Friday, January 28, 2005

Shouldering the Burden of Incest

First Person
Shouldering the Burden of Incest
by Anonymous
The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles - 01/28/2005

When you go to the synagogue, you just might be sitting next to someone who sexually abused his daughter. You might be shaking his hand, admiring his charming demeanor, thinking how lucky his family is to have him. I should know. People sit next to my father all the time. Not only that, but they make sure to tell me about it.

Take a recent scenario at my local congregation: Two seconds after I walked through the door, a friendly acquaintance informed me that my father had visited there just a few weeks back. Good thing I didn’t go that day, I thought to myself. She continued to describe to me how vibrant he had looked, “as always,” and how lovely it had been to see him. The woman’s intention, of course, was to compliment me by showering praise on my father. Instead, she left me clutching tightly inside myself and forgetting to breathe.

“That’s nice,” I replied. “I haven’t seen him in 14 years.”

The woman stammered around a bit, apologized, and concluded with, “But I’m sure you’ll be glad to know he’s doing well.”

Well, actually, that depends on the day.

About 15 minutes later, another woman informed me (just in case I hadn’t heard yet) that my father had visited the congregation a few weeks earlier. She knows these things, she continued, because she is a close friend of his second ex-wife.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” I interrupted her.

“Oh, well I’m not talking about it, I was just saying that he visited here, and I’m good friends with...”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” I repeated, putting my hand up in a stop motion.

“Well, I was just saying that I’m friends with them...”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” I said a third time, adding a “no” head shake for emphasis.

She stopped, then could not think of anything else to say.

“How’s your son doing? Is he here?” I offered, hoping to move the conversation in a more pleasant direction.

“Yes he is,” she replied, “and in fact, I’m taking these cookies over to him.”

She bid me Shabbat Shalom and left. The woman could not get away from me fast enough.

Considering how common incest is, not to mention the preponderance of other forms of domestic violence — I do not cease to be amazed by people’s insensitivity regarding my father. Short of answering, “My father sexually abused me, and discussing him is retraumatizing me,” I have tried every possible approach in getting people to shut up. Not only have they not respected my clear boundaries, but they have gone so far as to make assumptions about what must have happened with my father. A favored scenario has been that he and I had a squabble, and I am too stubborn to forgive him.

One man, who had this notion in his head, repeatedly brought me fliers announcing my father’s latest presentations. He and another man made statements like, “We have to figure out a way to get you and your father back together.”

Even after I hinted, “You really have no clue what goes on behind closed doors,” one of them persisted in his self-appointed mission to save my family.

These interactions have left me profoundly shaken up — physically, as well as emotionally — and have eaten up days and days of my time, dedicated to recovering from each incident. They have caused me to avoid Mizrahi and Sephardi communities; to leave a community organization I cofounded; and to stop attending synagogue services. Given my resulting isolation from Jewish community life, I even stopped observing Shabbat and the holidays; they became too lonely and depressing.

For philosophical, moral and emotional reasons, I refuse to plaster a big fake smile on my face and let people ramble on glowingly about a man who made my childhood miserable. Every time someone starts in on it with me, I feel an overwhelming urge to scream out the truth.

I have no interest in publicly shaming my father. I have silenced my own voice for two-thirds of my life, in fact, in an effort to protect him. In addition, it feels risky to “come out” about my experience. I do not want people pathologizing or pitying me.

And yet, I am tired of holding this burden, and I know there are many like me out there. So I offer my story in an effort to wake up the Jewish community, to let people know that the abuse is happening all around us, that we are not immune to violence. Our friends, colleagues, teachers and rabbis are among both the perpetrators and survivors. Abuse does not happen to “them.”

When we recognize this reality — when we speak and listen in ways that allow for the possibility that people are survivors or current victims, and when we hold perpetrators accountable for their actions, yet approach them with compassion, we will all shoulder the burden of violence together. As such, our community will take one giant step toward healing.

The writer is an author and journalist who lives in Israel and the Bay Area. The Journalist requested we withhold her byline for legal purposes.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a powerful article, and I thank you for posting it here.

"For philosophical, moral and emotional reasons, I refuse to plaster a big fake smile on my face and let people ramble on glowingly about a man who made my childhood miserable."

I wonder about the toll taken on this writer's mental, spiritual, and emotional health from having to go on like this. Because, in a way, it is still accepting other's 'reality' of her father by being silent. (This is not a judgmental statement.) Does she know he has not sexually abused other children--nieces, grandchildren, neighbors? Is it too late to file charges?

The only thing I can see as being healthy is to move to an entirely new community where she can become known as herself without the shadow of her father hanging over her. I wish I had done this myself. Or to speak out.
Remaining silent can turn into a terrible kind of spiritual cancer. My heart goes out to her. I understand her anger at others for imposing on her the false image of her father. But realistically, they don't know. The anger which is justifiably toward her father should not be taken out on others simply due to their not knowing the facts. Does her own rabbi know? I hope he is a compassionate person well-educated in these issues that she can turn to. She is carrying a terrible burden all by herself. And the place that should be filling her with spiritual rejuvenation is poisoned by her father's presence and those that unknowingly continue projecting the false image of him.

I wish her all the best, and hope she has a strong network of support, and gains the courage to speak out on him soon. (And who knows who else it might help to come forward if/when she does so?) I fear that if she doesn't, her anger will continue to eat away at her.

January 29, 2005 9:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

P.S. I write the above as much to tell myself, as for the author.

January 29, 2005 9:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think a survivor of abuse should be the one who has to move. I think it's time that our communities are educated and understand the issues. It's about time that the offenders are the ones who feel the shame. Remember it's the offenders who committed an illegal act. The survivor was the victim. Victims should not be the ones chased out of town.

January 29, 2005 5:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Of course she shouldn't be the one who *has* to move, it's just suggested as an alternative as a chance to lead a (much-deserved) happier life without all the reminders around her. Not always possible to do (make a major move), I understand.

January 30, 2005 8:55 AM  

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