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The Lilith Blog

June 15, 2018 by

Suicide Survivorship: The Risks of Silence and Shame

people-2597622_640This week, one cherub-faced, auburn-eyed child of seven asks me, “Why doesn’t anyone talk to me about my dad?”  Precocious and pained, this little girl became a suicide survivor last year when her father ended his life.  

She is just beginning to unravel the details of what happened to him. At the same time, she has had to absorb the collateral damage from the loss of family and friends that often accompanies news of a suicide.  She is discovering too young that people turn away from suicide and suicide survivors. As a grief specialist, I know vividly this story of social isolation ––and the little girl’s longing to be heard and held.

In the last week, our world lost two beloved celebrities to suicide, Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain.  Following the shock of this news came important information on how to help the suicidal and how to prevent the contagion effect of suicide. But in our effort to thwart the reality of suicide in our culture, overlooked is a very simple idea that each of us can carry out: talk to suicide survivors.

Suicide survivors are the forgotten family and close friends of those who ended their own lives. They are the ones left to live with the broken pieces their loved one has left behind, trying to fathom the incomprehensible.  These are the people most at risk for the dangerous effects of contagion, as their exposure to suicide is the closest. 

In the past, suicide was, and sometimes still is, viewed as shameful, something that must be hidden. This secretive shame is carried forward by loved ones.  

In the last two decades, suicide rates have risen 25% nationwide (United States Center for Disease Control).  Previous studies have found evidence of increased rejection, shame, negative judgments, and loss of social support in people bereaved by suicide when compared to those bereaved from other types of loss. The degree of social blame coupled with personal guilt and shame can evolve into emotional withdrawal, social isolation, and hopelessness.  Research has demonstrated that social isolation and hopelessness increase with suicide risk.

Evidence that suicide can run in families has been found in both case reports and epidemiological studies. This means that suicide is most contagious within families and circles of close friends.  With the suicide rate increasing and the silent spreading of risk in suicide survivors, we are overlooking a significantly large group of vulnerable parents, siblings, friends, and children.

No science, therapist, family, or friend can predict who is going to commit suicide, as this is often an impulsive and secretive act, but the legacy of suicide in these survivors is undeniable, with some studies estimating as high as a 65% increase risk of suicide. 

Survivors are left to hold their shame, sometimes to the point of hiding that a suicide happened in their family, bearing the secret through multiple generations of lies and distortions.  These loved ones may feel marked and branded, which may keep potential supporters from getting too close. 

Yet there is something each of us can do today.  

Speak with––and listen to––someone who has lost a loved one to suicide.  Listen to them about their pain, or their shame, their guilt, their fear and dread. Suicide survivors need to feel recognized and understood for the burden they carry. It’s not uncommon for suicide survivors to wonder what they could have done to save their loved one, how they could have missed so much secrecy and darkness, and even desperately try to decipher the message of the suicide itself. In suicide, it’s not only the dead who haunt us, but the secrets left by them. 

It is not easy to find the words to acknowledge the reality of suicide, but the more we can accept its existence and help survivors speak openly about fears and powerlessness, the more we actually protect ourselves and each other from the silent darkness that leads people to dangerous and sometimes deadly acts against themselves.   

The dead are already painfully gone.  

Now it’s the living who need us.

Alexis Tomarken, MSW, PhD writes personal essays that relate to psychotherapy and mental health, and she is a suicide survivor. She is a psychoanalytic candidate at NYU Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis, a grief specialist, and a member of the advisory board for the American Mental Health Foundation. 

 

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The Lilith Blog

June 7, 2018 by

Mazel Tov to Lilith’s Literary Staff

Major moments for two Lilith staffers and book authors this week has us rejoicing—and we’re sharing the good news.

Ilana Kurshan Photographed by Debbi Cooper #6589 (3)

First, Ilana Kurshan, Lilith’s book reviews editor, has won the Sami Rohr prize for Jewish Literature from the Jewish Book Council for “If All the Seas Were Ink: A Memoir.” As the council’s reviewer wrote of her tour-de-force literary and Talmudic memoir, “Due to Kurshan’s deft explanations of Talmudic personalities and principles… Readers will be inspired by Kurshan’s resilience and renewal, with the Talmud by her side.” We couldn’t agree more–Kurshan’s book is deeply literary in the best way. 

Naomi Danis photo

Also this week, Lilith’s Managing Editor Naomi Danis got a superb write-up in the New York Times Book Review for her children’s book “I Hate Everyone,” with critic Marisha Pessl describing the story in glowing terms: “The book reads like a version of Whitman’s barbaric yawp. It’s wildly alive with the girl’s unchecked bursts of word and emotion. The way she grasps at and simultaneously rejects love, wanting to be both acknowledged and left alone, is universal and timeless.”

 

 

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The Lilith Blog

May 17, 2018 by

Ruth: the Torah of Transgressive Transformation

Shavuot: When Torah Comes from Earth More than from Heaven

As we take up the Book of Ruth for its traditional reading on Shavuot (this year, from Saturday evening, May 19, through Sunday evening, May 21) we may note that it bears special significance for the role of women in our own generation, and for changes in the meaning of Torah when change happens in society at large.

ruth_gleaning

The story of Ruth brings together with almost invisible threads three seemingly transgressive women of the Bible. The Hebrew Bible conventionally assigns women to the role of motherhood, and it likes to tell the stories of how women who are denied the opportunity of motherhood seek it with great urgency.  But in three stories of such women, the urge to be conventional empowers deeply unconventional change.

When the stories are first told, they seem to have no connection with each other. But then the Book of Ruth links the three stories by threads that are almost invisible — but not quite. The gossamer threads of connection strengthen each separate story into an epic of ironic transformation. (more…)

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The Lilith Blog

March 14, 2018 by

Why My High School Class Voted to Stop Reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Depictions of Women

EverythingIsIlluminatedI love reading Jewish literature. Seeing my culture and experience come to life on the pages of a book can be meaningful and validating; it makes my idiosyncratic religious practices feel legitimate. The representation and recognition of Judaism in popular culture is crucial, but what do you do when the author gets it wrong? Or what if certain parts of your identity are illustrated perfectly while other facets aren’t done justice? I faced these quandaries when reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated this year in my English class.

Everything Is Illuminated has comfortably rested in my family’s bookshelf for many years, accompanied by other books my family read, enjoyed, then never touched again. I was excited when it was assigned in my “Immigrant Literature” class because I recognized the novel, and vaguely recalled watching the movie with my parents a few years back. Our copy was even signed by Foer, which I excitedly told my class. However, once we began reading, I noticed a peculiar and disturbing pattern: the female characters are repeatedly gratuitously objectified.

The book alternates between the present day, wherein a Jewish man, Jonathan, travels to Ukraine to explore the place his family lived pre-Holocaust, and a story set in the past, beginning in the 1700s, about Jonathan’s heritage and ancestors. One of these family members is a young girl named Brod, who grew up in Ukraine in the 1700s, and is Jonathan’s very-great grandmother.

It bothered me (and many of my classmates) that Brod, one of the only female protagonists of the book was often sexually harassed and assaulted, as well as excessively sexualized. We especially objected to the way that her character was sexualized even when it was completely nonessential to the plot. For example, in the moment when she discovers her father lying dead on the floor of her home, she randomly gets naked. Foer describes her pubic hair and her “cold, hard” nipples. She is 12 in this scene. When discussing chapters like these, we would get into in-class disagreements that felt personal and painful.

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The Lilith Blog

February 12, 2018 by

Wearing the Pants, and the Dress as Well

A photo the author, Julia Clardy, took of her legs.

A photo the author, Julia Clardy, took of her legs.

When I showed a girl in my class the prom dress I was thinking about buying, the first thing she asked me was whether or not I was going to shave for prom. Her question wasn’t really that surprising. People often associate body hair with uncleanliness, and they don’t expect it to appear in formal situations. The fact is, people only question me about my body hair when I’m wearing something more traditionally feminine. When I’m wearing shorts and a t-shirt people rarely look twice at my legs or armpits, but when I’m wearing a dress, people consistently double-take. When it comes to how other people see me, it seems that my casual clothes and body hair make more sense together than my more feminine clothes and body hair.

I’ve always been passionate about clothes. I’ve cycled through many fashion phases in my life. For a while in eighth grade I sported a lot of ill-advised Zooey Deschanel inspired looks, but by sophomore year of high school I cut my hair short and wore baggy jeans and fisherman sweaters. No matter what I wore, I never felt unfeminine. Femininity is something inside me, and, for me personally, it’s not tied to my choice of clothes or my decision to shave or not. Regardless of my presentation, I feel like a woman because that is how I identify.

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The Lilith Blog

February 8, 2018 by

When Your Mom Doesn’t Fit the Jewish Mother Stereotype

The author, Kara Sherman, with her mother. Photo credit: Kara Sherman.

The author, Kara Sherman, with her mother. Photo credit: Kara Sherman.

Loud. Abrasive. Bossy. Great cook. These attributes all contribute to the popular caricature of the “Jewish American Mother.” I know plenty of women who fit this description. I’ve taught their kids on Sunday mornings. I love some of them. I can’t stand some of them. My mother is Jewish, and American, and pretty bossy when she needs to be; but she’s never conformed to this stereotype. 

While matzah ball soup and potato pancakes have become deli staples across America, no one can beat an authentic, homemade, kosher-style meal. I grew up on my paternal grandmother’s brisket and latkes, but those kinds of foods were always holiday treats I never expected to have at home. My mother has always hated cooking. She’s worked all my life, has a PhD from Duke University, and doesn’t have the energy to waste on activities she doesn’t enjoy. Sure, I’ve never gone hungry—she comes home every evening and makes a meal for my sister, father, and I—but I’ve always been able to tell that she doesn’t enjoy it. She needs to feed her family, and then she needs to go to sleep. My family views food as fuel, not as something to be savored and enjoyed, largely because of my mother’s attitude toward cooking.

This being said, my mother is still Jewish—and she’s still a damn good mom. She’s never been one for practicing her religion, but she chants the Shabbat candle blessings with me when I ask her to. Her mother was Jewish, her father is Jewish, and without really meaning to, she raised a Jewish family. But she doesn’t like to cook.

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The Lilith Blog

January 22, 2018 by

Women’s Marches from Coast to Coast

Lilith photographer Joan Roth marched in New York City. Her granddaughter, former Lilith intern Shira Gorelick, marched in Los Angeles. See the protests through the lenses of this grandmother/granddaughter team—documenting history in cities on opposite coasts. 

Joan Roth, New York City

clearing for granddaughter joantrump paper mache JoanNCJW Joantwo small children JoanSusan Joantwo sign crowd shot Joansunglasses shot Joan

woman warrior Shira Gorelick, Los Angeles

granddaughters witches shirastrong female lead Shira

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The Lilith Blog

January 12, 2018 by

Yet Another Study Shows Women Can Safely Self-Induce Abortion—When Given Proper Information

A new study conducted in Peru, where abortion is legally restricted, finds that women can safely and effectively self-induce abortion after receiving information from a healthcare provider about how to use the drug misoprostol. Although abortion is common in Peru, few women qualify for legal services, and many instead seek out clandestine providers or use unsafe methods on their own.

Researchers at Ibis Reproductive Health, the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) and the International Planned Parenthood Federation/Western Hemisphere Region documented outcomes with a harm-reduction model of care implemented at non-governmental clinics in Lima and Chimbote. Women who said they were considering ending their pregnancy were evaluated by nurses, given information about ways to use misoprostol that are scientifically shown to be safe and effective for early abortion. They were encouraged to return to the clinic to ensure the abortion was complete, treat any complications and receive contraception. The study followed 220 women who took misoprostol on their own after a clinic evaluation.

“We found that almost 90% of women reported having a complete abortion after taking misoprostol, and very few had medical complications, such as heavy bleeding, infection or severe pain,” Dr. Daniel Grossman, the director of Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) and lead author of the study, said. “Our findings corroborate those from a growing number of studies indicating that women can safely and effectively use medication abortion on their own with minimal clinical supervision.” 

Grossman shared with Lilith the ways he sees Judaism informing his work for reproductive justice. “I think my Jewish upbringing instilled in me a strong sense of tikkun olam or ‘repair of the world’ and a desire to work for the welfare of society at large,” he said. “My parents aren’t very observant Jews, but they were active volunteers in our temple’s social action work. My research on access to reproductive health care, as well as my clinical activities, are certainly motivated by a desire to reduce disparities and ensure that all people can attain the highest level of health possible.”

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The Lilith Blog

January 4, 2018 by

You’ve Come a Long Way, Sister: 20 Years After Carlebach Allegations, His Daughter Hears #MeToo

On Tuesday, Lilith’s founder Susan Weidman Schneider sent out an email, subject line “and now, Neshama Carlebach weighs in.” She was writing to Managing Editor Naomi Danis and to Sarah Blustain, who reported for Lilith in 1998 about allegations of sexual harassment against famed rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, and the response from his daughter—twenty years later. “Want to respond?” Susan wrote. 

The daughter’s belated response brought up a slew of memories about what it was like to report on sexual harassment before #MeToo, in a community that only now is beginning to reckon with the dark side of its spiritual leader.

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