The Debrief: Midrash with Beth Leventhal

I had tea with Beth Leventhal, a 54-year-old Jewish lesbian who is the director of The Network/La Red. As we stood up to leave, she commented that she had told me a lot more stories than she has in other interviews because she associates telling stories with Jewish learning and culture—the midrash, or oral tradition. Here are some of her stories. (Trigger warning for depictions of physical and emotional abuse.)

“She used the smallest kernel of truth to hook me, to blame me.”

When I was in a relationship with an abusive partner, I once had lunch with an ex-girlfriend. The ex was Jewish; my abusive then-partner was not. My abuser accused me of aligning myself with my ex, saying, “I understand why Hitler tried to exterminate the Jews.” When I began to respond, she declared, “There has to be room for me to express myself when I’m angry with you.” I knew I had issues with people being angry with me; it was very hard for me to receive other people’s anger, and in a relationship I needed to be able to hear when the other person was upset with me. So I believed her, and I internalized the blame for what she had done. My therapist at the time, who didn’t understand the situation, also told me it made sense that she was jealous. But jealousy and anger do not excuse the violence rendered through her statement. Jealousy should not lead a person to support genocide. She used the smallest kernel of truth to hook me, to blame me.

“Is being with this person worth risking your ability to walk?”

You do not have to be ready or want to leave a relationship with an abusive partner in order to get help at The Network/La Red. We will help you think about how you can be safer, how you can stay connected to other people, and how you can hold onto your sense of self. At the same time, we may check in once in a while about whether you do want to leave, and what support you might want in that. One survivor’s abusive partner had broken their leg several years ago, and kept hitting them in that broken spot. The survivor was having more and more difficulty walking. In situations like that, we ask, “Is being with this person worth risking your ability to walk?” To us, there is no right or wrong answer to this question. As an organization, we just want to ask and then support survivors in whatever decisions they make. It may be that whatever they get from the abusive partner is, in fact, to them, at that time, worth the abuse they suffer. Our role is to facilitate periodic reevaluations of the situation—to make sure that if they stay with their abusive partners, it’s because they want to and not because of an inability to stop, check in with themselves and check in with someone else. And in addition to asking why the target of the abuse doesn’t leave the relationship, let’s ask: “Why doesn’t the abuser leave the relationship when they realize they are abusive? Why doesn’t the abuser get help to stop the abusive behavior? Why doesn’t the abuser avoid getting into another relationship until they get the help they need to stop their abuse?”

“Sometimes it’s hard because of the contrast, because it becomes so clear that the abuse was wrong.”

Many years ago, my current partner and I were hosting a dinner party for some friends at my apartment. I was boiling beans, and I burnt them. That kind of thing would have really set off my former partner. I became flooded with anxiety—how would my partner react? How angry would she be that I had screwed up the simple task of boiling beans? I felt stupid, useless, scared. When I told her what happened, she responded, “If we rinse them, we might get rid of the burnt flavor.” It seemed that me making a mistake in boiling the beans did not necessarily mean that I deserved punishment. I needed to sit down on the couch and rethink, yet again, my past experience living in a relationship with an abusive partner. What else didn’t I deserve? What other blame had I taken on that I didn’t need to take on? Sometimes building new love after having an abusive partner is hard because you see something that reminds you of the abusive partner and you ask yourself, am I safe now? Is it happening again? And sometimes it’s hard because of the contrast, because it becomes so clear that the abuse was wrong.

“Listen to the survivors and believe what they say.”

Groups of friends sometimes come to The Network/La Red to talk about an abuser in their community. They want to do something. They want to say to this person: “We see what you’re doing, and you’re better than that. We believe that you can and should behave differently. We want you to get help.” We say, wait. First go to the survivor of this abuse. Tell that person what you’re thinking of doing, and listen to the response. The survivors know the abuser and the patterns of abusive behavior better than you do. They might say, “No, I don’t want you to do that, because I know how the person will respond.” Or they might say, “OK, but that feels really scary to me, so can we talk about what I’m scared of and how to address that?” They might say, “Yes, that’s great, go for it!” Listen to the survivors and believe what they say.

The Network/La Red hotline provides emotional support, information and safety planning for the 25-33 percent of LGBQ/T people who have experienced abuse by a partner. The hotline is available Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to midnight, Saturday from 1-6 p.m., and Sunday from 1 p.m. to midnight. Call 617-742-4911 (voice) or 617-227-4911 (TTY).

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