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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Shadows of the Past Published in Binah December 20, 2010

Shadows of the Past

As told to Debbie Shapiro

It's not easy to carry a secret inside of your heart, yet, I carried my secret for over forty years. I tried not to let if affect me, but as I later learned, it was silently impacting my life. The traumatic event that I tried so hard to forget haunted my life, looming like an ominous clould, shading my every move.

By the time I was almost thirteen, my older siblings had all married, and only my older brother, Steve (who almost seventeen at the time,) and I were living at home. We had a lot in common – we were both pudgy, with glasses, freckles and buck teeth. I was a prolific reader, and would let my imagination run wild as I dived into the world of fantasy. Steve loved science, was an amateur ham radio operator, and in his spare time, puttered around the basement building strange contraptions that were supposed to be useful, but rarely were.

I remember lying in bed one night, trying unsuccessfully to fall asleep. I thought it was my imagination – perhaps I had read too many scary mystery novels – but I heard strange scraping sounds and muffled yells coming from the basement below me, where Steve slept. I was petrified. Was there a robber inside the house? Was the bogey man doing something terrible to my brother? Although I wanted to run to my parents, to tell them of my fears, I felt foolish. After all, I was almost a teenager, and much too mature to let a silly nightmare frighten me. I tried reasoning with myself, to calm my pounding heart, and somehow managed to convince myself that the creaking, scratching sounds, and the strange, guttural noises were nothing more than our old house settling in for the night. The noises finally stopped, and when all was quiet, I fell asleep.

The next morning, I was so exhausted that my mother had to literally pull me out of bed. I really wanted to remain securely cocooned in my warm, fleecy blankets. I was afraid that the strange noises would return. Looking back, I realize that although I didn't want to admit it to myself then, deep inside of me I knew the source of those noises.

My mother looked impatiently at her watch and told me to run downstairs to get Steve out of bed. "But Mom," I lied, "he's up already. I heard him brushing his teeth." I couldn't go downstairs to face the source of my nightmare.

Ten minutes later, my mom asked me again to go downstairs. She was getting upset; if he didn't hurry, he'd be late to school. This time, I had no excuse. And besides, the sane, reasonable part of me told me that I was being silly. So although I was petrified, I yelled Steve's name from the top of the stairs. When he didn't answer, I forced myself to go down the stairs to wake him up.

That's where I found him. At the bottom of the steps. Dead. Mutilated.

After that, time seemed to go in slow motion. My mind was racing as I ran up the steps. How could I break the news to my parents? What could I say to calm them? Somehow, I felt that I was responsible to protect them, to make it easier for them. I ran into the kitchen and found my parents sitting at the table, reading the paper while drinking their morning cups of coffee. In a voice that wasn't my own – oh, how I wanted to sound calm, but I couldn't – I screamed, "Call the police. Steve's…"

I didn't finish the sentence; I couldn't get that last word out. My parents raced downstairs and I ran after them. My father was the first one to see my brother. He quickly turned around and grabbed my mother, to protect her from viewing his mutilated body. For me, however, it was too late.

After that, I have no idea what happened. It's a huge blank. I have no memory of my father calling the police, or of the police coming to our home. As much as I've tried to put the pieces of that day together, I can't. The only other thing that I do remember is that sometime shortly after we discovered my brother's body, my mother told me to run over to our next door neighbor to tell him that Steve was dead. The neighbor had spent a lot of time with my brother, helping him with his experiments and teaching him all kinds of interesting tricks. When the neighbor's wife opened the door, I blurted out the news. I remember feeling strange – how do you tell someone something like that? Was I supposed to sound casual, as though this was an everyday occurrence? She looked at me in shock, and then went inside to call her husband to the door. But he wasn't home. We later learned that he was an escaped convict, a serial murderer who preyed on teenage boys. I know that there was a trial, and I also know that he was acquitted. But other than that, I don't really know what happened. My parents never discussed it with me.

My next memory is of the following day, the day of the funeral. I have no idea how I got there, but I was at my brother-in-law's parents' house. Their three teenage daughters were busy trying to decide what dress was most appropriate to wear. "I hope my mascara doesn't run," said one. "Try this eye liner" said the other. I felt strange; I wanted to cry and scream, but no one else seemed sad or upset. They were behaving as if they were getting ready for an interesting outing, rather than going to the funeral of a young man – my brother! – whose life had so abruptly come to an end. Instead of allowing myself to mourn and feel the pain, I made some inane comment about my dress being wrinkled and squeezed into the back seat of the car, together with the other girls. As we drove to the funeral home, I stared out the window at the rainy streets, and felt as if I was in a reality warp. People were walking back and forth, talking and enjoying life, while I was the strange one, out of sync with everyone else. Everywhere I looked, all I could see was my brother's mutilated body. I wanted to cry and scream; instead, I stared at the passing scenery and occasionally made a vain attempt at participating in the light banter going on around me.

No one cried at the funeral. Really, not a single person shed a tear. Everyone sat stony faced, as the rabbi spoke and recited some Tehillim in English. After my father recited Kaddish in a strange, husky voice, I was whisked back to the house while the other, older members of the family accompanied my brother on his final journey.

Although we had a very strong sense of Jewish identity, my family was far from being Orthodox, so we did not sit shivah. That afternoon, there was what I can only describe as a cocktail party in honor of my brother's death. Everyone stood around making small talk, while skirting the reason for our being together. Sometimes, after making a few jokes, sharing recipes, or talking business, one of the adults would sigh and say something about how we have to go on – after all, we're Jews, and Jews believe in life. My brother's name was never mentioned.

That was it. That was the last time I ever heard of my brother. For forty-five years – forty-five years! – his name has never been mentioned. It was as if he never existed, as if the memory was so painful that all my family could do was bury it deep in the ground, together with him. All our pain, all our love, all our emotions, were shoved into an iron box and securely sealed, never to be opened again.

I have very fragmented memories of the years following my brother's death. The first few days, after he died, I complained of nightmares; our family physician prescribed sleeping pills. No one bothered to ask me about my dreams, or how I was feeling. As strange as this must seem in today's world, where people seek professional help for every little problem, no one thought of sending me for therapy. It just wasn't done. This was the mid-sixties, and in those days people thought that psychological counseling was for the crazies. So we forced ourselves to "be strong," to smile and act normally. But that was exactly what it was; a huge act, a total farce. Inside, we were screaming in agony.

My brother was killed on the fifth day of Tishrei. I returned to school the day after his funeral. We lived in a small, Italian, working class enclave, surrounded by inner city slums. All the kids in my neighborhood attended the local Catholic high school – I remember watching them as they left their homes en masse, dressed in their plaid, pleated skirts and matching v-necked sweaters. But I attended a public inner-city junior high school. Other than a German girl named Heidi, I was the only white girl, and of course, the only Jewish girl. When I entered the classroom and quietly took my seat at the back of the room, I heard whispering and saw several heads turn. A few kids snickered and laughed, they were probably happy that another Jew was dead, but no one said a word to me about what had happened. The teacher smiled and said, "Glad to see you back," without mentioning my loss. At that moment, I realized that the subject of death, especially my brother's sudden, painful death, was taboo.

One memory that stands out in my mind is when my father asked me to go together with him when he hauled my brother's belongings to the nearest dump. He was extremely angry and drove very fast. When the freeway forked into two different directions, he found himself in the wrong lane and when he realized his mistake, tried to turn around to go back into the proper lane. The car spun out of control and we came within inches of crashing head on into the huge concrete pillar dividing the freeway. At that moment, I squeezed my eyes tightly closed and whispered, "Shema Yisrael…" I was sure that I was going to die, and I wanted to die as a Jew. After that, I remember feeling slightly embarrassed at my surge of religiosity, and confused as to its source.

Shortly after that, our family moved to a totally different neighborhood, this time, a Jewish neighborhood. My parents escaped into alcohol. Their evenings were spent at the local bar. When my father pulled the car into the driveway at night, he was often so drunk that he couldn't possibly get up the stairs – even with my help – and he'd end up sleeping on an old couch in the basement. My mother stopped cooking and cleaning; every night we ate out at a different restaurant, and lived in total chaos. Yet, every Sunday, when my sister and her husband would come for a family brunch, somehow we managed to gloss everything over so that it would appear normal. Once again, we were the happy, picture-perfect family and our house was full of laughter and light. But even as I played the game, I realized that it was nothing but a farce. Our home was not bursting with happiness. It was a dark, dreary place, full of dusty cobwebs and unspoken fears. I was living a dual life; on the outside, I was a normal teenager, talking with her friends on the phone half the night about absolutely nothing, but on the inside, I was miserable and confused, and bursting with unasked questions.

Fast forward forty something years. I had become religious, was happily married, a mother and grandmother of a large, growing family, and held down a great job – the epitome of the frum success story. Although I had suffered several life-threatening illnesses, baruch Hashem I was now basically healthy. I had also put on a few extra pounds with each successive pregnancy, and now I was much more than what we might kindly call pleasantly plump. When I started having problems with my sugar and cholesterol, I did some research into the dangers of obesity and realized that I had better lose the excess weight before I become another statistic. I made losing the weight a top priority

I joined our health insurance's weekly obesity clinic. Monday mornings were devoted to weigh-ins, and consultations with the clinic's dietician, psychologist and physician. Each week we had an hour long meeting, led by either a nurse, a dietician or a psychologist, where we learned about the different aspects of getting down to and maintaining a normal weight. The program was a lot of work, and it took a lot of time that I really couldn't spare, but I was motivated to attain my goal of a healthy weight.

In one session, the psychologist talked about how childhood experiences impact our lives. After a short introduction, she dimmed the lights, put on quiet, soothing music, and led us through a guided imagery exercise where we went back into time and experienced a negative incident from our pasts. At the beginning of the exercise, I found myself balking; that was one place I did not want to go! So even as I forced myself to focus on how I felt when the kids in grammer school taunted me with calls of "buck-tooth beaver," (thank G-d for orthodontists!) my mind kept on wandering to the day of Steve's death, and each time it did, I  forced it back to the less traumatic incident.

After we shared our experiences, the psychologist spoke to us about the impact of childhood trauma on our daily health. "It's important to go back to them, relive them and reframe them. The unconscious is very powerful, and if we don't resolve these issues, they can have a very negative impact on our entire life. They can even cause us to become sick or to engage in self-destructive behavior, such as overeating. Usually, when we view these incidents again, through the eyes of an adult, we see that they are not as bad as we thought they were."

Humph, I thought, if she were to know my secret… “not as bad as we thought they were,” she said…. On the very few occasions that I had shared this story with a friend, the resultant look of horror made me wish that I hadn't.

But the psychologist's words continued to haunt me… if we don't resolve these issues, they can have a very negative impact on our entire life. They can even cause us to become sick or to engage in self-destructive behavior, such as overeating. I felt like a hypocrite. Here I was putting so much time, energy and money into losing weight so that I could maintain my fragile health, yet, I balked at the idea of facing an issue which was quite possibly the source of my health problems. I decided to make an appointment with the clinic's psychologist.

The following Monday morning, I entered the psychologist's office. I wondered how I was going to break the news to her that the confident, successful woman that she knew, the one who always seemed so normal and on top of things, was really insane; after all, I was positive that the minute I'd tell her my story, she'd look at me as if I were some lunatic. After all, what type of person can be normal after lying in bed, listening to her brother being murdered? And who, in their right mind, talks about wrinkles in her skirt while getting ready to go to a funeral?

Yet, as I related the entire story, including some more graphic parts that I chose not to share with the reader, her expression remained passive and professional – as if hearing about young men being murdered was something she did on a regular basis! When I asked her if such a trauma could have serious repercussions on my health, she responded with a resounding yes. She suggested that I use guided imagery to relive the event with a psychologist.

That evening, my husband and I had a long talk. It had always bothered me that whenever I began to get emotional, I would somehow put a cap on it. I envied the women in shul who could daven so fervently, the tears coursing down their cheeks. As much as I tried, I always felt as though I was standing on the outside, observing, without really feeling – almost as though I was afraid of actually feeling something. I had no doubt that this, too, was a result of what had happened to me so many, many years before. My husband was proud that I was finally willing to face the bogeyman head on. He also felt that instead of speaking with the clinic's non-religious psychologist, I should see someone frum. Although it was much more expensive, he felt that it would be a good investment. He certainly didn't want a non-religious therapist delving into the depths of my soul.

What can I tell you? The first time I walked into the therapist's office, I felt like a real nutcase. Me, who everyone knew as responsible, and clear-thinking, seeing a shrink? But Mrs. E. was warm and accepting, and in no way made me feel that I was crazy. On several occasions she expressed her amazement that I had succeeded in living such a normal, productive life despite my background. As I faced my past, I discovered that it was not nearly as painful as studiously avoiding it. And after several sessions, for the first time in my life I was able to truly cry for a young man's life that was so tragically snuffed out before he had a chance to truly live.

Why do I feel that it is important for people to hear this story? Many of us are carrying baggage from the past that is relentlessly weighing us down and not allowing us to grow to our full potential. Without our even realizing it, that part of us is bubbling beneath the surface, impacting us in ways that we can't even understand. Although many of us were raised with the idea that needing help is a sign of weakness, in truth, asking for help when we need it is a sign of bravery. After all, it says in Pirkei Avos; “Eizehu gibor? Hakovesh es yitzro.”  And we can only begin learning to control our yetzer when it's our true selves,  rather than the dark echoes of the past, guiding us.


  1. Thank you for sharing your story. So sorry for the loss of you brother. I am certain that bringing it to light not only helped you but will also help many who read it.

  2. Wow Debbie...that's heavy.
    Thank you for sharing it and for being so brave.
    I hope it helps you deal with those demons that hold us back.
    You're a special neshama.