On abuse, we haven’t even started talking

I live my life fairly publicly in some respects, hoping people learn from the mistakes made when I was sexually abused by Todros Grynhaus. I hope that by speaking out about how I have been affected by abuse, educators, leaders  statutory workers and members of the public will recognise red flags people ignored when I was younger. I hope they make different decisions from those made when I was a child, decisions that culminated in further abuse being perpetrated on other victims long after I had blown the whistle.

I know by putting my experiences in the public sphere, I am giving people permission to talk about them. I also know not everyone has the benefit of the information I have, and not everyone sees things the way I do.

I don’t encourage gossip or lashon hara, but I do encourage constructive debate and questioning. I speak and write publicly, not because I think everyone should agree with me but because we haven’t even started the conversation yet.

Brave survivors from the charedi community have put three charedi men in prison in the past four years, one after the other. As a community, we’ve not talked about this.

We need considerate, empathetic dialogue that listens carefully to both survivors and professionals. It’s not enough to dot i’s and cross t’s on policies. Until we talk, we won’t be introspective. Until we talk, we won’t heal.

Until we talk, we can’t stop it from happening again.

Lots of people see me writing and talking about abuse, and are shocked and upset. They know me, they believe me, and they now have to process this happened to someone they know. Someone whose childhood they were part of. Someone who doesn’t fit the stereotype they might have had in their mind of what an abuse survivor should sound like and look like.

So they reach out. They want to talk. They message me on Facebook, or Twitter. They say they’ve heard me speak, or that they have read something I have written.

Most people say, “I’m so sorry.” I never know how to answer. “Thank you” doesn’t make sense. I don’t need to thank people for their sympathy. I say “Thank you for listening” or “Thank you for reading my work.” I don’t think people realise when they do this they put their burden on to me.

They may not do it intentionally, but most people who contact me in this way want something from me. They want me to make them feel better. They want reassurance I don’t count them among those who were guilty of being silent bystanders. Guilty of the biblical commandment ‘lo sa’amod al dam re’echa’, do not stand on your brother’s blood.

There is also the minority of people who absolutely have done something wrong. They know they are on the wrong side of this fight but because they know me and believe me, they want to reach out and convince me (and themselves) they are circumspect, and nuanced, and want me to know they definitely do condemn real abuse, like my abuse.

They just don’t want to condemn the abuser they love. Or the abuser they respect. Or the abuser in whose abuse they might have been complicit. Or the abuser they want to be able to continue to expose their children to.

They want me to somehow help them to feel better about that, so they reach out and tell me how sorry they are.

I don’t want their sympathy. I want their learning. We need to talk but it needs to be a responsible, constructive conversation.

That means coming from a starting point where we accept baselines, the first of which is that abuse can be perpetrated by people you know, trust and love – most abuse is perpetrated by a person the victim knows.

The second is that abusers groom their victims into compliance. By the time abuse happens the psychological effects of grooming mean victims often don’t say no, and don’t tell anyone what has happened.

Let the conversation begin…

This article first appeared in the Jewish News