CW: This essay discusses sexual assault. If you or someone you know has been assaulted, find help and the resources you need by calling the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673, or visit www.RAINN.org.
By Jane Rosenberg LaForge
My father was a storyteller. He most enjoyed telling stories about his family, my sister and I included, how life befuddled and bedazzled us, as it did to his immigrant parents. He consumed novels, newspapers, and magazine articles, and then sought out his usual interlocutors, my mother among them, to comb through every last detail so he might glean the correct implications. But he hated science fiction and fantasy, because so much was left to hocus pocus, or some deux de machine that you had to accept, lest you deflate the whole project.
My father also experimented with religions other than the Judaism he was born into. He investigated everything from Scientology to Catholicism, because he wanted a “proscribed life” without the endless debate of the familiar Talmud. He wanted to rely on an already tried wisdom, not just rituals but an ethos that would be all encompassing and reassuring. That he wanted this spelling out of what to do and how to do it on his own, secular terms belied the purpose of religion, and he wound up settling for a life of doubt, since the alternative—faith—could not be explained in rational terms, and was too supernatural.
I did not agree with him on much about anything. And I wouldn’t agree with his likely reaction to the #MeToo movement, and our now national daily roll call of unmasked sexual predators and harassers. Suppressed memories, disassociated experiences, carefully timed epiphanies, bitter realizations: he would dismiss all of this, although he was a master forgetter of his own narrative, especially the ugly parts, which eventually evaporated from his own tellings. It’s just one more trait he would have likely shared with other storytellers, Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer in particular, given their intellectual bent. And like Louis C.K., or James Franco or Kevin Spacey, he was voluble, and charming and now apologetic, indeed desperate in his contriteness. Though he knew how to “keep his hands to himself”—his phrase for describing adulterous friends, since supposedly there was no “predation” and “serial harassment” in his day, there is no simple word for what he was, because he tried to kill me.
In his version, my father tried to kill me one September afternoon because we were having an argument that upset my mother. His way of protecting, or soothing her, was to get me to stop talking. He used what he had available: his hands. He placed them around my neck. There’s a lot I don’t recall of the chronology of how it began and what made it end after several seconds or perhaps minutes. But I do remember my grandfather coming to pick me up, and whisking me away to his house. I lived with him for about four months and then was sent back to my father’s, as my grandfather said I had to learn to get along with him. But there were no other immediate consequences, so the event has always seemed unreal to me. I have questioned not only if it in fact occurred, but also what was wrong with me–that I allowed it to happen, or inspired him to do it, and that I maintained my relationship with him in the years since, when no one else would.
But I’m not as fixated on the gaps in my story, what my father would castigate as a failure of rational imagination, or a lazy reliance on the magical or fantastic, as I used to be, thanks to #MeToo movement. Though my story is far different than the heroines and heroes of #MeToo, I understand what kind of aftershocks the silence breakers are assimilating. I think I understand what these brave people are facing, even if my experience, ignored and belittled, has next to nothing to do with their stories. At any rate I must try to understand because I am a mother of a daughter on the precipice of adulthood, and she is sure to encounter some of these dilemmas in a shifting landscape of gender roles and potentially hostile workplaces.
This fall, before the parade of revelations began, my daughter started her senior year of high school. It’s the same year that I had to flee my parents’ house for my grandfather’s because of what happened. As she flew off to school in great haste, I was reminded of how badly my senior year went south. I’ve had many other occasions to consider all this: When my father died in 2014, thirty-six years to the month that it happened, I thought about it, wrote about it, talked about it, did everything in my small way to make it public, part of the record. When earlier this year my daughter turned 17, which was the birthday I was celebrating when it happened, I thought about it again. Every Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the same holy season of awe and atonement when it happened, I think about it. And whenever I think about it, I am frustrated by the same elements that tried my father’s patience: the missing pieces, leaps of faith, of empathy and trust that are simply too big for either me to take, or for our society to swallow.
Until now. Because now, through the consistency of their stories; through their willingness to withstand a public lashing, a barrage of disbelief or an audience that will not extend what it knows privately into the public realm, these silence breakers are being believed. I can only imagine how these women and yes, men, feel in telling their stories and the reception they are receiving. But I understand why they are doing it, because despite the differences between their experiences and my own. They are doing it to make their experiences real.
We’ve all read about how the accusers of Harvey Weinstein, in particular, took their memories of being raped, assaulted, or sexually harassed and “put them in a box.” They ignored them, tried not to allow them to influence the trajectory of their personal and professional lives. I have done much the same thing, although of course in a different context, and with a far different degree of success. Yet consider the sense of control it must bring, to tell your own story and perceive it in terms of your destiny. It must be like restoring a lost chapter, a missing link between cause and effect; it must explain how you got from A to B and even beyond that. It must make your life make sense.
What an incredible satisfaction it must be, not to get revenge, but to prove what you have always known to be a part of your life story to be factual. To know you are not crazy; that your comprehension of time, events, and sequences is just as sound as anyone else’s. You have neither been hallucinating nor embellishing. Nor are you being overly dramatic, or self-sensationalizing. How validating—a validation that will last a life-time, as it is confirmed in the public record of news reports and eventually legal textbooks– to know that this thing you had concealed for fear of being attacked by others, is finally documented. It can’t be erased. You are no longer a crank, an outlier or freak to believe in yourself and your own perceptions.
This is the part of the #MeToo experience I do not quite get. Because something in the way I have talked about my incident, or tried to depict it in writing, just hasn’t clicked. I do not know if this is my fault, something inherent in the way I think or behave, or some adaptation I’ve made, a compensation that is quietly failing. People walk away when I tell them, stupefied at my story. They don’t care, or more probably, they cannot care, because of its missing pieces, its unexamined implications. It is as though something supernatural has occurred to me—an alien abduction, perhaps, or a vision steeped in religiosity—and therefore it is rejected by the calm, the rational, those who distinguish the truth from fantasy.
The first person I told about what happened with my father did was my high school guidance counselor. She wanted to know why I had changed addresses during the school year when my younger sister had not. She also wanted to know why my grades were slipping. My story evinced no reaction other than the frown that usually blanketed her face. She was more clerk than counselor and quite possibly it was beyond her imagination that this could happen in a white, middle class family of good standing.
I was taken to a psychiatrist, not to deal with the trauma but to “realize the social and moral implications,” as my father put it, of what I had done to set my father off. The shrink could have reported the assault to the authorities, but he obviously didn’t. Over the years, social workers, psychologists and psycho-pharmacologists have treated me for depression, varieties of bipolar disease, obsessive-compulsive disorder, other emotional “affects” and the retinue of symptoms that accrue with such an act of violence. Have they believed me? At this point, does it even matter? I’m still asking myself.
Once my mother said to me, “You know what he did to you,” and we both knew what that meant without her elaborating. When I mentioned what she said to my father, he stopped speaking to me. His internal editor was working furiously, but this was what he always did, my mother explained to me later. She also instructed me how to win him back, by “pursuing” him. And I did want him back. He was my father; must I explain what that means? Write him letters, she said. Call him often, make it seem you’re more invested in repairing the relationship than he is. That way, he might think it was you who did something wrong, not him. It worked. After all, my mother was married to him for 21 years—two of which came after the event in question.
The person I most recently told about my father, following his death, made a joke of what I said. In other words, he thought it unimportant, or ridiculous. And why should he believe me? After all, I couldn’t point to any contemporaneous accounts, such as the one the far more credible James Comey made about his situation. Neither might I call on the family members who witnessed it—they’re all dead—or the similar experiences of others confronting my father in anger; this was his worst explosive moment, and out of character according to the stories I usually tell about him. I wonder if I lack the articulateness or charisma of victims involved in today’s more celebrated cases. Surely I didn’t have the consistency of accounts they can point to as the wake up the world to the casual disrespect and devaluing of their talents that have always been a part of so many women’s experiences.
Yet I came across some interesting hearsay recently. I was interviewing a friend of my sister’s recently for another project. (My sister died from breast cancer in 2010.) The friend reported how frightened my sister was after witnessing what my father did; she was in the room, standing beside me, when it happened, on that September afternoon. And I realized the change of address that my high school counselor noticed is probably buried in some school records. This incident was al so one of many, some far less substantial but potentially just as alarming, which my sister cited when people asked why she did not speak to my father for thirty years, up until an hour before her death.
I thought the most about what happened as my father was dying, and I was flying back and forth, between his home in Los Angeles and my own in New York. Shortly after my sister’s death in 2010, decades of diabetes and high blood pressure finally exacted their price. He had a stroke. He knew who he was, where he was, and seemingly all of the events that led up to the stroke. But he didn’t understand why he could no longer drive, read, or had double vision. I placed him in assisted living and flew across the country so often that I began to recognize the names and faces of clerks and attendants at two airports as if they were family, distant cousins I had neglected.
I wondered what was wrong with me, that I should be so dedicated to someone who may have been strict, and difficult, but always reliably non-violent, until he wasn’t. My father had an expression, dismissive shorthand we heard often. “Just another crazy broad,’’ he’d say whenever a marriage collapsed, a job didn’t pan out, or when a woman deviated from whatever the best laid plans of the patriarchy were at that moment. With the rise of the women’s movement, my father found himself beset by crazy broads, as the marriages of his friends and neighbors crumbled and wives headed back to school or tried to start afresh. They became lawyers and artists, activists, sometimes victims of botched abortions, or new mothers without husbands: a good portion of these women seemed to populate his own extended family. When I was in danger of becoming one such woman myself–a week before my father wrapped his hands around my neck and shook it as though he was disbursing the evil out of some bewitched talisman–my mother pleaded with me, “Janey, please don’t become a statistic.”
There was precedent for my becoming a “crazy broad,” for my mother was one. In 1970, my mother had what was then called a “nervous breakdown,” or perhaps it was a manic episode. She was hospitalized for a once inexplicable, still great swath of my childhood, what seemed like months. My father, unable to care for my sister and me, lobbed us off to both sets of grandparents. Our mother eventually returned in a depleted condition, though she did recover to become an accomplished accountant. She ran my father’s business and her brother’s medical practice, administered wills and grew into what the financial newspapers call an “investor,” whose purchases of stocks and bonds are significant enough to affect the market. Over the years, she made herself several tidy sums, some of which she later used to settle outstanding issues of the divorce. She bought my father a condominium. If she hadn’t, he would have been homeless, which might say something about the competence of crazy broads, or the incompetence of their husbands.
“The only thing I’m guilty of is trying to raise two girls without their mother,’’ my father used to say whenever we talked about “things:” my mother’s illness, the divorce and his subsequent impoverishment. There was also the matter of my sister’s unhappiness–she became anorexic after a bad heartbreak that coincided with the divorce, and she never married or had a long-term relationship. My first husband was abusive—a predictable outcome given what we know about the arc of lives abbreviated by traumatic events. My marriage to the abusive first husband imploded just as my career took a tumble, and I had to return to school and find another profession. In short, for many years my family and I were a mess, but that is another story that most people aren’t likely to believe, because we were law-abiding, and financially secure thanks to my mother and her largess.
I cannot help but wonder why my family, hard working, caring, determined and above all else, sober, failed so badly. I know that what transpired between my father and me that day contributed to that failure. That day and all the other days before and after cut into the supposed bonds of family so deeply that those bonds were weakened. Once compromised, there was no way to repair them, or restore them to what they once had been. But whatever perceived slights I committed against him and my family cannot compare to his offense against me, or at least I cannot see this story that way. I was not a raging juvenile delinquent, only a dumb teenager. He was the parent, older, wiser, and the person who should have known better.
I see it this way because I am still here; I am the only one still here. And I did not wind up a prostitute, a drug addict, or a serial abuser of my own daughter or other children, the usual outcomes for women who endure assault at the hands of family members. The fact that my father saw fit one day to treat me as though I was a creature that he owned, and could mold through brute force without regard to the demands of civil society, is something I won’t forget, even if I cannot remember the physical sensation of what he did, or my fear or confusion or revulsion that I must have sensed as he was doing it. I don’t re-live this event with the singular recall of people who are still reporting their own horrible encounters with their superiors or mentors. Yet when that abuse has been cossetted in silence for so long and its victims are harangued for not reporting it earlier; when they are criticized for not going along to get along; when people question the veracity of their shame, regret, anxiety and despair; I have more than the usual pangs of sympathy for them.
When I think of my father now, I realize he was quite different from the crop of offenders we are coming to know. And unlike these wildly successful, role models in business and media, he was incompetent at his work, whether it was his business or his duties as a husband and father. He paid for that incompetence by eventually losing that business, his marriage, and any relationship with my younger sister. Once his business bottomed out and he retired at age 52, he spent most of his time torturing himself with his doubts and remorse. He apologized to me in 1981, and then he recanted the apology in 1989, only to find other areas in which he was remiss after his first stroke in 2010. He died after another, this time massive, stroke in 2014. Though his death was as easy as doctors and hospitals could have made it, I know that he was lonely, regretful, and broken. What I felt I am still processing, but there is an absence in my life, a lack, a task undone or abandoned. Perhaps that is the best outcome, given what I know about him, myself, and the impossible job of being human.
I will likely continue to think about what my father did, how I reacted, and all of the life that came after, because I am entering that time in my own life when the years have begun to take on an whatever discursive shape they will, and I have to decipher that shape to educate my daughter. She will be moving out of the house within the next year, for reasons far different than the ones that drove me away. I know that as a science major, she is more than likely to encounter prejudice in a male-dominated field than I ever did. In a classroom or at a job some day, she might be made to feel less than the accomplished young woman she is. She might have to deal with bosses and co-workers who exploit her for their own twisted motivations. She might even have to defend herself from violence (although she takes kickboxing lessons, and is theoretically better prepared for such a situation than most) at the hands of these people who insist she is an object, and therefore culpable in any misfortune they force upon her. Of course these things will happen, as we are learning from the droves of people, of all genders, taking to the public sphere to make their experiences real.
Of course bad things will happen, in large or infinitesimal degrees. I don’t want anything to happen to my daughter, but if it does, what I want most is that she can rely on that sense of dignity that has escaped me. I want her story, whatever it is, to be taken seriously, whatever that means. I want it taken seriously so she need not think over most of what she has read, or heard, or seen; so she doesn’t fear the future, because her past is inconceivable to her peers and family. I want her to go on living, challenging herself, surprising herself with her intellect and her abilities. I want her not to have to tread over unpleasant episodes and question her own perception of who did what and how this should be adjudicated. In the end, I want her to be believed.
Jane Rosenberg LaForge’s newest poetry collection, “Daphne and Her Discontents” (Ravenna Press 2017), investigates some of the events discussed in this essay and how they can be rendered to create myth. She is the author of five other poetry collections and a memoir, “An Unsuitable Princess” (Jaded Ibis Press 2014). Her forthcoming novel from Amberjack Publishing is “The Hawkman: A Fairy Tale of the Great War.” More information is at jane-rosenberg-laforge.com
On Being Human
Join Jen in Western Massachusetts at Kripalu
March 2 @ 7:30 pm – March 4 @ 11:00 am
For women and non-gender conforming humans.
Get ready to become more free as you tell the truth about who you are and listen fiercely to others doing the same. Get ready to create what it is you truly want for yourself. This program is an excavation of the self, a deep and fun journey into questions such as: If I wasn’t afraid, what would I do? Who would I be if no one told me who I was?
Go beyond your comfort zone to explore what it means to be creative, human, and free—through writing, asana, and maybe a dance party or two! Jennifer’s focus is less on yoga postures and more on diving into life in all its unpredictable, messy beauty.