Read an Excerpt
Shine the LightSexual Abuse and Healing in the Jewish Community
By RACHEL LEV
Northeastern University PressCopyright © 2003 Rachel Lev
All right reserved.
Chapter OneRemembering and Telling
My Journey Back to My Self and Other People's Stories
RACHEL LEV WITH HILLARY, One does not become enlightened by imagining ELIZABETH, JEROME, figures of light, but by making the darkenss LAURIE SUZANNE REICHE, conscious. AND CAROL GREENFIELD C.G. Jung, Aichemical Studies
The Late 1970s
* * *
The therapy room was dimly lit. With my feet flat on the floor, I bent my knees and arched backward so my shoulder blades rested on the padded beam of a miniature sawhorse. Body therapists in those days called it "the bench." Clients laughed sardonically and called it "the rack." Mike, my therapist, told me to breathe down to my belly and up into my chest. So, I breathed. It felt good having my chest and belly stretched open by my deep breathing. Suddenly, my breathing changed and a rasping sound came out of my throat. I was gasping, terrified, seeing an image of myself as a child surrounded by white, unable to breathe, unable to move. I saw my small head resting on a white pillow. I looked terribly sad. My therapist said, "Stay with that." I did. The terror got worse, and then it passed. I was exhausted and very, very confused. What had just happened?
As Mike and I talked, he suggested I talk to my mother about whether anything like this had happened to me. What could it be? How could I see myself and this be a memory?
I called my mom that night and asked, "Was there ever a time when I was little, surrounded by white, couldn't breathe and couldn't move?" She said, "I can't believe you'd remember that." I said, "Remember what?" She then proceeded to tell me that when I was three years old, I stopped breathing. My sister found me turning blue and ran for my mother. My mother picked me up, supposedly dislodging something in my throat. I began gasping. The fire department came and took me by ambulance to the local children's hospital, where I was placed in a steam room.
My hospital room had a one-way mirror through which my parents watched me. I could see myself! This really was a memory. My parents were not allowed to see me. One of the nurses, writing that I was "uncooperative" in my hospital chart, put me in restraints. I couldn't move! My mom and I were amazed. She said the family had never talked about it after it happened. They were just glad I was alive.
I was little, surrounded by white, couldn't breathe and couldn't move.
Years later, different blips and bleeps and explosions of sensations and images came to tell me of other terrifying events in my life. Deciding to tell others that I was molested as a child was a challenge and a risk that came only after I had the courage to tell myself what I had always known. To do that I had to dance with a tornado. It nearly killed me.
As I prepared to read a chapter I'd named "Dancing with a Tornado," a fellow student in a writing class reacted. With eyebrows raised and consternation in her voice, she said, "You can't dance with a tornado. No one in their right mind would dance with a tornado." She was right. No one in her right mind would dance with a tornado, but it was learn to dance with this rapidly twirling, violent maelstrom of energy or fall into its destructive path and die. Her comment angered me, but I didn't say anything. Some people just aren't going to understand. What matters is that I do and that I tell. This is what happened.
Dancing with a Tornado: 1986 to 1950-something to 1999
* * *
It came from nowhere-storms often do. I stood waiting for the bus on a summery day on a beautiful metropolitan thoroughfare. The bus came in sight. A voice said, "Just step in front of the bus." I started to step forward. Suddenly I realized what I was doing. I stepped back. I was horrified ... terrified. What was going on? I could have killed myself. That wasn't "me." Had someone pushed me? No. The voice came from within me, and I'd almost obeyed. Stunned and shaking, I got on the bus.
Somehow I got to work and walked into my friend's office. She looked at me and said, "You look so scared." "I am," I said, and proceeded to tell her what had just happened. She said, "I hope you'll call Hannah." Hannah was the name of a therapist my friend had mentioned to me before. I called Hannah. I don't remember what happened from that moment in my friend's office until I somehow made it to Hannah's. My whole world had unraveled. I was drowning, spinning, lost. Images, bodily tremors, waves of terror and despair flooded me throughout the day, and nightmares were my nightly companions. What was happening to me? Hannah said, "It's a lot but you can swim." My friends, Hannah's respectful distance and compassion gave me something to hang on to while everything else was spinning out of control within me.
I started going to therapy. I went to work. I walked along the lake. I went to therapy some more. I talked to my friends. I don't remember much about what else I was doing in my life in those days. Somehow I kept making it to Hannah's. One day she asked, "Did you ever get the feeling there was a secret?" As a shudder tore through me, I knew the answer was yes. But what was it? What could it be? Hannah offered no suggestions or hints.
Sometime later, in therapy, I saw an image of myself as a small child, huddled in the corner of a room, terrified by the whirling, swirling darkness of a tornado that filled the center of the room. The tornado was between me and the door. There was no way out. At times there were three and four tornadoes in the room. I learned that tornadoes can stand stationary or move one hundred feet per second. The sky gets so black at first that you can't see anything. It's like somebody turned out the lights. It's amazing how everything can be destroyed in fifteen to twenty seconds. Few buildings can withstand the horizontal blasts of tornado winds. And me? Fragmented images, feelings, nightmares, sensations swept through me, touching down here, then there, picking me up without warning, then dumping me out in the middle of nowhere. To get out required that I dance with each tornado, that I become one with each and ride it out. And what a ride it has been. Years of flashbacks, nightmares, depression so bad I had to keep my knives in my car trunk. I wore black all the time but didn't know that then. Everything scared me. That, I knew.
I fought what I was seeing. It couldn't be real, true. I must be crazy. Better to be crazy than to believe this. I would have done anything-and did-to not know this. I almost died in order to keep this secret. From childhood on, I compulsively overate to numb myself. I developed somatic symptoms and focused on my physical health, rather than the events that "made me sick."
My memory is fragmented. The good news is, as I allow myself to know that there was a bogeyman in my closet, the more memories of what was good and pleasant return. It has taken many years of arduous work, tens of thousands of dollars, incredible courage, and the good fortune to have found tenacious, steadfast, knowledgeable, hardy, and loving therapists and friends.
I became suicidal on a beautiful summery day in 1986. I didn't want to know what I knew, to remember what had been done to me.
It began when I was three.
As an adult, much of me thought I should die-kill myself-rather than betray the image-the illusions about my father, family, and childhood
I adored my father. He was my sun and moon and stars.
He was tall, dark haired, with blue eyes and a hairy chest.
He was dramatic and silly. He made me laugh ... and then, he made me cry.
It began as a game suggested as a way to make me feel better on a day when I didn't feel good. It happened over and over for years.
Being sexually abused by my father, whom I loved and on whom I depended, exploded my world and sense of self and safety into a mill on pieces. Nothing was ever the same. I remember.
I remember pain, being little, all alone, wide-eyed nights. No one there. Getting up after falling asleep only after the light had come. Then to school. In walking to school some of the scales and horrors of the night before fell off while others fell in, onto themselves, going deep, deep wit]fin me. Nightmares forgotten for now. Now tiny sparks of hope as school appears. Here, I will be safe. Here, no one will hurt me. Here, people will be kind. I loved my teachers. With them I'd begin to breathe again-to hope.
But oh, the bone-crushing sadness when I wasn't picked for a team until last or the teacher didn't call on me. My slim hold on hope would dwindle, sizzle, and die. The horrors of the night before returned, and I became that little girl again-all alone in the night. Afraid to move. My solution was to push the pain and memories farther away-to pretend everything was all right. I learned to perform perfectly. The lessons of the night transferred to everything. There was no room for error-anywhere. And always, there was fear.
I remember the nights I was so scared I'd leave my warm bed, bare feet on cold, hardwood floors, and go to the door outside my parents' bedroom. I wanted comfort. As I stood outside their closed door, I remembered the joy of some weekend mornings, jumping into bed with my parents, laughing and snuggling and reading the funnies. But that was daytime, light time, not nighttime, not now when bad things could happen. So I sat quietly, afraid, seeking comfort by placing my palm on the door through the night.
Years later, as an adult, I remembered this as I found myself night after night sleeping close to the wall, my palm flat against it. I didn't understand what I was doing, but found comfort in it.
"What did he do to you?" a friend asked after reading the above. "Where are the details? I want to know. I ache to know. If you don't tell what he did, somehow the coercive power of the abuse is winning. If we are to strip the abuse and abusers of their power we must tell-tell out loud-tell without shame." Her telling me this reminded me of my arduous journey over many years from total denial to acknowledging to myself what happened, then entrusting this knowledge and my feelings to a few trusted souls. How much do I tell of how he molested me? Whatever feels right to me. I can't keep a secret because someone wants me to, and I can't share things because someone wants me to.
My love for my mother also impacts what I've included. We are continually rebuilding and renegotiating our relationship. Much in my life was motivated by my concern for her-feeling responsible to take care of her. As a child my mother often said, "I can always count on you." I believe I latched onto that role as a lifeline. If I took care of her, I might survive. There are many examples that demonstrate my placing her needs ahead of mine-as far back as I can remember. My mother tells the story of when I stopped breathing at the age of three and was rushed by ambulance to the hospital. En route I threw up, turned to my mother, and said, "I'm sorry, Mommy."
I agonized for years before telling her I'd been molested. There always seemed to be a reason not to tell her. I didn't tell her before she was going to France because I didn't think that was fair. Nor did it seem fair to tell her as she was leaving for Florida for the winter. I didn't tell her of the agony I was going through in deciding whether to attend a ceremony in my dad's honor. My father, by then deceased, the man who molested me, was being honored by his community. How could I go? How could I not? I decided to go out of love for my mother. It was crazy-making to know what he'd done, to be in such pain and still be protecting her, his name, and somehow myself by keeping the secret. He did so many good things. Molesting me was not one of them.
I never confronted my father-as a child or adult. By the time I would have been ready to confront him in my late thirties, he was pretty frail. I was afraid talking to him about what he had done would either kill him or cause a major rift in my family, or both. Much smaller confrontations had had serious ramifications. When I was thirty and didn't include my sister in plans to go out with a friend, he put his hand to his chest (where he'd had open heart surgery) and said how it made him sick when his children weren't getting along. He stopped talking to me for months and made life miserable for my mother, who then blamed me. I couldn't handle any of that. Instead I pulled away from both my parents as I battled the depression of remembering, put my knives in the trunk of my car, and kept myself alive.
I vowed not to perpetuate the pain he caused. I convinced myself that not telling my mother was stopping the transmission of pain he'd created. A few years after he died, that stopped working. To keep the truth of his violations from her, I had to keep away from her. She was always talking about him, about "Your Father." If I was to be in relationship with her, I had to tell her that her husband, my father, molested me. As I work to heal myself, I try to balance my need to disclose and mourn the fact that my father molested me, with my mother's need not to know and her desire that I tell no one.
I finally told my mother on a gray Sunday in October 1995. I had spent several hours with her, waiting for the right moment. I couldn't believe she couldn't tell I was going nuts inside. My heart was racing faster and faster with every hour we were together and I said nothing. I sat next to her on the couch in the den. I could give up and go home, but that felt too depressing. I suggested we go out to dinner. We went to a place she likes-a place I've known since I was in high school. I sat across the table from her. She was once again talking about how "our" father adored "us" kids.
Excerpted from Shine the Light by RACHEL LEV Copyright © 2003 by Rachel Lev
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.