The Stories so far
Us project has now collected the portraits and stories from 30 New Zealanders and Australians who have shown considerable strength in their resolve to break the society induced mold of silence and shame. So far it has been a bit of a ride for me, and in collecting these stories I have become quite thankful that I now have a much deeper understanding of so many different aspects of the spectrum of sexual violation, how it affects people’s sense of self worth, their mental health and their relationships with others. How our justice and mental health systems help and hurt survivors. Another surprising aspect has been the depth of understanding I have attained around offenders, who they are as human beings and what they need in terms of help.
Progressing through this project has been somewhat emotionally traumatic for me as well, although I have been lucky enough to have considerable healing around my childhood abuse, in every story I have collected I have seen a small part of myself. Its like if you do a jigsaw puzzle that you think you have completed, every piece fits, but then you find another, and another, and suddenly you realise the puzzle is actually twice the size you originally thought. I realise that because my abuse started so early, it truly shaped who I am as a person in every way, from my view of my self to how I have set myself up as a fiercely independent person who can be quite difficult to support or even connect with at times, because I have made sure that the only person I have to rely on is myself. Also my reluctance at becoming a parent myself, and now the fierce love and protection for my beautiful son, based on fear that someone will touch him, or he will grow up in a “boys will be boys” world and feel that he has a right to abuse his position for the validation of his peers.
I will share a little bit about what has come up so far within the stories i have collected and some of the insights gained by actioning this project. Abuse of any kind always creates an emotional prison for the victim. Theres little release when you feel you have to keep secrets or trauma all to yourself. You cannot sexually abuse someone with the belief it will not affect their life. This goes for children right through to girls who have been date raped ( also have a slight problem with the term date rape, the very instance of the word date totally negates from the word rape, and give it a connotation that perhaps its a lesser form of rape ). Survivors deal with a myriad of issues ranging from anxiety, depression and PTSD, to not being able to have healthy relationships with partners, family and even friends. Children of abuse grow with very warped ideas of sex within society, and a very skewed idea of who they are and what they are worth.
One of the biggest issues is the value of being heard. So many stories ask questions like “ why didn't anyone hear me?”. Questions raised about parents who didn't take action, “ why didn't you fight for me ?”. Questions about schools and places designed for children, when a female administrator saw a young child repeatedly taken into a locked room, why did she continue typing at her desk without raising a single question? When teachers suddenly saw a change in a student, why did they say this child needs to buckle down and apply themselves, actioning punishment against the child instead of asking “ how are things going at home? is there anything you want to talk about?” When people open up to their friends and loved ones, why did they lose that friend that they needed support from so badly.
I find it very hard to stomach that people in society avoid hearing these issues just because it makes them feel a little uncomfortable. A little bit of discomfort on your part could seriously save the life of another. In many recorded stories there are references to suicide. Its very hard to deal with your pain if no one is available to hear you, it reinforces the idea that what you went through means you are now of no value. I recently learnt that another victim of my abuser attempted to take her life, which was the motivating factor for him leaving the country when I was 14. We need to make these voices important, and only in validating these people can we start repairing this huge tear in the fabric of society.
A few questions have been raised lately around what are the offenders rights within this project? Is this going to be a huge unsolicited attack on families and warrant the undue suspicion of innocent people by using the words uncle, aunt or cousin? Recently someone brought up in a public forum that they were scared the project would be a feminist leaning “all men are rapists” battle cry, leaving the viewer to a fun game of who done it. I think its important to consider the actual objectives of the project, and what the concentration of the stories is all about. My personal interest is not actually about the offender at all, to me identifying the offender in any way is the same old sensationalising we have grown accustomed to. Once you start to listen to these stories, naming and shaming of offenders hasn't always bought any healing at all, its a far more intricate web of self discovery, that a court case cant always deliver.
The focus of the stories is the validation of the person offended against. Who are they? Business people, directors, performer, parents, lovers, people passionate about standing up for what they believe in, fighting for a better world for their children, wanting to share their story to help others who find themselves in the same trap. The stories are beautiful accounts of love and freedom against the odds, of finding lights in the dark , and providing that for others. It has been incredibly moving the acts of love performed by these people, putting their own pain aside to create a loving safe community for those who need it the most. The stories in the project are not about wielding pitchforks and exacting revenge, they are overwhelming stories of love, forgiveness and freedom.
In the question about wether or not the offender will be exposed enough to be charged with in a story the answer is different for every singe account. Some have already gone through the court system and succeeded. Others have done so and failed. Its incredibly hard for any retrospective abuse cases to actually find the offender guilty as DNA evidence of the attack soften seen as the only true “evidence”. Even then there are difficulties, in one story, when the DNA evidence was present in a case between two adults it was still thrown out because of the question of wether or not it was consensual. Its is very very hard to convict any sex offender in this country, unless there are multiple victims, and even then its not guaranteed a conviction can be achieved.
Some participants have successfully charged their offender, some have not been successful. Some have forgiven their offender. Some of the offenders have died. Some have had multiple offenders. Some believe that they have suffered for such a long time while the offender has a seemingly trouble free life and they don't mind if they have to wear some of the burden. Some have excluded anything from the story that would incriminate the offender. Some have done so for the protection of their families, others because they have already been through enough. Some are men abused by men, some are women abused by women. Some are me n abused by women. Some by strangers, some by their spouses. Some have been abused by children only a few years older than themselves.
The truth of the matter is not “ all men are rapists” it is that the spectrum of sexual abuse is so wide and varied it is legitimately mind blowing. The mindset that all men are rapists only helps the rape culture we live in to become stronger, it doesn't help the situation at all and its not what the project is about. Men hold a very valuable place within the project, both in sharing their stories and all the accounts of men being the very instigator of true healing in the lives of those abused.
To understand this project is to understand the fact the these are stories from real people, with beautiful open hearts and minds. These people don't want revenge, they want their voices heard. They have hurt so much and understand pain like others cant even imagine, and this understanding is the reason they don't wish pain for others. No one is wielding any swords. The project is a flower placed in the barrel of a gun.