Sexual abuse: The price of keeping secrets - opinion

It took my childhood from me in the worst way possible and changed my life forever.

 THE WRITER meets with President Isaac Herzog. (photo credit: Adiel Bar Shaul)
THE WRITER meets with President Isaac Herzog.
(photo credit: Adiel Bar Shaul)

As children, we think secrets are exciting and fun, but sometimes they are a defense to avoid pain.

As an adult, I carried my secret for so many years; a heavy and intense burden that burned my soul.

In the last few weeks we have all heard and read stories every day about sexual predators and their victims. I finally found the courage to tell the world about my secret. And now, I can breath again, and I realized what I need to do.

My name is Effi Harow. I was born in Los Angeles in 1984 to parents I have never met.

When I was one week old, I was taken in by an amazing family who already had four biological children and two adopted kids. My parents were able to adopt me when I was 10 months old and we all made aliyah that same year to live the Zionist dream.

The community of Karnei Shomron is seen (credit: MICHAELI)The community of Karnei Shomron is seen (credit: MICHAELI)

We made aliyah from the US and moved to a new community, Karnei Shomron, where a group of Americans had settled. In addition to my parents, I grew up next door to cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents. What could be better? Good family, good friends, fresh air, shared values.

We integrated into Israeli society, still keeping some of our American ways; we spoke English at home and played football, baseball and basketball.

Our community was supposed to be a safe place to raise children. We didn’t lock doors and were free to visit friends and family without worry. But the worst thing that happened to me in my childhood occurred in this community. It took my childhood from me in the worst way possible and changed my life forever.

I WAS only 12 years old when it started.

A good friend of one of my brothers was always friendly and nice to me. He started buying me presents, he invited me to join him on fun expeditions – he even let me drive his car! I was so happy that this “older” guy gave a little boy like me attention. I was young, innocent and naive.

Just like the stories that moms tell their kids “don’t take candy from strangers,” I innocently fell for the attention. I took the lollipop, the gifts and all the attention – good and bad – and kept going back to see him.

He would touch my body and ask, “How did that feel?” and “Do you like it?”

I did not know what to say or do and he convinced me that if it felt good, it wasn’t wrong. And so I fell victim to sexual abuse. But he wasn’t the only one.

Another guy from the community found me as easy prey, and little Effi became a victim of another guy who used my innocence and my insecurities to invade my body and soul.

At that time, no one spoke about such things – not our teachers, not our parents and not our community. I was ashamed and had no one to explain to me whether this was acceptable. Did this mean I would only be with boys from now on? Was I destined to always be a victim? I didn’t know who I was, what was right and who I could ask.

I became sick and angry. I wanted to scream, but I was afraid – afraid I would be blamed about what happened, afraid I would be ostracized and rejected.

So, I kept my secret. I started acting up, getting in trouble in school. No one could understand why and I didn’t know how to help myself. I was expelled from every school I was sent to until someone recommended a program called Retorno, which my parents thought might be able to help me.

At Retorno, most of the people there were there because of a court order – but not me. Retorno had a great team of therapists and other professionals who helped me to find my peace, and I finally found the courage and the words to tell my family what had happened to me.

Once I “graduated” from Retorno, I still kept my secret about the second predator. I didn’t want everyone to think I was weak and a miskane (Hebrew for “someone to be pitied”), but I had demons inside me. I often slept at friends or people who I just met and asked to sleep at their homes. Sometimes, I just slept on the streets.

As time passed, I managed to do my three-year army service. I worked at many jobs and succeeded, but I was never truly happy.

Somehow, I found a wonderful woman to be my wife and I now have two little girls whom I adore. Still, my secret left me at times depressed, sad, and unable to face life’s challenges.

A year ago, I was asked to join the Haruv Institute at Tel Aviv University, where the main goal is to help victims of sexual abuse and change the public’s view and governmental policies for such victims.

THOUGH UNTIL now only my family knew what happened to me, I decided to tell my story to others; not only for myself, but for the future of my children, my nieces, nephews and everyone’s children.

We, as parents, need to be aware. We need to protect our children and not be afraid to do what is necessary to see what is going on with them when behaviors change without any apparent reason.

I cannot change my past, but I can help to change the future of our children.

The key is that we all need to develop a relationship with our children that fosters trust and acceptance. 

When our communities condemn hurtful and malevolent behavior, our children learn that their pain matters and that they deserve support and relief. If they learn to trust that their family and their community will accept and respect their cry for help, they will have the courage to express it.

I pray for a day when perpetrators have no prey to lure and their only salvation will be to ask for help themselves and no longer need to hurt anyone else.

The writer is an activist raising awareness of sexual abuse and its victims in Israel, encouraging others to tell their stories.