Like David Cheifetz, many victims of abuse do not confront their past, or their abusers, for many years, or even decades, after the abuse took place, according to mental health professionals.
The experts say a combination of shame (the victims feel sullied by an act that they had not initiated or encouraged), and fear of rejection (often their relatives and members of the wider community do not accept the claims of abuse) lead abuse victims to suppress thinking about, or talking about the abuse for a long time.
“It is very hard to come forward,” says Dr. Michelle Friedman, a psychiatrist who directs the pastoral counseling program at Yeshivat Chovovei Torah in Riverdale.
Abuse victims are often reticent to confront the abusers, who typically are a relative a close friend of the family, or a respected member of the ethnic or religious community — in the case of Jews, a rabbi or trusted therapist, Friedman says. “You don’t get to molest someone you don’t know.”
The passage of time, and the occurrence of major lifecycle event like divorce or the birth of a child may prompt an abuse victim to belatedly come forward, says Richard Gartner, a New York psychologist and psychoanalyst who specializes in the treatment of men with histories of sexual abuse.
Gartner says the reluctance to face one’s past as an abuse victims “is common, particularly among men,” because such admission can affect one’s “macho” self-image. Men, he says, are “frequently socialized to think of themselves as people who cannot be victims, particularly sexual victims.”
Reactions that often range from disbelief and rejection of abuse claims, to outright criticism of the victim and defense of the accused perpetrator discourage many abuse victims from coming forward, Gartner says. “They expect not to be believed.”
The fact that someone goes public with an abuse accusation, seeking “recognition that something [bad] was done,” possibly opening that person to embarrassment and questioning, usually indicates that some abuse did take place, Gartner says. And while some details of the abuse are likely to become clouded by time, victims rarely forget the general contours of the abuse, he says. “Some of them never forget it. They’re haunted by it.”