David Mandel
Chief Executive Officer, OHEL Children's Home and Family Services

Cold cases: Repairing souls

‘Cold case” is a phrase used by police for an unsolved murder. You occasionally hear a news story that police have solved a criminal case some twenty or thirty years old. This may result from new DNA evidence, a witness coming forward for the first time, or a detective with a fresh set of eyes reviewing a file long set aside.

Murder has no statute of limitations, as such a cold case can be solved and prosecuted decades later. A case may be cold, but to the victims’ family, the memories are fresh decades later.

The similarities to sexual abuse are stark. In our community, there has been a spate of tragic stories and allegations by victims now in their 30’s, 40’s and 50’s of sexual abuse perpetrated on them decades earlier – yet disclosing only now for the first time

How is this possible? Why didn’t they disclose this crime immediately when it occurred? Can they accurately recall what happened to them so many years earlier? Can individuals keep a secret for decades especially when most child molesters are known to a victim. Are these cold cases that have no basis in fact, allegations made by those seeking retribution or financial gain? Are these stories now being told by victims decades later a case of false memories?

Consider the following simple memory recall.

If you were 10 years or older and lived in the United States on November 22, 1963 you remember where you were that fateful morning President Kennedy was shot. I was in Freddie Fitzsimmons Lane in Crown Heights.

If you’ve lost a parent, God forbid, you remember exactly where you were when you got the call if you weren’t at their bedside.

If you are over 25 you surely remember exactly where you were on 9.11.01 when two planes hit the World Trade Center.

Such moments are etched in our minds. They have deep personal meaning as in the example of a loss of a parent or a traumatic moment in history.

Just as our minds have an ability to recall such moments in our lives with great precision so too we possess the ability to repress a memory that is too painful or embarrassing. Moreover we have an ability to carry a secret for years or decades. This comes as no surprise to many practitioners in mental health who specialize working with victims of trauma be it a result of a major accident, carjacking, soldiers in combat, battered women, victims of rape, sexual abuse and incest. Will anyone who escaped from the burning World Trade Center ever forgot their ordeal for the rest of their life? Each survivor has their own horrific story. Some will choose to talk about their ordeal while others will lock those memories away. But when a story will finally be recounted years or decades later it will be with bone chilling accuracy.

Why then would a victim of sexual abuse reveal they were abused decades earlier?

If they kept it a secret or repressed it for so long, why talk now?

By way of explanation it is best to give you actual examples that people have shared with me in response to one of my articles or lectures.

A 70-year-old woman wrote from her hospital bed that she was sexually abused at 15 by an uncle. She was revealing it for the first time never telling her parents fearing they wouldn’t believe her. Seeing her uncle continually for years at family weddings kept her pain fresh. She never disclosed the story to her children. Yet telling her story after 55 years to a total stranger unburdened her.

A 32-year-old woman married with children called me. She was 13 when her abuse took place in a European city at the hands of a then 22-year-old. She was able to recount with the minutest detail where she was at the time, the color of the clothing she was wearing and exactly what he did to her. Some ninteen years later her recalll was precise. She had recently learned he had moved to her city and she was fearful of seeing him.

A man in his 30s tells how when he was a child he was taken into a shul bathroom on Yom Kippur and molested by an older neighbor. This memory is predominant in his mind every Yom Kippur. This prevents him from doing what everyone strives to do which is to fast and daven with kavanah. Every Yom Kippur he relives his traumatic experience.

A woman in her 30s describes how as a youngster her father would get into her bed at night and make her feel special. This would continue unabated for several years from when she was 8 to 13 with her mother in the bedroom next door. How could she not know?

A man in his mid 30s vividly describes through tears how his rebbe repeatedly fondled him when he was 10. This rebbe was now front page news and it pushed his memories to the fore.

Each of these five people could provide graphic detail of events they had never disclosed. They were now revealing their deepest personal secret decades later for the first time. Why now no less to a total stranger?

They wanted to talk or to write to someone they felt could listen and understand, who could offer advice without being judgmental. They so desperately wanted someone to believe them, to tell them they were normal, to tell them it was not their fault. They wanted their abuser to apologize. They wanted their abuser to die so they could “bury the memory” once and for all. They wanted to repair their soul.

These individuals were not seeking therapy just to talk though in conversations I’ve had with many victims over the years I have encouraged many to seek out a specialist in sexual abuse and trauma.

There is no question that many victims of child sexual abuse who are speaking out after 20 and 30 years are doing so because others are. They have found a voice within a community that is more receptive to their pain and more engaged in confronting such ills – where often the very existence of such abuse was denied. Some victims see news stories about their abuser – now finally being prosecuted or perhaps see their abuser in their neighborhood. That this person may still be working with children frightens them. They speak out believing and hoping that our community’s understanding and response to child sexual abuse and to victims has profoundly changed.

Very few victims speak out decades later for financial gain. Victims repeatedly state that justice for them would be to see and hear their abuser publicly admitting s/he was wrong. Some who speak out choose to be an advocate to prevent more young victims from being abused.

Although a small percentage may have false memories, 2%-5%, the preponderance of victims who disclose years and decades later do it with such precise detail they are to be believed and supported.

Thankfully, child sexual abuse awareness and prevention is gaining traction in our community .

But more needs to be done.

More safeguards can be put in place by schools, camps, day care centers, and synagogues. More community leaders and individuals must encourage the immediate reporting of child sexual abuse when alleged to have occurred to law enforcement authorities. More victims need to be encouraged to share their stories and seek prosecution of their abuser if still possible.

Poignantly, the delayed release by decades of such personal pain inflicted by abusers should haunt us and drive us to question what other types of internal and personal pain may be manifest in others – and how best can we relive such suffering. We cannot begin to imagine the agony, the sleepless nights, the irrational guilt, experienced by victims of child sexual abuse who for decades felt it was a horror that could only be self-contained.

Yes, it is a welcome moment when a victim of sexual abuse hurt 10, 20, 30 years earlier reveals their story for the first time. It can be a healing moment for victims, setting them free from a burden of secrecy.

But it is an even more imperative dawn when a child today who is a victim of child sexual abuse immediately feels the confidence in him/herself and in his/her community to reveal the abuse – neither internalizing the pain, nor withholding prosecution.

The revelation by victims of these stories of abuse from decades ago serves as a reminder to other parents to talk to and actively protect their child. And ultimately it strengthens a community. These cold cases repair a soul.

About the Author
David Mandel is CEO of Ohel Children's Home and Family Services. For more than 50 years, Ohel has provided a safe haven for those suffering in the community. Ohel cares for more than 17,000 individuals in the New York metropolitan area and across all communities offering a broad range of mental health services including outpatient counseling, trauma, anxiety, eldercare, respite and housing.