In all the #MeToo talk about sexual harassment, 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 Elizabeth wants the world to know her story.
Elizabeth 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, 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 six until she left for college. Dr. Spalter also psychologically and physically tortured his sons.
One of Elizabeth’s brothers would later reveal that he saw his father naked in his 12-year-old 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 Elizabeth) and never came back.” In truth, Elizabeth’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,” Elizabeth told me, “but (they) didn’t stand up to my father.” After she went away to college at 17 Elizabeth never lived with her parents again. She and her Mother were very close but Elizabeth kept the ugly truth from her to protect the family structure. At 23 Elizabeth entered much needed therapy as she struggled with post-traumatic stress, 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 e-mail 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 Elizabeth’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.” Elizabeth 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’s death Spalter married his secretary, Diane Rogers, a woman not much older than Elizabeth.
It’s probably no coincidence that Elizabeth 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 84-year-old father, that Elizabeth found the courage to file suit against Dr. Spalter’s sizable estate.
Last Spring, Elizabeth 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. Elizabeth’s complaint to the court asked for $8 million dollars. After an emotional and contentious month-long trial, during which it was revealed that Dr. Spalter had told relatives that he sometimes got “confused” and mistook Elizabeth for his wife, the jurors decided $8 million was not enough. They more than doubled the amount, awarding Elizabeth $20 million. Stepmom and estate executrix, Diane Rogers Spalter, has appealed the decision.
Elizabeth’s case got scant media attention last year and now she wants to make sure that the #MeToo and #Time’sUp movements include dialogue about childhood incest victims. Elizabeth told me she was especially moved when actress Mira Sorvino recently issued a public apology to Dylan Farrow for not believing her story of childhood molestation at the hands of her adoptive father, director Woody Allen. Sorvino said she now regrets ever working with the director. (Allen has long denied the charge.)
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 #Time’sUp 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,” Elizabeth wrote me, “with more stories in the press, (survivors) will feel emboldened and safe to come forward.”
Elizabeth is more than a survivor in my book. She is a warrior.