[Trigger warning: Shunning, social violence, F-bombs abounding]
I have been crying a great deal these days here in PTSD-land. My therapist warned me that once I started feeling all the pain in my body, the grief would not be far behind.
She was right. It’s here. And with it comes a tremendous amount of anger.
Fortunately, my mind and body seem to be focusing on one gut-twisting injustice at a time, which is a great relief from the freight train of memories that seemed to be running over me a couple of weeks ago. At the moment, everything that is emerging comes from what happened at the synagogue where my husband and I met.
Let’s go back to late 2001. Bob and I had fallen in love. I was still legally married but separated from my now-ex-husband. Bob’s late wife had passed eight months before. We had been friends during the period in which she was ill, and we continued to be friends after she died. Bob had been the spiritual leader at the synagogue for about three years, but he had been part of the community in a number of leadership positions for about 20 years. I had been part of the community for a year and a half. I had moved up there when I separated from my husband, thinking that I had people there who loved and supported me.
Hahahahahaha! What a fucking joke.
Fast forward to January of 2002. Bob tells the board of directors about our relationship.
Oh, hell. If I’d known what was about to happen, I’d have suggested that we move to another state. Or country. Or planet. I’m not sure how far would have been far enough from these people, but it would have to have been pretty fucking far.
The people on the board had known Bob for decades. These are people who had seen him raise his kids. These are people who had seen him go through the illness and death of his wife. These are people he had served during that time in a state of grief, fear, and exhaustion. These are the people who had known how difficult it had been when his wife died — how bereft he felt, how much despair he felt, how alone he felt, how starved he felt for companionship. He was a friend of all of these people, and they were allegedly his friends as well.
Would you like to hear how his “friends” reacted?
The first words out of anyone’s mouth at that board meeting were the following:
“Bob and Rachel need to break up, and Rachel needs to leave the community.”
Just take that in for a moment. If someone said something that atrocious about a friend, how would you respond? I’m assuming that there would be outrage, yes? If I’d been in any meeting where someone had made such a suggestion, you would not have been able to shut me up. And, yet this piece of shunning and social violence was met with silence from the rest of the board.
By the way, to the woman who made that suggestion? FUCK YOU.
And to all of our erstwhile friends who sat there in silence with their thumbs up their asses? FUCK YOU, TOO.
And then, of course, the ultimatum came: Either leave the woman you love or leave your job. Nice, eh? Ultimatums are always a healthy thing, aren’t they? ESPECIALLY AMONG FRIENDS.
(Oh, sorry, these weren’t really friends. That was just a long-standing illusion. Because friends don’t do that shit.)
By the way, to the people who made that ultimatum: FUCK YOU.
Of course, Bob resigned, because… well, love is somewhat more sustaining than a bunch of assholes trying to make you choose your job over it, amirite?
You would hope that would be the end of it, and that people would grow up and deal, but noooooooooooo. Watch the situation careen downhill:
1. I told my best friend in the congregation about Bob and me, thinking that she would be joyful and supportive. Her response was, “I don’t know how I feel about this,” and then proceeded to go on and on about what a problem it was. And over the next weeks, she came up with a number of wonderful suggestions, including the idea that Bob and I should not be allowed to be alone together, ever, and that I should seek therapy to deal with my anger over my life being ruthlessly fucked with.
Even Bob got pissed off, and Bob never gets pissed off.
Oh, and by the way, to the “friend” who said those things to me: FUCK YOU.
2. Friends of Bob’s called him to tell him how quickly I could get divorced so that everything would be all right.
About that breach of privacy and decency, guys: FUCK YOU.
3. People from the congregation called me and whined about how I was “taking their rabbi away from them.” Like the board’s ultimatum was MY problem?
By the way, to all the people who said that shit to me: FUCK YOU.
4. There was not one, not two, but THREE meetings at the synagogue to which people were invited to come and vent about my relationship with Bob. I fucking kid you not. THREE. My life became a reason for people to vent in a public meeting. In a synagogue. But not just in any synagogue. In the synagogue in which Bob and I had become friends and then fallen in love. In the synagogue where soulmates had found each other. THAT synagogue.
To all the people who made our love something to pissed on, shamed, and spat on: FUCK YOU.
5. Just a mere few months later, someone from the congregation became hostile with me and literally stood in front of my husband and blocked my path to him, as though I were an intruder. At a funeral. Yes. AT A FUNERAL.
To that person: FUCK YOU, sweetheart.
6. Bob and I went to restaurants, to the market, on walks, everywhere, and people were outright hostile to me. I don’t mean subtle stuff. I mean outright, nasty shit. And then I wrote to those people and said, “Please stop being hostile to me if you want to be in Bob’s life,” and what did they do? They called up Bob and yelled at him about me.
To those people: FUCK YOU.
7. Two people came up to Bob after a funeral and raged at him about the fact that they couldn’t be shitty to me and be his friend at the same time. Go figure.
To those people: FUCK YOU.
8. Several people from the congregation raged at Bob about how he had “betrayed” them. By falling in love with me. If they weren’t raging at him, they were talking his ear off in the supermarket about THEIR problems while ignoring my existence altogether. Did I mention the fact that we go to the supermarket to get food, not to listen to people’s fucking problems and have the delicious experience of one of us being shunned?
To all of those people: FUCK YOU.
9. Over time, Bob’s friends went away. Unless, of course, they needed something: someone to prepare their kids for a Bar Mitzvah, someone to initiate at a funeral, someone to fund a project. Then all of a sudden, Bob was THE MAN. OMG, there was NO ONE ELSE IN THE WORLD TO HELP. But other than that, they went good-bye. An entire community of people. People he had known for 20 years, and some for even longer. Gone. Gone. Gone. Gone. They didn’t give a flying fuck about his pain, my pain, our pain. They didn’t give a flying fuck about his joy, my joy, our joy. They didn’t give a flying fuck about him, about me, or about us.
To all of you who did that to us — and especially for doing that to my beautiful, kind, gentle, generous husband: FUCK YOU. FUCK YOU. FUCK YOU. FUCK YOU.
Because this is the part that grieves and angers me right now more than any other: the abandonment by people who were supposed to be my husband’s friends.
Bob and I have debriefed this for so many years, and what we’ve come to understand is this: At the time, the issue seemed to be about the fact that I wasn’t officially divorced yet. OMG! Imagine that! Falling in love before the ink on the divorce papers was dry! As though any one of those people wouldn’t have done the EXACT SAME THING.
Of course they would have, because that excuse for being nasty was utter bullshit. If that had been the only issue, people wouldn’t have kept this shit up for 11 years, to the point that we had to move to another coast. So it wasn’t that. The problem was that people wanted to be at the center of Bob’s emotional life, and they could not handle the fact that I had become the center of his emotional life. THEY COULD NOT HANDLE IT. They were like fucking children having a full scale collective meltdown. In their eyes, Bob’s only purpose was to serve them, not to need or to want or to do anything on his own behalf.
The wound from all of this is deep and wide and long. Watching my husband lose all of those people — people he thought were his friends, people he thought he could depend on, people he thought would be there for him — has gutted my faith in friendship altogether. I have some very good friends. The problem is that I never, ever rest easy in it anymore. I do not allow myself to. I do not ever, ever, ever allow myself to trust them or to feel reassured by their presence. Ever. I do not open myself up and expect anything from anyone, ask anything from anyone, or confide in anyone about anything. I back up, and I back up, and I back up.
Because what’s the point? Someday, people betray you. I watched an entire community of people do it. AN ENTIRE COMMUNITY. Of people who had been my husband’s friends for decades. If it had been just one or two people, okay. People come and people go. But an entire community? We’re talking scores of people here.
I need to get back to the place where friends coming and going is okay again. But I’m not there. I’m in this awful place of having just given up on friendship because my faith in other people has been so badly damaged. And the thing is, like anyone else, I need friendship. What these people did was like poisoning my food and then expecting me to enjoy a nice meal again without flinching. Friendship is basic to life. It’s like breathing or eating or sleeping. And what they did destroyed my faith in it.
I need a lot of holding through this. I needed it nearly 12 years ago and I still do. I don’t know how to get it, but this pain I carry, this isolation, this alienation — it’s too much. It’s gone on for way too long. I want my life back. And I want it back now.
The people at the synagogue owe us both a huge apology and about a ton of amends. Those things will never come, obviously. They will forever tell themselves the story that somehow Bob and I committed an injustice against them by falling in love. They will forever tell themselves the story that if it hadn’t been for me, all would be well. They will forever tell themselves the story that their community is just a wonderful, welcoming, open, progressive place and that we’re the ones with the problem.
With friends like that, all would never be well — not unless Bob were going to perpetually be in a situation in which he gave everything and expected nothing. And that’s never going to happen, not as long as I’m on the planet.
We expected better. We deserved better. And to all of your who did this to our lives: FUCK YOU. You ought to be ashamed.
© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg