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The Last Summer at Camp

 

During my last summer at sleep away camp, at age thirteen, we had a strange outbreak of mosquitoes. We weren’t allowed to go in the lake for two weeks, and the mosquitoes were in pretty much every breath of air we breathed. I don’t know if it was an early case of West Nile Virus or something else they didn’t bother to explain, but I had to sleep in jeans and a sweatshirt, in ninety degree weather, to try to keep the mosquitoes at bay.

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“That sounds bad. I’m worried about this story.”

It was already a very, very bad summer for me. I’d begged to stay home, or better yet, go to California. I had this idea about California that wasn’t based on anything I can remember, except that it wasn’t home. I think my best friend at the time had been talking a lot about going to California for some reason, and she either went to California, or to Israel that summer, to visit family.

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“Oy. It’s getting worse.”

I was deeply depressed, irritable, anxious, and uncomfortable 24 hours a day. I’d lost weight (this was pre-anorexia, so I was normal thin, not skinny yet), and had some pretty outfits, and I’d assumed this would make me happy, but it actually made things worse.

Sex was everywhere in camp. There were a lot of rape accusations (all true as far as I could tell, but not taken seriously by the counselors, who were eighteen and nineteen years old, or the administration, who had no excuse). There was a lot of dating and flirting and coupling. I would not have been able to tell you why it was all so awful to me at the time. I couldn’t explain why I felt so thoroughly under attack. I’d had some memories of the sexual abuse by then, in vague images and awful feelings, but I didn’t know what it was, or what to do with it.

My parents came up on visiting day and I was sure they were going to take me home, but instead, my father announced that they were going to Israel in a few days and wouldn’t be back until it was time for me to come home from camp. And I couldn’t go with them. I screamed and cried and he took a picture of me, inconsolable (he framed it and put it up in the downstairs hallway in our house, where it stayed for years).

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“Told ya.”

After the mosquito drama, or before it maybe (time was confusing that summer), the counselors took my age group on an overnight campout on a hill. It was coed, with the counselors down at the bottom of the hill, out of ear shot. None of this had been made clear ahead of time. There was at least one rape that night, but I only knew about it because it happened to a friend of mine. I have no idea what else happened, but we were a group of thirteen year old boys and girls without supervision, so I can guess. Someone stepped on my hand in the middle of the night, and no one seemed to notice when I screamed.

No one listened when I ranted about the campout for the next few days, because everyone else seemed to think that a coed sleepover for thirteen-year-olds was totally fine. I was the prude and the hysteric. And the fact is, I couldn’t explain why I was so angry about it when no one else had a word to say, except for the girls who whispered in my ear about rape, on the hill, and on other days and at other times, but refused to go to the administration, or to let me go for them.

None of the rapes, or attempted rapes, happened to me. I barely even touched a boy all summer. But the lack of concern from the adults enraged me. The counselors suggested that my problem was that I was too mature for my age group, and that was why I was so uncomfortable. My opinion was that I needed to walk home from camp, even if it took the rest of the summer. But I was too afraid, and had no money, and that made me feel powerless.

 

When a twelve-year-old girl was sent home because she had accused two boys of forcing her to give them blow jobs – and no one believed her, because, How can you force someone to give a blow job, really it’s the boys who were raped – I realized I was never going back to that camp.

And it was a terrible loss. The thing is, I’d never really been safe anywhere else. I was sexually abused at home and at my childhood best friend’s house. I was bullied at school. Camp was the one place that felt normal, where I could work through the kinds of painful experiences that everyone else had to go through too. It wasn’t a great joy, but it was a place where I had learned how to make friends, and set boundaries, and argue, and swim. But once sex became an issue, for me and for my peers, camp was no longer safe for me, with my abuse history. Maybe if they’d had better policies in place for how to handle problematic behaviors, or if the counselors were better trained, or if the adults had taken on more of an oversight role, things would have been different. But maybe not.

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“I’m sorry, Mommy.”

Usually Mom drove to camp to pick me up at the end of the summer, but this time she arranged for me to go home with another Mom from our area and two of her daughters, because of her late return from Israel with my father. I felt really sick to my stomach on the drive, but I didn’t know the Mom or the girls well enough to say anything. When I finally got home I ran upstairs and barely made it to the bathroom in time, throwing up in the sink. I kept throwing up for the next two days, and by the time school started a week and a half later, I wasn’t eating much at all. My body felt like it had been filled with poison, and I didn’t want to risk adding more. Within weeks I was basically anorexic, and that seemed to help keep the poison at bay. By then I didn’t just want to be skinny anymore, I wanted to be invisible.

 

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If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl. And if you feel called to write a review of the book on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish girl on Long Island named Izzy. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes is true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain and looking for people she can trust, finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

 

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

124 responses »

  1. ramblingsofaperforatedmind

    I’m so sorry.

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  2. This is so appalling. I can totally understand how you might never get over this.

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  3. My heart bleeds for you.

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  4. Rachel–I’m sorry but I cannot ‘like’ this because it makes me want to get sick, too. I am so sorry for all you have gone through.

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  5. This is just terrible… jc

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  6. Rachel, I am so sorry you had to go through this. I am also angry that this camp allowed this behavior. You are brave and inspiring to so many others that still can’t find their voice. Sending a big hug your way. Peggy

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  7. So sorry you were treated this way when you were young. No one should have to go through experiences like that.

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  8. Dear God this is awful. It pained me to read what happened let alone have to live through it. I also would love to have done something hideous to the counsellors and people running that camp. And to your Father. The photo on the wall is just ghastly punishment for a crime you did not commit. I am sending you a virtual hug and a sprinkling of fairy dust to heal you.

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  9. That’s all just horrible Rachel. Be kind to yourself. Hugs.

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  10. Wow!
    I never was sent to camp. Parents had place on Cape Cod.

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  11. Such a terrible and unforgettable and experience Rachel. Wishing you nothing but good things ahead.

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  12. How awful! I’m sorry you went through all that. 🤗

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  13. We need a shocked or sad emoticon for a post like this one. I am so, so sorry.

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  14. You are a beautiful soul, Rachel, and what amazes me is the way you have managed to hang onto your essential goodness through all you’ve suffered.

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  15. The stories of 13 year-olds being so involved in sex, rape, and assault are quite staggering to hear. When I was 13, I wouldn’t have dared to go anywhere near a girl who didn’t ask me to, and would never have been mentally or physically capable of raping anyone, that’s for sure.
    Some of those boys involved must have been truly evil, and it makes me wonder what they became later in life.
    And the fact that none of the girls became pregnant is just good fortune. Or maybe they did, and it was covered up?
    Those in charge of those camps should be prosecuted, even now. We have people here coming forward with allegations of historical rape that date back over 30+ years, showing just how devastating the effect on young lives this can be.
    Best wishes, Pete.

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    • It was a strange time; I don’t think the same things could happen today.

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      • Oh, Rachel, I believe these things still do happen–maybe not at the camp you attended, but in other places (also, if that camp still exists, I would find it difficult to believe the culture has changed much because it would have taken a complete overhaul of the systems and structures). Girls and young women are still undervalued and vulnerable. Just look at the mainstream reaction to Brett Kavanaugh being accused of misconduct or look at Jeffrey Epstein or…. There are way too many examples of girls being abused and not believed–because their abusers being wealthy and well-connected or because the girls are poor or disenfranchised. It makes me sad and angry. Thank you for having the courage to post this.

      • The Brett Kavanaugh hearings were almost unbearable, because so many women defended him, believing they needed to protect their sons from similar accusations. But preventing consequences is not going to make their sons safer, it’s going to make them more reckless. The Epstein case just enraged me. Continues to enrage me.

  16. As a sexual abuse survivor, my heart feels every word of your story. It appalls me that young children who are just beginning to ‘come of age’ were left without adequate supervision and protection. I went the other route, adding on as many pounds as I could with the idea that being fat would make my body ugly and unwanted. We both still struggle.

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    • After the anorexic period there was an extreme weight gain. Sexual abuse creates an enormous amount of chaos and pain. We tried to deal with it however we could at the time, and we survived. That’s a triumph.

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  17. What a sad, awful story. I am SO sorry for all you have been through, and I honor you for striving to overcome your past and for being brave enough to share the stories. I guess I don’t have anything wise or even different to say, but felt I wanted to say something. Oh, and I love the pictures of the dogs.

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  18. It is such a shame that you, and the other peers, were subjected to these assaults, and more importantly not listened to, and that your safe haven was no longer so 😦

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  19. I hope the camp management has been called out on this type of dysfunctional supervision. What an outrage.

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    • I don’t think any of it even reached the administrative level, for some reason. The adults seemed to be so far away from us, psychologically. I think they had unreasonable expectations of their young counselors and group leaders. My hope is that the communication and the training is much better today.

      Reply
  20. So sad that camp lost its safeness for you.

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  21. I am so very sorry for you. I am glad you were able to share this.

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  22. What a terrifying experience!

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  23. What was this? Camp Epstein?

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  24. What an awful camp! So sorry you had to deal with that on your own. The lack of concern from the adults and other staff is infuriating. What was the name of the camp? Is it still around?

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  25. Oh Rachel, what a harrowing time for you and your friend. It maddens me that those who were supposed to supervise were so wanting in their duties. So many young lives distorted, ruined, blackened. I saw enough of the fallout when I fostered, and wanted to hang the offenders up by their balls!

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  26. That you can write so honestly and beautifully about such harrowing experiences is inspiring. I spent a 30+ year legal career representing children’s best interests; it’s horrible when any child is abused or witnesses abuse. The impacts last a lifetime. I agree with your reply to an earlier comment: dogs and their unconditional love can provide the will and desire to survive and thrive.

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  27. This is a chilling story. Those poor girls, and what it did ro you psychologically! This must be hard to tell.

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  28. Sadly your reactions were normal for someone who endured and survived sexual abuse from people you were supposed to be able to trust. It is interesting to me though that your own ‘protection’ turned to anorexia. Mine went the other way, and I became (eventually) fat. I only learned WHY after attending a diet seminar and one woman there (braver by far than I) finally had had a breakthrough and began to lose her excess weight. It was because she’d finally come to terms with her early sexual abuse and was then able to lose the pounds. After that enlightenment, my own battle (never won completely) became a bit easier. I had a reason for my problems, and further exploration over these long years has proven to lend a bit of understanding with each problem explored and conquered. It’s tough. For you I have nothing but immense sympathy. I’m so sorry. Horrible memories. I’m glad you have the girls to help you along.

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  29. You brought back some difficult memories of my own from a supposedly safe camping experience when I was 14. I am appalled at what so called adults could overlook. Thank God for the dogs in our lives who really do love us safely.

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  30. Rachel, that’s an awfully sad story. I’m so sorry that’s a deep wounded memory. It really touched my heart.

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  31. It seems wrong ‘liking’ your deeply personal post. So sorry you had to endure it; I hope you’ve recovered from a very life impacting event.

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  32. “Like” seems an inappropriate response, but I appreciated what you wrote. Being 13 is bad enough in a girl’s life without all the extraneous trauma. Thank you for sharing.

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  33. I’m sorry for the terrible experience. May you have peace!

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  34. What a terrible time you have been through. I hope that writing about your experience brings you closure.

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  35. Rachel, I have been out of the blogging loop for a few months so I was surprised and so upset to read you post. As many have already said prayers for you to continue showing the strength I see in you. You are a fabulous writer and storyteller. Keep growing and keep loving yourself.

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  36. The world can be a very nasty place. I hope you have made a safe place for yourself now and can enjoy life a little with your dogs. Best wishes for a happier future!

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  37. This made me feel sick and angry. How stupid is it possible for people to be? I’m so, so sorry!

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  38. As many have said already, I too was sorry to read about these experiences you’ve gone through, and hitting the ‘like’ button felt strange to me too. So I just wanted to say clearly – when I do hit the ‘like’ button on your blog, I don’t mean to say that I like what I read. I mean it as a sort of a little hug of comfort that I wish to send you from afar.
    Wishing you all the best this world has to offer 🙂

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  39. So sorry about your experience. I don’t know your age but I assume I am older. It is so sad that adults did not take their responsibilities seriously and no one was held accountable for what happened. I think a little piece of your childhood is stolen from you when adults abdicate their responsibility.

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    • When I was a kid I thought adults (anyone older than me) were fully baked and always knew the right thing to do, or intentionally caused harm. Now that I’m supposedly an adult myself I’m more aware of the spectrum of abilities and understanding. Unfortunately, adulthood gives us power whether we’re ready to be responsible with it or not.

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  40. Dear dear. How horrific. I am so dreadfully sorry for your pain. I really am.

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  41. What a harrowing tale. Yet, it needs to be told. Knowing that your parents did this to you, and yet being able to live with your mother, makes you a far better person than I. And make no mistake, by placing you in that camp, your parents are fully responsible for what happened to you. You are a saint to be able to forgive such an egregious trespass. I could never do it.

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  42. Thank you for having the courage to write about your experience – may be your story can help those in our current times, who are responsible for organizing such activities, understand more of the social dynamics going on and take preventative measures. I too went to summer camp and had things happen – not all positive either.

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  43. This is just appalling it’s staggering that this can go on unchecked.

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  44. I’m so sorry for your pain. Thank you for sharing it – you show your strength and grace here. I am sure your words will help support others with their difficult memories.

    Reply

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