When I was ten I was sexually assaulted in camp. I was the odd boy out. My parents and yeshiva were more modern and affluent and the kids in this camp came from more traditional yeshivas. There was a boy; lets call him Beirish, a bit of an outsider and a bully.
One day, after swimming, we got back to the bunk for rest period. We were hanging around. I was ignoring the group and reading. At some point he said to the other kids “let’s do a pink belly.” Pink bellys were things that were talked about as part of camp lore, like water fights or raids. I had never seen one but I assumed it was some sort of horseplay like noogies, but it consisted of tapping someone’s stomach instead of rubbing his scalp. I wasn’t a big one for horseplay but I thought it was something innocent. With Beirish in the lead, several boys grabbed me and pushed me down on Beirish’s bed. I am not sure of the number of boys, but I would guess 3-5. They all tapped on my belly. It wasn’t physically painful. At first I thought of it as an annoying stupid ritual but nothing worse. At some point Beirish dumped some toothpaste and suntan lotion and they kept on tapping. Finally, Beirish pushed down my trunks and poured some suntan lotion on my genitals and smoothed it out.
By now the other boys were pulling away and he was alone. It was soon over. Some of the other boys looked embarrassed and sympathetic. The rest of them were not bullies. They didn’t apologize to me but I sensed their disapproval of Beirish. I scurried back over to my bed. Beirish came over to my bed and offered up a sneering apology. Then he tossed a penny on my bed.
At the time, I did not dwell on my feelings or share them with anyone else. I wasn’t aware of any feelings except a gross dislike for Beirish. Oddly I did not think of resenting the other boy. A few days later I punched Beirish. I don’t remember what brought it on at that moment. I was brought to the head counselor who asked me to explain why we were fighting. I could not verbalize what was at issue. Sitting there I am not even sure I remembered the assault. But I know I felt justified in hating Beirish. However, I could not imagine any way to say it and I certainly did not expect a helpful response. In retrospect I wonder if he knew or suspected what had happened. In retrospect, Beirish was a kid who had moved through a lot of schools and camps. Knowing the frum world, I am sure the head counselor knew the history and had some doubts himself. If so he was laying the onus on me to be forthcoming instead of helping me articulate the problem. Not one person in that camp helped me voice my hurt and grievance. I never returned to that camp.
I loathed Beirish but I did not think the episode was a big deal. But it was. It drove me from a camp I liked. I had to spend time with other boys who were part of this abuse. I will never forget that offensive penny. It was the ultimate token of false justice.
Only recently have I become more aware of my numbness, helplessness, abandonment, anger, and shame. I think those feelings dropped down on me instantly, but only now have I allowed myself to acknowledge and feel the intensity and pain of my responses. For the first time in my life I have allowed myself to cry about this assault.
I am not sure I am ready for the other part, which is admitting that in a smaller way I mistreated a ten-year-old boy a while later. There is much less to report. He resembled me as the more modern kid. One night I attempted to touch his genitalia through his blanket while he was sleeping. It was all very brief, less than a minute. I bolted when I saw he was beginning to wake up. That is it for my deeds. I was never caught.
I was repelled by my behavior. Thankfully I never again had the desire to touch a child that way.
When our first child was born, those memories came back. During diapering our child for the first time I just gazed. Then I was hit with panic because I was afraid my gaze had lasted too long. A first I was very skittish about diapering. Eventually diapering became a non-event. Now that child is grown up I can say with relief and pleasure that our relationships have always been affectionate and innocent.
When I misbehaved with that boy I did not understand my experience of abuse. I barely remembered it. I suspect I would never have misbehaved but for the way I was treated. I wonder how many of those molesting were themselves abused? It is so easy for us to be outraged with no compassion for those who offend. I am fully in agreement with the need to challenge and penalize molesting. Yet I feel for anyone who is driven by an impulse they don’t understand. Yeah there are some monsters. Yeah, I don’t believe I could ever have ended up manipulating, and hurting kids who were begging me to stop. But who knows?
A compulsion looks very different when you don’t have to struggle with it. When I have a drink or two, stopping is a no-brainer. If I play cards for money, win or lose, I just get up after a few games. I feel compassion for those who are always one drink or bet away from a runaway binge.
We know that there were many victims and that only a small percentage of them become abusers. But how many more of them have had to struggle with compulsions. Perhaps the least sympathetic adults are those who survived and managed their compulsions. These individuals may think that others should also conceal their pain and control their impulses. In this way some people come to believe that the problem can be managed with silence. I wonder how many of our community leaders who favor the solution of silence were themselves victimized?
Some people would say that silence worked in my case. Without any help I came out OK but it was a perilously close call. Any of a few small things could have led to a different outcome. I shudder to think that I might have ended up as one of those people I despise. It makes me sad to think of the many children who still don’t have anyone who will listen to them.