I found out that my father had died by listening to Mom’s side of a phone call. It took a while for me to figure out that she was talking to my brother, and then even longer to figure out that he was telling her my father had died. I had to wait until the call was over to get the details – that my father had been in and out of nursing homes and hospitals for the past three years (which we sort of knew, from clues but not from direct information), that he didn’t have dementia (which is what Mom had assumed), and that there was drama around when and where the funeral would take place.
I wrote to four people after I found out – two good friends, my therapist, and my rabbi. And my rabbi rushed out of a committee meeting (reluctantly?) to call me and see what I might need from him. He already knew the backstory, about the sexual abuse and the estrangement (I hadn’t seen my father in 23 years), and he said something that really stuck with me. He said that the commandment to Honor your father and mother is often misinterpreted. The word in Hebrew is Kaved, which actually means weight or weigh, not respect or honor. It means that you should weigh the role of your parents in your life when you decide what you owe them in return; you are not required to blindly honor or respect a parent simply because they are your parent, but because they acted as a parent should and raised you with love and respect and guided and protected you. The commandment to Honor your father and mother is not meant to be a get out of jail free card for any parent who abuses or neglects their children.
I am not orthodox, like my brother and his family, and I don’t believe that my rabbi is the final word on what I can and can’t do as a Jewish woman, but it helped to have validation and support, both from a person I trust and from the tradition of my ancestors.
I made sure to tell my rabbi not to put out an announcement that my father had died or to add my father’s name to the list for the Mourner’s Kaddish at our synagogue at Friday night services. I didn’t want to receive messages from people who care about me but don’t know my situation, telling me that they are sorry for my loss and may my father’s memory be a blessing. It isn’t a blessing. He wasn’t a blessing in my life.
Jewish funerals are required to take place as soon as possible after the death, but I did not go (though Mom watched it on Zoom to support my brother and his children). And I didn’t go to sit Shiva at my brother’s house, though Mom went to visit and to offer support, avoiding discussions about what did and did not happen in the past.
I stayed home and sought comfort from my friends and my dogs and my therapist, but I was jealous of my brother’s ability to mourn our father, and all of the Jewish rituals that would support him through that process. I found myself feeling jealous of anyone who could find comfort in hearing their lost loved one’s name read out each week before the Mourner’s Kaddish, or who found comfort in saying the Mourner’s Kaddish and praising God in the memory of their lost loved one. I’m jealous of people for whom the traditional rituals work – like giving nostalgic eulogies and having friends and family over to reminisce and tell stories and share food for a week. Those mourning rituals are so beautiful and powerful, but only when thinking about the lost loved one is a comfort.
My situation doesn’t fit into the traditional framework. My father sexually abused me, and others. He was a pedophile and a narcissist and a manipulator, and he denied what he’d done and denied the significance of the things he couldn’t dispute having done, and never made any attempt to make amends. If anything, he continued to try to convince important people in my life that I was lying and he was a victim. The fact is, I still live in a world that doesn’t want to reckon with the reality that abuse and neglect are everywhere, and that they destroy lives every day.
This was brought home to me, vividly, that night, when, after writing my emails and texts and making my phone calls, I tried to distract myself with an episode of New Amsterdam on NBC. It’s a hospital show with an idealistic bent, often too simplistic, but still hopeful about making the world a better place. It’s not my favorite show, but I watch it regularly and often find it comforting and/or interesting. But for whatever reason, that night, out of nowhere, the writers chose to go down a rabbit hole about Recovered Memories.
Recovered Memories is a somewhat generic term that people often use to describe traumatic memories that have been forgotten at some point and then remembered later. A lot of how you define the term Recovered Memories depends on what your intentions are: if you want to debunk the idea that it’s even possible for memories to return after a period of forgetting, you will probably define Recovered Memories as wholly forgotten and then remembered only with the help of a therapist or a drug; if you believe that trauma can cause memories to fragment or be blocked for some period of time, you’ll probably define Recovered Memories more generally, as partial forgetting and partial remembering over time, often triggered by events in the present that remind you of the past trauma (like your own child reaching the age you were at when you were abused).
On this episode of New Amsterdam, the writers decided to take the loveable psychiatrist on the show, who is more often than not empathetic and kind, and have him testify in court that all Recovered Memories, of any kind, are unreliable. They even had him quote a study about The Shopping Mall Experiment, where the researchers said they were able to “implant” memories in susceptible adults of having been lost in a mall in childhood. The study has been debunked for any number of reasons, but the biggest reason is that traumatic memory and “normal” memory are not the same, and while being lost in a mall might be scary, it would not qualify as a traumatic memory unless something traumatic happened while you were lost.
But still, I wanted to believe that the writers on the show were going to handle the issue sensitively, and in the next scene they gave me hope when the psychiatrist’s female colleague confronted him with her own recovered memory (though not of abuse), and with the terrible impact his testimony would have on millions of women and children who had been abused and tried to testify to that in court. But then the psychiatrist doubled down on his belief that not only Recovered Memories, but ALL memories, are unreliable. He went on to specifically attack the legitimacy of his female colleague’s memories, by researching the probable season and location where the memory would have taken place, disputing her memories of the weather on that day in order to prove to her that it could not have happened the way she remembered it. He was relentless and wildly inappropriate, and the writers gave no explanation for why he would feel so strongly about this particular issue or why he would be willing to be so cruel to his friend.
By the end of the episode it seemed to me that the writers’ intention was to use this whole storyline as a way to question the female colleague’s memories of how her father had left her when she was little, so she could reassess her feelings towards her still living mother and therefore change her plans to move to London, which threatened the status quo at the hospital; but they could have found hundreds of other ways to change her mind without invalidating millions of people.
I was in shock. The violence of the psychiatrist’s attack on his friend seemed to come out of nowhere, and the female colleague’s willingness to forgive him right away was out of character and bizarre. But more than that, the way the writers were misrepresenting the research was horrifying, especially because it is well known in the field that traumatic memories often have missing or distorted nonessential details, like the time of day, or the weather, or the clothes you were wearing, and those mistaken details have no bearing on whether or not the crux of the memory is true.
The emotions I couldn’t produce in response to the news of my father’s death came roaring up as I watched this show and felt invalidated and manipulated all over again. You can’t prove it and therefore it didn’t happen. You have no pictures and I don’t want to believe you and therefore it didn’t happen. Your memories, your symptoms, your feelings, are nothing in the face of what I want to believe.
But I’ve done the reading that the writers on New Amsterdam clearly did not bother to do, and I’ve done the listening, to many people who have been abused, and I know that the brain often tries to protect us from knowing things we are not ready to deal with. I just felt so let down that a show that had seemed thoughtful and kind was no longer trustworthy.
I am still processing my father’s death, and trying to figure out how it changes things, if it changes things. I am safer now than I was as a child. I am loved and supported and listened to and believed; and I cherish the people who have brought me comfort and made my world a better place. But the mourning process is still ongoing, for the loss of the childhood and the father I could have had, and for the years spent trying to recover, and I wish there could be established rituals to help me through this kind of mourning. There are so many of us in similar situations, trying to cobble together the support we need to move forward. I can’t be the only one who struggles to create those rituals on my own, and I can’t be the only one who feels let down by a world that refuses to acknowledge the pervasiveness and validity of the need for those rituals.
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?