Should I invite my estranged grandmother to my wedding?

January 28, 2010

Question: I haven’t seen my grandmother for years. The man she married, after divorcing my grandfather, sexually abused me when I was young. I am getting married and do not want to invite her to my wedding but, if she turned up uninvited, I wouldn’t want to create a scene by having to remove her. What should I do?

Rabbi Naftali Brawer

Naftali Brawer is rabbi at Borehamwood and Elstree United Synagogue.

The obvious question is whether or not your grandmother knew that her husband was abusing you. If she didn’t know, then she is as much a victim of this man’s betrayal as you were. Do not make assumptions about her unless you are certain of the facts. Child abusers are notoriously devious. Given the fact that abused children are often too frightened or ashamed to talk about what happened to them, it is not difficult for their abusers to conceal their crimes from other adults, even close family members.

If, however, this was not the case and your grandmother, aware of the abuse, failed to protect you, then you have every right to exclude her from your life. You certainly should not have to accommodate the accomplice of your abuser on your wedding day. Make it clear through a third party that she is unwelcome and that if she does turn up at your wedding she will be politely but firmly escorted off the premises. Your wedding should be about celebrating your future with the person who loves you, not revisiting painful memories from the past.

While it is important on your wedding day to leave the past behind, you will have to revisit your painful past at some point in a constructive way with a qualified therapist. You have suffered terrible trauma and cannot expect to fully heal and open a new chapter in your life without professional help.

Your painful story is a cautionary tale about child abuse in the Jewish community. We are, to our deep regret, not immune to such horrors. I am not suggesting that we become paranoid to the extent that we see potential abusers everywhere, but we must exercise caution and vigilance. We must also become more alert and sensitive to sudden changes in our children’s behaviour so that we might catch an early warning sign that things are not right.

We must also forcefully demonstrate to would-be child abusers that they will find no refuge in the Jewish community. Perpetrators, whoever they are and whatever their standing in the community must be brought to justice. Finally, we must create the sort of environment that makes it easier for victims of abuse to come forward. We can do so by honestly acknowledging this evil in our midst and by offering those who have suffered our total and unconditional support.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.

Many reading your question will be shocked that such a thing could have happened. Others, unfortunately, will know from personal experience that such instances do occur and they include cases within the Jewish community too. Judaism is very good at family values, but there are plenty of exceptions to the rule and we are not immune from aberrations or attempts at cover-up.

From your question, I can only assume that you are sure your grandmother knew what was going on and did not stop it — otherwise there would be no reason for you to be antagonistic towards her as well as your abuser. One thought, though, is whether she was also a victim of that man : what did he do to her, be it physically or emotionally ? Was she terrified into silence or blinded by naivety ?

You may feel she should have taken a stand and protected someone as young and vulnerable as you were, and that she made the wrong decisions, and you would be right, but that does not mean that she did not suffer, too. This is not to lessen her guilt, the trauma you experienced or the anger you still feel now, but to say that you may have shared very similar experiences.

If you have not done so already, then it would be good to have a fresh adult conversation with her about what happened, perhaps with someone trustworthy present to help steer it constructively, and try to find out what she thought and why she reacted the way she did. Maybe she is longing to unburden herself.

As for the wedding: if you are still adamant that you do not want her there, it is a private ceremony and you have the right not to have present those whose attendance you find deeply upsetting. Ask anyone who is in touch with her not to tell her about the wedding till afterwards, and also instruct those on the door not to admit anyone without an invitation.

Even more important is what happens to you yourself. You need to have some professional counselling about your own feelings towards sex and children, so that your experiences do not affect negatively the way you bring up your own offspring, be it suffocatingly protective or punishingly severe — a reaction common to many who have been abused in childhood and develop certain traits in adulthood.

Last updated: 6:45pm, February 2 2010