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Barry Crimmins, comedian who transformed childhood trauma into advocacy, dies at 64

Washington Post

Barry Crimmins, a standup comedian who was at the center of Boston's comedy scene for years and whose political satire took a serious turn in the 1990s when he became an advocate for abused children after revealing that he had been raped as a child, died Feb. 28 in Syracuse, New York He was 64.

His wife, Helen Crimmins, announced his death on Twitter. Crimmins said last month that he had cancer. Late last year, he had organized fundraising efforts for his wife, who has non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

During his heyday in the 1980s, Crimmins was considered a comedian's comedian, with his cerebral political satire and his well-honed mastery of the standup craft. He was broad and bearish - his nickname was Bearcat - and prowled the stage with a cigarette in one hand and a bottle of beer in the other.

"We have a presidential election coming up," he said in a joke he first delivered in 1988 and revisited many times thereafter. "I think you'll agree with me, the big problem is somebody's going to win."

He was unabashedly liberal and sometimes profanely stage-heckled by conservative-leaning customers who took exception to his act.

"People ask, 'If you don't love this country why don't you get out of it?' " he said in his routine. "Because I don't want to be victimized by its foreign policy."

Crimmins was also founder and manager of two Boston-area comedy clubs, the first at a Chinese restaurant called Ding Ho, the second called Stitches. He was credited with helping launch the careers of comedians such as Steven Wright, Denis Leary, Paula Poundstone and Bobcat Goldthwait.

Goldthwait, who was 16 when he began working alongside Crimmins, made a documentary about his mentor, "Call Me Lucky," chronicling Crimmins' career and his long-suppressed memories of childhood abuse.

Over the years, people had noticed that Crimmins' onstage persona had grown increasingly angry, until he revealed during a monologue in 1992 that he had been repeatedly raped as a 4-year-old by a male relative of the family babysitter.

The attacks continued until Crimmins' older sister walked in while her brother was being assaulted in the basement.

"She was surprised when I lifted my head and appealed to her for help with my eyes," Crimmins wrote in the Boston Phoenix in 1993. "My eyes were the only means of communication available to me. My mouth was taped shut."

He learned, years later, that his abuser died in prison.

In the 1990s, while living outside Cleveland, Crimmins began using the then-new medium of the Internet to join chat rooms with other survivors of childhood trauma. What he found was an unregulated marketplace of pornography and pedophiles.

Posing as a 12-year-old boy, he recorded the identities of predators and downloaded thousands of images of child pornography. He first took his findings to AOL, then a leading Internet portal, only to be brushed aside. He then went to an Ohio prosecutor, who alerted the FBI.

In 1995, Crimmins appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee to testify about his investigations of online pornography and child abuse. He called AOL "the key link in a network of child-pornography traffickers" and added that the "proliferation of child-pornography trafficking has created an anonymous pedophile superstore."

Within a month, FBI agents began launching nationwide raids, ultimately leading to hundreds of convictions.

"It's an example of the power of breaking silence, and the need for it," Crimmins told the Boston Globe in 2015. "If I hadn't finally dealt with the abuse, I'm not convinced I'd be alive today."

Barry Francis Crimmins was born July 3, 1953, in Kingston, New York, and grew up in Skaneateles, New York - "an Indian name," Crimmins said, "meaning, 'small lake surrounded by fascists.' " His father was a traveling salesman.

Crimmins attended several colleges and made his first standup appearance while working at a New Hampshire ski resort - "it didn't snow" - in 1973.

A few years later, he decided to give the Big Apple a try and hitched a ride from his home in Upstate New York. The driver ended up in Boston.

Within weeks, Crimmins organized a comedy program at Ding Ho, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he headlined and selected the other performers.

"The comics ran the place," Crimmins told the Globe in 1999. "We set the tone. There wasn't any dumbing down for the audience. It was hip to be at the club."

After Ding Ho closed in 1984, Crimmins launched Stitches in Boston. He later wrote for comedian Dennis Miller's television show and appeared on Air America, a short-lived liberal talk-radio network. He occasionally toured as an opening act for musicians, including Jackson Browne.

Crimmins published an autobiographical book, "Never Shake Hands With a War Criminal," in 2004. A one-man standup special, "Whatever Threatens You," produced and directed by comedian Louis C.K., appeared in 2016.

Crimmins often spoke out in support of survivors of childhood abuse. He was a harsh critic of the Catholic Church and used Twitter to send cleverly worded messages to the pope, asking to be excommunicated.

Survivors include his wife since August, the former Helen Lysen of Cameron, New York; his mother; and three sisters.

Goldthwait's documentary about Crimmins came about because of an initial donation from Robin Williams shortly before the comic actor's suicide in 2014. Other comedians, including Margaret Cho, David Cross, Marc Maron and Patton Oswalt, appear in "Call Me Lucky" to testify to Crimmins' influence.

But the most powerful observations in the film are from Crimmins, when he returns to the house and descends to the basement where he was raped as a child.

"I'm not a victim," he says in the film's final scene. "I'm a witness. And my life is a testimony to what you can go on to do, what you can become. Call me lucky."

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