One day in March 2011, Fraidy Reiss went to her lawyer’s office to close on a house. The prosaic routine of paperwork somehow diminished her sense of accomplishment. Not even the seller was present to hear what she yearned to say.
She was only buying a small patch of lawn in a blue-collar neighbourhood. Yet she and her two daughters had already named the place “Palais de Triomphe,” palace of triumph. The house symbolized her liberation from an arranged marriage, threats of violence at the hands of her estranged husband, and indeed the entire insular community of stringently Orthodox Jews among whom she had spent her entire life.
In that moment of emancipation, Reiss also felt the sudden, unbidden summons of obligation.
“The house meant that I’ve gotten to the other side,” she recalled. “I wanted to do something to give back. I wanted to use my pain to help others in the same situation. And, selfishly, I thought that would help me heal.” Four years later, on a blustery morning early this month, Reiss, 40, stood in a classroom at Rutgers University in Newark telling her story to three dozen lawyers. She spoke with well-practiced pacing and emphasis – childhood in Brooklyn, coerced betrothal in her teens to a man she barely knew, and then the harassment and stalking and death threats, all of it documented in court papers. Finally, there was college and therapy and, after 15 years of marriage, divorce.
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