“There’s something you need to know about me . . . I am dead,” said Fraidy Reiss, a survivor of an abusive forced marriage, as she stood alone on a stage, speaking to a crowd. “I know what you’re thinking, [I don’t] look particularly dead . . . you might want to tell that to my family [because] they declared me dead almost thirteen years ago.”
Reiss, who founded the organization Unchained at Last to help forced marriage victims like herself, grew up in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn. Right after finishing high school, Reiss was asked to choose a husband from a small pool of suitors. Reiss described her then-self as a “clueless teenage virgin who had never before been allowed to talk to a boy.” She recalled her family “tapping their feet” waiting for her to choose a husband after giving her “a matter of hours over a period of weeks” to make the life-changing decision.
Reiss recalled feeling afraid that, by the age of twenty, she would be the only one of her friends “damned to a lifetime of singlehood in a community where being single is considered very shameful.” Only a week after walking down the aisle to what she called her “execution,” Reiss cowered in fear as her husband punched his fist through a wall in a “blind rage.” He threatened to kill her a few days later. She was forbidden from using birth control and forced to have intercourse with him, resulting in the birth of her first child eleven months after their wedding. She had limited financial and legal rights and remained trapped in the marriage for twelve years. After finally escaping with her two children, Reiss was shunned by her family.
Although Reiss expressed that she was “born and bred” in Brooklyn, she experienced abuse that “people assume doesn’t happen in America.” Indeed, widespread perceptions that forced marriage does not occur in the United States are seriously misguided and likely a result of researchers, policymakers, and the media ignoring the issue. In 2011, the Tahirih Justice Center (Tahirih) produced the only national prevalence statistics on forced marriage to date and identified as many as 3,000 cases of forced marriage. Notably, two out of three respondents to the study felt there were cases of forced marriage that were not being identified.” While the Tahirih survey focused on immigrant communities, forced marriage is not an abuse experienced exclusively by immigrants. In addition to ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities, forced marriage escape stories have come out of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) and other U.S. religious organizations.