegations of abuse were true. Mike Durant had also written several letters to Ryan in which he apologized for initially failing to believe her. Additionally, his father had signed an agreement with Ryan, in which Leon Durant promised to get treatment for both his abuse of his daughter and for alcoholism – an agreement that Mike Durant was aware of.
APR reported on the AP’s stories earlier this year, after Mike Durant entered the U.S. Senate race. Ryan reluctantly issued a statement on the events and revealed that she and her brother remained estranged, and that Mike Durant displayed hostility towards her while maintaining a relationship with Leon Durant for several years after the incest confession.
In response, Mike Durant issued statements and gave at least one radio interview in which he appeared to blame his sister for the estrangement. He again called Leon Durant a “good father” and said the “entire family” was estranged from Ryan “because of things that she did.”
Ryan called that a “complete distortion” of the truth and said her brother remains “delusional.”
“It’s very common in incest families to turn on the victim,” Ryan said. “That’s not unusual at all. Sometimes, denial and shame beat out love.
“When people are so ashamed and in such deep denial, they will create a whole false reality in their heads about a convenient story of ‘this is my life.’ That’s what Mike did. When he’s talked about our father as though he’s some good guy, that’s what he’s doing.”
Scott Stone, a senior advisor to the Durant campaign, responded to Ryan’s comments by blaming the “fake news media.”
“Facts are facts,” Stone said in a written response to APR. “Mike confronted his father and got him to confess. Mike has never attacked his sister. This is just another desperate attempt to smear Mike’s character, like the Fake News did to President Trump, with outlandish lies that have no basis in fact because the political insiders know that Mike will be beholden to no one but the people of Alabama.”
Growing up was hell for Mary Ryan. At one point, in her teen years, she said she suffered daily abuse – both sexual and physical – at the hands of her father. She said she was also sexually assaulted by her grandfather from the age of 3 until he died when she was 6.
At one point, she begged her mother to leave Leon Durant. She was sick often. At the age of 12, a psychiatrist prescribed her sedatives. But no one dug too deeply, no one raised questions about the abuse that was so clearly taking place.
“That level of abuse can’t go on for 17 years and no one have a clue,” Ryan said. “But my family was never a protective family. My mother wasn’t protective of me. My brother wasn’t protective of me. That type of incest, for that period of time, doesn’t occur in protective families.”
Ryan said that the abuse from her father continued even after she left for college. When she would return home on breaks, he was waiting.
Finally, though, she sought therapy for herself and began to work through the trauma she had endured. In the late 1980s/early 1990s, when Ryan was in her late-20s, Ryan said she was finally ready to start informing her family of what had taken place – not simply because it would help her, but because she was concerned there might be other victims. And she wanted to see her father get treatment for his many issues.
The first person she reached out to, she said, was her brother, Mike. In a late-night phone call, she confessed the abuse to Mike Durant. He didn’t believe her.
Durant and his wife visited Ryan at her home several days later. She awoke one morning to find them reading through her therapy journals, desperately trying to determine that her allegations were flawed or untrue. Ryan said Mike Durant accompanied her to a therapy session during his visit, and it turned hostile.
“He was very verbally hostile towards my therapist and kept asking, ‘Do you really believe what she’s saying?’” Ryan said. “He thought by some force of will he could make it not be true, I guess.”
Just after that visit, and despite Ryan telling him not to mention the allegations to their father – she had a carefully constructed plan for confronting Leon Durant – Mike Durant approached his father after a family reunion and asked for the truth. Their father, according to Ryan, said, “Everything Mary says is true.”
That should have been the first step in the healing process – the first step in a bond forming between a sister who had been unimaginably abused and a brother who now knew the ugly truth. And for a time, it was, Ryan said.
Mike apologized for his actions. He wrote her letters expressing his disgust with his father and what he’d done to her. He was very contrite.
But Ryan said the change was short-lived, because the monumental task of working through such a long and brutal period of abuse was simply too hard.
“I think initially he tried to do the right thing, and then he realized how hard it was going to be to do the right thing and he didn’t want to do it,” Ryan said of her brother. “And it was much easier to go into denial. It was much easier to get mad and blame me. It was like all the hostility that should have gone towards the person who did the crime instead got shifted off on me.”
Over the next two years, Ryan and Mike Durant began to drift apart. And then, in 1993, when Mike Durant was in the Army, he was captured in Somalia after a helicopter crash. The hostage situation was carried live daily on CNN and Mike Durant became a household name for a period of time.
Ryan, in the meantime, was estranged from her parents, after her mother repeatedly sided with her father and maneuvered to diminish Ryan’s story of abuse. Ryan said that meant that she was getting very little information from the military about her brother’s condition and the rescue efforts, because the military tends to work through the parents of a soldier first. The only thing they told Ryan was to be quiet and not talk to the media.
But after a week of watching the constant coverage, and after speaking to families who had gone through similar experiences – all of whom told her to speak up and not let Mike Durant’s captivity fall from the front page, she said – Ryan began to grant interviews in which she advocated for her brother’s release.
When Mike Durant was released and flown back to the U.S., Ryan was there to meet him on the plane.
“In the plane (after he returned), there was this moment when all the chaos and trauma was set aside, and he just said to me, ‘I love you,’ and we hugged,” Ryan said through tears. “And I thought that maybe now he might have some clue about trauma and what I’ve been through. Because now he’s been traumatized.”
Instead, though, Ryan said some of her family members – and specifically, her mother – worked to turn Mike Durant against her. It didn’t help matters that the military was apparently unhappy with her for granting the interviews, and she later learned that someone from the military told Mike Durant that Ryan had been “a problem” during his captivity.
Adding to it was the fact that Ryan’s story of abuse was a very inconvenient one for the Army and for Mike Durant, who was being celebrated as a national hero. A national hero from a military family, since Leon Durant was a member of the National Guard.
In a recent radio interview, Durant made reference to Ryan’s actions during the hostage situation and said her former husband sent a letter to the military threatening to expose their father’s abuse. The implication was seemingly that Ryan and her then-husband were using his captivity as a means to garner publicity for themselves.
But Ryan disputes that. In fact, she said she never mentioned their father in the numerous interviews she did. Even in private conversations with media friends, she never disclosed her father’s abuse. And she said while she can’t be 100 percent certain what her former husband did, she is positive that the abuse story never became public at the time and her former husband never granted an interview.
“The only thing I ever did was to advocate for my brother’s release,” Ryan said. “That was my sole focus. After he was released, I wrote a letter to him explaining everything I had done and why I did it, because I knew I was going against what the military wanted. I gave it to the nurses at the hospital to give to him.
Within a few weeks, Ryan said she could sense a change in her brother’s demeanor towards her. When she would call, the chats became less and less friendly, and shorter and shorter. And then two things happened that would forever drive a wedge between them.
In January 1994, Ryan decided that her father was never going to live up to the original agreement signed in 1991. He had never attended a therapy session. The only alcohol treatment he received came when the military forced him to undergo treatment. And there was very little contrition for his heinous abuse.
So, Ryan filed a $5 million civil lawsuit against Leon Durant. She did so, she said, only after being told by police and the New Hampshire attorney general that the statute of limitations had expired on potential criminal charges. The police, she said, recommended the civil lawsuit.
The lawsuit got immediate attention, particularly because of Mike Durant’s recent fame. One of the media outlets requesting an interview with Ryan was the TV news program “American Journal.” Ryan ultimately granted the interview not knowing that Mike Durant would also be interviewed.
During a portion of the interview, Mike Durant appeared to undermine – if not outright question the validity of – Ryan’s story of incest at the hands of their father. It was a stunning about-face from the person who got the initial confession from Leon Durant.
“He knew I had way too much evidence to say it never happened. So instead (Mike Durant’s) strategy was to try and minimize it and say that it was less than what it was,” Ryan said. “How classic to say I was exaggerating. You don’t go to the perpetrator to find out how bad the abuse was. You go to the victim to find out how bad the abuse was. The perpetrator will always minimize how bad the abuse was. Mike just went along with all of that.”
But even worse for Ryan was the fact that her brother was seemingly purposefully attempting to undermine her credibility despite knowing the truth.
“It was quite clear that he was using his notoriety as a weapon against me – to make people question my credibility,” Ryan said. “Even though I had all this evidence – signed confessions. He was still trying to make people not believe me.”
Mike Durant’s interview with “American Journal” had a devastating effect on Ryan. In fact, she said it was “crushing,” and left her in a suicidal state. She spent a week in the hospital receiving psychiatric care. It took her months, she said, “to stabilize” her life afterward.
A State of Denial
For Mike Durant, though, the seeming denial of his father’s past behavior didn’t end with a single TV interview. In memoirs written years after his time in captivity, Mike Durant never mentions Leon Durant’s incest of his sister, choosing instead to present an image of a strong, military family with few issues.
In real life, he apparently took a similar approach. He has spoken of taking his young children around his father and spoke glowingly of their father-son relationship.
“It was a very high-risk thing to do – to bring his children around my father,” Ryan said. “I can’t imagine the level of denial you would have to have to knowingly take your own little girls around someone who is a known sex offender. That’s some pretty deep denial. No matter how he feels about me, that’s some pretty deep denial right there.”
At the same time, Mike Durant seems to have firmly assigned Ryan the villain role in the family. He refused to speak with her after the “American Journal” interview and apparently decided she was the real problem.
In the late 2000s, after more than 16 years without contact with her parents and brother, Ryan said she decided – after “some spiritual work” – that she wanted to offer forgiveness to them all. Her plan was to call them, simply say that she forgave them and then end the call.
Her parents, and particularly her father, she said, were ecstatic to get the call. And for a brief period of several months, there were attempts at some form of reconciliation and a relationship. Mike Durant, on the other hand, had a different response.
“He couldn’t have cared less,” Ryan said. “He said he was busy.”
Mike Durant never returned the call.
In the years since, there have been a few, random encounters between Ryan and her brother – moments when they were thrust together by circumstance. In 2010, as her father was dying, the family was forced into the same house and hospital rooms on several occasions. Ryan said her brother always reacted coolly towards her – not necessarily hostile or angry but never friendly. He never apologized for his actions. He never questioned how she was doing. He never inquired about her well-being.
“I don’t think he feels sorry at all for what he’s done to me,” Ryan said of Mike Durant. “He’s never been protective of me, so why would he suddenly become protective now? He’s either in very deep denial, or ignorance, or he doesn’t care. I don’t know which one it is.”
Asked to try to explain her brother’s attitude towards her – his seeming hostility, the allegations that she did something to the family, his refusal to even speak with her – Ryan said she thinks it’s simply a product of the embarrassment he feels over the entire situation. Embarrassment over what his father did to her. Embarrassment for the way he behaved towards her.
“Mike could never accept that my father was a sex offender,” Ryan said. “He knew it for a fact but he couldn’t accept it. So he went along as life as normal to make it all go away. Brush it under the rug.”
For the past decade or so, Ryan said she has had almost zero contact with Mike Durant. There was a birthday gift sent randomly one year to her son. There was the time he gave his business card to a mutual friend at a high school reunion and asked Ryan to get in touch. When she did, by email, Mike Durant’s wife returned the message and asked her never to contact them again.
It was very clear to Ryan that her brother simply wanted to put it all behind him, leave it in the past and never confront it again. Which leaves Ryan dumbfounded that Mike Durant would choose to run for U.S. Senate.
“He had every opportunity to reach out to me,” Ryan said. “He has my phone number. I’m not hard to find. I just don’t understand why he didn’t, really. Maybe he just didn’t understand the nature of what he was getting into. I don’t know who talked him into running in the first place, but I don’t think he understood that when you run for office, your life becomes completely public, including everything that happened in the past. Because people want to know who you are. There’s no way this wasn’t going to come out.”