Thirty three years ago the world lost a brilliant writer, mathematician, linguist, and social justice champion. Barbara was one of the smartest people I’ve ever known. She read voraciously—everything from science fiction to calculus texts to history to kids’ books. I loved how enthusiastic she became over a new discovery, sometimes waking me up in her excitement to explain the meaning of a Hebrew word or how to derive the quadratic formula (I did not always appreciate this at the time!)
She modeled for me how to work for a more just and peaceful world, with her anti-war activism, feminism, and immigration rights work. She volunteered to do childcare for our hardworking neighbors. We often had several kids over, happily chatting to Barbara in Spanish, eating snacks, and playing with the toys she provided.
When I was a kid she was my mentor and protector, always looking out for me and making sure I was ok.
But when I was a teen, our relationship was more complicated. I didn’t understand why she sometimes disappeared for days at a time, why she was frequently hospitalized in the psych ward, or why she swore me to secrecy about all of it. I just knew there was something terribly wrong, that she wouldn’t or couldn’t explain.
It was a few years later that I learned she had suffered horrific physical, sexual, and emotional abuse at the hands of her psychiatrist. It’s hard for me to write that sentence, but there it is. I wish I could have protected her. I wish I could have been there for her when she courageously broke free, when the story came out, when she was finally able to ask for help.
But I couldn’t deal with it. When you grow up in a family with secrets and abuse, how do you even begin to process that kind of trauma? I minimized and denied it. Just like I did with my own childhood trauma that I couldn’t acknowledge.
I know now that I did the best I could at the time. I’ve forgiven myself. I believe she would forgive me too. But it’s one of the reasons I’m committed to healing myself, so that I can be present to others’ suffering in the way I wish I could have been there for Barbara.
I know that she’d be proud of me.