My work with victims of sexual abuse is both instructive and sobering. The first time Rivka’s husband slapped her, they had been married only a month. The month had been so good: She loved her in-laws and apartment, and her husband was well regarded in the community. Only one bad day meant 97 percent of her married life was fine. Rivka rededicated herself to being a good wife and never told anyone what happened. But she continued to endure abuse. Eventually, though, after ten years, four children who witnessed the abuse, and several broken bones, the balance tipped; no amount of justification could make Rivka feel like her life was good.
Many women who are victims of abuse report making similar calculations, trying to determine whether or not the abuse they suffer is worth the shame and uncertainty that await them if they reveal their secret. On each side of the equation, either telling someone or remaining quiet, one needs to consider physical, emotional, and financial factors. And for a Jewish woman who believes that the responsibility for maintaining shalom bayit is hers, there is additional spiritual anguish that reaches deeply to her core.
But the current #MeToo movement has many women — including Jewish women — rethinking their silence about the traumatizing events that happened to them at the hands of men in positions of power in their families, workplaces, and communities. On Facebook alone, the hashtag was used by more than 4.7 million people in 12 million posts during the first 24 hours.
Rachel is 24 years old and even before the #MeToo movement, she believed remaining silent in the wake of abuse was misguided. Four years ago, she spoke out after she was groped by a much older, revered Orthodox man to whom her mother directed her for vocational advice. That incident triggered feelings associated with her childhood abuse and sent her into a dark despair. She reports that she finally began to heal through a practice of artistic expression, and she is writing a book that explores this method.
Surviving abuse is challenging for anyone. But unlike Rachel, Gershon was unwilling to speak about the abuse he endured as an adolescent. He broke his silence only after he watched a television program about the 2002 Catholic Church scandal. Then, he revealed his secret to his wife. Gershon decided to go public and name his abuser after he was invited to be a compassionate witness at a meeting of abuse survivors to discuss some collective action to call attention to the growing communal problem. During the meeting, a young man began to cry and complained of the futility of talking; he said that no one with power would address this problem. Gershon realized he was in the position to help and felt it unfair to ask them to endure the pain of speaking out if he was unwilling to do so as well. And yet, even given his stature in the community, after he wrote about his experience, his Orthodox community abandoned him; Shabbat lunch invitations dried up, and he felt deep pain when he heard his sons defending his breaking the silence.
Victims often blame themselves, especially in the absence of physical injuries or when the abuser is known. And when perpetrators have professed love, affection, or even neutral collegiality, victims begin to look inward for explanations: What did I do wrong? What should I have done differently? This is a normal process in any distressing event. We look inward because internal information is most readily available and is under our control. In essence, it is a defense mechanism against facing the terrifying notion that life’s terrors are random. Our emotional response is to find the cause within ourselves to give us the false hope that we can protect ourselves from such affronts in the future.
But if victims build the rest of their lives on the premise that they brought this evil upon themselves, then the aftermath — which could include depression, promiscuity, addiction, and unhealthy relationships — can also be labeled as their “fault.” And that downward spiral can make speaking out even more difficult because the event itself gets buried under layers of dysfunction and fear.
It matters when someone speaks up and disrupts what is presumed to be shalom bayit. Though initially painful, it is the only way for healing to even begin. Unbeknownst to Rivka, Rachel, or Gershon, four rabbis in their Greater Baltimore area have begun to explore initiatives to address suspected sexual abuse. Though these survivors and clergy members don’t necessarily know one another, in the future — when they silently wonder if anyone else cares — they should know that, somewhere close by, someone is saying yes, “me too.”
Nancy Aiken has worked for sixteen years at CHANA, the Jewish response to abuse and trauma in the Baltimore community.