By Janet Goldblatt Holmes
During the winter of 2013, I read the compelling article, “Hidden Children of the Holocaust”(1) about children who were sexually and physically abused by the “foster” families who claimed to have “saved them from the Nazi’s.” For many, forty or fifty passed before they could tell their stories.
I read of a woman who was unable to share her secret with her spouse, children, family or friends. I was shaken by how isolating that must have been, my own experience of date rape seeming small and insignificant. These threads of shame and self-dismissal are common in survivors of assault and molestation. As I became a witness to the accounts of violent betrayals of trust, the familiar conflicts of shame and blame surfaced.
The article reports that many women have come forward with their stories after their children have grown and left home, or years later. Once occupied with family and responsibilities, their lives now offered room for the repressed incidents to surface. I understand this dynamic-- although my date rape occurred when I was a teenager, thirty years passed before I was able to begin to acknowledge and deal with the trauma, and disclose what had transpired.
Widespread violence against women is not new within our culture. We regularly hear reports of rape and abuse. These are troubling and uncomfortable topics to discuss, but in order to effect change, we must speak, bringing voices and faces to this issue. It is urgent that we challenge the current complicit acceptance of rape culture.
As a private person who had kept her story dead bolted for many years, deciding to speak openly about being raped was a daunting step for me. Despite being an advocate for those who have endured rape, at times memory of the event is still sparked, and shame and blame reappear. No matter how far one has progressed on the road to healing, scar tissue persists. I have discovered healing to be a non-linear process, and that if we can trust ourselves, and honor how we have coped in our lives as survivors of assault, the upheaval can lessen.
The journey of uncovering our truth can be long and grueling, yet ultimately this profound work will be rewarding. My passage has been one of rediscovering myself as a woman, with all my colors, shadows, shapes and textures, forming a whole. I am no longer fragmented by fear, shame and denial.
As a young girl, I would gaze out the bedroom window into the empty field behind our house and dream of becoming a dance teacher and having my own studio. I envisioned being happy and living in a love filled, supportive home. I imagined marrying my prince charming, someone who would fill the emptiness and bring joy into my heart. I’m not sure if having kids was ever a part of the scenario.
At age sixteen, date rape changed my life. I buried what happened for decades, like many people about whom I have read. I was well into my adult life before delving into the traumatic impact of having been raped.
Often, we attempt to isolate the horrific event and put it behind us – hoping to “move forward” and forget. All the while, the reverberations of shock continue to live in our bodies. There are many aspects to healing. The process requires bravery, openness and our ability to be vulnerable. It is essential to know that we are not alone.
Likely most of us know someone who has been the victim of sexual assault, or violence. Many of us have lived through a harrowing ordeal of one sort or another. As a sexual assault survivor, I can attest to the power and impact of finding one’s voice.
In my role as a speaker and advocate, I encourage others to find someone to confide in, and to accept that they have done nothing wrong, and therefore need not be ashamed. I promote freeing oneself of blame, as it is a double-edged weapon that can impede the healing process by creating the trap of a one up, one down paradigm. Still, I am aware that I continue to carry remnants of these emotions.
Many who have sustained trauma alienate themselves from others as a way to feel safe, push down the horrors, or simply endure. Survivors often wait many years, knowingly or unwittingly (when the torment has been repressed), for a way through the unbearable emotional pain, to the lightness that can result from healing the suffering. There is an inherent uncertainty whether they will ever be free of the burden so long carried in secret.
I have been heartened in my work in education and outreach with both young and adult audiences, by people’s bravery. Some women have been able to speak about their assault, and some have found healing capacity through their art, music and writing. Others, for reasons that may include fear of the challenging memories, of exposure, ridicule, or blame, remain silent and continue to carry the burden.
The disturbing realities of sexual violence are being pulled from the shadows. Compelling articles (2) directed at Jewish audiences, boldly address this topic. But, there are other pressing issues to be faced, beyond the horrors of sexual assault. Unrecognized domestic violence within Jewish communities also carries the familiar veins of blame and shame.
In attempting to come to terms with domestic abuse, we strive to make sense of what transpired. In my case, as with the experience of date rape, I believed that the impact of mistreatment as both child and adult was reduced because there were no external signs of either assault or mistreatment.
During a testimonial writing workshop for sexual assault survivors, which I attended, in Edmonton Alberta (4), Aboriginal women spoke of the distressing realities of the generational continuum of sexual and physical violence in their communities. I was inspired by the courage of the women to speak openly about such brutality, and their commitment to bring an end to this legacy. Their stories became the impetus for me to take a closer look into my upbringing. Layers of illusion lifted, and I began to see that the verbal, emotional and physical abuse to which I had been subjected in my family, had left deep scars.
The concept “generational continuum of violence” has led me to consider how we repeat the behaviors of our parents or grandparents. Violence of any kind is an assault on the human spirit and until the cycle of abuse or violence is interrupted and healed, patterned behaviors of the previous generations continue.
There were few people with whom I felt safe to confide, yet those with whom I shared my “secrets”, believed the ill-treatment in my youth clouded my judgment when relating to others and that in my naiveté I put myself in compromising situations, including one that resulted in date rape. These suggestions were initially profoundly unsettling, yet further exploration into this difficult territory has made the connection undeniable.
On closer look what became evident was the impact of violent behavior in both situations, and the troublesome feelings of shame, blame and guilt. I had felt like a “victim” – seeking approval, acquiescing to others, and giving up my ground, despite knowing that going against what I believed compromised my sense of self.
Often, afraid to speak up for myself, I learned to “hide”.
Had I lived in a gentler, more trusting home, would I have been less afraid to speak about rape or abusive behavior? Would I have been able to trust and find my voice earlier in life?
Today, over 40 years later, I am happy to say that my childhood dreams have come true, although with variations on the themes. As for kids, I am the proud mother of a daughter and son, beautiful young adults.
The Jewish phrase “Tikum Olam” means “repairing our world.” What better way to repair our world, then by offering those in pain a helping hand to move from their solitary dark into the light of disclosure, and the healing that can follow?
Those of us who have been able to move beyond trauma recognize the importance of stepping forward and bearing witness for those who are unable to speak. My own experiences have taught me that I need no longer suffer in silence, hide in shame, or accept the accompanying belief system of disempowerment.
Every individual has the right to a life free of violence. Is it not our responsibility to establish a safe world for others, including our children and grandchildren which promotes awareness, kindness and compassion?
If violence against women is to end, we in the Jewish community must speak out and break the silence, so that healing may take place. Through open dialogue and ongoing discussion in communities, we enrich and empower those who suffer with shame in silence. Through testimony, we will continue to find our voices.
1. Jspace article: Jspace Staff – 1/9/13 Category: History, Feature: Sexual Abuse and the Hidden Children of the Holocaust
2. Lilith Magazine: Winter, 2013 Jewish Women’s Reform Magazine: an independent, Jewish-American, feminist non-profit publication that has been issued quarterly since 1976.
3. Ten Minutes of Torah – Women of Reform Judaism WRJ Blog Oct 2013
4. The Voices and Faces Testimonial Writing Workshop www.voicesandfaces.org