Anti-Abuse Activist Joey Diangello Dies of Overdose, But His Legacy Lives On

By Hody Nemes (Jewish Daily Forward)
October 23, 2014

As a teenager, Joey Diangello, a self-described survivor of child sex abuse, left the insular Satmar Hasidic community of Williamsburg, in Brooklyn, where he’d grown up and plunged into the world of heavy metal music.

There, Diangello, who wore mascara and heavy metal T-shirts and sported long, black hair, found some measure of comfort in the music of such bands as Metallica.

But in death, Diangello, a co-founder of the group Survivors for Justice, which seeks to expose child sexual abuse in the Orthodox community — where it is often repressed — returned to the ultra-Orthodox enclave of Monsey, New York. On October 19, he was buried in a cemetery there under the birth name he abandoned long ago: Yoel Deutsch.

Diangello, who was 34, died of a drug overdose, according to PIX11, a local New York television news outlet. But friends remained uncertain of whether the death was a suicide.

“As of late he had been clean. He was running a marathon, he was really getting his life together, which is why it’s especially frustrating,” said Mark Weiss, a fellow member of Survivors for Justice.

Diangello battled mental health issues, which at times landed him in the hospital, according to PIX11. “He’s always struggled with his demons,” said Yitzchok Eisenman, a Passaic, New Jersey Orthodox rabbi who knew Diangello. “He was in a lot of pain.”

Eisenman said he received an email just before Rosh Hashanah from Diangello, which included the line, “May this upcoming year be a suicide death free year is all I ask” — a line that Eisenman said now sends “shivers up my spine.”

Shay Maor, a friend of Diangello’s and a survivor of sexual abuse, said Diangello disappeared from social media two weeks before his death, and began distributing presents shortly before he died — which she now views as a sign that he was preparing to take his own life.

Julie Bolcer, a representative of the New York City medical examiner’s office, told the Forward that the cause and manner of Diangello’s death are still “pending.” Bolcer would not indicate whether Diangello had received an autopsy, a practice that goes against Orthodox Jewish law. New York State law mandates authorities to respect the wishes of those who object to autopsies of immediate family members for religious reasons absent a “compelling” public need.

Due to a last-minute change in the time of the funeral, many of Diangello’s friends showed up late to the burial. So they held a second, impromptu funeral after the family had concluded their own. The double funeral brought to a close the two identities Diangello had kept separate in life: one as a Satmar Hasidic boy, the other as a free-spirited heavy metal devotee who advocated for Jewish sex abuse victims.

When he was 7 years old, Diangello entered a mikveh, a ritual bathhouse, on Marcy Avenue in Brooklyn. Allegedly, while he was in the water, a man whose face he never saw raped him. “I think when that person raped me, he murdered my Jewish soul,” Diangello told PIX11 in 2009.

Diangello stopped going to the mikveh, though he kept the alleged rape a secret. At age 17 he broke with his family and left the Satmar community.

By 2009, Diangello was ready to revisit his old life. When he helped found Survivors for Justice, he spoke out publicly about his own trauma.

He also demonstrated and lobbied in favor of the “Markey Bill,” state legislation aimed at expanding the statute of limitations for victims to sue individuals and institutions responsible for child sexual abuse in New York State. Currently, the state maintains particularly short time limits, though children who are abused often do not understand and confront their abuse until well into adulthood. The bill, which has passed the state assembly several times, would also offer a one-time window for victims of older crimes to pursue their cases. It has repeatedly failed to pass the State Senate.

Diangello often made a point of attending the trials of those accused of sexual abuse in the Orthodox community, including the 2013 trial of Nechemya Weberman, a counselor who was convicted of abusing a 12-year-old girl.

Lonnie Soury, another founder of Survivors for Justice, called Diangello “a courageous, courageous young man” for his work fighting sexual abuse.

“His ability to convey not only his pain but the pain of so many other young men and women was really profound,” said Soury, who helped Diangello go public with his story of abuse. “I started crying while I was listening to him [being interviewed]. That’s how powerful his story was and how emotional.”

Friends said that Diangello would not have wanted to be buried in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish cemetery in Monsey under his old name.

One friend, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of respect for his friend’s memory, expressed surprise that Diangello’s body was returned to his family. “He confided to me years ago that he did something legally,” the friend said, “or went through some kind of a process, so that his family wouldn’t have access to his body after death.”

Some were outraged by his Monsey burial. Sara Rosenberg, a close friend, posted on Facebook: “He is NOT in the right place. The plot marker makes me nauseous.”

Many were also confused by the start time of the funeral, which began an hour earlier than what had been announced. Weiss saw the unexpected change as an attempt to limit attendance to family and members of the Hasidic community. “I’m sure the family just didn’t want to have to deal with any of us,” he said.

Diangello’s parents declined to comment for this story; his mother told the Forward she was “too pained to talk about it.”

Those who knew Diangello said he was a deeply sensitive, caring man. According to his friend Maor, Diangello would help survivors obtain funds to pay for therapy, and he helped her to find a therapist. She said Diangello presented a tough demeanor — another friend compared him to imposing heavy metal star Nikki Sixx — but she described him “as the sweetest, kindest, most sensitive person” she had ever met.

“A lot of people have been writing about Joey as if his life were all about his pain and suffering,” Maor said. “Despite all his suffering, Joey was not a miserable person. He struggled between his misery and his happiness, but he definitely won out most of the time.”

In a 2009 interview with NPR, Diangello described his outlook by citing a song by his favorite heavy metal band. In Metallica’s “Broken, Beaten & Scarred,” he noted, “one of the verses is: ‘They scratched me, they scraped me, they cut and raped me.’ And that’s my life right there. When I listen to it, it gives me strength.”