In all the #MeToo talk about sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape, it dawns on me that one category of victim remains undiscussed, almost taboo to talk about: the victims of childhood incest.
Meet Elizabeth Spalter. Buoyed by today’s open conversation about sexual crimes, Spalter wants the world to know her story.
She had what looked like a privileged childhood. The youngest of four children growing up in a luxury New York City apartment, she and her brothers attended private schools. They had a country home in Connecticut. Their mother, Josie Spalter, was a homemaker, and their father, Harold Spalter, was a former Air Force captain and a prominent eye doctor in Manhattan. Respectable on the outside but a monster on the inside, having sexually abused his daughter from the time she was 6 until she left for college, Dr. Spatter also psychologically and physically tortured his sons.
One of Elizabeth Spalter’s brothers would later reveal that he saw his father naked in his sister’s bed and that they lived in a “house of terror.” Another brother said when he returned home from school it seemed as though “the life had gone out” of his sister “and never came back.” In truth, Spalter’s only escape was to pour out her loneliness, shame and anger into her private journal.
“Sadly, so many people in my life knew about the abuse,” Spalter told me, “but … didn’t stand up to my father.” After she went away to college at 17, Spalter never lived with her parents again. She and her mother were very close, but she kept the ugly truth from her to protect the family structure. At 23, Spalter entered much-needed therapy, as she had post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression.
Josie Spalter was diagnosed with cervical cancer in April 1995, and within 10 months, she died at home.
“The night before she passed away, my father became irate at me, and screamed at me,” Elizabeth told me in an email from her home in Vienna, Austria. “He said, ‘You killed your mother! She read your journals!’ I shouted in response, ‘You are blaming mom’s death on the sexual abuse YOU did to me?!’” And there it was. In 1996, the vile family secret was fully out in the open, but still, no one came to Spalter’s aid. No one dared to confront the domineering Dr. Spalter.
“To protect my mother, I sacrificed so much, and what he said was devastating to me,” Spalter wrote. “I sacrificed innocence, honesty and intimacy with my family, keeping this secret was lonely and a heavy burden to bear, especially as a child.”
About two years after Josie Spalter’s death, Dr. Spalter married his secretary, Diane Rogers, a woman not much older than Elizabeth Spalter.
It’s probably no coincidence that Spalter chose to live as far away as possible from her father. She earned a degree in psychotherapy, taking out student loans for her education, and today she operates her own practice in Vienna. She is happily married and has beautiful twin daughters. It was in that protective cocoon, and following the 2014 death of her then-84-year-old father, that she found the courage to file a lawsuit against Dr. Spalter’s sizable estate.
Last Spring, Spalter won what’s believed to be the largest sexual abuse settlement ever recorded in the state of Connecticut. Each of her brothers offered testimony on their little sister’s behalf. Spalter’s complaint to the court asked for $8 million. After an emotional and contentious monthlong trial, during which it was revealed that Dr. Spalter had told relatives that he sometimes got “confused” and mistook his daughter for his wife, the jurors decided $8 million was not enough. They more than doubled the amount, awarding Elizabeth Spalter $20 million. Stepmom and estate executrix Diane Rogers Spalter has appealed the decision.
Elizabeth Spalter’s case got scant media attention last year, and now she wants to make sure that the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements include dialogue about victims of childhood incest. Spalter told me she was especially moved when actress Mira Sorvino recently issued a public apology to Dylan Farrow for not believing her allegations of childhood molestation at the hands of her adoptive father, director Woody Allen. Sorvino said she now regrets having ever worked with the director. (Allen has long denied the allegations.)
If the current movements are to make a measurable difference, it seems clear they need to concentrate on helping those most egregiously victimized and to draw a firm line between them and women who were merely made to feel “uncomfortable” on the job or stayed too long on a bad date. Incest is a crime, and the #MeToo and #TimesUp groups would do well to embrace its victims and help them pursue convictions.
“The stigma, shame and fear silences us and I’m hoping with this dialogue,” Spalter wrote me, “with more stories in the press,” survivors “will feel emboldened and safe to come forward.”
Spalter is more than a survivor in my book. She is a warrior.