Hush by Eishes Chayil. Walker, a division of Bloomsbury. 2010. Review copy from publisher.
The Plot: Gittel is a teenager, preparing to graduate High School, get married, get a job. She is haunted by memories of her childhood friend, Devory.
When they were both nine, Devory hanged herself in the bathroom of Gittel’s house.
Now an adult, Gittel realizes that there was something terribly wrong. As a child, she had seen something, before Devory died. She told Devory’s mother: “I told her that Shmuli [, Devory’s older brother,] came into the room, how he went under her blanket in the middle of the night.” Devory’s mother is all anger and denials and saying Devory is a troubled liar: “You must never tell this to anyone.. . . . You must not tell this to the police.”
After Devory is found dead, Gittel’s father hears Gittel tell the police: “she just didn’t want to sleep with her brother.” Gittel later hears her parents argue. Her mother says, “They’ve been our neighbors forever! They are an important family, … No one will believe it anyway. . . .It’s too late.” Our children will be kicked out of school, no one will talk to them, she warns. There are no more interviews with the police. The teachers at school tell her “not to talk to anyone in the class about what happened.” To do so would be a big sin. Devory’s family moves away. Gittel’s mother throws away the photographs of Devory. Her father tells her to forget.
Gittel tries to do as she is told. Forget Devory, forget what happened. Her life in Borough Park continues, time goes by, she goes to high school, there is an engagement and marriage plans, but all along, Gittel is haunted by Devory and why she died, and why her community, the loving, warm, close-knit, nurturing, protective Yushive Chassidim Jewish community, acts as if nothing happened and as if Devory never existed. As Gittel becomes an adult within her community — marrying and becoming a mother — she realizes she can be hushed no longer.
The Good: Gittel will haunt you, as Devory haunts her.
Hush is a fascinating and brutally honest examination of what happens to a family and community that believes that if they think child sexual abuse doesn’t happen, then it doesn’t happen, and anything — or anyone — that says otherwise should be quieted, excluded, shunned, hushed. Best to act as if nothing ever happened. I could not read this book in one sitting. I had to put it down, take deep breaths, literally walk away.
Hush uses a fictional name for the main ultra-Orthodox Chassidic sect (Yushive), because the author refuses “to point a finger at one group, when the crime was endemic to all.” Chayil paints a community that is warm and loving. The relationship between Gittel and her father is tender; this man loves his child. Unfortunately, because he is a product of this community, the best her father could do to help Gittel as a child was to protect her by keeping the secret and insisting she do the same.
Gittel is a woman who values her world and wants to be a part of it — Gittel marries, has a child, has no desire to leave — while realizing that there is something wrong with the community that needs to be fixed. What is wrong is how the community handles the sexual abuse of children by its own members.
For most readers, the lives and customs of the ultra-Orthodox depicted in Hush will be a window into another world. A world of men studying in kollel, a world where marriage and children are valued above everything else with young brides hoping for to be pregnant by their first day of marriage, a world with arranged marriages, where the young men and women getting married are not told the facts of life until days (or hours) before the wedding. A world where the goyim and their customs are strange and at laughable. Chayil’s insider view of this community is full of warmth; the reader understands why Gittel stays.
The treatment of child sexual abuse victims by the community is even more horrible, in light of how much children are valued. Gittel eventually realizes what so many do not: pretending something doesn’t exist, not giving it words, does not prevent it from existing. When walls are built as a protection to keep danger out, they can turn into a prison.
Hush is not a condemnation of a community. This is a condmenation of how a community reacts to something tragic and horrible. In Hush, the abuse and failure to deal with it happens in a community that is a closed religous one. As shown by the scandals of the Catholic Church, it can happen in communities that are less isolated. The failure is not about religion or lack of religion. The failure is what happens when a group of people decide that they are “good” and “evil” can only come from outside the group. When that evil comes from within, the group has no knowledge, skills, or ability to deal with it except to ignore it because to admit to it would negate the firm belief that “we” are good and that goodness can be protected only be guarding from threats from the outside. As Chayil says in her Author’s Note, “We forgot that the greatest enemies always come from within.”
Add to that the belief that keeping a child from knowledge preserves that child’s innocence. Gittel’s husband is so sheltered that he is shocked and disgusted when he realizes his wife has breasts. He had been led to believe “that” was something only goyishe women had “to make men look at them,” and no self respecting Jewish woman would have them. Laugh, smile, or cry at the image of such an argument happening between a married couple — but at some point, “protecting” a child from the outside world stops being protection and becomes injurious to the adult the child becomes.
Gittel knows she saw Shmuli crawl into his sister’s bed, but she does not know what it is until, years later, a police officer calls it “rape.” When Gittel uses that word to explain to her new husband what happened to Devory, he is as innocent as she is. “What does ‘rape’ mean?” Not knowing what “rape” meant does not stop Shmuli from raping his younger sister. It does not prevent her mother from labeling Devory, not Shmuli, as the troublemaker. It does not stop Devory from hanging herself using a jump-rope because her family won’t keep her brother away from her. Ignorance is not innocence; and ignorance does not protect the innocent.
Eishes Chayil is a pseudonym. An Author’s Note, as well as the jacket copy, explains that Chayil was raised Chassidic. It doesn’t explain why she uses a pseudonym. Maybe, like Gittel’s family, she is concerned that her extended family will suffer if she spoke publicly. Maybe the concern is not being associated with one particular sect; if she is part of x, people may say, “oh, it only happens in x, not in y.” It’s sad, though, because Hush is about Gittel finding her voice to speak up for Devory. Chayil is speaking up, is not hushed, but she cannot publicly own it the way Gittel can.
As an Irish Catholic, I’m hardly the person to judge the accuracy or authenticity of Hush. So, instead, check out the review at Tablet Magazine, part of Nextbook which includes an interview with the author. In addition, comments point out that the American Jewish Libraries Newsletter (not online, member only) reviewed this title and that the Jewish Book World Magazine, which comes out quarterly, will have a review in its February issue. Also see the Velveteen Rabbi’s review.
Kirkus Review has an interview with Chayil.
Edited to add 11/26/10: Book Review of Hush at Fink or Swim; with a follow up message posted both at that blog and Dov Bear.