(Trigger Warning for discussion of rape … but it’s largely about healing.)
I first stumbled upon Project Unbreakable this past spring, and I was immediately stricken by its rawness and beauty and capacity to make a profound difference in people’s lives.
If you’re not already familiar with the initiative, it’s an art project focused on healing from sexual abuse, in which survivors are photographed (by Grace Brown, the project’s founder) holding posters that expose a quote from their attacker as a means of reclaiming the power of the words that were once used against them.
Around the same time that I first watched this video, I was on the Take Back the Night planning committee for my university’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month. It was the first time I had done any advocacy for this particular cause, and I hadn’t yet come out publicly as a survivor of sexual assault.
And the more that I thought about that, the more I started to suspect that I was being a bit of a hypocrite, working on an event that was meant to encourage survivors to “shatter the silence,” when I hadn’t even shattered my own.
So on April 18th, the three year anniversary of the day I lost my virginity to my attacker, I published a poem I’d written a year and a half prior (in the immediate aftermath of the abuse), hoping that — while I felt thoroughly embarrassed and ashamed and knew not what to expect in response to such a disclosure — my candor would make a difference somehow, to someone, somewhere.
And then an interesting thing happened. I found that releasing that haunting secret felt like coming up to the surface finally for a gulp of fresh air. I wanted more of what I’d just felt.
It’s as if I was literally dying for it.
So I decided to make my own amateur submission to Project Unbreakable, in further preparation for the week of events planned for Take Back the Night, and I made that public as well. If you’ve read my survivor story, you’re probably already familiar with this image, but here is what it looked like:
The quote came from a written message I had received from my attacker, in response to a cry for help that I had made to him when I was first struggling to make sense of what he’d done to me.
And then Take Back the Night happened. The rally happened. The speak-out happened. And the waves of relief that crashed over me, every time I spoke out, were so overwhelming that I literally could not stop.
Four months later, I started this blog. I shared my story about the years of abuse I had suffered. And the response that I received was so extraordinary, I’m still speechless.
And I’m realizing how much more manageable this burden is to bear, now that I have so much support around me — and so few secrets bottled up inside me.
So I decided to make an appointment with Grace Brown when she came through Chicago this September on her tour. I figured I’d finally replace my unprofessional submission with a proper one, using the same quote and everything, because I knew it would be powerful, and I hadn’t seen any quote quite like it come out of the project yet.
But then I realized something. On my way to the location where I was to meet Grace, it occurred to me that I had already reclaimed the power of those words. I had released them. They no longer haunted me the way that they used to. Whereas before, when I recalled that venomous declaration of his, I felt only shame and inadequacy … now, I felt nothing but satisfaction. Satisfaction that I had come so far in my understanding of sexual assault that I could look at that image of myself with those words and think: He was so mistaken. These words have no power left over me.
I began to panic a little bit. I was mere minutes away from meeting Grace, and suddenly I didn’t know what to write. I closed my eyes and tried to really get in touch with my pain. I recalled the suggestion that Grace made in an e-mail attachment she sent out to the survivors she had scheduled to photograph. She said: Think of what you want to let go of the most.
The deeper I delved into my thoughts, the clearer it became to me. There was something buried deep down that I still needed to dig up and get out. Words that stripped me of my very basic right to say NO. Even more so than his actions did, because he could only restrain me for so long by force. His words continued resonating for long after.
Even after all the progress I had made in recovery over the past year, he was still controlling my behavior, my mind. The words were there with me — whenever I was alone with a man, I was never really alone. These words continued to echo around the room, paralyzing me, choking me as if they were his hands around my throat.
Why is it that I still find it so hard to say NO when I mean NO?, I wondered. Why is it that the thought of saying NO makes me feel so ashamed? So inadequate? So small and unwanted? So disappointing and unworthy of another person’s time?
I remember him trapping me with his body. I remember him not heeding my shouts or my palms against his chest. I remember him leaving me laying there, such hostility in his face as he yelled into mine.
All I said was “Stop!”
This is what he said.
Thank you, Grace, for giving me yet another opportunity to liberate myself. I have a long way to go, but I’ve also come so far. And it’s projects like yours that allow people like me to keep going.
(If you can, do browse through the other photos from the project HERE. Biggest trigger warning ever, though. These images are intense. And if you think you might want to participate in the project yourself, you can find more information about how to do that HERE.)