In this week’s Torah portion, a girl named Dinah “went out to see the daughters of the land.”
Maybe she was curious. Maybe, surrounded as she was by mothers and brothers, she yearned for a sister, or a female friend.
We will never know, because Dinah never shared her side of the story. Everybody else did: The next thirty verses tell us an awful lot about what was done and said and felt by all the men in Dinah’s life. But as they raped and entreated and made speeches, as they lied and murdered and explained, as their voices joined in a crescendo of rage — Dinah herself remained deafeningly silent.
Her own story, as she experienced it, remains forever untold.
Dinah’s silence really struck me for the first time last year, on November 25th. It was the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and I had spent the previous evening listening to one woman after another recount personal experiences of horror and abuse in Chochmat Nashim’s event, Verses Against Violence. One line in particular, from Rachel Stomel’s poem JULY 19 2007, kept echoing through me: “I will tell my story,” she said, “and not let my story tell me.”
Dinah, I thought, never got to do that.
* * *
Silence is more than the lack of speech. It’s also a chain that keeps you down, says Tali (all the interviewees’ names have been changed to protect their privacy), who divorced her husband after five years of emotional, verbal, and physical abuse. To break free, the victims have to first acknowledge their situation for what it is. They have to call it by name.
Tali recorded her experience in an anonymous Hebrew blog, Stuck in a Circle. “I need people to know,” she explained when she sent me a link. “I was stuck in this reality, and in order to break free from it, I needed to share it with others.”
Why is it so difficult to speak out? Why do so many women choose, instead, to remain silent and abused?
* * *
Sometimes, the victims of domestic violence choose to remain silent because they no longer trust their perception of reality. Abusers often isolate, manipulate, and humiliate their partners. By the time the victims can tell something is wrong, they are too vulnerable and emotionally dependent to act upon it.
Ruth from Jerusalem, for example, met her boyfriend when she was freshly out of high school. Within several months, he “made me completely dependent on him for approval. He made sure that I was distrusting of everyone else so that he had control over my self-esteem. He would go through my phone and check texts to see I wasn’t talking to people he disliked. He would say things like ‘the only reason your friend is saying nice things about you is that she needs you/she’s jealous/she doesn’t know what she’s talking about. I am the only one with a real vested interest in you, with your best interests at heart.”
Layla met her husband when she was a student in NYC. He didn’t disparage all of her friends like Ruth’s boyfriend, but he constantly asserted control over her social circle and eroded her self-confidence.
“He told me which of my friends were good people and which ones were bad people. Friends that were very pretty or from wealthy families were allowed. He made me feel inferior because I was not skinny or didn’t wear the clothes he wanted me to wear. I had a skirt I really liked and he told me I couldn’t wear it, because people would judge him by what I wore.” Layla found herself constantly trying to appease her husband. “He wanted me to be blond, so I dyed my hair for a year while we were married.”
Ruth’s boyfriend and Layla’s husband behaved differently, but their tactics achieved they same goal: They gained exclusive control over their partners’ emotional well being. Ruth was too dependent on her boyfriend to listen to her friends’ warnings. “They are just jealous,” he said, and by this point, she readily believed him. Layla realized that something was wrong mere weeks into her marriage, when she discovered that almost everything her husband told her about himself was a lie. But she was too insecure to pursue a divorce. “He would act as though I was a problem, and I had to always be grateful to him because nobody else would like me,” she explains. And at the time, confused and vulnerable, she believed him.
* * *
Sometimes, the victims choose to remain silent because when they try to speak out, others don’t believe them.
Layla’s confusion, and her decision to stay married after discovering her husband’s lies, had a lot to do with her family’s response.
“I think the first month after we were married was the first time I told my parents that I wanted a divorce,” Layla says. But when she shared her misgivings with her parents, they didn’t believe her. “He embarrassed me in front of them and said things to hurt me, so that my family didn’t believe I was the victim, but rather that I was the one causing him pain. He was very good at tricking everyone into thinking that he was a very good person when he was just acting.”
Layla remained married. After years of emotional and sexual abuse, she started to believe her husband’s version of reality. Her family’s attitude augmented her confusion. “My family often took his side over mine. It was very detrimental to my self-esteem because I thought that maybe he was right.”
* * *
Sometimes, the victims choose to remain silent because they want the relationship to work.
“People don’t understand. They understand immediately the aggressiveness, the abuse, the pain caused by living in the shadow of violence,” writes Tali in her blog. What they fail to understand, is that there are good times in the relationship too. “Treating my past as a horrifying saga misses the trap. The trap hides in the good parts of the relationship.”
For five years, Tali suffered through the bad times because the good times were so great. “The ‘fake honeymoon’ is not a chain of meaningless promises. It’s the glimpse of awareness within him, the empathy to his real pain. It’s the unwillingness to accept that you and he are fated to remain like this, that he was born this way…It’s the belief that if only he would be loved enough, it would fill up the black hole in his heart.”
Tali’s silence didn’t stem from insecurity. It was an active, conscious choice.
* * *
Sometimes, the victims choose to remain silent because they don’t want to accept defeat.
“There was one time when I was married when something really bad happened, and I thought to myself, I better not let my mom know that this happened,” says Rivkah, who divorced her husband after years of emotional and physical abuse. “Because from the outside, it totally looks like abuse, but I know that really it’s not like that.”
“People always say about abuse survivors, ‘look how strong she is to have picked up and got out of it!’ or ‘these women feel like they are too weak to leave, so we need to empower them and then they’ll be able to get out.'” But sometimes, says Rivkah, the problem isn’t that the victims feel weak. It is that they feel “incredibly strong.”
“I always thought that ‘oh I’m just so smart, my situation is different, I can justify why this is really okay.’ It’s a dangerous mindset. So many people who are in the thick of it feel like they are incredibly strong for staying and that leaving is a weakness, a surrender and an admission that they can’t handle it.”
It’s never easy to accept defeat. But this is what it takes for victims of abuse to break free. Sometimes, as in Rivkah’s case, they need to overcome an inner fear of failure. In other cases, leaving is a failure in the eyes of society, and the victim has to choose to pay this price.
“I guess I had to be strong to make a choice that everyone else didn’t understand,” says Layla. “Everyone thought I was giving up, but really, I was choosing to not give up on myself.”
* * *
Despite the isolation and confusion, despite society’s response, Ruth, Layla, Tali, and Rivka broke the bonds of silence and abuse, and left their abusive partners behind.
Ruth left after her boyfriend raped her. Layla left after her husband sexually abused her yet again, and she realized that she didn’t want to have children with him. Tali left after she found herself lying to her daughter to cover up for her husband’s behavior. She feared that her kids would grow up as abusers, or victims, themselves. Rivkah, too, had a young daughter to protect.
Ruth, Layla, Tali, and Rivka chose to share their stories in the hope that they would help other women avoid, or escape, similar relationships.
And they all prove that it is possible to move on. As Ruth added at the end of the interview, “it’s still a part of me. But I have learned to function, to move on. I became a flourishing member of society.”
* * *
Tomorrow, on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, I will watch my daughter play. I will pray that when she falls in love one day, she will find a kind, supportive partner. I will pray that he will encourage her to be perfectly, happily, herself. I will pray that she will never know the silence of the abused, the pain of the isolated.
But I will do more than pray. As she grows up, I will share with her the stories of brave women like Ruth, Layla, Tali, and Rivka. I will let them show her that you can break through silence, break through whatever it is that holds you down. I will tell her that no matter what happens to her, she doesn’t have to adopt the silence of Dinah.
Verses Against Violence will return this year at Lev Ha’Ir Community Center, Nachlaot, Jerusalem, on November 24, 2015