Tag : forgiveness

October 23, 2020 by

Re-Setting the Lunchroom Table

It is 1974, and I am 12.

I can see the rectangular Formica-topped table against the back wall of the middle-school lunch room, with its smell of mystery meat and burnt pizza; cheerless fluorescent lights cast a sickly pallor over the five or six girls seated around the table. Rachel, the precocious, vivacious and charismatic leader of the pack. Jenna, impish and laughter-prone; Sarah, kind, but less outgoing than the others; Allison, friendly, easygoing and athletic; and Katherine, brilliant, beautiful and oh-so-cool. I take a seat. A conversation is underway and I join in. But there’s no response. I repeat myself—still silence. The silence continues for years. The girls at the table no longer acknowledge me in class or in the hallways. I don’t know why, and they won’t explain though I ask repeatedly. I am that dorky!

Eventually, I make new friends, but the memory doesn’t fade. It only serves to reinforce what I have long feared— I’m a weirdo who doesn’t fit in. I’m not hip enough, talented enough, charming enough or pretty enough to be part of this elite gaggle of girls.

It is 2020, and I am 57.

Still plagued with self-doubt and still replaying that day in the lunchroom from time to time, I feel frustrated with my inability to put this behind me. How can I bring myself to forgive them and forgive myself?

Judaism has a lot to say about forgiveness, and repentance (teshuva). According to Maimonides: “When one person sins against another, [the victim] should not harbor hatred and remain silent.” (Hilchot De’ot 6:6)

At long last, I take Maimonides’s advice. I decide to contact some of the girls from my middle school memories. In the age of social media and the internet, it isn’t hard to find them. My search reveals that Interestingly, all but one are therapists or special educators.

To prepare to approach them, I compose an email that explains my intention: to interview women in our middle and high school class about their experiences with bullying, cliques and peer exclusion. I list some questions, one of which is: “Looking back, would you have handled anything differently?”

I tell my classmates their answers and identities will remain confidential so they can feel free to answer candidly.

Rachel, so obviously the group leader, was the first one I contacted. She seemed pleased to hear from me, and we set up a phone date. Over the years, I had seen Rachel at high school reunions and for a time, we were colleagues at a New York City hospital. Still, I felt nervous about the phone call. I didn’t plan to ask directly about the lunchroom incident, but I was fairly confident it would come up. After we filled each other in about kids, jobs, spouses, etc., we got down to business. “I don’t think I started the lunchroom thing, but I went along with it,” Rachel admitted. “Middle school was dog eat dog. Everyone was very aware you could get booted, move up or move down.”

Rachel recalled my self-consciousness and anxiety. “When you see anxiety in 7th grade, you don’t want to be anywhere near it,” she said.

Rachel was right about my anxiety. I’m terrible at hiding it. My desire for acceptance and deep connection has been an all-consuming concern for as long as I can remember. Even as a two-year-old, I lived to visit my friend Jeannie, another 2-year-old who lived in our apartment building. As a four-year-old nursery schooler I obsessed about having the right clothes—Danskin stretch pants, not the store brand! In the second grade I complained of being sick to avoid going to school, where I believed (with no actual evidence) that nobody liked me.

“I was mean to you,” said Rachel. “I apologize.” She urged me to call her next time I came to New York. “I’d love to get together,” she offered. During my conversation with Rachel, I learned that Jenna had later been excommunicated from the group as well. Jenna, whose parents were going through a divorce at the time, was so distraught by the ousting that she eventually transferred to another school.

When I reached out to Jenna by email, she confirmed that sometime during 7th grade she was “ostracized” by the group. “It was very important to me to be friends with those kids,” she said. “Some had been friends since elementary school so it felt terrible when they kicked me out. I never quite knew why it happened, but I was teased mercilessly about my flat chest and figured that had something to do with it.”

Jenna’s experience was echoed by so many others. One classmate said she was so deeply wounded by her middle school friend group that she didn’t trust women or have a close female friend until she was 42! Another woman who bullied me in middle school revealed that behind the scenes, she was suffering too, and told me, “My home-life was miserable; I was being sexually abused.”

Obviously, we never know what’s really going on in other people’s lives, yet hearing my classmates’ revelations felt profound.

Sarah, another member of the clique, couldn’t remember exactly what happened, but she knew I was mistreated. When we met at her home, she shared her own middle-school humiliation: “My parents didn’t belong to the temple and they wouldn’t send me to Hebrew School, so I was made fun of because the kids said I wasn’t Jewish enough.” I was taken aback. Our school was perhaps 20 percent Jewish, and while anti-Semitism wasn’t rampant, I experienced it on occasion, as when the boys across the street from me called my family “kikes.” It had never occurred to me that not being Jewish enough was a reason for scapegoating.

Sarah said the meanness at school sickened her, literally. “I had not the faintest idea what to do.” By 8th grade, she told me, she was attending lots of parties and feeling deeply uncomfortable. “I drank in 8th grade, smoked some weed and I wasn’t happy,” she said. Sarah’s parents moved her to a private school in 9th grade, and life got better.

I communicated with Allison, in my memory the easygoing athlete, by email. As it turned out, she didn’t escape middle- school teasing and bullying either. “I remember in 6th or 7th grade two of my friends would say they were walking home with me then run off and hide,” Allison said. “They would pretend to go on great adventures together and meet boys.” She recalled being cornered in the bathroom while her friends tried to cut her hair and pressured her to wear makeup. “I cried a lot, and my sister encouraged me not to let them treat me like that.”

To my amazement, Allison not only remembered my lunchtime incident, but also over the years had shared the story with her children and students. “I just followed along” she said of that day. “I didn’t even know why. It has haunted me that I was complicit. If I had it to do over, I would stay put at that table and invite my friends to sit with me. I’m sorry,” she wrote.

I was deeply moved by Allison’s admission, by the fact that she had used the story as a cautionary tale and, most of all, I was moved by her apology.

I felt apprehensive about my call with cool and beautiful Katherine because I had always idealized her. I wondered if she would think my obsession with the past was pathetic.

Katherine didn’t remember my lunchroom incident, but she did remember Jenna’s exclusion a few months later. She said she still feels guilty about rejecting Jenna. “It was cruel. I was culpable, and I immediately and forever thought [taking part in Jenna’s expulsion] was my personal weakness,” she confided.

Katherine had followed her friend group, she told me, because she feared she would end up alone. It had happened before—first in the fourth grade when she had warts on her hands and no one would play with her, and later when her older brother and his friends rejected her because she was a girl. In the wake of those rejections, Katherine admitted, “I didn’t feel I had any capital to spend to defend anyone else. I’m sorry I hurt you.”

About a week after we spoke on the phone, Katherine emailed to say that she found my project “fascinating” and wanted to clarify and elaborate on some of the topics we discussed. She also wanted to know if I thought she should apologize to Jenna.

I told Katherine that while I could speak only for myself, the apologies I had received from her and others had been immensely healing. It is never too late for teshuva, for turning, for turning a situation around, I thought to myself. I wondered what it would be like to gather all those girls (now middle-aged women) around a table for a long talk. Would any of them show up? I wasn’t prepared to put myself out there to find out, but a coffee date or two might be in the cards.

Soon after, Katherine sent another email.

“Dear Simone: I just got such a nice reply from Jenna! I finally sent my email this morning after combing it over and over for potential offenses, then tried not to think about it all day. I am beyond relieved. We’re planning to talk soon.

Thank you so much for encouraging me to contact her. You’re a force for good.”

Simone Ellin is a freelance writer and associate editor at Jmore magazine.

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October 23, 2020 by

We’ve Been Waiting for Your Call for 70 Years

The Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project works with law students, building an archive of the murders of African Americans in the Jim Crow South from 1930 to 1970. We gather the documents, case by case; each case telling a story of violence and impunity that is nowhere to be found in our history books. We then work with the families of the victims to seek acts of restorative justice in the communities where these murders occurred. CRRJ has helped families put up markers, have streets renamed at the site of the killings, consecrate gravestones over unmarked burial sites. We have held public ceremonies with police chiefs and mayors apologizing to the family survivors or descendants for the acts of their predecessors. We have provided the documents for historical exhibits in town halls and libraries. But most of all, we are building an archive so that a new, fuller account of these painful truths can be forever sealed into the telling of American history.

Every day I’m guided in this restorative justice work by the themes, metaphors and images of the Jewish season of repentance. Take cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the soul. Our archive is a balance sheet detailing the crimes and our impunity; each case, a liability and a debt owed. There cannot be a reconciliation without recognition and acknowledgement of the total amount of what our society owes, how we have profited from the harms inflicted on others, and how our assets have roots in injustice.

Or take the image of teshuvah, the turning we are asked to do to face our fellow human beings to ask for forgiveness during the Days of Awe, and of God on Yom Kippur. Forgiveness is not a given; it is in the hands of those who have been harmed. But it is in our power to ask to be forgiven. Our tradition tells us that forgiveness does not come unless we make the first move to ask.

What does it take to turn towards those whom we have harmed? To repent as a community for our history of racial murders, we have to take a hard stop, raise our eyes to see where we as a nation have been and what has been done, decide to move towards a different way of behaving, and then act to live up to our vow. Repentance is a process that culminates in the movement of turning.

Our prayers, with the multiplicity of confessions in repeated acrostics from aleph to taf, [from a to z] all in the first person plural, help us understand that we all share in the responsibility to make things right in the public sphere. To ask for forgiveness, we have to first say out loud what wrongs we have committed. Not just keep them in our thoughts, but proclaim them in a space where others hear our confession, and we acknowledge our collective responsibility for repair.

A family member of one of the murdered once told us: “We’ve been waiting for your call for 70 years.” If forgiveness is ever to come, it has to start somewhere, and our liturgy teaches us that it must start with us. We have to make the call.


Rose Zoltek-Jick teaches at Northeastern University School of Law, where she is also the Associate Director of the Civil Rights & Restorative Justice Project.

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October 23, 2020 by

What Can Be Forgiven?


Juggling anger, fear and suffering, can we bring ourselves to ask for forgiveness for our part in society’s ills, forgive those who have committed wrongs against us, and forgive ourselves for missteps we’ve made that haunt us still? Here, personal and political experiences of repair and forgiveness: a woman still feeling their barbs reaches out to her junior-high bullies; another leads an effort to atone for decades-old racist violence; a social worker helps people with addictions without judging their choices, and a rabbi helps define collective responsibility.

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October 23, 2020 by

Stopping Judgment in Its Tracks

“Addiction followed by redemption” is the familiar trope that implies wrongdoing, even sinfulness, on the part of a person who has used and “abused” what are referred to as “substances.”

Part of my job as a harm-reduction therapist is to help people sort out the shame, guilt, self-punitive impulse and desire for redemption engendered by a culture that sees substance use as moral failure and a society that judges it a crime. In 2016, I was a social work student interested in youth who were aging out of foster care, and slightly disappointed that my first year’s field placement was with a homeless mobile outreach team. I considered homelessness a policy issue beyond the realm of a street outreach crew, and I believed our food and clothing distribution, referrals to services and crisis deescalation work were nowhere near even a bandaid-level treatment for a national wound that requires policy change—not free soup—to heal. But this was during the third wave of the American opioid crisis, when overdose deaths were increasing dramatically thanks to the illicitly manufactured synthetic opioid fentanyl, far more potent than heroin and added to a variety of drugs to decrease production costs and increase profits.

Conducting assessment after assessment with people who did not have housing and who reported long histories of drug use, I realized quickly that there had been a bit of a chicken-and-egg confusion even in the minds of self-identified progressives: for the vast majority of the people I worked with, substance use didn’t cause loss of housing, substances were used because of loss of housing. Substance use didn’t cause trauma, substances were used because of trauma. Substance use didn’t cause economic hardship, substances were used to survive economic hardship. Substance use didn’t cause mental illness, substances were used to manage mental illness. This is not to diminish the real and tragic risks and harms that are involved in drug use, especially in a policy atmosphere of punitive prohibition. But for so many people, drug use is (or at least starts as) functional and helpful. Far too often, though, the laws, policies, practices, beliefs and attitudes that affect the lives of people who use drugs are neither functional nor helpful.

It’s now several years later, and I work in a sunny Brooklyn office with people who are struggling with their substance use and who haven’t found traditional, abstinence-based treatment effective. Many have found such treatment harmful and will not subject themselves to further judgment, shaming and dismissal. After Hours Project is a multi-service agency in Brooklyn that provides, among other things, access to sterile syringes and other materials for safer injection, medication-assisted treatment for opioid use, and mental health services (that’s me!). My office walls are covered in informational posters in Spanish about Hepatitis C, postcards from the LGBT Center welcoming the queer and trans communities, the 2020 HIV Drug Chart and stickers from the Canadian community-based health organization Street Health that affirm: “Drug users deserve safety and support.” A few steps away are stairs that lead to the syringe exchange, where my colleagues give out injection materials and naloxone, the overdose reversal medication. In adjacent offices are HIV case managers and housing specialists. Here we work towards abstinence from substance use, but also towards reduced substance use, better-managed substance use, safer substance use, and sometimes we work only on other areas of life—because people can improve their emotional wellness and work towards their goals without changing anything about their drug use.

I’m happy when the people I work with achieve their goals, but I’m most deeply fulfilled when they achieve redemption not through the renunciation of their “sin” but through the realization that their reasons for using substances are real, important and legitimate…and when they realize that much of their suffering is not because they made a “wrong choice,” but because the world around them has fumbled its response to this choice.

Essentially, this is what harm reduction offers service providers, policy makers, and the public: redemption from the sin of oppressing people who use drugs. Imagine this, for example:

You head over to your local hospital’s inpatient detoxification unit to withdraw from heroin under medical supervision. In detox, you will get medications to safely manage the symptoms of withdrawal that accompany sudden abstinence from heroin use. You’ve left your kids with your mother. You feel slightly guilty about this, but you’ve been increasingly worried about your health, the possibility of overdose, your financial stability, and the legal risks of your drug use. This is your third time in this unit over the last six months—you go whenever your insurance will cover it—and the hospital staff therapists, previously warm and accessible, now don’t approach you to do their phony “assessment” until the day of your discharge.

You overheard a doctor dismissively call you a “frequent flier.” Nobody is talking to you about long-term treatment options anymore. You feel kind of written off. In group, a counselor tells a story about her own recovery: from the “mistake” of drug use to the redemption of “better choices.” “Clean” and “dirty” urines. Substance “abuse.” Substance “misuse.” “Addicts.” You understand yourself to have done something wrong, and you feel bad about it. You are aware of what people think about others who use drugs, and it affects how you understanding yourself. You are urged to avoid “people, places and things” that trigger cravings.

Yeah, sure, you think. I will definitely avoid my closest friends, my neighborhood, the stress that is a part of my daily life, and my romantic partner. You’re taught how to prevent relapse. You know that relapse is a very shameful thing. It’s failure. You’re also told that you have a disease. This is slightly comforting, because it means you’re not entirely to blame, but it’s also disheartening. Also, this idea that your disease means that you can never use a substance again doesn’t ring true. After all, you know people who in the past had a serious problem and now drink, smoke weed, and do some cocaine once in a while. They seem perfectly fine.

A few days later, you don’t feel much more prepared to leave the hospital this time than you did last time. If you’re being honest with yourself. This whole thing has been hard. You don’t feel like you were treated nicely. Plus none of this stuff—the groups, the counseling, the peer support— has been helpful. When you meet with the therapist to do your assessment, you don’t share that you’re dying to get out of here and use again. You don’t want her to judge you, coax you into saying things you don’t mean, or get a desperate, panicky look in her eyes.

You leave the hospital. There’s fentanyl— far stronger than heroin—in the area and it’s caused a few overdoses. It might be in your bag today. You prepared so well for detox, getting rid of all of your injection materials because they are definitely triggers, and now you don’t have a needle. You may have to use someone else’s. You have to really work to find a vein because most of yours are shot. You don’t want anyone to know that you’re doing this just hours after getting discharged from detox, so you’re outside and alone. You could get arrested. You could die out here. Nobody knows you’re here.

This is what happens in traditional, abstinence-based substance use treatment: a puritanical model of substance use reinforces shame, drug use is presumed to be a purely poor choice with only negative outcomes, recovery has a singular meaning of total and permanent abstinence, and people who are not interested in or able to achieve immediate abstinence from substance become neglected—leaving them at risk of overdose, transmission of viral infections, increasingly chaotic use of substances, and other harms. If somebody continues to use drugs, the rhetoric is: “They haven’t hit rock bottom yet. Wait until they do.”

Enter harm reduction. Part social justice movement for the rights and dignity of people who use drugs, part a philosophy- of-life to human problems, and part a set of highly pragmatic and specific evidence-based public health practices, the best-known of which is syringe exchange. It also includes safe injection sites and widespread use of naloxone.

Harm reduction rejects a moral judgment of substance use in favor of a compassionate and functional understanding: People do things for good reasons, even excellent reasons. Sometimes I remind myself of this mantra: All people do all things for excellent reasons. Use drugs for excellent reasons. Have unprotected sex for excellent reasons. Even harm themselves. My rule of thumb is, the more difficult to see the reasons, the better they are. When someone is harming others—when people deplete their partners’ savings, when parents neglect their children (women often bear the brunt of this judgment), when a manual laborer risks the lives of coworkers by being intoxicated at work—making judgments can cloud my understanding. I keep in mind that it doesn’t take a great reason for someone to be 10 minutes late for work or to steal a pack of gum. But if somebody is doing things that are very hard to live with, that hurt the people that they care about most and that lead to chronic guilt and regret, then their reasons must be extraordinarily important.

Harm reduction is curious about these reasons and is interested in respecting people’s self-determination by creating opportunities to reduce risks and harms even if the person is not interested in stopping right now—or ever. The harm reduction pioneer responsible for bringing overdose-reversal medication naloxone to the streets, Dan Bigg, coined the phrase “Any Positive Change” to express harm reduction’s goal.

In practice, and when dealing with clients, this means breaking things down as follows: You didn’t get arrested because you use drugs, you got arrested because drug use is illegal here, which is an injustice. You didn’t lie to your employer because “drug users lie and manipulate,” you lied to your employer because drug use is stigmatized and you don’t want to bear the brunt of this stigma—and you don’t want to be penalized for anything when you’re excellent at your job. Harm reduction says that people who use drugs, like all other people, can be—and routinely are—excellent parents, workers, leaders, friends, and members of society.

In the imaginary situation above, a harm reduction approach would have looked like this:

A staff therapist notices that you have been cycling in and out of detox and asks why. Over the course of your conversation, you’re able for the first time to verbalize what has made this so hard for you: heroin actually helps you out a lot. The staff therapist doesn’t try to convince you that this is a distortion; instead, she validates your reasons for using. She also points out to you how motivated you really are: you’ve come to detox three times in six months! Someone who is not serious about making changes doesn’t do stuff like this. You and she try to strategize around each thing that heroin makes easier, looking for other options. She offers some biomedical options, including methadone and suboxone treatment.

In group, you learn about how “recovery” means different things for different people. You realize that for you, right at this moment, recovery might mean making positive changes that improve your health and your emotional wellbeing, and that decrease some of the financial harm and the legal risks you’ve been experiencing. You don’t know if you want abstinence right now. The group facilitator seems to respect this and seems weirdly enthusiastic about exploring how you might go about reducing your risk of arrest and decreasing the cost of your use.

You also learn about how normal and expected intermittent returns to drug use are. A counselor discusses responsible preparation for these returns to use and urges group members not to fear or deny cravings for drugs, because an impulsive, shame-filled return to use can be very risky. She says explicitly: “You do not deserve to die, contract an illness, get arrested, or feel bad about yourself just because you’re using a drug.” You learn how to prepare emotionally through compassionate self-understanding. You learn how to inject safely: how to rotate veins, how to position the syringe, what materials to use. You learn where in your city you can obtain new, sterile syringes. You learn about preventing and reversing overdose: Never use alone. Try not to mix drugs. Go slow, especially after a period of abstinence—like this one, in detox. You leave with naloxone. You know how to use it. You also have a referral to a local harm reduction organization. You’re even thinking you might start on suboxone. You feel pretty good. You have options. You are proud of yourself. You have done nothing wrong.

So, what do communal atonement and responsibility look like this new Jewish year, as the American opioid crisis persists, as the overdose death rate skyrockets during the Covid-19 pandemic, and as eviction and dislocation lead to public drug use in areas where it previously happened indoors?

Teshuva starts with acknowledgement that in practically all spaces—including in progressive and accepting communities, health care settings, and religious or spiritual centers—people who use drugs are seen as bad people who are deliberately doing harm to themselves and others. Next, we regret our misguided judgments and our collective role in policing, stigmatizing, neglecting and incarcerating people who use drugs. Finally, we make a plan to correct these wrongs in our lives. I started with the simplest affirmation that the lives of people who use drugs matter: getting naloxone, which I keep on me at all times. You could also start by initiating this conversation in your community. Or by learning more about the criminalization of drug use and its role in mass incarceration. Or by exploring with curiosity and openness the messages about drug use that you have internalized throughout your life. Or by learning to see public drug use in your neighborhood not as an aesthetic blight but as a public health crisis involving human beings who deserve privacy, safety, and your compassion.

Rebecca Halff is a social worker and a former Malka Fellow at Lilith.

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October 23, 2020 by

Our Communal Responsibility

Teshuvah, often translated as “repentance,” really means “returning” or “turning around.” This act is not a single one but a process of becoming accountable: we evaluate our actions, repent for the bad choices, apologize to those we have offended, and make amends for injuries. Because God cannot forgive us for what we have done to another human being, we must deal directly with the persons we have injured. We should be able to show progress by Yom Kippur; although, Maimonides, the tenth-century scholar, says we can be certain that our teshuvah is complete only when we encounter a similar situation and make a better choice. Teshuvah is not a once-a-year event, however. All year long, a confessional prayer is included in the weekday Amidah, but some of us need a deadline to get us moving….

Much is demanded of us when we repair a relationship, but returning to one another is healing and joyous.

During the multiple services of Yom Kippur, we recite confessions both silently as individuals and aloud as the corporate entity of the People Israel. We do so because “All Israel are guarantors for one another” (Shevuot 39a). When we confess aloud, we assume communal responsibility for one another’s actions. For example, if someone stole and we did not intervene, or if we did not offer destitute people an option other than theft, the whole community shares this guilt.

From Tales of the Holy of the Holy Mysticat by Rachel Adler.

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April 12, 2018 by


Vengeance and forgiveness are about reconciling the accounts, but accounting is an ugly description of the tangled ways we’re connected. I sometimes think everything comes out even in the end, but an end that arches beyond the horizon, beyond our capacity to perceive or measure, and that in many ways those who trespass against you do so out of a misery that means the punishment preceded and even precipitated the crime.  

—Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

My brother and I privately called Aunt Gail “The Cyclops” because neither eye made contact and so she was always talking over our heads or to the wall. It didn’t occur to us—or to me, at least—that I was a Cyclops too.

I was going to vision therapy for my strabismus, doing my homework: “trombones” every time I sat on the toilet, just so that I’d remember, focusing on my index finger, following it out and back in again, push-ups for my eye muscles. I also did something called convergence therapy, which, in the early 1980s, anyway, meant focusing on two sets of concentric circles on an index card and using your eye muscles to bring them together and move them apart.

I remember sitting in the car, on our way to Aunt Gail and Uncle Doug’s house. We weren’t really going to visit them, I realized, even then, but my grandparents had moved in with them when they couldn’t live on their own anymore, and so there was no avoiding it.

“Don’t sit and play on their living room carpet,” said my mother, over her shoulder, to us. “It’s probably covered in dog semen,” she muttered to my father. He chuckled in the driver’s seat beside her. I could tell from his restrained laugh that it was something we weren’t supposed to know about and shouldn’t ask, but I knew it was important so I remembered that word, the power of it. Semen.

Aunt Gail and Uncle Doug had a big smelly dog that did this thing they called “swimming.” He would drag himself across the carpet on his belly, legs splayed out and rear end bobbing up and down. Uncle Doug would clap his hands twice and say, “Swim, Rudy!” and he and Gail and my cousins would howl like it was the funniest thing ever.

My mother, sitting across from me on the couch, would look at me knowingly while Rudy humped his way across the room. See? I told you so. And I was invited to participate in her disgust at this thing, whatever it was. Her disgust always seemed to be something that I was supposed to see, not so much my brother or even my father. There was an urgent message in there for me to decode.

Blacksmiths used to wear an eyepatch over one of their eyes for protection while they worked. In case of misfortune, they would be left with one good eye. This may be where the giant single eye of the Cyclops comes from, since, according to legend, the Cyclopes worked as blacksmiths, and they constructed great Cyclopean walls.

Untreated strabismus often results in amblyopia, which is what happens when the brain, feeling uncomfortable receiving two conflicting images, decides to ignore the information coming in from one of the eyes. This is likely what happened to my aunt’s vision. My daughter has another version of this condition, called alternating amblyopia, which means that her brain is constantly swapping out images so that she has a strobe light of information coming in from both eyes but not quite at the same time. My own eyes are aligned enough most of the time so that the information is never canceled out but it takes a lot of muscle to get a unified picture; when I’m tired, I get double vision.

Aunt Gail was 10 years older than my mother, and when she married at 18 she and Uncle Doug moved into my grandparents’ basement. I wonder if Gail felt that she had to marry Doug because of the social consequences of her severe strabismus and neglected teeth. Maybe my grandparents thought that 25-year-old Doug was a real catch, because when it became apparent that he was more interested in my adolescent mother than he was in his wife, my grandmother responded to my mother’s distress with, “Oh, he’s just flirting with you honey, ignore it and he will stop.”

A few years later, when my grandfather caught Doug in the act, Aunt Gail said, “don’t ever tell my kids.” That was all.

From the time I was around 11, it was my job to clean the bathrooms. I remember my dad telling me that I didn’t have to be so thorough, but I liked to work slowly and make everything shine.

One day, I was in my parents’ bathroom, flossing the faucets with a cloth, when my mother called me over to sit beside her on the bed. She had a small stack of magazines she wanted to show me.

“This is what your father likes to look at,” she said, turning the pages slowly, watching my face for a reaction. I remember seeing a woman in short jean cutoffs. She was kneeling, pushing her shorts and panties aside with her fingers, holding her labia open so that her clitoris was sticking out, but I didn’t know the names for these things back then.

“Does your father ever look at you like this?” she asked.

“No,” I said.

“What about your brother?”

“No.” I got up and went back to cleaning the bathroom. There was a dark curly hair stuck to the top of the soap and I left it there.

I have often thought of my strabismus as having each of my eyes focused on different points of the horizon, scanning for predators, like a deer, whereas Aunt Gail is wearing an eyepatch, like a blacksmith, building a wall.

When I was pregnant with my youngest daughter, I told my parents, “If it’s a boy, we might not circumcise.”“That’s fine, I’ll just do it when I’m babysitting,” said my dad.

“Then you won’t be babysitting,” I said.

“But it’s part of the covenant,” he said.

“Ah, now we’re getting somewhere,” I said. “How’s that bacon sandwich?”

He laughed and said, “You’re deflecting. That part is non-negotiable, and you know it.”

I shrugged. What do you say to that? “I’m sure God’s got more around to be offended by than a little bit of skin. God likes skin! That’s why he gives boys some extra.” I said.


In my mother’s gestures, her disgust always seemed  to be something that I was supposed to see —not so much my brother, or even my father. There was an  urgent message in there for me to decode. 


“Your grandfather will be rolling in his grave,” he said.

“The baby will look just like a little dog,” said my mother, going in for the kill, making her famous Uncle Doug-jerking-off face.

And that decided it for me, the jerk-off face, the power her slight gesture has over me, to be able to conjure up decades of disgust with a quick look. I couldn’t refuse to circumcise the baby, I would be making the baby like Uncle Doug.

It was always easy for her to manipulate my thoughts. All she needed to do was to make a slight move with her hand, or even a quick facial expression, and I would know what she meant by that; it was Uncle Doug masturbating when we walked past a sexy advertisement, or Uncle Doug masturbating when one of my cousins wore something too tight to the Christmas party. And so my imagination was hijacked by Uncle Doug masturbating and also my mother miming Uncle Doug, my mother’s face and his melding like one of those photographs of couples looking similar, their faces melting into each other between their separate portraits, like those concentric circles I spent my youth staring into convergence.

Uncle Doug has been dead for 10 years. My mother always said she would “get even” with him someday but it’s too late now. I always wanted to get even with him for her but it always came out wrong; so much of my anger was directed at the wrong person.

When my mom, at age 20, told her family that she was engaged to my dad, they stopped talking to her for a year. I don’t know what this means; it doesn’t sound like they ever talked much. They didn’t like that she was marrying a Jewish guy and they liked it even less that she was converting. They didn’t understand what that meant and thought they’d have to start calling her by her new Hebrew name, Ruth.

My mother’s family decided that she thought she was too good for them, that was their version of the story. Maybe it really did seem like that to them because we had all our dental work done, and I had vision therapy too.

When I was sleeping in a separate bed with my youngest baby, and our two-year-old would get up during the night and climb into bed with my husband, I would sometimes hear my mom’s voice in my head, “Do you really think that’s appropriate? You know what happens to men’s bodies while they’re sleeping,” and I would check in, just to make sure everyone is comfortable, I’d tell myself.

I would always find my husband sleeping with our daughter’s feet in his face, her body stretched out horizontally across the pillows, because she had gone to sleep kicking him in the head, as she always did, and as I lay down again with our baby I would think, Someone should have to pay for all this and it shouldn’t be my mom or my dad or my husband or me, either, and it should most definitely not be my daughters. But someone should have to pay.

When I was young, I didn’t know how to think about this sort of thing. Without enough vocabulary, thinking is impossible. I just wished it away, and it wouldn’t go.

Rebecca Solnit says that forgiveness is very much a public act, but the internal feeling of forgiving is something else, like listening to a radio station while you’re driving out of range. The signal gets fuzzier and fuzzier and eventually disappears. One day, you realize that what you have is the absence of something unpleasant.

My dad’s view on forgiveness is sure, forgiveness is nice to talk about, but you’re Jewish, so you should know that there are some things you don’t do in the first place. Not that Jews are always so good at remembering that, he would probably want me to add.

There is a 25 percent chance of strabismus, being inherited. I would like to sever that tie now that I have the vocabulary, for myself and especially for my daughters. These days, you would barely even know that I have it, with my muscle strength from doing trombones every day for years and making those circles, little worlds on the cards, come together and move apart, like splitting up a Venn diagram: 


The author has chosen to publish this essay under the surname “Chernikowski,” a name from her family’s past generations, to protect her family’s identity. Her fiction and non-fiction have appeared in several Canadian magazines. She can be found on Twitter: @AmyChernikowski.

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