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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?

 

 

 

 

 

The Aftermath of Childhood Abuse

 

In order to have a successful life, it’s not enough to be smart and talented, you have to be able to function, every day, without having three panic attacks before lunch. I was certain that, twenty-five years into therapy, I would be married, with children, and published multiple times. I wouldn’t have made it through the first ten years of therapy if I’d known that I’d still be struggling with forward motion in year twenty five. But this is where I’m at, and this is the best I’ve been able to do, despite all of that promise, because of childhood sexual abuse.

I was the kid that teachers loved and never worried about. Rachel will do fine at whatever she chooses to do. Rachel is smart and responsible and hardworking and never needs help. They didn’t consider my social anxiety, or crippling depression, or the endless fragmentation of my mind as a problem, because even with all of that I still did well at school. But I didn’t want to, and that was the killer. I did not want to wake up each morning. I did not want to meet new people, or go to parties, or get a job, or choose a major, or whatever each next step was supposed to be.

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“This is a difficult topic, Mommy.”

 

I am tired of hearing about how resilient everyone else is, and how well they’re doing, despite this and that and the other thing. It implies that we all had the same obstacles and everyone else is just better than me at overcoming them. But the fact is, if I had the same life experiences as I’ve had, without the great good fortune of intelligence and talent, and a Mom who loves me, and a therapist who has been there for me since I was nineteen, I would not be here. I would have walked in front of a bus, or swallowed a bottle of pills, a hundred times by now. It’s important to know that, and not to be smug about my successes, and not to be so quick to judge others for their lack of success.

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“I’m here for you, Cricket.”

The percentage of substance abusers with child abuse histories is very high, same with prison inmates, and patients in mental hospitals, but I feel like we choose, as a society, not to know these things. We choose to ignore our good fortune when we have it, and we choose to take credit for all of our successes, despite the help we’ve received along the way. We imagine that people are successful because of their intelligence and hard work alone, and therefore those who are unsuccessful must be lazy and stupid.

Lately we’ve been talking more about privilege – white privilege, male privilege – but we forget the less obvious forms of privilege; being safe in your own home, and being loved and nurtured by your family, and having the support you need when you have to face big and small challenges along the way, are huge privileges that many children never experience.

I remember watching episodes of the Oprah Winfrey Show, years ago, when she would celebrate kids who had survived war and starvation and abuse and got into Harvard anyway, or started a successful business, or saved the world in some way. And it made me angry, one, because I could never do any of that, and two, because most of the kids who went through those same circumstances wouldn’t be able to impress anyone and win the attention and rewards they would need in order to survive. They would have the same residue of pain and trauma, without any help to get them through, or anyone to celebrate their small achievements along the way.

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“I love to celebrate!”

Everyone wants to know the secrets of the resilient child, but resilience has more to do with how we take care of and support these children than with their own inherent qualities. Their strength, or weakness, comes mostly from us. If they fail, it’s because we didn’t hold them up. We keep forgetting this. We want to celebrate, and vilify, the individual, if only so that we don’t have to take responsibility for each other. But it’s an illusion. We are intertwined whether we acknowledge it or not, and we pay the price for the suffering of others, whether we caused it ourselves or simply chose to ignore it.

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Platypus knows that we all need help.

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?

 

 

Why Don’t Dogs Have Gynecologists?

“What’s she talking about?”

 

I’m supposed to go for a mammogram this month. I went for my baseline last year, and the doctor wants me to go every year now, despite recommendations to the contrary out in the world. I almost fell down halfway through the test last year as they pressed each breast into the squeeze machine three times. How can this be the state of the art? Is someone under the impression that breasts can’t feel pain?

I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to push myself to go to the appointment, and my doctor will be mad at me for not doing it, and I will inevitably develop breast cancer and die and it will be my fault because I didn’t want to faint in the radiology office.

Like this.

Like this.

I’ve never heard of a gynecologist for dogs, though you never know what’s out there, somewhere. My dogs haven’t had to get mammograms. I can’t even imagine how that would work. Cricket thinks that having the goop removed from her eyes is the worst humiliation; can you imagine trying to squeeze some sensitive part of her anatomy until it is flat?

“What?”

I wish I could be more like Cricket, and feel like I have the right to refuse these humiliating tests, or at least to bite the person who tries to perform them on me. I feel like women need to rise up.

“Fight!!!!!!”

The thing is, veterinarians go into veterinary medicine almost always because they love animals and have compassion for them. Whereas doctors for humans often go into medicine because of the steady income, the prestige, or an interest in science. And gynecology? I don’t think too many kids grow up dreaming of becoming gynecologists.

I went to my first gynecologist when I was in my late twenties. I had been putting it off to avoid the inevitable panic attack and having to talk to a stranger about my sexual abuse history. I told the doctor my story as quickly as possible, and she seemed sympathetic for a minute, but then she told me to get on with my life. She said that my health would be better once I had babies, because that’s what the female body is meant to do. And then she complained that my body made the internal exam “difficult.”

“Grr.”

The next gynecologist seemed more down to earth. She listened to my spiel about sexual abuse, and promised to be careful with me, and asked questions. True to her word, she did her best to avoid hurting me during the internal exam itself, but as soon as I sat up, in my cloth gown, on the edge of the metal table, I started crying uncontrollably, and she said, “Are you sad that the exam is over?”

She meant to be funny, but her cluelessness for how that would sound to a sexual abuse survivor was bizarre. I don’t understand why female gynecologists are not more sensitive to this, given that the conservative estimate is that 1 out of 4 women were sexually abused before the age of 18. But, even if I had no abuse history, it would be normal for a woman on a table, being poked internally with a piece of metal, to be uncomfortable and self-conscious. And yet the doctors seem impatient with this.

My current gynecologist is pretty matter of fact. At the first exam, after a discussion, fully clothed, in her office, and changing into paper clothes and having to shimmy down the table, she tried the regular speculum and then said no, let me go get the one we use for the nuns.

She works in a large office, next door to a plastic surgeon, and around the corner from a cancer treatment center. It’s not comforting. It’s like a one stop shop for women: get birth control, have a baby, get cancer, get your breasts redone, get cancer again, go into remission, and then celebrate living a long life by getting a facelift.

I go to the gynecologist because I have to go, but I dread it all year. I’m not saying I’d rather be a female dog, but sometimes I wish I felt free to act like one.

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