“Let me ask you a question,” he challenges me. “Do you enjoy hitting your kids?”
“Yanky, you need to get help, or you’re outa here.”
I roll my eyes. I’ve heard these words from my wife, Rochel, countless times throughout the nine years of our marriage. I dismiss them yet again.
But Rochel isn’t done nagging me. “If you can announce in front of your kids that Mommy’s supper tastes horrible, and tell them that I’m ugly, then you need to leave this house immediately.”
“There you go,” I say, “making up stories again.”
Over the years, Rochel has locked me out of the house dozens of times, claiming that my behavior is unacceptable. Each time, after spending a night or two in my car, I come back, apologize, and promise her to improve, just so I can get back into the house. And then she lets me back in, until she decides again that she doesn’t like something I did. She likes to complain that I say insulting things to her, that I violently attack the kids, that I’m totally out of control.
She’s imagining things, of course.
But this time, I’m in for a surprise.
“Tatty,” my eight-year-old son, Shmuli, says earnestly, “you did say those things to us tonight. You told us that Mommy’s supper tastes horrible. And you told us that she’s ugly. You say that lots of times.”
I honestly have no recollection of saying such words. I’m a nice guy, after all, the type who would give the shirt off his back to a friend. I get along well with everyone in shul, at work, and on the street. Until now, it’s only been Rochel who accuses me of having an anger problem and behaving like a madman — and I never believe a word she says, because I know it’s not true.
Except that now, my own son is confirming her accusation. And, looking into his sad little eyes, I think to myself, for the first time, Maybe I do have an issue.
That’s how I find myself sitting in the office of a therapist, a fellow named Aron Fishbaum.
“From what I understand from your wife,” he begins, “your father abused you as a child, and, in classic post-trauma fashion, you’re repeating the same dysfunctional patterns of behavior with your own family.”
Abuse? Post-trauma? Dysfunctional patterns of behavior? These words sound kooky to me.
“I did have a strict father,” I manage to say, “but I think you have the wrong picture. My father is a pillar of the community, a highly respected askan and baal tzedakah. Ask anyone who knows him and they’ll tell you what a special person he is.”
Mr. Fishbaum gives me a funny look. “What people in the community think of a person doesn’t necessarily mean much,” he says. “It’s a person’s behavior at home, around his wife and children, that defines him.”
Many times, when I casually mention to Rochel something my father did to me growing up — like throwing me out of the car onto the street because I misbehaved, or hitting me until I fainted — she responds with horror. “That’s not normal!” she exclaims. “That’s crazy!”
“Nah,” I answer. “It wasn’t a big deal.”
But Mr. Fishbaum seems to think it was a big deal. “We don’t even realize how our actions and attitudes, as adults, trace back to our childhood experiences and to the core beliefs we internalize about ourselves and the world from the way our parents treat us,” he says. “If our parents hit us in anger when we misbehaved, then we internalize the belief that children deserve to be hit angrily when they misbehave. And unless we consciously and consistently work on ourselves to change that pattern, it’s highly likely that we, too, will do the same to our own kids.
“Let me ask you a question,” he challenges me. “Do you enjoy hitting your kids?”
“Are you crazy?” I respond. “Why would I enjoy hitting my kids?”
“Think about the feeling you have when you hit your kids,” he urges me. “Is there any satisfaction mixed in?”
“Of course not,” I insist.
“Don’t answer me right away,” he says. “Take some time to think about it. Imagine that your kid is driving you crazy and you’re holding him down and smacking him, just the way your father did to you.”
I’m practicing kriah with Daddy, and I make a mistake. Bam! A ringing slap on the cheek. “Owww!” I howl. Daddy hits me again on the other cheek. My hands fly to my face to shield me from the smacks, but this time Daddy punches me in the head.
“I’m going to call 911!” I shout. “I’m calling the police!”
But that just brings another rain of blows down on my head.
One day I’m going to get even with him, I vow to myself.
I look down at the floor of Fishbaum’s office, feeling my ears turning hot. “Um,” I say, “I know this is going to sound weird, but sometimes when I hit my kids it feels kind of like a payback. I never thought about it this way before, but I guess you could say there’s some satisfaction there. A release, sort of.”
“It doesn’t sound weird at all,” Fishbaum assures me. “And the good news is that if you’re willing to put in the work, you can put a stop to the cycle of abuse.”
This guy is obviously nuts, with all his psychobabble. Cycle of abuse, my foot. I’m ready to head for the door, permanently.
But then I think about my brother Tuli, who’s divorced, and is convinced that it’s all his ex-wife’s fault. As a second-timer in shidduchim, he’s considered a great catch: handsome, well-off, charming, from a great family. But I know that he’s blind to his own issues — he’s got quite a temper — and he’s just waiting for his next marriage to go down the drain.
Is it possible that I’m doing the same to my own marriage? Until now, I’ve been convinced that Rochel is delusional. When she marches over and physically stops me from disciplining one of the kids, I get back at her by refusing to talk to her for the next two or three weeks, because she undermined my authority. She likes to say that she’s protecting the kids, but I know she’s just being soft on them, and I won’t have that.
Now that my Shmuli independently confirmed her accusations, though, I’m not so sure anymore. Do I really do the things she says I do when I’m angry? Could it be?
You told us Mommy’s ugly. You say that lots of times.
An uncomfortable pit starts to form in my stomach.
“I guess— I guess I’m ready to put in the work,” I say lamely.
I have no idea how hard the work is going to be. Fishbaum says I have classic PTSD — “over a dozen symptoms” — and the EMDR therapy he does brings me back to my childhood and makes me relive many of Daddy’s beatings.
“Just wait until your father gets home,” my mother warns me. “If you don’t get into bed and be quiet, I’m going to tell Daddy.”
By the time Daddy comes home, I’m fast asleep. He shakes me awake, and then the beating starts.
Why is Mommy just watching? Why doesn’t she stop him? Why doesn’t she come to my bed afterward and hold me?
The next day in cheder, all the boys are running around during recess and playing tag. Only I’m still in the classroom, alone, slumped at my desk and crying, crying.
The scene changes. Now I’m the one chasing my son around the supper table, grabbing him, and hitting him for fighting with his sister. I’m the one storming out of my room on Shabbos afternoon and hurling a book at my daughter, Henny, because she’s making too much noise and disturbing my nap. I’m the one yanking the door to my kids’ room off its hinges because the kids are jumping around in bed instead of going to sleep.
I see the fear in their eyes, the vulnerability. And I feel so, so powerful.
But these days, now that I’ve started working with Fishbaum, I’m seeing something else in their eyes that I never noticed before: Hatred. And it hits me: It’s the same hatred I feel every time I see Daddy! I avoid the man most of the time because I can’t stand being around him. Now that I’m in therapy, the hatred is worse than ever before.
One day, I’m at a simchah and my father walks in. I watch as people scurry toward him — “Shalom aleichem, Reb Benzion, here, have a seat, can I get you a drink? I was hoping to ask your advice….” — and I feel a flash of blinding rage. I hold on to my chair to stop myself from lunging toward him and punching him in the face.
Now I finally understand what Fishbaum is saying. I’m taking out my anger toward my father on my kids.
A few weeks into therapy, I fall into a bad depression. When I speak to my mother on the phone and she asks, “How are you doing, Yanky?” I say, “Not well.”
In the past I would never have been so honest with her, but Fishbaum keeps pushing me to talk more openly to my parents, to tell them I’m in therapy, to share some of my feelings with them (“but not too much,” he warns).
“What’s wrong?” she asks. “Are you sick?”
“Sick at heart,” I say, with a humorless chuckle. And I tell her that I’m in therapy, reliving some of the beatings I was subjected to.
“Aw, come on, was it really so bad?” she wonders.
I feel like I’m about to explode. Was it really so bad? It was worse than bad! I want to shout. And you — my mother — let it happen! But I remember Fishbaum’s warning, so instead of going bananas on her, I just say, “Yes, actually.”
And then I veer off to a related topic, telling her that she should really convince Tuli to go for help. “You know he has an anger problem,” I say.
“That’s what I’m hearing,” she replies. “I just wonder where the anger comes from, because Daddy has no anger. Isn’t it strange that Tuli has this problem?”
“Denial” is what Fishbaum calls it. “It’s a coping mechanism that allows people to remain in distressing situations indefinitely. Rather than acknowledge that there’s a problem, they find ways to distract themselves and avoid confronting the issue.”
I’m getting used to the psychobabble, believe it or not. Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt — it explains a lot of things about my family. Like my mother’s ability to pretend that everything about my father is just fine. He never hit her, after all.
“My mother was always out shopping when I was young,” I tell Fishbaum. “She grew up poor, and from the time she married my father she always had enough money to buy whatever she wanted. Sometimes he would scream at her, but most of the time she made sure to tiptoe around him and stay out of his way. He was rarely home, anyway, and she would just buy, buy, buy. All the other kids in my class were jealous of my clothes, my toys, my house.”
I talk about how I left my father’s business, where most of my siblings worked. Daddy wasn’t beating me anymore at that point — he stopped doing that when I started hurting him back, when I was about 15 — but he still managed to make me feel like two cents each time I was near him. “Enough sitting around!” he would bark at me if he saw me at my desk without a client. “If you can’t get your act together and pull in customers, go find yourself a new job.”
“One day,” I say, “I decided I’d had enough, and I left. I found a job as a maintenance guy in a local yeshivah. When people would see me, they would say, ‘Benzion Trauber’s son is doing this for a living?’
“I tried not to care,” I continue. “And eventually I built up my own business. Today I run an agency that provides maintenance and janitorial services to dozens of companies. Technically I’m a CEO, but my father still calls me ‘the janitor.’ I don’t need him anymore, though, so I hardly ever talk to him.”
“It’s very impressive that you managed to build your own business from scratch despite your father’s disapproval and the reactions of people in the community,” Fishbaum says. “But a boy always needs his father, and his mother too. No matter how old you get, there’s a part of you that can’t be whole unless you come to peace with your parents — if not face-to-face, which is ideal but not always possible, then at least in your mind.
“You need to start viewing your father as a victim,” Fishbaum encourages me. “Can you find it in you to muster some compassion for him?”
“Well,” I say, “he’s a child of survivors, and of all his siblings he’s probably the most normal. He’s certainly the only one who’s financially successful and respected in the community.”
“So whatever he did to you, he probably got at least that, or worse, from his own parents,” he tells me. “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Now think of how you would want your children to look at you when they get older. Do you want them to hold a grudge against you for what you’ve done to them? Or do you want them to look at you with compassion and understanding?”
I’m a big, strong, grown man, but this question makes me cry. These days, I have a hard time looking my kids in the eye because of what I’ve done to them. Sometimes I wish I wouldn’t even be alive, because it’s so painful to know that my kids are afraid of me and hate me for hurting them and insulting their mother.
I don’t even remember doing most of the things Rochel claims I did, but Fishbaum says that makes sense. “The brain has a way of forgetting or trivializing things that don’t fit with the image you want to maintain of yourself,” he observes. “Your father probably doesn’t remember most of what he did to you, either.”
“That’s true,” I say. “If someone would ask him, he would probably say that he can count on one hand the number of times he hit me.”
A year ago, Rochel worked up the courage to tell my father that he should really apologize to me for the way he treated me as a kid. “Oh, all the kids got the same treatment,” he assured her blithely. “And they all turned out okay, pretty much.” The implication was clear: There was nothing wrong with the way he had raised us.
“Lack of self-awareness prevents people from owning their behavior and recognizing the need for change,” Fishbaum notes. “If you don’t want to end up like your father, who has no clue of the damage he did to his kids, then the first thing you need to work on is realizing when you get angry, and remaining aware of your own actions while you’re mad. Just because you don’t remember what you did doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.”
He coaches me to notice when the muscles in my head start to tighten and the feeling of anger starts to well up inside me. Until now, I hadn’t even known this was happening; all I knew was that I was angry at someone, and the next thing I knew it was over. Rochel would often confront me afterward and describe what I had done and said during that flash of anger, but I never believed her, because it sounded so preposterous. After I disciplined the kids, I knew vaguely that I had hit them, but I was certain she was exaggerating about what I had said and done.
“This is chinuch,” I would tell her indignantly.
Once I train myself to notice myself getting angry, the next step is to breathe deeply, following a special technique that Fishbaum teaches me.
“This is the point where bechirah happens,” he explains. “You’re feeling a flash of anger, and now that you know to identify it, you can make the choice of either succumbing to that rage by raising your voice, hitting, throwing objects, or destroying things — or controlling that rage by breathing, waiting, and telling yourself that whatever is happening is normal and okay. If you can hold on to yourself until the anger passes, you’ll be able to access your higher brain and respond in a calm, effective, and non-hurtful manner.”
It takes tremendous effort for me to practice this and change my autopilot reactions, but I’m determined to change, and I know I’m making progress, even it’s slow and difficult. Rochel says I’m so much more pleasant to be around, and I myself am starting to enjoy being around the kids — especially the younger ones, who don’t have that look of fear in their eyes when I come near them.
I’m also starting to take the two older kids, Shmuli and Henny, on outings — to the supermarket, to the park, to the bowling alley — and I’m learning that being a father doesn’t only mean disciplining your kids and getting them to do what you want. It’s also about spending time together and hearing what’s going on in the kid’s life. Yet Shmuli and Henny are still wary around me, and it breaks my heart to think of how I hurt them in the past and destroyed their trust. Will I ever regain it fully? Will my wife ever respect me, knowing how I treated her and the kids for the first decade or so of our marriage? I don’t know, and Reb Aron — that’s what I call Fishbaum these days — isn’t making any promises.
“Change is hard,” he reflects. “And it happens in small steps, so you can’t expect to become a different person overnight. But if your family sees that you’re really trying hard to improve, they’ll respect your efforts and understand that it’s a process.
“Hashem can do anything,” he adds. “Daven every day that He should help you become the person He wants you to be, and not stay the person your upbringing programmed you to be.”
These days, I think a lot about the saying, “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” It’s really true, you know. And it’s also true that when the tree falls on the apple, the apple gets crushed.
But I’m learning that even a crushed apple can grow something beautiful. Because with the right cultivation, the seeds of change hidden deeply inside can blossom into a glorious tree, full of fresh, healthy fruit.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 823)
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