For many, many months in junior high school, I was very angry with my mother. Not the usual adolescent rebel, I had one specific complaint: She refused, absolutely and with no hint of flexibility, to let me spend the night at someone’s home unless a minimum of four other girls were there. I thought she was just so mean; she would not give me a reason other than, “because that is my rule, period.”
Years later, I discovered she was protecting me, keeping me safe from the child sexual predators she knew could be respected pillars of the community, active in their religious organizations, role models for the family man. She knew because her own father was exactly such a predator.
“E” was a hero to many. A man with only a third grade education, he spoke seven languages and employed a good percentage of the small town in Italy where he lived and owned a factory. The village priest often came to visit, a grateful man because E paid for the new roof the church so badly needed. When the Nazis made leaving the country imperative, the priest hid money and jewelry under his robes, easily crossed the border, and deposited them in a Swiss bank. E managed to use some of these funds to get much of his extended family – about 30 people – out of Italy during World War II.
E began sexually abusing his daughter when she was just 10 years old. He told her it was her fault. He told her nobody would believe her. He warned her that the family – five brothers and her mother – would be left penniless if he were not around and he threatened to leave if she did not accede to his abuse. What could a child of 10, then 11, then 12… and so on, do?
My mom, like so many others – including the men who so bravely testified in the Jerry Sandusky trial earlier this year — suffered in silence.
Financially successful, E bought a home on posh Star Island and a hotel on South Beach. When the family moved to South America, he again started his manufacturing business and launched his sons into very successful careers of their own. He made the major contribution necessary to build the synagogue in the city where they lived; of course, E is buried in the place of honor at the front gate of its cemetery.
The abuse stopped when mom, standing in the window of a high-rise hotel, threatened to jump; E understood that she meant it. When she married my father, mom decided not to tell him for one simple reason: she truly thought her new husband would simply kill E.
In fact, she told no one for over 50 years. Mom created a home, raised three children and doted on her grandchildren, keeping her dark secret until she unexpectedly survived a serious illness at the age of 66. Then, bravely and calmly, my mother told me, my brothers and sister in law, and our extended family. We all just cried.
To her enduring sorrow, some of her brothers could not believe this story about their hero. To her own enduring shame, she cannot accept that she did not ask for help; she cannot forgive herself for being a na•ve little girl. And to her enduring disbelief, she cannot understand how any mother could be complicit in this criminal behavior, as she thinks her mother might have been. Now 85, my mom suffers her abuse every day.
Being the real hero in our family, however, mom made sure that I would not have such a story to tell.
Mom never one time left me alone with E. She always emphasized personal boundaries and urged me to tell her immediately if I ever felt uncomfortable for any reason. But, leaving nothing to chance, she would not let me spend the night at anyone’s home alone.
Although she had no specific reasons for concern, Mom was willing to endure my abusive teenage threats to protect me from what she knew could be a far greater threat, perhaps sitting right at any dinner table: A hero to many but a child sexual predator nonetheless.
©Anita Cava all rights reserved 12.5.12