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For decades, victims of sexual abuse have had to pay dearly for the community’s denial. Those victims are now grown. They speak out in different ways, and it is the community that now, too has to pay a price for its denial.
The community members don’t get to choose the price. They don’t get to decide what victims should to do with the trauma they’ve created. After years of brutalized silence, victims will speak as loudly as they need to.
This is a community that wants to leave sin, so long as it can do so without expressing regret. It is willing to change the future, so long as we allow it to forget the past, so long as we don’t ask it to account for its actions. It wants change, it really does, but the change is conditional: change on its own terms, change it can take credit for without ever looking back, change that is another form of denial.
One cannot ask forgiveness from the dead. It is too late to reach out to those who jumped off balconies, who hung themselves off bathroom rods. It is too late to turn to those who swallowed bottles of painkillers, who overdosed on drugs. Yet there are hundreds of survivors who still live, men and women who’ve stood up and walked on — once terrified children, now haunted adults, still gripped by a past that has ripped into their souls.
They are no longer seeking the truth; now they seek only honesty. They are no longer seeking holy men; now they seek only good men. What they want from those who have legislated spirituality, from those who’ve led the community down its darkest path, is the first step of repentance; a confession, an acknowledgement, a reckoning that in the hollowed halls and back rooms of homes and institutions built for God, a terrible thing has happened.
Perhaps there will be a day when a victim in Williamsburg or Lakewood can ask for justice without being forced out. Perhaps there will be a time when advocates and survivors will not be threatened, harassed and terrorized for demanding that the most basic of morals be upheld. Perhaps there will be a day when the community and its leaders will acknowledge the hell they’ve created for so many of their own. Maybe they will ask for forgiveness. And then we will know that change has truly come.
Until then, let us teach our children the words stolen from our generation, words that describe hell. Because for those of us who have survived, who have lived in the underworld and came out alive, we hold a sacred knowledge: Words are important. Words are powerful. A mind cannot be tainted by a word, only by its refusal to acknowledge it.
Judy Brown wrote the novel “Hush” under the pseudonym Eishes Chayil. “Inside Out” is her essay series about life in the ultra-Orthodox world. It is based on true events, but her characters’ names and identities have been changed; some are composites, comprising several real-life people. Find her at Facebook.com/JudyBrownHush.