A young man began playing piano as I viewed the woodcut “American” by Shaqe Kalaj, we two the only people in the Art Lounge at the University of Michigan Union. We were far from lonely, though, surrounded by voices of poems and visual art at the exhibit “rEVOLUTION: making art for change”. This annual exhibit by the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center (SAPAC) both celebrates and reflects upon “survivorship”, a term used by rEVOLUTION artist Mary Ellen Croci in describing her work.
The young man played an emotional piece “Comptine d’un autre ete: L’apres midi”/ “The Piano: Life is a song” by Yann Tiersen that I recognized by way of the film Amelie, a romantic comedy with a protagonist whose unique view of the world strikes neighbors and coworkers as strange. Amelie navigates isolation with rich imagination, yet still longs for love and healing touch. I found this association poignant as I explored expressions of fellow survivors and allies, pain and promise entwining our stories, lives, and imaginations.
Large canvases conveyed hope amidst tragedy with thick brilliant colors in “Pranayama – Deep Breathing” and “Dandayama Janushirasana – Standing head to knee”, works from a series by Emily Kripitz. Wide brushstrokes of red, blending and bleeding, from Ellie Howe’s “Rape” brought to mind women’s wombs and menses as well as the tearing of sexual violation.
A favorite piece I viewed was the montage “What is your secret?”, inspired by the project PostSecret and arranged by SAPAC’s Networking, Publicity, and Activism Program. Messages hung on a wire background in dialogue with and contrast to one another, such as “I like spring because I like my bare legs” and “Sexual assault affects all”.
Lines of poetry also sparked the exhibit: “sometimes the only thing I can bear to touch/ is words” from “What is love” by Willow Fagan. “A trained advocate/ Couldn’t say a word./ She is my best friend,/ Asking, begging, pleading for anything,/ And I said nothing” from “She said, she said, she said” by Alaina Moreno-Koehler.
The young man stopped playing piano before I finished the visit, and in the absence of music a hallow echo rang in my ears. Reflecting on that silence now brings to mind the shame that survivors experience at the fault of others: perpetrators, accomplices who know of assault but take no action, and media professionals who cover assaults yet ignore awareness efforts.
Until late April, I watched my town’s mainstream newspaper The Lansing State Journal cover incidents of sexual violence without addressing current prevention efforts. (The first story I found during the month followed Take Back the Night held April 20.) This irony is rather common in the media, but more painful when it happens during Sexual Assault Awareness Month and after personally contacting LSJ journalists about SAAM-related events (multiple times since March) without one reply. In contrast the City Pulse, The Lookout, and The State News reported on S.A.A.M. for the public; applause to those publishers, editors, and reporters! (See the post “Grateful this April” for links to stories.)
Sexual assault is pervasive; consider recent events in mid-Michigan schools and streets, a decade of abuse by USA male coaches with female swimmers, the likely role of Pope Benedict in protecting pedophiles. The widespread and everyday reality of sexual assault merits media coverage not only about acts of violence but also awareness-raising and prevention efforts. The public deserves to know about services available to survivors, how to respond to violating behaviors, and what survivors have to say.
What survivors have to say matters! Closing with this thought, I am sharing a recent poem, which surfaced while thinking about a perspective I’ve encountered more than once: “Some survivors aren’t ready to tell their story.” In placing this comment I can’t recall a survivor ever saying it to me, which is telling. One survivor may deliver their story in a more caustic manner than another, but I propose it is not the survivor at issue but the listener who may be pushed beyond their comfort zone. If a survivor wants to speak they are ready on their own terms, not necessarily those of listeners. I find it important to distinguish whose readiness is in doubt.
some survivors are not ready to speak
who dare tells a survivor willing to speak
that she is not ready
the matter is not her words
soft or harsh
sanitized or inflamed
raw or stewed
the matter is who listens
when a survivor speaks
she is ready
to tell her story
the question is
who is ready to hear her
with open ears supple minds clear eyes
and souls warmed by compassion