“Are – are you going to be all right?”
“You mean, like, ever?”
My date chuckles halfheartedly. “Well, at the very least, ever. But I meant more like, by the time you go to sleep tonight?”
I inhale shakily. Everything under my skin is still vibrating — not in the sexy-clichéd-romance-novel kind of way; in the stitched-together-ripping-apart kind of way. My stomach gives an ominous residual lurch. “I honestly don’t know.”
We’re sitting on a bench outside the Lincoln Center movie theater at dusk on a Sunday evening. The paths and other benches around the fountains and mini waterfalls are relatively deserted. It’s quiet, or maybe just quiet for New York City. My quiet barometers are probably not working terribly well, though.
I’m hesitant to call my reaction to the first ten or fifteen minutes of the indie drama “Fill the Void” (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2219514/) a panic attack, not because I’m concerned about the stigma that might come with a loaded phrase like that, but because I don’t think the symptoms fit and I don’t want to belittle the severity of people’s actual panic attacks when my experience was probably a lot milder by comparison. No heart palpitations, no inability to breathe, no paralysis of thought, no actual panic or fear.
Just wave after wave of nausea sliming my insides, coating my throat, making it spasm. Shakes. Dizziness. Surges of heat under my skin that vanish, leaving me shivery.
It wasn’t pleasant, I’ll say that.
But if it had been a full-fledged panic attack, I don’t know that after rushing out of the movie, locking myself in a bathroom stall, crashing down on the toilet, trying not to hunch over lest I make the nausea worse, I would have been able to scoop up my phone and send a coherent, properly-spelled text to my very worried date:
“I think it’s a combination of physical and mental. That movie has a lot of emotional triggers for me, I didn’t realize – marriage, religion, claustrophobic/repressive culture . . . all hit me really hard.”
I should point out that we didn’t even get to the major plot development listed in the film’s summary: “A devout 18-year-old Israeli is pressured to marry the husband of her late sister” — my reaction was triggered solely from the film’s highly effective handful of setup scenes before the major crisis is even introduced.
I want to clarify that (a) every one of these scenes is brilliantly conceived and executed, and (b) they constitute my own personal horror show. I’m aware that the rest of the movie was probably a very good negation of the awfulness of these opening scenes, but we didn’t get that far. I should also clarify that I am not Hasidic, although my paternal grandfather was and some of my cousins are, and some of them are Yeshivish, which is also a very insular community with some fairly extreme marriage practices.
Sample scene: Young Hasidic girl in the supermarket with her mother. They’re both pretending to shop but really trying to get a look at the guy the girl has been betrothed to but never met. They can’t seem to find him, so they call someone, and are immediately told, “He’s in aisle 5.” (Or, “he’s in the produce section” – I don’t remember exactly.) They find him soon after and gawk from a distance. He looks singularly unimpressive: not particularly well-groomed or dressed, uninspired posture. Basically more or less like every other Hasidic male in the movie thus far. The girl does not seem bothered.
Two triggers in this scene: (1) The idea of marrying a total stranger, and (2) the fact that it’s not just one person presenting this as the norm but rather an entire network of people in this girl’s life (as evidenced by the phone call). I find these two things deeply, deeply horrific — tethering your entire life to someone you don’t know, and being told on all sides that this is the only option, and this is simply how it’s done, and having been kept naïve and sheltered enough not to question it.
I would love to say that this is foreign to me and I can’t imagine it ever happening to me or anyone else, but that would be a lie, for reasons brought out further in the next scene I’ll discuss, and because I know that dating before getting engaged in the circles I live in goes at a brisk pace. My Yeshivish cousins date for 2 or 3 weeks, generally, before the engagement. In my own, non-Yeshivish circles, 3 to 6 months is often fairly standard. Ten months to a year is an eternity, and very rare, unless the relationship began as high school sweethearts, in which case waiting longer was legally mandatory. Is 3 months enough time to get to know someone? Maybe. Maybe not. Everyone’s in such a rush to pair up for life that even I can’t help but feel the marriage pressure from the second I start dating someone new. I feel it much less when I’m not seeing anyone, and that’s an enormous incentive for me to never date. I’d much rather be single forever than get too involved with the wrong person just because of outside pressure. But obviously playing it safe because of pressure is just another way of letting yourself be pressured.
Sample scene: It’s the holiday of Purim, and at the Purim feast, the Rabbi is doling out charity money to those who ask. One man asks for money because, “My wife is mentally ill. I didn’t know that when I married her.” The rabbi gives him money, and when he protests that it’s not enough, he’s told whom to go to for more.
Triggers: (1) example of results of marrying a total stranger, (2) I have a Hasidic cousin who married a girl, had a child with her, and only then found out she was mentally ill because she stopped taking her medication. Her family had kept her condition under wraps, knowing full well that they were duping her husband. As far as I know, the custody battle is still going on, but nobody talks about it because it’s all so very scandalous and shameful and would force people to confront realities in their community that they don’t want to confront. (3) It’s all well and good that the man in the movie is receiving charity from the community to help him with this awful situation, but that’s a band-aid, and nothing is ever going to be said about the underlying cause: DON’T MARRY STRANGERS.
Sample scene: The girl’s pregnant sister talks briefly with her husband. Purim is the holiday of getting publicly wasted, and the sister immediately knows that her husband is drunk because he starts saying affectionate things to her. If he were sober, he’d never say a thing like, “I love you.” She says with a smile, “You’re drunk,” somehow manages convey an eye-roll without actually rolling her eyes, and walks away.
Trigger: THAT WHOLE THING. I have recently developed a personal, visceral fear of settling for a relationship where my partner is incapable of paying me a compliment. There are some people who, well, getting a compliment from them is like wrenching it out with pliers. I may have dated someone like that. I have also dated someone who is the exact opposite and I can’t imagine going back from that. But I have this way of listening to those voices in my head that say, “Come on, you can’t expect everyone to be so open about their thoughts and so willing to say nice things. People just aren’t conditioned that way. Especially men, sad as that is.” Just because they don’t say it doesn’t mean they don’t think it — if I got them drunk, maybe all that nice stuff would come pouring out. But maybe not. And I would hate to have a relationship like that.
I understand that when you’re a small minority group, you need to have an emphasis on marriage and children or else you’ll die off. But there has to be a better way.
I could easily have been born into that community. A little to the right on my family tree, and poof!
I wouldn’t have lasted. While I was watching, I felt like I was seeing a life that could have been mine, and I don’t think I would have survived it. I was the kind of kid who pitched a fit when my mom wanted all us kids to wear cute matching outfits. I can’t stand sameness. I can’t stand restrictions on my individuality. It makes me want to tear my skin off. I feel very sure that if I were indeed a part of that type of community, I would not have lived to be as old as I am now. I feel very sure that I’d have done something drastic to get out of it.
Ten minutes of that movie. Jeez.