Sometimes, people have strength and power unrealized. Five women and three clinicians sat together in a Pikesville office. It wasn’t the walls, floor and ceiling, however, that gave the meeting room structure. It’s as if their will, their experience, their love and trust gave each individual woman the strength of rock, the ability to protect, the structure to persevere.
They were like a human sukkah, strong but at the same time fragile.
The women were all survivors of sexual molestation. They were all Jews. Married, single, young, middle-age, senior. They joked about what names they wanted to use for this article.
We’ll call them Liz, Sarah, Hannah, Miriam and Ruth.
But these survivors wanted this story written, because of the one word they could all come up with in common: hope.
The group is part of the efforts of the Shofar Coalition, sponsored by the Sidran Institute. The group’s theme is “moving from survivor to thriver.” Also moving from fear to joy. Over an eight-week period, the survivors covered the following topics: self-esteem, self-care, boundaries, recognizing and managing triggers, relationships and trust, intimacy and sexuality, spirituality/religion, and moving from fear to joy.
Its focus is on the healing of molestation victims. The five women were asked three questions:
• What impact has the molestation they experienced had on their lives?
• How are they now?
• How did this group help them in their recovery?
On a cool Sunday October night, this is how they responded.
Liz was the first to answer, and her response was hair-trigger.
“I thought I was a worthless piece of nothing,” she said. “I was gorgeous. I was a model. I had many normal men attracted to me, but I couldn’t relate in a normal way, and I worked as a prostitute as a way of relating.”
She was a self-described “high-class hooker.”
Liz has survived rape and molestation from an early age.
In this group, she is learning what she describes as how to check the “radar” that makes her seem vulnerable to other people.
Her group colleague, Ruth, would later say that in their first meeting, she could see in Liz’s eyes that something was wrong, that hurt was on display.
Sarah has memories that she describes as “very concrete” as a 2- or 3-year-old being molested. It happened again when she was 12, when she was raped by an 18-year-old.
“Impact? The biggest impact for me is that being sexual is very difficult for me. Intimacy at any level is hard for me,” Sarah said.
Also, the issue of boundaries is also a challenge for this businesswoman. She had difficulty teaching boundaries to her children. She had difficulty when it came to substance-abuse addiction and eating disorders.
“There are a lot of people like me who wind up with addictions, who were molested,” she said.
Hannah seems like the quiet one of the group. She’s by far the youngest.
“I knew this was something I wanted to share with my parents,” she said. “I kept the secret inside. I was going to have to live with it the rest of my life. When I was in Israel, I was able to share the secret.”
The impact: mostly trust issues, and issues with relationships with men.
Miriam added to Hannah’s comments by saying the major impact in her life has been “huge, huge trust issues.” It’s also impacted her with sexual and romantic relationships. Her molestation happened when she was 10 to 12 years old, by an uncle. There was what she described as mild childhood depression that became severe and has been a struggle now for some 35 years.
“It’s still there,” she said.
Miriam is the mother of three children, and she said she has told each one of her children, adding, “I was really upfront with them.”
She talked then about something she called “vulnerability vibes.” She’s been a teacher for some 25 years, and sometimes a student will come to her with their secret. But then she adds that sometimes she thinks to herself, “What would a normal life be like?”
Ruth was the last to answer the question on impact. “My self-image went way down,” she said, “even though it was never my fault. It always seems as if it’s the woman’s fault: That’s what my culture taught me.”
Her first molestation occurred when she was about 11. The perpetrator was a taxi driver. And then there would be the fathers of some of the children she’d baby-sit for. She was taught to believe that adults were always correct and must be obeyed. She was raped when she was 16. But then there would be the husband “who treated me like a piece of meat.”
This led to an affair, and then a split from her marriage. The impact: “All my life, I felt I was different. I didn’t feel as clean as the other girls. I always felt like I had a big, dark secret, and I was hesitant to have any close friends for fear my dark secret would be discovered.”
How Are You Doing Now?
Liz said she is in a “much better place. It’s a miracle. I still have difficulties with my self-worth, but I don’t feel like a piece of garbage.
“I don’t want to sound like a Pollyanna, but I don’t like dealing with the ugly stuff now. I feel like I’m a miracle with a long way to go. I have to make myself feel better with God’s help. I’m not obsessing about the molestations.
“But the impact has never left me. And my decision-making process and choices were greatly affected. I have a voice now. I feel so angry at the people who do this to children and teens. If they knew how they ruin a total life and scar someone, ravage their soul, could they think for a minute or a second how devastating this is to a vulnerable person?”
Sarah is still struggling with food addictions and body image issues. But she added that her recovery has really just settled in. She’s now 20 years sober in Alcoholics Anonymous.
“I’ve learned a lot about removing myself from a bad situation,” she said. “I was a horrible alcoholic and drug addict. I’ve learned that recovery is a lot of work. This group has meant a huge amount to me.”
Hannah puts it so succinctly: “I have a voice now. I am not carrying around a secret anymore. My anxiety is less. I know when I’m being triggered. I have a clearer head now, and this group has helped me to improve my relationship with people.”
Miriam mentions that she has suffered physical aftereffects from her molestation, including chronic shoulder and back pain. She quotes the biblical phrase, “The truth will set you free.”
“I’m still waiting for the free part,” she said. “I’ve felt so many repercussions for so long, and I am still feeling them. They are still affecting my life. However, I feel good that I know where it is all coming from. I don’t feel ashamed anymore. The man who molested me, he should feel ashamed.”
Ruth said that she is in a “good place now.” She said the group taught her “how to learn to love myself, and that it’s a lot of hard work. But it is working. At least I can go forward again. I’m not focusing on what happened in my life before, but I haven’t forgotten it either.
“Now I can say that I know how to deal with all of this. I don’t have bitter voices in my head anymore. Life is different. Now I have a positive perspective. I also know that I’m making a difference in the lives of people I’ve helped.”
How The Group Helped
“I think there’s a comfort in knowing that you aren’t the only one,” said Liz. “Everyone here is an awesome person. I have a sister here, I’m not a creature. I felt like a shameful monster, the picture of Dorian Gray. But I’ve learned from this group that I’m not nothing, I am something. I’m not this little neb[bish]. I can speak up for myself.”
“I’ve learned from this group,” said Sarah, “that I can build relationships which can be lasting.”
Hannah added how pleased she is with how far she has come in the group. “It bonds you with other people,” she said. “This was a safe environment where I could share.”
Miriam said that one of the traps of molestation is isolation. The group, she said, took that isolation away.
Also, she touched on a nerve that does surface in meetings with molestation survivors. Sometimes, their pain is compared in a negative way to other situations such as, “Oh, come on, that person has cancer and they have a great attitude, when are you going to move on with your life?”
Miriam said that she’d have thoughts about how she could feel so low when there were children who probably faced worse incidents during the Holocaust.
“But what happened to me can still be bad,” she said. “Pain isn’t a zero-sum game.”
Ruth followed up with “At the very first meeting of this women’s group I felt awed by their courage to share their stories. Their courage gave me the strength to share my own story for the very first time in my life. It was awesome to feel liberated from the chains that had kept me from moving on with my life and the work I needed to do to heal myself.”
Groups For Teens And Men
The Sidran Institute provided the grant for funding the women’s group.
There is interest in forming similar groups for teens and men. If you’d like to learn more, please call Sidran at 410-825-8888, ext. 111 or go to http://www.Sidran.org.
What Is The Shofar Coalition?
The Shofar Coalition is a group of Baltimore-area Jewish community partners, convened and coordinated by the Sidran Institute. The coalition is made up of service agencies, both Jewish and secular, rabbis of all denominations, Jewish day schools, private practice therapists, survivors of trauma and their family members, advocacy organizations and lay community leaders.
The name Shofar was chosen as a symbol of a community-wide call to action to recognize and address the traumatic effects of sexual, physical and emotional abuse on Jewish children, adolescents and adults.
Rather than “re-invent the wheel,” the coalition’s approach is to better coordinate the rich programs already in place throughout the community and to introduce new programs only when gaps in services are identified. One such gap was identified by adult survivors of childhood sexual trauma themselves.
During focus groups and numerous conversations with adult survivors, the need was clearly voiced for confidential groups in which adult survivors could speak safely and openly with others who had similar childhood experiences about how these experiences have affected their lives. With a strong desire for healing and recovery, survivors felt that groups would be a natural complement to individual therapy.
Following their lead, the Shofar Coalition confirmed that such therapy/support groups would indeed be a key contribution to the Baltimore Jewish community. Funding was secured for a single pilot group of female survivors of sexual molestation, with the anticipation that, if successful, additional funds would be sought for future groups.
The pilot group ran for eight weeks during this past summer and was facilitated by Marci Drimer and supervised by Joan Kristall, both licensed local private practitioners with a specialization in trauma therapy.
Ms. Kristall serves as the clinical coordinator for the Shofar Coalition. By all measures, the pilot group was a total success and met the needs of the participants, as described in the accompanying article.
Currently, the Shofar Coalition partners are working to launch a coordinated network of similar groups for additional population segments, co-sponsored by Jewish Family Services, Jewish Addictions Services and CHANA.
In January, the Shofar Coalition will begin a second group for adult female survivors and the first group for adult male survivors of sexual trauma, which will be facilitated by a male therapist. If there is sufficient interest in the community, and sufficient funding support, a group for family members of those abused in childhood and a group for adolescent survivors will be developed in the spring.
If you are interested in any of these groups, leave a confidential message for the Shofar Coalition groups at 410-825-8888, ext. 245. Someone will promptly return your call.
If you are a survivor of childhood trauma or a family member of a survivor and you need to find a treatment provider or other help, call the Shofar Coalition/Sidran Helpline at 410-825-8888, ext. 203.
If you have questions or wish to participate in the work of the Shofar Coalition, call Elaine Witman, director of the coalition, at 410-825-8888, ext. 211.