Published under pseudonym by a secular company, a frum woman recently authored a book about molestation in a Chassidic home. Judging by reviews, the author wrote a realistic description of the community she portrays outside the abuse issue. Many reviewers even found her portrayal of Jewish customs compelling and beautiful. However, the main thrust of the novel is that this insular community covers up child abuse, thus aiding and abetting the abuser. Another troubling aspect of the book is that it is marketed towards teens.
Clearly, the author wants to publicize what is a grave issue for any community. However, no frum publisher would touch such a book. The anonymous author decided to submit to a secular publisher. And there the trouble starts. Now, most of the readers of this book are not even Jewish. A minute problem in terms of numbers (not severity) turns into a horrifying generalization about the Chassidic community in the eyes of many readers. She has essentially thrown her own community under the bus in the hope someone will read the book and report abuse. Yet the very community whose eyes the author wants to open doesn’t generally even read books published by secular publishing houses!
The author makes it look like the entire Orthodox community pretends molestation doesn’t exist and would avoid reporting it at all costs. Perhaps that was the case in the past, but you can’t make such a statement today. There are some people who turn a blind eye on abuse in the Orthodox world, just as there are such people in the world at large. However, there are currently Orthodox organizations equipped to deal with child abuse, and many (if not most) Orthodox people would report the crime and support the victim.
Even if the small slice of the Orthodox community portrayed in the book continues to do cover it up, secular readers don’t understand enough to differentiate between Modern Orthodox, Litvishe, Chassidishe, Eidot HaMizrach, etc. They don’t know the difference between Lubavitch, Ger, Belz, and Satmar. Many will assume all religious Jews are aiding and abetting child molesters.
This debacle provokes the broader question: what is the responsibility of the Orthodox writer to her community when she represents it to the world at-large? Clearly, a PR campaign between the covers of a book is inappropriate. Over-idealizing the religious Jewish community is preferable to demonizing it, but it’s still disingenous. It also compromises the complexity of characters in a novel. I think there’s a balance that is difficult to achieve, and I’m always impressed when it is done skillfully. An example of this is the mystery Now You See Me by Rochelle Krich; another is the novel Seven Blessings by Ruchama King Feuerman.
It would be interesting if the anonymous author’s cover ever is “blown”. Will she tell us then how she feels when she sees that her book caused one woman to write the following:
“The author note following this story was even more disturbing, as an Ultra Orthodox she was raised in society such as this. She explains how components of this story were actually experiences that she had experienced in her own life. I try to believe that I maintain a fairly open mind to all ways of life, but I can not say that I felt anything positive about this lifestyle.”
“Imagine growing up in a world where most of your life is planned out for you and where women are little more than things to marry off and produce children. Imagine not having a voice and imagine that no one would believe a word you said, simply because you were a woman?”
Is this (extremely simplistic and inaccuarate) impression what the author intended to leave her readers with?
[Added at a later date: The book’s author has since revealed her identity. Her name was not entirely a surprise, because the writing skill evident in the book and alleged background limited the field greatly. The author won a major book prize and continues to advocate on the topic of abuse. While there has been increased attention since the publication of the book to crimes against children, unfortunately this may have less to do with the book in question, but rather to the death of Leiby Kletzky and several molestation incidents in the news, both in the Jewish community and not.
Upon further reflection, I still agree with my initial statement that the book should not have been published in a non-Jewish setting. However, I think that Jewish publication houses need to step up to the plate and produce books on controversial or distasteful topics. There are Jewish answers on how to react to these situations–answers for Jewish audiences–and they need to be shared within the community. The author of this book desperately wanted people to hear her message so they would act on this tragic shortcoming, but a Jewish publisher wouldn’t handle her book. While several articles in publications like Mishpacha and HaModia (couched in very subtle wording so as to be sensitive but clear) had appeared about molestation long before this book came out, books on this topic and other similarly “immodest” ones have been considered a big no-no, along with many other sensitive topics. Another recent book–on teaching the birds and bees to the Jewish child–was refused by a number of Orthodox presses, so the author self-published. G-d forbid a Jewish parent adopt an inappropriate approach to the “Conversation” simply because they don’t have access to the right book and turned to a secular one.]