How to Digest Sludge
After leaving the Ultra-Orthodox community she grew up in, Leah Vincent finds a way to break free of years of abuse and trauma she endured as a child. The secret lies somewhere between science and religion.
My ultra-Orthodox Jewish parents called God Hashem, meaning “the Name.” Even the appellation Adonai, “my master,” was too sacred for them to utter in casual conversation, let alone God's true name: the tetragrammaton, Yehava. In Jewish legend, the golem, a man of clay, was animated by a paper in his mouth that bore this secret name of God. I've come to think of the great ossified colossus of their faith as animated in the same way.
Were my mother, my five sisters, and I, ineffably hidden away behind our modest skirts and prohibitions from public speech, more like the unnamable God than my father and five brothers? Was God, like us, obsessed with laws protecting His modesty? When I was five, Mendy P., the teenage older brother of a classmate, molested me. When I was nine, Kaila G., a teenage counselor at my summer camp, also molested me. Was God allowed to look at all that immodest flesh? I felt as unable to name acts of violation on my body as I was to name the holy being who had allowed them to happen.
Our community was a self-enclosed organism, walled off from the world. All knowledge came from the Talmud, but girls were not allowed to learn it. The Talmud was a panoply of voices, rabbis quoting rabbis back through the ages, anchoring their ideas with snippets of ancient text. My own personal post-ultra-Orthodox Talmud weaves together the holy voices of Michel Foucault, Ursula K. Le Guin, Adrienne Rich, Bessel van der Kolk, Maggie Nelson, and Benjamin Lee Whorf, who writes, “We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native language.”
As a girl, though, I spoke no language well enough to understand what had happened to me. I had only the word tush, a diminutive of the Hebrew word for underneath, to designate the region encompassing my vulva, clitoris, vagina, buttocks, and anus, and the pidgin phrase “not tznius” not-modest, to describe short-sleeved shirts, laughing too loudly in the street, and the things that Mendy and Kaila had done.
A black sludge grew around the not-tznius splinters of trauma that Mendy and Kaila had left in my body, infectious and incompressible. By the time I reached adolescence, my “not-tznius”-ness was manifest. I tried to butt into the men’s conversations at Sabbath lunch. I exchanged letters with an older boy. I told my mother that I intended to go to college. I bought a sweater that hugged my new curves. My parents soon cut off their financial and emotional support. The ultra-Orthodox community was not as closed as it liked to claim. It expelled its waste.
By seventeen, I was living alone in poverty in New York City, reeling from the shock of losing the only world I had known. I was raped, twice, by the men I reached out to for friendship and support. I began to understand that I was now a culture of one, a truly closed system. If I wanted to rid myself of the black sludge, I would have to find some way to process it. Otherwise, it would clog my body, attracting repetitions and infections.
I went to therapy. While it was a relief to talk about my suffering, a painful distance remained between adult speech and childhood trauma. Self-harm worked better. From the ages of seventeen to twenty-two, I cut my arm and leg, tearing the inviolable and poking at my tender innards. I see now that this was a symbolic reenactment of Mendy’s and Kaila’s violations but I could not see that then. I only knew that cutting provoked the response in myself that I wished I had once received from my own mother: a rush of pity for the gashed child I was, a dose of care for the wound.
Eventually, I stopped cutting. Self-harm only managed the sludge’s spread, it never actually transmuted the original material. And it scared people. Instead, I play-acted my experiences of rape with men that I loved in an attempt to grapple with some of what had been done to me. I found pleasure in safely enacting my powerlessness, but no healing. Next I turned to words, building my own language to work through later layers of sludge left by the violence I encountered after I left ultra-Orthodoxy. I wrote a memoir. I was brutally honest about the stories I did tell, but I did not talk about my molestations. I did not even think of myself as molested the way other people were molested. I had not yet codified those experiences as stories. They lived in the wordless darkness of my childhood mind, mired in confusion and shame.
At thirty-three, recently divorced, living alone with my three-year-old daughter, and cynical about love, I met Ben, a computational biologist turned writer from Colorado with large hazel eyes and a fascination for the place where the scientific overlapped the spiritual.
As we fell in love over the course of three intense months and hundreds of brutally honest conversations, we came gradually to think of ourselves as a bi-bodied organism, our couplehood its own living system. Inspired by the workings of cellular autophagy, in which a cell breaks down its waste products and turns them into fuel, we began to view new conflicts and old trauma – the grimy stuff that had clogged previous relationships – not as burdens, but as raw organic material that we could refine into fuel for a wiser, stronger bond. We called this “radical monogamy.”
To learn Talmud, Ultra-Orthodox men are partnered into intellectual couples called chavrusas, digesting the ancient texts through dialectical exchange. In his Symposium, Plato describes humans as four legged, two-headed beings, split apart by the Gods. Perhaps these original beings were autophagous, with a circular digestive tract. Perhaps it takes a chavrusa to break down the unprocessed material of our histories.
The black sludge was still in me. Even so many years later, it occasionally colored the image of my body in the mirror, perverted my signals of bodily hunger for food, disrupted my experience of sex, painted those I loved as enemies, and induced an eerie dissociation from reality that had my perception lagging a beat behind my surroundings. As Ben and I moved deeper and deeper into our work of digesting old trauma, I began to speak the unspeakable. At first, it was only words. Then meaning flooded in. With Ben’s eyes on me, aghast at what I was telling him, the severity of what had been done to me could no longer be denied. Ben and I decided that this, too, we would try to heal.
We brought our conversations about the later molestation into the bedroom. Ben became Kaila and I the child I had once been, pierced by painful memory. There was pleasure in this suffering and there was pleasure, at the end, in escaping the past and returning to the safety of my adult self.
Emboldened, I sought an appointment with Raizel R., an older ultra-Orthodox woman who had known both Kaila and me as children. We met in a Dunkin Donuts on the outskirts of Monsey, New York, an ultra-Orthodox enclave where Raizel now lived. Raizel wore a neat black outfit, a sleek brown wig, and a wary gaze. I told Raizel what Kaila had done. As I spoke, my body began to tremble. When I was finished, my arms and legs were still convulsing against the plastic bench.
“I believe you,” Raizel said.
Raizel told me that Kaila too had been assaulted as a child. With sickening clarity, I saw how the black sludge, never transmuted in the body of Kaila, had spread from Kaila’s into my own.
I came home shaken from confessing to Raizel, filled with thoughts of death. I kept hearing the ultra-Orthodox music from my childhood playing in my head. Just a ragged boy trying to survive / He’ll do anything just to stay alive. The lyrics surrounded me, evoking my childhood, a dangerous world where all the speakers were men and all suffering was at the hands of non-Jews. How did Raizel’s kindness coexist with this world that had refused to acknowledge me?
That night, under the covers, Ben and I entered one of our familiar games of enacting my trauma, but this time there was something cruel and impenetrable in his enactment of Kaila.
“Fight back,” he whispered halfway through, breaking character.
That wasn’t the script. The pleasure of S&M was in the perpetual reenactment, the scratching of an itchy scar rather than the re-opening of the wound to show the sludge beneath. Through tears, I made my body fight back. I made myself scream. Ben, as Kaila, got angry and scared, then abruptly switched roles to a camp counselor, running into the basement to find the two half-naked girls, one only nine, the other fifteen and pubescent.
“What happened?” she demanded.
I felt young, frightened, and certain she would be disgusted with me.
“Kaila touched me,” I managed to reply.
The counselor hugged me, screamed at Kaila. A deep relief unfurled across my body. For the past twenty-five years, I realized, there had been a nine-year-old girl frozen in the basement of my mind, whispering I’m disgusting. I deserved this. Anyone can do what they want to me and I can’t stop them. The enactment with Ben had enabled me to re-embody that child, to pierce her paralysis, to teach her how to exercise her freedom. We had stumbled upon an erotic kind of Familienaufstellung, a therapy popular in Germany in which people enact their childhoods, breaking open the endlessly repeating patterns of traumatic memory to insert new dialogue.
The next morning, my body was filled with a strange and raw feeling of calm. In the weeks that followed, it stayed with me. I was more patient than I had ever been towards Ben and my daughter. When I talked to Ben’s mother, I felt my usual suspicion towards older female figures start to fall away. Still, much work remained: digesting the waste from my earlier molestation by Mendy. This sludge was so dense and deep that the idea of reanimating it frightened Ben and me both.
Although it had been years since I had self-harmed, I still often experienced suffering in visual images of violence against my body. One afternoon, I told Ben that I kept seeing an image of thrusting a fork into my thigh. Ben walked to the silverware drawer and brought back a fork. Then he located a photo of Mendy that I had found online and printed it out at life-size enlargement. He put the photo on a cardboard box, passed me the fork, and told me to go for it. I was hesitant, but once the tines made contact with the face, blood coursed through my arm and I punched the fork again and again until the paper was shredded beneath my hand.
As a child, I had learned all the deadly punishments for transgressing Hashem’s law. Stoning. Strangulation. Soul death. It was the court of man that issued judgement, the same court that prohibited the public voice of women and found no crime in molestation. In seizing the fork, in puncturing Mendy’s face, I was claiming a woman’s right to judge. Not only did I need to free myself of Mendy’s sludge, I needed to free myself of a legal system that had made my female body sinful, my pain invisible, my justice immaterial.
Now that I had broken open the wound, the sludge began rising to the surface in flashbacks and floods of grief. The work needed to continue. Ben and I had been talking about different techniques for externalizing the young, hurting parts of ourselves that we were encountering as we worked on digesting our pasts. Mine were born in my molestation and my painful exit from ultra-Orthodoxy, Ben’s in his father’s illness during his childhood and his parents’ painful divorce. We heard these childish parts of ourselves speak in spats over the possibility of long-term love, in deep conversations about our moral convictions, in wounded sex. Our voices would become young, our sense of the world totalizing and childlike. These parts of ourselves felt destructive and impervious to reason. But if we could externalize each of these voices perhaps we could bring to them the same compassion and insight that we might bring to wounded children.
Ben suggested mirrors. I countered with dolls, thinking of Claude Levi-Strauss: “A child’s doll is no longer an enemy, a rival, or even an interlocutor. In it and through it a person is made into a subject.” For my molestation, we ordered a four-inch-tall string doll from a website. Because men were the only ones allowed a voice in my childhood, I chose a doll that was male. Big earphones clutched his neck. His eyes peered out at me from under a low-slung cap. It seemed that, if startled, he might slide under the cap and disappear like a turtle from the world. I named him Clai, the Hebrew word for “vessel,” a nod to the Kabbalistic origin myth that told of God compressing himself into a vessel that then shattered to create the universe. Clai represented the part of my five-year old self who had witnessed that first awful shattering.
Ben and I developed a practice that we came to call “totem therapy” – a little dig at Freud’s colonialist condescension toward ancient totem rituals. Sitting next to Ben on the couch, I held Clai in my hand and recounted to Ben all of the experiences I remembered of embodying this self, each infused with the same feeling of childish brokenness. As I looked into Clai’s obsidian eyes, those embodied bits of sludge, I felt his raw pain. He generated a sympathy that I rarely felt for myself. In other sessions, our roles were reversed and I listened as Ben held his own totems and spoke out the experiences of these young hurting pieces of himself. When we weren’t working with the totems, we hung them up on the wall of the apartment we now shared. They reminded me in some strange way of Jesus hanging in churches in all his nakedness and brokenness: a God with a wounded body, a God with a name.
Just a year after meeting, Ben and I married in a small, beautiful ceremony near his father’s house in San Diego. One afternoon a few weeks later, moving in a strange trance during a session of totem therapy with Clai, we found ourselves going to our bedroom. It was bright out, the window above the bed painted blue with sky. In the middle, I was screaming, screaming like a child, and reality had folded up on either side of me, black and buzzing rushes of time. The exiled memories of my early childhood moved into my body and came to terrifying life.
That night, I called Blima, my estranged mother, to tell her for the first time that I had been molested. She was quiet. I watched two minutes pass on my watch.
“Unspeakable,” Blima finally said. “That’s unspeakable.”
“Yes,” I said. “That’s how it felt for a long time: like it was unspeakable.”
There was another long pause. I recalled Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality: “There is not one but many silences, and they are an integral part of the strategies that underlie and permeate discourses.”
Might it all have gone differently if I had somehow managed to confess to her so many years ago? It was too late to know. The words that I had now could not cut through so many years of silence.
I called my mother-in-law next.
“I hold you, Leah,” Ben’s mother said, crying, holding out her arms to the screen. “I am so sorry. You’re my daughter. I love you.”
Time fell away, and I was again a child. Clai received the healing salve of this maternal compassion directly on the wound.
The next time Ben and I made love, I felt as white and naked as Jesus laid out before his lovers. Ben traced tracks over my bare rib cage and hip. I felt it all. Something deep and dark had been plucked from my body.
One day, Ben printed out a picture of Mendy for himself. Holding the image with one hand, he pounded the image with a fork, his face contorted, his arm furiously building speed, until he pierced his own finger, driving a tine through the edge of his nail bed.
“We are blood brothers,” I said, after we cleaned and bound the wound. As I held him to my chest, I imagined all of the blood that had ever draped my arm and thigh painting me at once. Now Mendy had driven both me and Ben to bleed.
I was struck by the quiet that accompanied Ben’s injury, how seriously he took it, his face going dark, his body trembling. He worried that he might have caused nerve damage. The world – our enactments, our work, our ideas – fell away in this moment of physical pain. How smoothly he turned to me for comfort. I ran up and down the stairs for antibiotic cream and bandages. I held him on the couch for long minutes of silence as the pain subsided.