Sunday, December 19, 2010

Hush, by Eishes Chayil

I'll never forget the day, back in the 80s, when I told my husband, Charles, then just my boyfriend, about my history. "When I was a girl I was sexually abused by a relative," I said, forcing the words out. This was the first boy I had ever told. It seemed right, like the thing to do at that point in our relationship, but even as the words left my mouth I knew they could be a deal breaker. I waited nervously, the silence hanging heavy in the air. If he was going to break up with me then he should just say it and get it over with, I thought. "Well," I asked with an urgent, frustrated edge, "does this make you feel any different about me?" Charles began as always, slow and measured.
"Well," he said, and my breath caught as I realized that he was beginning a sentence that would take me to an unknown place, "I don't feel any different about you, but it doesn't make me feel very good about your relative."

Charles was one of only a handful of people I shared this with. The shame of what happened to me as a child gripped me so completely that I was a young adult before I even told my family, and even then the fallout from the abuse still hung over me like a thick, gray cloud. I couldn't shake it. Two more decades would pass before I could even imagine typing these words.

My story, and the stories of so many others, brings to light not only the scourge of sexual abuse against children, of course, but something else just as harming: the secrecy that surrounds it. Secrets are toxic; you hide something when you are ashamed of it. 40-years ago when my abuse took place the world was not nearly as enlightened as it is now, but this fact still holds true: Our society puts a premium on surfaces -- niceties and smiling faces -- at the expense of the more difficult work that comes with honest discourse. Children aren't unaware; they see this; they know others will be uncomfortable in the wake of their disclosure so they often keep it to themselves. Because children often keep their abuse secret, the shame of what happened falls not on the perpetrators of the abuse -- where it belongs -- but on the victims. This is when the abuse -- a terrible enough thing in and of itself -- becomes freighted. As a girl I knew implicitly that the adults around me would be uncomfortable if I disclosed what happened, and because of this I put myself in the position of being responsible for bearing the burden of the secret; I made it possible for those around me to go on with their lives unfettered by the discomfort of dealing with my suffering and having to confront the pedophile relative who abused me. The terror of being abused became spider-webbed in confusion and shame. The burden was crippling. The premium our culture puts on its smiley face has another notable repercussion: because victims keep their abuse hush-hush, their abusers face no repercussions and are allowed to go on molesting. (Just so you know, it wasn't my imagination that my family would not welcome my disclosure. When, as a young adult, 20 years ago, I finally summoned up enough courage to speak out about it they responded by insisting I stay quiet, murmuring that I was either unbalanced, making it up, or both. It has only been in the past few years that they've apologized and we've been able to sit down and talk about what happened openly.)

The long-held, unspoken belief within the Jewish community is that sexual abuse is not a Jewish problem, especially among the more observant Orthodox and Hassidic groups. It doesn't take a social scientist, though, to realize that cultures that seek to preserve traditions -- not an unworthy goal -- by definition tend to be insular, and that an insular society can be a breeding ground for predators if it handles its dirty laundry from within, as these communities do. There can be an enormous amount of pressure within these communities to keep quiet about sexual abuse. And because sexual abuse against children is almost always unwitnessed, and therefore unprovable, victims (and their families) are often told by those in power that their allegations fall under the umbrella of lashon hara, or gossip, which is strictly forbidden.

Although "Hush" is billed as a novel for young adults, the story is well-written and compelling reading for adults, too. It's telling that the author, a woman from one of the observant communities, felt compelled to use a pseudonym. It's sad that the atmosphere within these communities is still such that the author couldn't comfortably use her own name, although the pseudonym she picked couldn't be more fitting; Eishes Chayil translates as woman of valor.

In the author's note at the back of the book, Chayil writes that she used the story of her own life to craft "Hush," combining two events from her childhood to form the plot. As a young girl she witnessed a friend being molested, and also heard of an 11-year-old boy in her community who hung himself. In "Hush," Gittel's best friend, Devory, hangs herself in the aftermath of being molested by her brother. As the plot unfolds we see that Devory wasn't the only person victimized by the abuse; Gittel witnessed it and the guilt she suffers from keeping quiet about seeing Devory's abuse, and from outliving her, takes its toll in the form of symptoms we now know are part of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. I had a few minor quibbles with the plot and structure of "Hush," but I hesitate to even bring them up. Those details are besides the point. "Hush" is an important book. It shines the light on the sexual abuse within traditional Jewish communities and, in the telling, secrecy and shame are vanquished. I can't help but believe that G-d would be pleased to see this. Eishes Chayil should be proud.

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