One of the most traumatic aspects of my rabbinic abuse case was the fact that I was the only one to come forward. During my abuse, I learned of many other victims, past and present, some in great detail. When I reported, I was able to name and give contact information for at least half a dozen other women, including female rabbis. But none of them, to my knowledge, wanted to hold him accountable. Why?
It’s been five years, and I’ve done a lot of thinking on this issue. I’ve come to the conclusion that it all goes back to the abuser, but not in the way that you might expect. That is, it’s not just that the abuser is so good at grooming and manipulating people that none of the victims want to come forward. It’s actually deeper and more sophisticated than that.
The Low-Risk Target
I now understand that the abuser intentionally selects the types of people that are least likely to report him or to cooperate with an investigation in the first place.
These are people who are simply unlikely to report for various reasons. They run the gamut from the naïve and overly-forgiving to fellow criminals and everything in between. This includes people who are living unconventional lifestyles, people who are image-oriented and would not want to admit to being conned, people who are unlikely to report due to having too many other sources of stress in their life, people who due to childhood trauma or mental illness would not register the abuse as abuse, people who are not the type to confront painful things and are more likely to try to ignore it and move on, people with inadequate social support, and everything else you can think of.
If the perpetrator were not selective, s/he would not get away with their behavior for very long. Recall that perpetrators are often someone known to the target, and this means that they have had time to observe the target and could assess the risk level of victimizing them.
The Miscalculated Or High-Risk Target
As described above, perpetrators select their victims intentionally to be people who are least likely to report. But sometimes perpetrators make a mistake. Sometimes they choose someone who doesn’t fit into their web and they get reported. For example, the target might be naïve and overly forgiving and would therefore make a good target, but their conscience outweighs these traits when they see other people being hurt or potentially being hurt by the perpetrator.
But perhaps more commonly, the abuser has gotten a big head from all of those years (or decades) of not facing any real consequences even when caught, and blinded by his own excitement and arrogance proceeds to exploit a higher-risk target. This is someone who may have the intellectual and circumstantial capacity to report in ways that he would normally avoid. The perpetrator may also escalate to more severe behaviors as he sees that his prior behaviors only resulted in his being moved and privately reprimanded. The combination of higher-risk targets and more severe behaviors results in his eventual exposure.
For a higher-risk target, the abuser’s calculation might include the following: (1) does she have any background such as an unconventional lifestyle, mental illness, or prior trauma that would make it so that if she comes forward it would be easy to discredit her, taking advantage of stereotypes and social stigmas? That is, can I easily manipulate people into disbelieving the victim? Or is the victim someone I can easily blackmail? This information may also be extracted during the course of the abuse, not just during the assessment and grooming periods. (2) Do I have enough other victims who are well enough controlled that they can actually be used for my benefit if this new, higher-risk target were to expose me?
From this we can see how it can (and does) arise that only one victim comes forward and may even seem to be an unreliable witness. This is totally intentional on the abuser’s part. Understanding that the abuser intentionally selects people who are less likely to report or to successfully report is crucial to our understanding of both the dynamics of abuse as well as the reporting process.
When Targets Attack Targets
I want to take a moment to talk about a type of target who is often overlooked and who it may be politically incorrect to mention. These are the targets who are just as Machiavellian as their abuser. These are the members of the network who think that what happened to them is normal (“dog-eat-dog mentality”) and project their own waywardness onto the one who came forward. They claim that the one who came forward is the problem and just in it for some kind of benefit (e.g., fame, money, attention, etc.). They don’t see anything wrong with what happened and villainize the victim who came forward because it threatens the ecosystem in which they are immersed and from which they are currently deriving benefit.
I’ve noticed that these people can have in common with the abuser an innate pathology consisting of an absence of empathy, remorse, or sense of right and wrong. In other words, to use old language, criminal or moral insanity with no regard for human life unless it is to suit their own ends. They exist wholly in a culture, a mindset, of transactional human relations in which exploitation is the norm, not the aberration. I do not know if they are born this way or if prolonged exposure to obscenity has made them this way, or both.
Not only do they not come forward, but they may even harass the victim who did, and her family and friends. The abuser may intentionally enjoin himself with multiple such women (or men) in order to surround himself with vicious people who can scare the more empathic victims into silence.
Nobody is totally immune to exploitation, not even those who exploit.
Similarly, there are victims whose own Narcissism makes them a desirable target because it will prevent them from reporting. These are the ones who do not want to report because they want to protect their own image and stature, as well as buy into all of the flattery being fed to them by their abuser. They put their own pleasure above protecting their community and are not sober enough (in the psychological sense) to snap out of the fantasy sold to them by the predator and do right by themselves and their own community. Latching onto and exploiting even the healthy narcissism that we all have is one of the ways that perpetrators commonly groom and keep a victim attached. If a person is totally run by narcissism though, perhaps due to cultural or other factors, they will not report because it goes against the image of “success” that they would rather die than betray.
The abuser eventually amalgamates a web full of personalities to serve their needs, each existing to serve a specific function at a specific time, in a dark, underground network of unending chaos.
The important thing to understand is that each of the selected personality types plays a different role in the abuser’s ecosystem/universe/network, a network in which s/he is the very center and is ideally in control at all times. It’s a system, and the victims are often pit against one another in various ways. The abuser (pimp, trafficker, etc.) knows each victim thoroughly and all of their most sensitive characteristics and history, and then uses this information and the other victims to control them.
Being abused in this way is like being thrown into a game that you don’t understand or even know is happening, suddenly surrounded by all these people introduced to you by your abuser, and then being punished for not playing it properly. You learn the rules for your own survival. But every time you learn the rules, there are more rules, the rules change, or you are mistreated anyway. And new people keep showing up to the field, half of them just as confused as you and “dating” the referee, and existing people continue to make all kinds of drama. It’s just chaos.
It is difficult to get people who are still currently immersed in such chaos to see clearly and to come forward, and also difficult for people who were speedily used and spit out by the game to even understand what happened to them. And then, as I mentioned, there are those who think this is all just normal life and will fight to protect their ecosystem as they continue to exploit and be exploited.
But the abuser is always at the top. Even if he elicits your sympathy, he is the one that everything revolves around — always. And it’s easy to dismiss that fact if he is the rabbi of a large congregation: “Of course the world revolves around him, he’s a busy guy so everything has to work around his schedule” is a common excuse and an easy cover. But the closer you look, the more easily you see that the job is just that, a cover.
If you cannot identify the players and their positions, you cannot follow the game. If you are collecting data on a perpetrator or system of this variety, it is important not to view victims in only one dimension, but to try to see what needs they served both directly and indirectly for the perpetrator(s). What role(s) was the victim selected into by the perpetrator(s)? What qualities did the victim possess that made them an attractive target and addition to the system? What made them an asset? What made them a risk? What motivated them to stay in the game? What gave them the ability to leave? Do they have a conscience? Are they still benefiting from the game? If so, how?
As mentioned, this type of abuser intentionally selects different personality types to exploit who are unlikely to report them for the above-stated reasons. The abuser is quite sure of this, based on my observations of my case and cases like it. For instance, I eventually learned that I was vetted a great deal by my abuser and his co-abuser in order to assess if I would be someone who might be a reporting threat (yes, specifically a reporting threat). I think that they were shocked that I reported as they knew how well they had vetted and then manipulated me. To be honest, I was surprised myself as I didn’t think I could or ever would have the strength to get out.
It’s been 5 or 6 years and I can now see all of the reasons my personality and situation made me an ideal target who would be unlikely to report — but I also see ways that I was a relatively high-risk target. I do not know if my abuser simply did not see all of the ways that I was a high-risk target and made a simple mistake, or if he had just become arrogant from decades of prior experience with no real consequences despite being caught and reported before. I’m leaning towards the latter since his behavior was severe and built on a great deal of experience. And this is an easily overlooked danger of moving around perpetrators and not enforcing harsh enough consequences for sexual misconduct: perpetrators become more dramatic in their offenses over time, escalating due to the learned reality that they can get caught and people will still entrust communities to them.
Next time that you see a case where only one victim has come forward, understand that this might be by design and therefore an indicator of just how serious the situation is. If multiple victims are contacted but do not want to cooperate, this may be an indicator that the situation is quite bad. This may be especially so if the victims: (1) throw stones at the accuser, (2) refuse to speak at all, or (3) make excuses for the perpetrator. I know of cases with a mixture of all such responses, including my own case, and this includes responses from female rabbis who were known to be exploited with life-altering consequences.
It is important to underscore the reality that women do not always look out for other women, and rabbis do not always do right by their own communities. Reasons and intentions matter not; to the victim who has come forward alone, this is experienced as a triple betrayal.
I can offer no easy solutions but I hope that this analysis offers some support, comfort, validation, and clarity for affected individuals. You are not alone.