Wednesday, January 01, 1986

Honoring Sharon R. Lowenstein: The Bond Abused: A Survivor of Incest Breaks the Silence

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month

Honoring Sharon R. Lowenstein

Sharon Lowenstein is one of the first Jewish survivors of incest to speak out publicly about  being abused by her father.  Her bravery has helped thousands of survivors since her historic article was published in Moment Magazine back in 1986.  Sharon currently is a Kansas and Missouri collaborative law attorney, author, mediator and mediator trainer in Greater Kansas City. 


The Bond Abused: A Survivor of Incest Breaks the Silence
© (1986) by Sharon R. Lowenstein, Phd
(The following article was originally published in Moment Magazine, January/February 1986, Volume II, Number 2.) 

“Incest” is a word not spoken in the Jewish community. That means Jews don’t talk about it. It does not mean that they don’t do it. 

I am a middle-aged professional woman and Jewish communal leader. I am married to a successful businessman, and we have raised children, now grown, who share our Jewish values. Our family is seen as exemplary, and indeed it is. My family of origin was also seen as exemplary, which in fact it was not. I am an adult survivor of prolonged child sexual abuse and of a failed teenage suicide attempt. 

I have met a number of other Jewish victims. I know that incest and child molestation occur in Jewish families. I know that Jews prefer not to confront this issue. And I know how much denial brings further harm to victims and adds to family and community disinergration. 

I share my story because I know for a fact that among the perpetrators are not only marginal Jews, but also Jewish leaders and Talmud scholars. They are not only men (and some women) who are obviously sick, but also respected physicians, attorneys and businessmen. To my great shock- even I can still be shocked-I recently learned that a very dear male Jewish friend is yet another perpetrator. 

Perpetrators may or may not be deeply involved in the Jewish community, but I have yet to meet a victim who involvement is as extensive as mine. We Jews traditionally have maintained high standards for individual conduct and family life not only because Judaism teaches ethical precepts and oral values but also because we have considered our community better off without those Jews who “don’t fit.” With the community’s tacit approval, such people simply drift away from us, into the larger society. Ironically, it is the victims who are again victimized; feeling themselves terribly unworthy , they are likely to accommodate the community by “dropping out.” The perpetrators are more likely to remain within. 

As a child trapped in an incestuous relationship-my father molested me from infancy until I left for college-I understood that I was treif (not kosher). Every victim knows that feeling. I have not yet, however, met another who managed to find refuge-as I did-in the synagogue and in the Jewish community. I did this by so thoroughly blocking conscious knowledge of my nighttime life that I could continue to think of myself as innocent. This form of extreme denial enabled me to develop a strong Jewish identity and later to take a husband, but id did not protect me from brutal self-hatred and repudiation of femininity. 

When we are forced to acknowledge that incest exists among us, we prefer to think it occurs only in “bad” or “sick families. But while incestuous families indeed aberrant, they often appear to be “healthy , normal”. 
My family attended shul with some regularity. I sat with my mother in the women’s balcony and watched my father daven (pray) with great sincerity in the pews below. My parents, of modest means, were respected as hardworking, good family and synagogue people who lived in accordance with somewhat loosely defined expectations for observance in midwestern Orthodoxy. 

My father, a delivery man and salesman, had a solid reputation for generosity and integrity. A man who was, in my mother’s eyes, “honest to a fault,” he had a habit of bringing home strangers who needed a meal or an opportunity to earn a few dollars for household work. A few years after I had left for college and established a life of my own, he killed himself. For months afterwards, my mother received condolence notes with small checks for repayment of loans my father had made to people unknown to her. We wonder how “good” people can do bad things; we accept character references as a defense for a man accused of child molestation. But such references say nothing about the man’s guilt, only about his capacity for deception, of self, others- and about our desire to be deceived. 

My mother, articulate but tactful, worked hard, ably managed limited resources, made most of the family’s decisions and maintained a well-kept home. Before her Depression-era marriage, she had completed two years of college and had worked as an executive secretary for a large retailer. She readily made and retained friends and never voiced dissatisfaction or disappointment. Sacrificing without complaint, she thought that appropriate as “a mother’s role” and knew instinctively how to use her self- denial to evoke guilt in the family members and thus guarantee that she would retain control. She gave me love as a baby but withdrew emotionally as she became absorbed in her own problems, finding it increasingly difficult to deal with her growing resentment of me, the “other woman.” I buried myself in work. My achievements and her friends’ accolades gave proof of her success as a wife and mother. Strong-willed and proud, determined to see her family as she wished it to be, she blocked out much-I learned the technique from her-and lied about the rest. 

We are repulsed by incest and child abuse and see no need to talk about it. Secrecy, however, is the ally of the perpetrator. It enables the perpetrator to continue the abuse and the spouse/collaborator to maintain her marriage. But secrecy is the enemy of the victim and, ultimately, of the community. It permits the victim to continue believing that she

is “bad”, that she is the cause of her parents’ behavior and that she deserves what is happening to her. Furthermore, she knows that disclosure may destroy the family and she believes herself responsible for keeping the family intact-a feat possible only so long as she continues to be silent, and thus continues to be the victim. 
Similarly, the Jewish community believes that disclosure will undermine cherished values and family life, and also will embarrass the community itself. But by its denial the community abets the perpetrator, entraps the family, perpetuates the problem.
People who place great value on children, as do Jews, can still be child abusers and coconspirators, but they must rationalize more. My father’s rationalizations: 
  1. I will never hurt you.
  2. I do this out of love and I love only you.
  3. This is for your own good because you can trust only me not to hurt you; and
  4. It is better for you to learn from me than from any one else because no one can love you as I do.
My mother’s rationalizations:
  1. When you were five, I asked him if was doing anything to you -- he wasn’t supposed to, he denied it, and I believed him.
  2. When you were a teenager, I asked him why he went to your room late at night, he said to check your covers, and I believed him; and
  3. When you tried to kill yourself, he said that all teenage girls do such things, and I believed him. After all, he always told the truth. 
When I was 15 I swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills, My mother discovered me. She screamed, “How could you do this to me!” while he poured soapy water down my throat and repeatedly forced me to vomit. They walked me for hours before permitting me to sleep. Soon after, my father succumbed to severe depression punctuated by hysterical outbursts. Two months later, they left on vacation so that he could get a grip on his nerves. Neither ever discussed my suicide attempt with me. Life continued as usual, and I was left to survive on my own. After I left for college, I rarely returned home. 

Today I view my father’s suicide as a self-inflicted execution brought on by guilt. At the funeral, the rabbi, who believed himself close to each of us, shared with us his bewilderment and broke into tears. My mother and I did not discuss my father’s suicide during shiva or afterwards. Like the incest and my attempt at suicide, it remained a closed book. 

I was a victim of “velvet glove” incest; my father used persuasion rather than brutality. I suspect that we jews find it hard to believe that Jews molest children in part because we associate child molestation with brute force, and we known, of course, that Jews shun violence. But Jews do use brut force; among us there are also wife beaters and rapists. I know victims of Jewish family violence. I would like to think that they are few in number, but the fact is that none of us knows for sure. This is another subject that we prefer not to examine too closely. 

Whatever the incidence of family violence, however, it does not follow that the number of Jewish men so emotionally troubled as to become sexually involved with children, over whom they have unquestioned power and before whom they do not have to concern themselves about performance, also is disproportionately small. In the face of overwhelming empirical evidence for the widespread existence of the problem in the general community (only the attention it is receiving is new), can we afford to remain so complacent, so assured that the problem does not plague us, as well? Which of society’s other problems-suicide, drug abuse, alcoholism- do we know for a fact has passed over us and left us unscathed?

And then there are the ripple effects: Every suicide is not a victim of sexual abuse, but I have yet to meet a victim of sexually abuse who has not been suicidal-half of the dozens of adult survivors I’ve met have attempted suicide at least once and I’ve known one who succeeded. 

Victims of child sexual abuse grow up as heterosexuals as well as homosexuals. some go into the most respected professions, some go into the oldest profession. Many deny themselves the privilege of raising children because they fear doing so, others raise abused child, and some parents psychologically healthy children. I suspect, however, that few free themselves from feelings of worthlessness or achieve what they might otherwise have achieved. I suspect also that most Jewish victims choose to opt out of the Jewish community or to live on its periphery. 

I was more fortunate than most. My mother gave me a good start as an infant and my daytime father always showed normal, healthy paternal interest and affection. From my mother I learned stamina, from the kind honesty of which my daytime father was capable, I developed a certain straightforward integrity, two traits that proved especially useful when I entered psychotherapy. I married a man who, like my daytime father, is generous and fair minded but who, in addition, has a healthy sexuality and enormous patience. he made it possible for me to undergo psychoanalysis. Neither my husband nor my children learned of my long struggle against suicide until I had clearly won the battle. When I grew sufficiently strong to take our children into my confidence, they too supported me on my journey to full health. 

But what of the many victims who have neither my resources nor my opportunities? 

I consider myself luck to be Jewish, but my Jewishness has also been a terrible burden in ways that were unnecessary. Are we strong enough to accept the knowledge that every human problem, every sickness and every aberrant behavior also exists among Jews? Do we have the sensitivity and fortitude to establish an all-inclusive caring community in which every Jew-even the Jew who is a perpetrator-can feel assured of understanding and help? Would we lose as many to suicide, personality dysfunction, apathy or even cults if such a community existed? 

What should we do? Beginning with their outreach to Jewish singles a few years back, the Council of Jewish Federations, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the United Synagogue and a number of other bodies have begun to devote programs and task forces to the problems and needs of individuals and families who do not fit the mold of the stereotypic suburban nuclear family. We have at least taken the first steps toward becoming an inclusive rather than an exclusive community. Although homosexuality, for example, remains a subject many of us might prefer to ignore, the community has begun to recognize homosexual Jews. 

But sexual molestation and family violence are not yet included on any Jewish agenda. I write anonymously because I want to be listened to without becoming the target of sensationalism and vituperation--we adult survivors have learned that perpetrators and spouse/collaborators who feel threaten are likely to be vitriolic when the issue is raised. Let us begin thoughtful discussion. Let healing take place within a Jewish context. Only in that way can we establish the caring community that will help to assure our survival as a community of meaning.