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Embarrassing a Person is Like Killing Them

 

(This was written before The Covid-19 shutdown but it still seems to resonate now, with all of us watching each other on social media and Zoom, and trying to figure out who’s accomplishing the most or being the coolest or the most responsible, and who’s telling the truth and who’s lying and why. And most of all, we’re trying to figure out the rules of social engagement during a time of social distance. Let me know what you think.)

In sixth grade bible class, at my Jewish Day School, we learned that embarrassing someone is like killing them. At least theoretically. In the Talmud it says that he who publicly shames his neighbor is as though he shed blood, and it would be better to throw oneself into a furnace rather than embarrass another. We learned tons of other lessons in our mini-law school class that year, but the embarrassment law stuck with me most, because, for me, embarrassment was a daily occurrence. As with most crimes, the commentaries on the bible encouraged a financial recompense for the crime, instead of direct revenge, and I was looking forward to all of that money.

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“Money for treats?”

Embarrassing me was a common sport among the girls in my class. They’d pull me aside to comment on my bra sticking out, or on my weight, or on my general un-coolness. They’d spent years criticizing me for my hygiene, my clothes, my vocabulary, my intelligence, my height, etc. They even humiliated me in my own home at my sleepover birthday party one year, hurling insults and tissues at me form the attic while the rest of my guests hunkered down with me behind the door to my room. The teachers did nothing. The parents did nothing. This was back when bullying was considered normal and teachers rarely intervened. I’ve been told it’s different now, but I don’t know.

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Ellie’s not sure either.

Being bullied by the girls at school was bad, but my father was the biggest source of embarrassment in my life. The sexual abuse was covert, but his campaign to make me look foolish was out in the open. When I was four years old he told my then six-year old brother to take a picture of me sitting on the toilet – and for this he taught my brother how to use his good camera and how to break the lock on the bathroom door. My brother could barely keep his shoelaces tied at that age, so my father must have worked very hard to teach him such specific skills. He didn’t bother teaching my brother how to develop the picture, though; he made the full-sized print himself, and framed it.

I didn’t know about the anti-embarrassment law back then, but I still felt wrong criticizing my father, even for his obviously abusive behavior, and I was criticized by other adults whenever I did get up the nerve to complain about him. This taught me that I shouldn’t speak up if it might cause my father pain, even if my intention in doing so was to protect myself. Because why should I matter more than he did?

That history has made me very sensitive to my own desire to heap scorn on others. I want to be very careful that I’m being fair in my criticisms, and I don’t want to be mean just because it feels good to be mean. And, after reading more of the small print, I’ve found out that there is more subtlety to the anti-embarrassment law: You’re required to testify in court, even if it could cause someone embarrassment; and, if someone repents and asks forgiveness, you can’t remind them of their past behavior (though it’s unclear how one might know if someone has gone through the full process of repentance, most of which happens in private). So now I’m even more confused. You are directly told to speak up when you see someone doing wrong; but there are all kinds of punishments for having embarrassed someone. How can you know when to speak up and when to remain silent?

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“Why would I ever be silent?”

I started to think about this issue recently when a man I know was following me around. He never threatened to harm me, and he never left scary voice mails on my phone, but he would stand too close to me when I was talking to other people, and follow me to my car, even when his car was on the other side of the parking lot. I did my best to discourage his behavior, by creating physical distance, and not making eye contact or conversation. A normal person would have gotten the hint, but he did not.

He knew about my abuse history, or he’d been told, but it was a further sign of his own psychological and social issues that none of that seemed to register. With my Masters in Social Work in my back pocket, I felt like I should know how to handle his behavior in a compassionate and understanding way, but knowing about his problems only made me feel guiltier for wanting to feel safe.

I tried to tell some of the women around me, thinking they would understand and offer support and advice, but they saw him as harmless. Oh, he likes you, they said, as if I should be flattered. I wondered if I was making a big deal about nothing, except that it was jangling my nerves, and making me scared to go to places where I knew the man might be. Even my therapist pooh poohed it, saying, you’re an adult, just tell him to leave you alone. This, technically, is called minimization and blaming the victim, but she didn’t see it that way.

I wanted the behavior to just stop. I didn’t want to have to confront the man in some way that might embarrass him, or me. But I also wanted other people to notice what was happening and protect me, and no one did. So I finally reached out to someone in authority to ask for help, as carefully and discreetly as possible, and help was offered quickly, and with kindness. The situation still isn’t great, but it’s better. Most likely, I should have asked for help sooner, before the situation became so overwhelming. As it is, I still feel anxious when I see the man, even when he’s doing nothing wrong. But I also feel uneasy about writing this, unsure if I’m revealing too much detail that could allow someone to identify him and cause him embarrassment.

And all of that made me wonder, why do I believe that I have to be so much more careful about not embarrassing him than about taking care of myself? Did I learn that from home? From school? From society at large? And why didn’t I also learn about the requirement to speak up when you see wrong-doing? Was that left out of my education, or was it actively discouraged?

Recently, when I heard that some prominent men were criticizing Gayle King for even asking about Kobe Bryant’s well known past misdeeds, after his death. Some people were going so far as to send her death threats. And I wondered if this emphasis on not embarrassing people is exclusively focused on men, rather than on women.

This is the #MeToo movement encapsulated. Women stood up and said, No more, we are going to speak openly about sexual assault so that men will be stopped. And, immediately, the men invoked their version of the anti-embarrassment law. As if the embarrassment and shame caused by the abuser to the victim is not as important as the shame the victim causes by publicly accusing the abuser. Even if the man is never indicted, and he gets to go back to his regular life, he will already have been shamed. So, with statistics showing at most a five percent chance of a false accusation of a man, all women should be disbelieved, or worse, silenced before they can be believed or disbelieved.

When President Trump complains that his critics are mean and disgusting and causing him harm, there’s some validity to that. People are giving accounts of hateful, and disgusting, and embarrassing behavior committed by the president, and they do intend him harm in speaking up about his behavior. So, are they wrong for causing him harm? Is that the kind of embarrassment that is prohibited?

In my house growing up, and in my world growing up, the answer was yes. You are harming him by accusing him, even if he’s guilty, and you have no right to cause him harm. But, is that what the bible intended to teach us? And if it did, do we have to listen?

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“No. The answer is no.”

 

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?

The Exodus-from-Egypt Song

 

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.

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“You did what?!”

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.

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“Woof!”

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.

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“We’ll see.”

 

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?

 

 

 

 

 

On #MeToo

 

When the #MeToo hashtag first appeared, I wasn’t sure what to do with it. I was afraid that it would minimize the seriousness of sexual harassment and sexual assault, watering the terms down to the point of meaninglessness, and I doubted that it would lead anywhere. I was wrong. It hasn’t gone away, instead, because of twitter and Facebook and some very good journalism, women’s voices are being heard and abusers are being named, and even fired.

But not all of them. Woody Allen still gets to make movies. And Stephen Colbert still promotes his movies on The Late Show. Actors still make excuses to work with Woody Allen, and say things like, I don’t want to take sides in a “family issue.” They don’t say, I don’t have an opinion on a moral issue of deep significance that represents the misuse of power not only of men in general but of fathers in particular, because that would make them sound icky.

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There are even people who think it is a legitimate thing to say, of a politician, I don’t care that he’s a pedophile, as long as he belongs to my political party.

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“No way!”

I’m not sure why certain cases are taken seriously and others aren’t. I’m not sure where this whirlwind is going to land, and I worry that there will, as always, be a backlash. I’m also not a fan of the assumption that this is simply a men against women issue, as if all women have taken the high road. Unfortunately, women have been as expert at shutting down other women’s voices as men have.

My experience, as a victim of childhood sexual abuse, has been that people, of both sexes, did not want to know. And if they heard me and believed me, they still thought I should be able to get over it quickly. Maybe a year of therapy, at the most. But I’m in year twenty-something of therapy and I see no end in sight. I wrote a novel about childhood sexual abuse, but editors told me that they found the subject matter, or the way I addressed it, too painful to read, and too difficult to place, no matter how “beautifully written.” Even when I went to graduate school for writing, and sat with other writers in classes, and bars, and on couches in dorms, there was a deep unwillingness to listen to people who shared these kinds of painful stories, unless they were wrapped in the cozy fluff of sci fi or horror or mystery, or, alternatively, gave graphic details of the sex acts. There is very little tolerance for a story that emphasizes the fear and vulnerability of the victim, and the complex and time consuming process of recovery. People want something easier to live with. They want empowerment and resolution in two hundred and fifty pages.

I am afraid that, even now, the reason why #MeToo was so successful is because people only had to read two anonymous words, and didn’t have to bother with the whole, difficult story. I am afraid that those two words are all I am really allowed to say.

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“You can’t shut me up!”