Learning to Cope with a Childhood Experience of Abuse

by Rena Gopin-Wolf

How does a woman who was sexually abused as a child—repeatedly, and by different people— learn to cope with her traumatic experiences? I can say today that for most of my life, I was entirely unwilling to answer that question. I was sexually abused as a child of five or six, in the worst way imaginable. I was not molested by a stranger (most children are not), but rather by family members whom I trusted and loved. I remember much of the abuse with exquisite clarity, but I refused to look more deeply at those events for more than forty years of my life. I just knew—and that seemed horrible enough.

I spent the bulk of my life trying to forget the abuse I had suffered as an exchange for a “normal” family life, even though that meant a relationship with the very people who had abused me. After a beginning that was entirely abnormal, I wanted to live a life that at least appeared perfectly normal. I am alive and functioning today precisely because I refused to acknowledge the abuse and reject the people who had molested me. As a young girl, and then later as a teenager and young adult, denial was the best weapon I had against collapsing completely under the weight of sexual abuse.

Why Victims of Abuse Wait to Tell

It seems that everyone asks why victims of abuse wait years—even decades—before revealing their stories. Many question the veracity of these horror stories of abuse and wonder how bad it could have been if victims were able to wait so long to reveal the abuse. Thus, when scores of women reported having been drugged and raped by the actor Bill Cosby, they found their stories questioned because they waited to disclose what had happened to them. In Israel, the attorney for Rabbi Ezra Sheinberg (accused of raping and harassing thirteen women) cited the lapse in time between the abuse and the disclosure as proof that those stories had been fabricated. Here in America, one rabbi has imposed a halakhic statute of limitations on abuse disclosure, stating that one who did not reveal her abuse for years is forbidden to do so.

I cannot speak for other victims of abuse as to why they wait to tell their stories. I do know that no one wants to be a victim of child abuse. In fact, children fabricate stories of sexual abuse less than 1 percent of the time, and I doubt that those statistics change significantly with time.

I can, however, speak of my personal experience. I waited four decades to acknowledge the abuse I had suffered for many reasons. First, and most important, I was ashamed. I wondered how I had allowed myself to be molested repeatedly. I wondered why I never told anyone and why I acted as if nothing had happened. I forgot how innocent and naïve I was at six years old and judged my child self through the lens of my adult eyes. Second, I was afraid. I was afraid my abusers would punish me or, at the very least, hate me for betraying them. I was afraid of my parents and their reaction. I didn’t want to find out whether they would believe me or not. I didn’t want to find out if they would hold me as responsible as I held myself. I did the only thing I could do: I waited until they died. I will never know if they had some idea of what I had gone through and, if they did, why they didn’t protect me. It always seemed better to live with questions than with the certainty of knowing something that would have the power to hurt me irrevocably.

So I am left wondering. I was afraid of losing my family’s support, which was my entire world back then. Finally, I didn’t tell until I was old enough and secure enough to survive the telling. I got married and had children and watched them grow into early adulthood. Even then, I probably would have kept silent if not for the jagged crying spells and panic attacks that caught me totally unaware and wreaked havoc with my equilibrium. I waited as long as I could—forty-two years, to be exact. And then I turned my attention and faced the elephant in my life.

I was blessed to find a therapist who received my story with compassion and guided me through the healing process. Nevertheless, recovery meant disclosing intimate details of past sexual abuse to another person. After having suffered the violations themselves, rehashing it all in detail was agonizing. My privacy and personal space were breached twice: once during the abuse, and then again during the retelling of it all. And it infuriated me to no end that it was not sufficient to live with the knowledge that I had been repeatedly molested, but that I would not be spared the humiliation of having to reveal it all to another person, because healing would come only under those conditions. More than once I headed to the ocean and watched the tide change and the waves crash into the sand a few feet away from me. I sat there for hours, often imagining what it would feel like to be washed away on one gigantic wave.

What Doesn’t Kill You...

They say that what doesn’t kill you is supposed to make you stronger. Like many aphorisms, this one, I suspect, is intended to give meaning and purpose to life’s hardships. What I can tell you is that the road from near-death to strength is long and arduous and often heartbreaking, and only if you’re incredibly fortunate can you harvest meaning from the millstones that nearly crush your soul. Somehow I survived. At almost fifty years of age, I was fortunate to have a husband, children, and siblings who loved me, believed every word of my story unconditionally, and supported me.

I had teachers close to me to guide me through the myriad questions I had about a religion that I felt marginalized women. As a victim of abuse, I didn’t find much comfort in a religious system that limited what we women studied and questioned our sincerity in pursuing serious Torah study. It has always been especially difficult to subscribe to a tradition that silences our voices and limits our participation in public worship. I spent a lifetime creating an environment that would ultimately support me, both emotionally and religiously, once I was ready to talk. Truthfully, I can’t imagine a young, single Orthodox woman revealing past sexual abuse and surviving. Often our community treats abuse as if it were a self-inflicted wound, and we blame the victim. We offer little or no help to young women who have gone “off the derekh” and blame their promiscuous behavior for the trouble they are in. Our community tolerates little deviation from the norm, and is especially harsh with young women who don’t fit the frum mold. It is not surprising that most girls (and many boys) do not step forward to reveal something that would devastate them socially.

My body and spirit knew when I was ready finally to reveal the abuse I had suffered. I imagine that each victim answers to his or her own internal signals. I think it is presumptuous of lay people and clergy alike to discredit a victim’s story because she doesn’t conform to their timetable. Forgiving myself of responsibility for my abuse was the first step in my recovery. But no less significant was the strength I received from sharing my story with others. I believe that I have a moral and halakhic obligation to pursue justice and tikkun olam. Justice is served not only when a criminal is identified, caught, and punished, but also when a child who was molested and threatened never to tell anyone steps forward and tells everyone.

As many as one out of every four girls is the victim of sexual abuse. Surely their sense of isolation can be mitigated by hearing of others who have been down the same road and are surviving. It might even save a life. And really, how can we put any limitation on that pursuit?

Rena Gopin-Wolf has been teaching Tanakh for thirty two years at the Samuel H. Wang Yeshiva University High School for Girls. She earned a B.A. from Bar-Ilan University and a master’s degree in Bible from Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University.


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