When I was nineteen years old, Elie Wiesel grabbed my ass.
If it is such a small thing that I shouldn’t be upset about it then how is it big enough to ruin a legacy?
“I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” — Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, 1986
When I was nineteen years old, Elie Wiesel grabbed my ass. It was a calculated act and worse than you think; he mistook me for an ultra-religious underage girl who was unlikely to tell anyone about it. In other words, he purposefully chose to molest someone who he assumed was a minor and who would be compelled into silence.
What is your reaction?
A. “Why are you making this a big deal? He didn’t rape you.”
B. “How could you make this public? You’re ruining a legacy.”
Which is it: big enough to destroy or so small that it is harmless? Women are driven crazy and driven to silence trying to answer this question.
In 1989, while a sophomore biology major at the University of Pennsylvania, I attended the annual fundraising dinner of a large Jewish charity. At least 1000 people attended the event in a New York City hotel ballroom. These sorts of dinners have a lineup of speakers and typically honor those who have helped raise money for the charity.
Though not religiously observant, myself, I dressed modestly to respect the ultra-religious organizers. This was made easy by items fashionable in the eighties. I wore a newly purchased high-necked, long-sleeved, cranberry-colored blouse and a black taffeta, full, tea-length skirt owned since eighth grade. Cursed with appearing younger than my true age, fully-grown at 5' 3/4" tall and 104 pounds, I looked about fourteen at the time, maybe less.
That year, the dinner was in memory of my boyfriend’s recently-deceased father, being posthumously honored for his work on behalf of the non-profit. My boyfriend and his two brothers were to speak about their father, followed by dinner and a speech by the main attraction, Elie Wiesel. I’m sure there were others scheduled to speak, but the part I remember clearly about the pre-determined lineup (printed out and placed on each table) was: 3 brothers…dinner…Wiesel.
As family of an honoree, we were seated at a front table, all the way to the left if you were facing the giant podium. I was at the far side of the table so I didn’t have to turn around in my chair to see as the brothers spoke, one after another. I thought my boyfriend (later fiancé, then ex-husband), the youngest brother, was the best. His mother, recently widowed, was justifiably sad so I tried to express the pride and satisfaction that she couldn’t.
Dinner was about to be served, when leaping (I mean it) to the podium, off-schedule, came Elie Wiesel. The MC looked flustered. Elie Wiesel grabbed the microphone and said that he could not wait until after dinner to speak; the three brothers speaking about their father had moved him so much, he felt compelled to give his speech, immediately.
As attendees milled about after dinner, an official photographer waved a series of important people, rabbis, and big donors into groups for picture-taking. The organizers wanted a photo of the memorial honoree’s family with the Famous Speaker. While I stood off to the side, the brothers, their mother, and the eldest brother’s wife arranged themselves to flank Wiesel. The photographer began to focus the lens of his camera.
My boyfriend waved for me to join but I shook my head, no. I didn’t think it was appropriate to crash an official family photo, particularly during such a somber and noteworthy event. He waved again, insistent. So, I joined the group at the right end of the lineup, next to my boyfriend. Everyone had their arms around those next to them. A black backdrop was behind us, the podium side of the room was to our left, and the doors to the hallway to our right. The photographer re-focused the lens since everyone had moved.
The photographer was about to take the photo when Elie Wiesel yelled, “Wait!!”. He then lunged (this is not an exaggeration — he looked as if he was performing a fencing move) out of the middle of the arrangement, across the line of family members, towards his right, towards me. Pushing with his hands, he shoved me and my boyfriend apart, inserted himself between us, placed one arm over each of our shoulders, and then gave a nod to the photographer and said, “Ok.”
The photographer re-focused his lens, which took some time. The hand on my right shoulder moved a few inches down my back to be on my shoulder blade. Maybe his hand had been uncomfortable in its original position. Although, how could it be more comfortable now that it was not resting on top of something? I didn’t have an answer for myself. The hand moved lower. It moved again. This happened slowly, over a period of seconds; a physical impossibility that is possible under such circumstances. I was in disbelief.
“That can’t be what he’s doing. That can’t be what he’s doing. That can’t be what he’s doing.”
“His hand is still in a normal position. It is still in a normal position, now. Even now, it is still in a normal position.”
The photographer snapped the photo. Simultaneously, Elie Wiesel’s right hand had reached my right ass cheek, which he squeezed. The photo was over, the photographer leaned back from crouching over his camera, the group separated, smiling at each other, and Elie Wiesel immediately RAN, disappearing straight into the crowd of over 1000 people who were nearly all standing up. Already gray-haired at that time, Wiesel’s agility impressed me as he fled the scene of the crime.
The family chatted with people nearby. I remained frozen to the spot in which Wiesel had left me. My boyfriend came over, unaware of what had just happened. I filled him in.
“He must have had his hand on your waist.”
“Maybe it was on your back, really far down and it made you uncomfortable?”
“Are you sure?”
“I know exactly where my ass is, and that’s where his hand was.”
While other men have done, technically, worse things to me, Wiesel’s actions were, in some ways, more sorrow-inducing. Perhaps bad people do bad things. Conversely, one might hope, good people don’t do bad things.
What happens when someone so objectively good that they received a Nobel Peace Prize, so good that they are qualified to tell people all over the world how to be good, so good that their memoir is required reading for high school students and they are hailed for teaching the world to understand the definition of evil in contrast to good, what happens when that’s the person who does something really really bad to you when you’re nineteen? You are sad beyond measure because, you believe, there are no good people. You mourn for humanity and for yourself.
Like many other women, I could make a long and ugly “shit men did to me” list, starting at age 11 that includes groping, stalking, date rape, following for blocks in the dark while saying with increasing anger ‘talk to me..what’s your name..what’s your name..why won’t you tell me your name!’, written death threats, severe workplace sexual harassment, disgusting whispers on the subway, etc., etc. Like many other women, I avoid getting in elevators that contain a lone man, I walk through dark areas with my phone open and my keys sticking through my fingers like a weapon. I avoid using underground or multi-level parking garages when alone and I hold it in rather than using a bathroom at the end of a desolate hallway in a poorly-lit basement underneath a loud restaurant or, like the other day, underneath a lecture hall at a university. Standard, daily habits, to which most men are oblivious.
I developed additional involuntary behaviors by the time I graduated from college. For years, without being aware, when alone in a room with a man, even someone I had known and liked for years, I would scan the room for exits and calculate how long it would take to get out or if I could get out at all. Taking into consideration the following: is the man between me and the exit, how big is he, is the door open or closed, is it an archway instead of a door, is there more than one door, are the windows operable, and what floor am I on. I did not know, until I was in therapy for anxiety, panic attacks, and suicidal depression, that I’d been doing this for about a decade. Suddenly, I was aware, remembered having done it over and over, and then wondered how I had secretly managed this in the same brain I use for conscious thought.
For years, I would flinch when someone, regardless of their gender, touched me, unexpectedly. Even now, if my own husband, who I love very much and who I want to be touching at all times, for example, comes up from behind me on the right and touches me on the left, even if I know he’s there, his arms are long and his hands are big and I am relatively tiny so it seems like the hand is originating from something other than him, because the rest of him is located far away from the hand, and I flinch.
The suicidal depression and seemingly all-day panic attacks began eighteen years ago. Each experience with a man who hurt or terrorized me had removed a brick or two from a load-bearing wall in my brain. I thought I had set it all aside, choosing to not dwell on past events. But when circumstances required me to face these experiences in their totality, all at the same time, they blew through the wall like a monster truck.
I would think about how horrible people are, how evil the world is into which I had brought four children. There was no hope. I was trapped in a cesspool of evil in which everyone had been fooled into thinking that evil was good. It wasn’t just the traumas, themselves, that hurt, but the feeling that my own life was an episode of The Twilight Zone; that I was living a different reality than everyone else who was oblivious to the truth and I had to smile through it for years on end or it would be even worse for me.
I am fine now. Better than that, I am happy, productive, healthy both mentally and physically (note, I am knocking on the wood of my coffee table, because while I am a scientist, I am also part Hungarian Jew so I must do this, however irrational). My children have grown into fantastic people (more knocking on wood), I love my husband who is perfect for me, I love my mom, and my small number of highly valuable and trustworthy friends. I live in a wonderful neighborhood and am the funniest person I know so I’m always entertained.
To get here I clawed my way, backed up by anti-depressants and therapy, out of a ten mile deep, narrow, pitch black pit, while personally replacing every fucking brick in my brain’s wall, by hand. Busy with that and my four children, I got a PhD at NYU and conducted research at Yale.
I don’t often discuss my history of depression and anxiety, let alone how horrific and painful it was. I’m not ashamed. Sort of the opposite. If I accomplished as much as I did while not operating at full cognitive capacity, sleep deprived, distracted, alternating between sorrow and fear, imagine what I can get done in the absence of all that. I just can’t stand being on the receiving end of pity. There’s no reason to feel sorry for present-day me, even though parts of this story would make me cry if I were you.
It might have been prudent to remove all references to depression and anxiety from this article. Maybe readers will find it more comforting to dismiss than to believe me and this gives them an easy out. But over the past week, I’ve read so many personal accounts by men and women much younger than I, some the same ages as my own children, describing the PTSD, anxiety, eating disorder, or depression following their own abuse, assault, or harassment. If I whitewash my own history, causing one other person to question their inner strength in comparison to mine, I will have done damage. Not happening.
Why did I never say anything about Wiesel? Over the years, I have told a few friends here and there. I’ve told my husband(s). I debated with myself on and off over the years about potential effects on others, “If I say nothing, other people might be hurt even worse than I was. What if he does this to girls who become bulimic and they suffer and then their parents suffer over their sick child or they get married but have sexual dysfunction and it ruins their marriage and their husband thinks his wife hates him so he suffers and their children are raised by a mother who is sad but can’t tell anyone why so the children suffer? If I say something, how will it benefit society on the chance that there were not and never would be other victims? I might hurt many people who would lose their idol. Would the information be used as a weapon against the Jewish community? What books will high school teachers assign if I say something?” It would have made so many people sad. I didn’t want to add sadness to the world.
But wait — we haven’t even gotten to the list of potential effects on me. After writing a draft of this, I showed my husband and some friends. A selection of their responses mirrored my own reservations: Are you sure you want to do this? You don’t want this to hurt your career. You’ll have to deal with your kids’ reactions. You could write it and maybe have some people who you’re close to read it so you can get it off your chest instead of having everyone know. That’s a lot to put out there. You know that people will be talking about you and it’s not going to be nice? What’s the point, all these years later? Does your ex-husband know you’re going to write this? You should remove this paragraph, that sentence, and that paragraph because you don’t want people to think about you in connection to things like that. Ok, publish it, but not on your professional blog because you need people to take you seriously (surprise! this is seriously my professional blog). Would you consider publishing it without his name? Would you consider publishing it without your name? You need to make sure people will still want to work with you. Don’t write about that part — they’ll dismiss you as crazy. I support you no matter what, but be prepared for serious backlash.
They said these things because they love me and want to protect me from the pain and destruction of backlash, which can be just as bad or worse than the original offense. Women, often lacking in power, include this in their calculations when they decide to say nothing. Bizarrely, the same women are so powerful that their mere speech could cause infrastructure to collapse: careers and companies that have been built, friendships and families that are depended upon, religious institutions and their leaders who are meaningful to so many, sports teams that have devoted fans and income from advertisers, young men with promising futures, old men with legacies. Backlash is a mechanism to hold up infrastructure.
Why would I say something now? I am exhausted from the guilt, fear, and shame and mostly from the twenty-eight year long burden of keeping this secret in a possibly misguided overestimation of my own capacity and responsibility to protect the world from the knowledge of something evil and ugly; as if I was required (forced, really, shoved and held down by Elie Wiesel, himself), at nineteen, to throw my body and mind on top of this grenade, for the sake of all Jews, for the sake of the world. For twenty-eight years, when I would see one of his works on the bookshelf of a friend or family member, see his name or face in the news, read him quoted or referenced, hear him lauded as some kind of Tzadik, I would feel nauseous. I would think that he had fooled everyone and I would feel embarrassed on their behalf for having been fooled. I am not interested in revenge or punishment. I just want, finally, to get rid of this thing, this implanted tumor, this lodged bullet. I am giving it away, dispersing it, diffusing it, vaporizing it. If you think it is important to keep, then you do it, because I am done.
I understand that people who do some bad things can create a body of work that benefits a large number of people. It is widely known that both MLK and JFK had numerous affairs with help from men working around them to procure and hide women. This doesn’t take away from their accomplishments or diminish the improvements they made in other people’s lives.
I understand that an abnormal childhood, abuse, or trauma can make it more likely for someone to commit horrible acts against others. This doesn’t take away from their crimes or diminish the pain they bring to other peoples’ lives.
Don’t look for an explanation as if there are rules. When you find out about someone diagnosed with lung cancer, you immediately wonder how many packs a day they smoked. You want a reason; something they did that put them in danger’s path, so you can comfort and deceive yourself into believing there are concrete steps you can take to avoid sharing their fate. To reflexively disbelieve someone accusing a powerful or seemingly decent person of sexual assault or harassment or to believe them while pointing to their clothing or profession is to sacrifice their sanity and reputation for the sake of your own sense of order in the world. It is a weak, cowardly, selfish move every time.
People who commit these vile acts exist in every community, work in every industry, are members of every religion or lack, thereof, and live on every continent. It would be convenient if they were all ogre-like caricatures of a bad guy. The focus on Harvey Weinstein’s looks does a disservice to those whose attackers and harassers are regular people, community members, people who look like lots of people you might know.
Even if a minority, together they’re able to damage a large number of girls and women; to physically assault them, derail or manipulate their careers, or make them fearful. When you add it all up, it turns out that these experiences are, sadly, common. And even something as seemingly small as someone grabbing your ass, counts. Having trouble dealing with all the underlined words with hyperlinks? Sexual assault and harassement are ubiquitous, such that I could find a separate tragic link for every word in this piece.
Still, so few men know about this thing that is so common. If people rarely hear about something’s existence, they assume it to be rare. Now you’re hearing about it a lot. Allow yourself, then, to accept the disturbing reality. It is not rare. I doubt that even the blinding #metoo sunlight (a campaign begun years ago by Tarana Burke) is enough to make a dent in the behavior of perpetrators, but might it be enough to make a dent in that of others? If your girlfriend, sister, niece, daughter, mother, wife, coworker, student, or camper tells you something horrible or even mildly shitty was done to them and then tells you the name of the person who did it and it’s someone you know, respect, or like or someone upon whom many depend, set aside your own fears to accept that it likely did happen. Then treat her, accordingly, showing her that you place her well-being no lower than your own need for order in the world. Don’t make her life an episode of The Twilight Zone.
I am not lying. I am not at fault for not speaking out sooner or not kicking him in the balls, immediately. I will not provide further details or repeat the story, out loud, reliving it. I’ve had enough. I will not give advice or an opinion regarding how Wiesel should or should not be framed in history. Not my problem. I will not engage in angry back-and-forth with those daring me to defend myself. I am busy. Only I get to decide if I am obligated to respond to queries or criticisms. Exception: if this includes a hyperlink to your personal story and you want it removed, let me know right away.
To those full of wisdom, who regularly impart it; community leaders, scholars, writers, board members, celebrities, experts, journalists, and historians who might attempt to moralize, criticize, and judge me via competing Talmudic Twitter strings, based on my writing abilities, my sanity, my upbringing, my level of Jewish observance, my punctuation, my apparel, my sexual history, my two marriages, my career, or my lack of fame or expertise relative to yours, I have some well-informed advice for you before you say anything: Listen to us with all of your energy and don’t speak. Unless you have, yourself, been sexually assaulted or stalked or groped or similarly objectified, controlled, terrorized, and violated so that a part of you was stolen, so that you were gifted with the options of hurting others, hurting yourself, or both, refrain from commentary for a bit, while you listen.
If you are sad and in mourning for your lost icon, I am not to blame for taking him away from you. I am not to blame for robbing the Jewish community of a leader, the world of a symbol, or his family of their memories. I did not do it. He did. He is the only one responsible for his evil act. He is the only one responsible for building his legacy as a house of cards. You may have to repeat that to yourself a number of times, as I have. He did this, not me. He did it.