January 27, 2005
Shouldering the Burden of Incest
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 Journal requested we withhold her byline for legal purposes.