My friend’s tone was less buoyant than usual. What was wrong? Was it his marriage? Well, yes.
His voice softened. It seemed unlikely that his wife would stay with him.
But there was something else on his mind that day, something that even his wife of more than a decade didn’t know about until recently. It was something that had happened repeatedly 30 years before on the third floor of a yeshiva building. It started one Shabbat morning, when an 18-year-old student persuaded my friend to follow him to an isolated room, where the older boy dropped his pants and demanded that my friend, then age 10, do the same. The older boy then proceeded to perform oral sex on him.
“It was incredibly frightening. I hated it,” my friend recalls. Until that occasion, he’d been flattered by the attention of this older student, whom he’d looked up to and admired in the way that younger children often do of kids a few years their senior.
After it was over, the older boy established the rules. “If you don’t come back again, I’m going to tell everybody,” the boy told my friend. To a 10-year-old, growing up in an insular religious community, these were terrifying words. And so, again and again that year, he and the older student met in the yeshiva classroom. No one informed an adult of suspicious behavior.
This spring, readers of New York newspapers have been shaking their heads (and sometimes fists) over rabbis in fervently Orthodox communities who defend accused abusers; rabbis who worry that children might craft tales about adults they dislike.
My friend, who still practices as an Orthodox Jew, reminds us that these situations involve children with very little understanding of sex. “We are talking about frum kids,” he says, using the Yiddish word for religiously observant. “Most of us grow up without TV. How would I have ever known about child molestation? I just know that an older boy made me take off my pants, and molested me. No frum kid is going to be making up stuff like this.”
My friend’s story also hints at another truth: that many incidents of sexual abuse are never disclosed, especially in the “black hat” Orthodox world where he grew up. His experience also demonstrates the repercussions that child molestation can continue to have for decades afterward. Silence, in these cases, is not golden.
“In a world where there is a very high value placed on modesty, and there is no [or] limited exposure to the Internet and to television/movies, raising the topic about sexual encounters is going to be difficult,” says my friend Naomi Mark, a psychotherapist who has worked with sex abuse victims in the Orthodox community.
As for my friend, he confided in no one. Eventually other older boys in the high school sensed something strange, and some started teasing my friend, calling him a faggot. It was the early ‘80s, and my friend soon believed he had something else to worry about: contracting AIDS. He was also deeply sickened by the fact that the sexual stimulation — in some ways — felt pleasurable. “As a boy growing up in the frum world, you learn that gay sex is an abomination,” says my friend. “I really blamed myself.”
Mark recognizes this trajectory from her work. She says that in the case of victims of a forced homosexual encounter, “the shame can be multiplied when there was some arousal involved — leaving the victim confused, self-doubting and haunted.”
And so it was, except that to the outside world, my friend appeared fine. He met a lovely woman; he married. He pursued several careers; he is a father to several children. But all along, whenever difficulty or conflict arose, he tuned out, and tuned in to Internet porn. This type of “coping mechanism” is not uncommon among childhood victims of sexual abuse. And one day, his wife caught him in the act.
As for my friend’s abuser, he eventually found work as a caterer at another Jewish school. A troubled boy at this school told his psychologist that he’d been molested by the same man. And following what is the law for mental health professionals, but not for rabbis, the psychologist notified the authorities. For this boy, it was too late. He had committed suicide.
Elicia Brown’s column appears the second week of the month. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.