For the Women’s Passover Seder at my synagogue, for the second year in a row, the female rabbi asked congregants to share their own escape-to-freedom stories ahead of time, and have songwriters put those stories to music. I said no last year, because I was adamant that I didn’t want someone else telling my story. I had just published my novel and I wanted people to read it; and to read it in my voice. But this year, when the Rabbi asked me again, I said yes.
I decided that, imperfect as the method might be, I needed to take the opportunity; my community needed to hear from me. And maybe, in the form of a song, in a room filled with friends and good food and music, my message could be heard, and received; and maybe someone in the audience of women would feel like they could come forward and tell their story as a result of hearing some version of mine.
My synagogue has not made much of the #MeToo movement. If anything, a lot of the older congregants have found it disturbing to have to look at Woody Allen, or any of the other famous cases of sexual assault, more closely. What they were really mad about was the way Al Franken was “forced” out of the senate, by “women with an agenda.” This wasn’t coming from the men in the congregation; it was the women who rejected #MeToo.
So I hoped a song could help make a difference. But I was still uneasy about having someone else interpret my story. The rabbi asked me to write up a short summary of my exodus story, so that the songwriter wouldn’t have to “read the whole book,” and I took the opportunity to not just write another summary of what happened to me, but to explore some of the metaphors I’d want to use if I were up to writing the song myself, and to reference some of the Jewish prayers that have resonance for me. I wanted to make the process easier for the songwriter, yes, but more than that I wanted to make sure that my voice, and not just my story, were heard.
This is some of what I wrote:
I was sexually abused by my father when I was a child, and emotionally and psychologically abused by him throughout my childhood and adolescence. He relied on his considerable intelligence, and his midlife discovery of Orthodox Judaism, to protect himself from consequences, but he was still accused, multiple times, of inappropriate sexual contact with young girls. I was also sexually abused by my best friend’s older brother when I stayed over at her house. Incest families, I’ve discovered, are like alcoholic families: they tend to find each other.
My mother and I were able to leave my father behind when I was twenty-three, after we’d both been in therapy long enough to feel ready to escape. The process of recovery, for both of us, has been long and difficult. We are each other’s support systems. I’m a writer, with three masters’ degrees, but I still struggle every day. My time line is very different from other people, with a lot of “normal” life events out of reach.
My hope for this song is that it will focus on the liberation part of the story, and the work of recovery, because I think that’s the part most people don’t see or understand. They’re used to seeing the dramatic moments of the abuse itself, or the heroic escape. They’ve read Lolita, and gotten a distorted (and sexualized) view of abuse, or they’ve watched Oprah and believe that abuse victims can all pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and fast, if they just try hard enough. Neither version is the truth.
I like the comparison to the Exodus from Egypt, because that story isn’t just about one person, it’s about needing a group to go with you on the journey; and it’s about the difficulties that come with liberation: the years of wandering, the struggle to survive, the overwhelming nature of freedom, etc. Liberation is painful and full of effort. The Exodus requires faith that God will part the Sea of Reeds to let you pass through, and that manna will fall from the sky when you are hungry, and that you will not have to walk through it all alone.
It’s important to remember that leaving the place where the horrors happened doesn’t mean you leave the memories of the horror behind. You bring yourself with you when you leave.
People have unreasonable expectations of the victims of abuse. They think that the victim must save herself in order to feel empowered, but that’s just not how it works. The victim needs to feel safe and loved and honored and supported and believed in order to begin to empower herself. Our idea of the hero as the lone wolf fighting the bad guys is unrealistic. The reality is that groups of people defeat monsters together. If you see only a lone hero then you are not looking closely enough; look for the friend, the parent, the teacher, the neighbor, the doctor, the therapist, the librarian who smiles at a little girl who has been taught to believe she is nothing.
As a child I was always hiding: under the porch, curled like a snail in the wet dirt; in the closet, behind my big stuffed panda; under the bed, with the blanket hanging down; under the piano, where no one thought to look. I hid, and I ran, and I held my breath. That’s the part I can talk about. The rest is unspeakable. The smells. The slick on my skin. The weight on me. The suffocating smell of polyester as I tried to breathe through the blanket smothering my face, and counted and counted until it was over. And the words. So many awful words aimed at me like a pistol at my head. A real pistol, dull matte black that smelled of fireworks. My father liked to say that I was the cause of all evil; that all of the problems in our family, and in the world, were my fault in some way. I have never been able to completely let go of that belief.
We are often mute about sexual abuse because the crime itself is unspeakable, not because it shouldn’t be spoken of. How do we talk about the unspeakable – or do we sing about it instead?
There’s a song in Hebrew that has always troubled me: The whole world is a narrow bridge and the main thing is not to be afraid. But I am afraid every day. I cross the narrow bridge every day and sometimes it feels so narrow that I can barely put one foot in front of the other. Sometimes I barely make it across. But, to me, the important thing isn’t to not be afraid, the important thing is to be afraid and to cross the bridge anyway, because if you don’t you’ll die.
The danger of telling is that you won’t be believed. The danger of telling is that no one will care. The danger of telling is that even when they know, they won’t do anything to stop it. The danger of telling the secret is finding out that you are not the only one, that there are millions of you crossing that narrow bridge, each alone.
This is not a song of forgiveness.
Update: I received a draft of the lyrics from the songwriters and it looks good. They focused on that image of crossing the narrow bridge, and the need for support. Unfortunately, the Women’s Seder has been cancelled this year due to the Coronavirus. I hope that the song will survive the impact of the virus and make its way into the world at some point, because I really want to hear the song, and share it with my community, and see what happens.
If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. 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 teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy 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?
What a moving account – and yet told with such gentleness. I can imagine the labyrinth you had to travel to regain your sense of ‘worth’ or even Self. As a father of two, it made my heart ache that such things happen; and that communities protect such abusers. Your mother must have been brave to strike out against it. Peace inside, now, I hope? Steve
Thank you so much!
I bought your book today, and sorry it took me so long. Your moving account above of the abuse you survived makes my heart hurt. I hope one day I can hear your song of exodus.
Thank you so much!!!!
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That was absolutely beautiful. I’m so sorry you were forced to go through that. Nobody deserves that. You were not the source of your family’s problems, and how reprehensible of your father to ever use any religion as an exempt status in one’s complicity. Big virtual hugs to you, a strong survivor!
Thank you so much!!!
Keep writing, Rachel. I really enjoy it. Remember the still, small voice.