I took part in #metoo, a campaign on facebook to speak out if you’d ever been sexually harassed, abused, or assaulted. I searched around in the photos of my drawings and paintings for an appropriate self-portrait that spoke to my troublesome and strange history.
I made this collage in 2016. It’s made from handmade paper and paper torn from my journals. I’d been in a writing workshop on remembering and re-framing the stories of our families, or our history. I tried to speak, in a round-about way, to the abuse in my family, and the struggles of dealing with a body that doesn’t work properly — the many ways I’m broken but still held together by words and images and the support of friends. How I can be a content person, but still hold onto painful knowledge. How I can be melancholy but playful.
One of the many side effects of growing up in a family where there was sexual abuse is silence. You don’t tell. You don’t know how to tell. And no one wants to hear it, much less believe it. When you break free from the constraints of that family, you still keep quiet about it. When other’s are sharing their family stories, telling of adventure and love, of misunderstanding and reconciliation, you keep quiet. If you tell, a silence will settle over the room, shock, sometimes deep sympathy, but the whole mood of the conversation changes and it feels like you’ve sucked all the happiness out of the room.
(I notice I slipped into a passive voice for this last paragraph. I think maybe I should change it to collective voice “we,” but really I can only speak for myself.)
I’ve learned to speak for myself by writing fiction and drawing pictures. My art practices aren’t directly about sexual abuse because I don’t want to dwell in it. If I dwell in it, I don’t dwell in the rest of this rich and robust world. I’m grateful I’m not naive. I’m grateful I can recognize, sometimes, the behaviors of a child who is battling what I went through. I tell stories. I make narrative art. I try to honor the courage it takes to survive and not let others steal your happiness. I encourage others to do so
But I don’t always know what I’m doing.
When I made that collage, at first I liked it a lot. But as it stared out of my wall, I began to think I got it all wrong. It was naive and cluttered and too personal. What was I thinking? I tried adding a new layer to it, but only made it worse. I moved it under the bed thinking I’d reuse the canvas one day.
But when I moved to Memphis last spring, I threw it away.
So I was surprised to find that I thought it was a good image for #metoo, and others identified with it. I remember now that when I first posted it on facebook last year, when I still liked it, it got a better response than I expected. It speaks to others. It tells a tale that needed telling, even if it’s interpreted by others in different ways than I intended.
I only have a small digital image of it now, but it’s enough to make card sized prints of it.
I’m going to put a postcard of it on the wall of my studio to remind me not to toss things out. I judge my work harshly and hate all of it at first. That’s why I like working in a journal. I can hide what I’m doing from myself. It’s a kind of bi-polar process, create, show it to everyone, then look back in horror.
I have coined a term for the period of time when I hate my work — post-artum depression.
I try to give myself at least a month before I trash something. But it isn’t always a safe guard. And I get existential and feel that nothing really matters anyway, it’s all just clutter. Is this a side-effect of toxic family or depression or just something unique to me?
But when I look around me, when I look through my art files, when I see the long trail of stories in many forms I’m leaving behind me, I feel good that I’ve mostly overcome the silence and shame imposed on me as a child. It will always be a struggle to speak, but I will. I can. I do.
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