Monday, February 3, 2014

Truth and Memory - When It's Not The Same

Memory is a funny thing. We all remember selectively. What I remember about summers at the beach club is different from what my brother remembers. And when I think about my high school years, it’s pretty much a jumble of youth movements, rallies, dances, and "if it's Tuesday, it must be Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza.” We were protesting a lot of stuff in those days.

But I also remember vividly three separate but very equal occasions when my world was rocked for all the wrong reasons.

Let me stop right here and state very clearly: this is NOT a compare and contrast with Dylan Farrow and Woody Allen.

My experience is nothing even close to what Ms. Farrow describes in her open letter. But I have something to say on this topic and since this is my blog, I get to say it. 

The great Shlomo Carlebach was a bump‘n’grind groper. 

The first time was backstage. I thought I was imagining things…even though someone else said the same thing. I mentioned it to my mother who took it seriously. In the course of discussion asked me what I thought happened. I told her I was sure I was mistaken; he was a famous rabbi. He was Hassidische. They don't touch women not their wives. It must've been an accident. I said that. I believed that.

The second time, at event I was chairing, Carlebach came up from behind and ground himself into me. I jumped, and he grabbed my breasts. I elbowed away and yelled, "Don't touch me!" Turned out I was not the only one he grabbed. We went to our youth director and to our rabbi. His manager was pulled aside. He said we just misinterpreted the rebbe’s "exuberance." We told him that wasn't exuberance...that was forbidden touching. "Well, oh, you know, he gets all excited...." We already knew that part. Obviously, this was not news to the Carlebach people.

The third time I was trying to avoid being near him back stage. He came at me, but I was prepared. "You touch me again,” I yelled,  “and I will scream rape so loud every cop in the county will come.” It was the last time he was booked for our events. We knew our adults were involved at that point and frankly, I didn't wanna know what happened next. It was over as far as I was concerned. That was in 1969.

Fast forward 39 years to October 2008. Hadassah Magazine arrives in the mailbox and there is Carlebach on the cover. I went berserk. It wasn't like his pedophilia was a secret; it was so out in the open. I fired off a letter to Hadassah immediately. The response was less than satisfying. Apparently mine was not the only letter. There were a lot of letters. 

But Carlebach's music is the soundtrack of 20th century Judaism. It's in every shul. It's on every playlist. It's ubiquitous. And it's nails on my blackboard. 

It was only groping, but I get it. And in that small junction of two very different lives, I want to be supportive and sympathetic.

So why am I unable to stand in solidarity with Dylan Farrow? 

Two words: Jordan, Minnesota. 

About ten years before the charges were leveled at Woody Allen, an overzealous prosecutor name Kathleen Morris unleashed on this town and this state a witch hunt worthy of old Salem. Watching it unfold...with young children of our own...was a nightmare come to life. Children were coached. Lies were accepted as gospel. Lives were destroyed, families torn apart, and a town devastated.

When the allegations against Woody Allen were first revealed in 1992, Steve and I were horrified. We were Woody Allen fans. We knew he was weird but this was beyond that. Not that Mia Farrow was the poster girl for stable thinking. But both of us had the same Miss Clavel in the MADELINE stories would say, "Something is not right."

Whether it was Mia Farrow ardently defending her friend Roman Polanski when he was accused of pedophilia, or that the tape she produced was not a single shot, but a stop, go, stop go, kind of thing. There were statements from examining doctors that did not support the abuse allegations. There were too many unanswered questions, too many inconsistencies. And more than enough doubt to keep either of us from jumping on any bandwagon.

This is such an emotional and volatile topic that it seems there is no middle ground. You are either for Ms. Farrow or for Mr. Allen. There is no middle ground, no grey area.

But there is and it’s huge. We’re not seeing the whole picture. And I’m not about to condemn either of them based on the evidence as presented. And if this all stands as a cautionary tale, then so be it.

Truth is a funny thing, too. Memory isn't always reliable, it's subjective. Unless you were in the room, you’re hearing someone else’s version and someone else’s spin. Unless you are directly impacted by the events that family is living, you don’t get to have an opinion on their lives. You can discuss and dissect, but you cannot be judge and jury. 

The instant news cycle is not our friend. We are jumping to conclusions faster than a frog from Calaveras County. This is not a good thing. It’s not a good thing for this family. It’s not a good thing on the broader stage of this nation, and it’s not a good thing for the planet.

The next time you’re faced with raging news hormones, take a moment to think before you speak or write or broadcast. Consider what impact your words have on your world and the world around you. And then, promise yourself that you won’t spread any more innuendo.

That would be a great place to start.


  1. Thank you Susan. What a terrific piece you have written here, albeit it difficult, emotional and bit painful for you. Interesting, I was about to re-post the Times piece Saturday evening and my wise wife pointed out that I would only be inviting lashon hara and actually committing it myself. I realized those were in fact my motives although I was in the moment reluctant to admit it. Your piece is not that at all but rather demonstrates the thoughtful approach I wish we could call on when there is "breaking news."

  2. Very good counsel: "You can discuss and dissect, but you cannot be judge and jury."
    Of so many crimes and aberrant behaviors, I find the charge of pedophilia is probably one of the most contentious. My family experienced it in a charismatic swim team coach accused of molestation of our children and the result was an emotional roller coast that divided friends and families. We were quite certain of his guilt and removed our children from the team. Others took him in and inoculated him in their evangelical church, seeing his acceptance of Jesus as his saviour as proof of his goodness. Of course that family depended on him to bring their son to a higher level of performance (and he only preyed on little girls anyway). I hated to see him at any future swim meet, but I do not know if he was ever brought to trial. He did tell me on the telephone that it was the parents' fault for leaving their children alone with him, so I know he was guilty and did not accept responsibility for his actions. People will see what they want to see given partial or full knowledge of the facts, but a charge of pedophilia brings out the pitchforks by many people who know nothing at all of the facts except a public disclosure by a very earnest soul. Each of us forms an opinion when pedophilia is charged. Even if the charge is heard and decided in a court of law, we may never forgive nor forget.

  3. Excellent piece and thank you for saying what you did, quite courageously. I worked in an organization dedicated to preventing child sexual abuse and am still unable to make a decision about Farrow's letter. That makes sense, of course, because I was not in any way involved in the case and therefore have no firsthand knowledge of it. I wish people would remember that before they make decisions, too.

  4. It is interesting that you are presenting your account of being groped as a teen as a factual event (truth), in contrast to the accounts of abuse by young children like Dylan (memory). Please consider how difficult the interactions with Carlebach were for you, and have empathy for young children, abused by a family member, with so much more confusion and so much less power, even then you had as a teen.

  5. What if Dylan feels about Allen as you felt and feel about Carlebach?

    Many others had similar experiences to you with Carlebach and they also came forward. Many if not most who are molested or abused don't have that.

    And in addition to truth and memory, there is also perspective -- what one person judges as inappropriate, another may not. What if Dylan feels that Allen's behavior was inappropriate, and Allen does not? It appears that Carlebach felt that his behavior was appropriate, and that you did not share that view.

    Everyone gets to be a subject and tell their story. Not just the powerful. And thank goodness for that.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts, and inviting conversation.