The Us Project: What was it really like?
It's a question that I keep getting asked, what was it actually like? You know...... personally?
To have to listen to all of those stories, to put what you have been through aside and be there for others.
It must have been hard. It must have been triggering.
Every time I am asked I do what I normally do, what I think anyone who lives with assault, abuse or the complications/symptoms of abuse do, I put on a brave face. I pretend I’m actually awesomely strong, say “Yes, its was hard, harder than I thought”, but actually what I should have said was absolutely shattering. It reduced me to rubble financially, emotionally and mentally. Sounds bloody dramatic doesn’t it, but that's the truth.
I went from a molested child, to a gaslit teenager who had gotten herself into a relationship way too young with an emotionally manipulative boy. In a way, he had only extended my childhood abuse a little longer, and a little stronger, as I had chosen to be with him.
When I say emotionally abusive, this guy would threaten to kill himself if I broke up with him, holding the knife to his wrist as he screamed at me about whatI was doing to him. Looking back now I think, how dare he, how dare anyone, ever, do that to a 14 year old girl. No one ever makes you do anything, everyone's choices are entirely their own, and no one has any right to ever suggest that violence or potential suicide are anyone elses fault. Ever. There is no such thing as “Look what you make me do.” Period.
Anyway, I digress, but I guess I wanted to give you some background insight into my history. Pretty much fiddled with by a disgusting old man from as early as I can remember, and then jumping into a relationship with prince fucking charming straight afterwards.
So at this point I ran away. As far as I thought I could. I found a Uni that would take me early on the strength of my photography portfolio and I ran away. I was protecting myself. Those were turbulent times as could only be expected from a 16 year old trying to take care of themselves in a big city on their own. One thing was for sure, I had drawn a line in the sand of my life and there was to be no form of physical, emotional or sexual abuse in my life ever again.
My ex came to visit me, after being told a thousand times no and physically assaulted me. I placed a restraining order on him. A date once got a little too touchy before I was ready and I bit him, drawing blood. I would elbow those annoying dance floor guys that grind up against you uninvited in the guts as hard as I could. I gave a concussion to a guy who tried to grab me on the street and a black eye to a boyfriend I caught cheating.
You see, I have always thought I was “different” in some way to others who had been assaulted or abused. Stronger, with more fight in me. In reality, I was just young, and angry, with no respect for men whatsoever. I was just really, really good at covering my emotions with anger.
All this time I had gone along happily thinking that I had some sort of “magic formula” for dealing with abuse. I had never had a problem discussing what had happened to me, or lending an ear to anyone else. I always gave support to others and always stood up for those I saw as being taken advantage of. I had never had counselling, I never felt I needed it. I had never suffered PTSD or any other mental health problems associated with sexual abuse. So as far as I was concerned, I was absolutely fine.
Later in life, when I was having some kind of existential crisis about my photographic work not meaning anything in the world, I came up with the idea that this project was something I could truly offer. Because I have a great way of making my subject feel comfortable and trust me, because I try to actively practise not judging people, instead always trying to relate and understand as much as I can. And most importantly, because I had the magic formula for handling this sexual abuse shit.
In the beginning I started off strong. I finally got my video right, put it out there and was getting a great response. I had a lot of people contacting me and telling me their story. The problem was, however, they weren’t interested in being part of the project, they were just relieved someone out there was willing to listen. The stories kept coming, and I took on this, somewhat uninvited, role of appointed counsellor to the abused. I became the keeper of secrets for people within my community, and people I didn’t even know.
It became hard to keep track of who was in and who wasn’t. Sometimes conversations were going great and then would just come to a complete stop leaving me wondering whether or not I had said the wrong thing. I was trying to keep up with 50 conversations at the same time. One young girl told me she wouldn’t be taking part because I had not managed to reply to her within an acceptable amount of time and she felt I wasn’t professional enough to conduct a project such as this. I hadn’t even started and I was already failing people.
On the whole though, the public response was positive. My family had reacted positively, which was a relief. My Mother and Father were proud. It was all going ok. I had opened a conversation about abuse which almost made it mandatory to reveal the identity of my childhood paedophile to my family and friends. I started to learn things I never knew about him.
Its funny when these things are happening to you, you have this assumption that you are the only one this is happening to. It's your cross to bear. There's no point fighting it. But slowly I learnt that I was never the only one, this man had systematically abused members of my family across generations, as well as any other children that were unlucky enough to have come into contact with him. There were family members that were grieving that they never knew it was happening to me, and if they had just spoken up, they could have saved me.
When I was 12 he up and moved to Australia very abruptly. I found out this was actually because one of his other victims, a young girl, had tried to commit suicide. When her attempt failed and she revealed the reason for her attempt, her father threatened him and he was gone within weeks. I never knew there were others. I always thought it was just me. If I had known there was others I could have fought for them. I began grieving the fact that if I had just spoken up I could have saved them.
In the meantime, collecting the stories was going well. I was meeting some fucking amazing people, and I was proud of my ability to do this for them. It wasn’t my project or even about me at all anymore. It was their project. It was about them. I was merely a vehicle. However, every single story I listened to, I identified with some part of what they were saying. I would think, “holy shit. I do that. I had no idea that was linked to my abuse” what I thought was a complete puzzle suddenly had handfuls of extra pieces that didn’t fit. I was realising the picture I had of myself was far from complete, and it was starting to unravel.
I started to learn about suppressed memory. Little children do this. They don’t like to think about things that make them scared, so they blocked them out. Hannah W spoke about the first instance of abuse she had when she was quite small, there was a rock digging into her back and she concentrated on the rock. Now, looking back, she remembers the rock and not the abuse. She knows it happened, but the details are locked in a vault never to be revealed again.
Another participant spoke of completely suppressing the rape to the point that she later on entered into a relationship with her rapist. This had devastating results in later years on her mental health, when all of a sudden it came rushing back one night in a dream. She woke up screaming, he raped me. He raped me.
I learnt I have repressed memories. I remember the smell of the cowshed, that ticking sound the electric fence makes. The dogs name was mark. Little things a little person finds a lot less scary than an old man with his hands down your pants.
I don’t have any actually memory of the things he did. Not in my conscious memory, but my god, my body remembers. Any wrong touch, any moment when my poor extra tall husband looms over me, any time he tries to kiss me, my whole body is overcome by the feeling of absolute repulsion. I can't control it. Repulsion laced with pure fear. It's a pretty strong mix. It echoes all the way back through my past to my very earliest memories. It's not fair. It’s not fair to him, but also especially unfair to me. I should be wired to enjoy these things, not wired to want to vomit. Other things, like how I still try to destroy myself with behaviours that harm me. I had never registered were related to the abuse.
I never shed a single tear on any of the interviews, I held my professionalism every time. In those moments it wasn’t about me, it was about them. It was their moment to make what they went through heard and validated. But afterwards, when I was transcribing the stories for the book, I wept for every single one of them. What they had been through, what they continued to go through. How no one has helped them or heard them, how they have always felt alone. How they put themselves aside to still love others unconditionally. How they tried to fight for justice and failed.
I cried for them and I cried because I realised for the first time that I was every single one of them. I didn’t have the magic formula. I was fucking kidding myself.
The turning point for me was when the stories I was recording took me back to the city I ran away to all those years ago. I saw an old fiend that had symbolised that turbulent time for me, but who I had always cared about very much. Hearing what she had been through since we parted was shocking, but while I was there I maintained that mindset that my personal feelings were to be put aside, I was there to listen to her.
Afterwards, when I stepped off the bus back at my airbnb and was finally alone, I had my first ever panic attack. It was the first of many. I started waking up at 4am every single day, going outside and standing in the dark and panicking. I started smoking again, I had given up for 10 years. I went outside every morning and stood in the dark and smoked and smoked and panicked and panicked until I couldn’t breathe. My chest tight like a hand squeezing the fuck out of my heart. I was starting to break.
But I had to keep pushing forward. The exhibition was booked and people were counting on me. This wasn’t my project anymore. I was merely the vehicle. There was some stupid guy publicly opposing the exhibition and the director of the Art Museum had been told she wasn’t allowed to participate in the project anymore because of this dumb small minded protest. I felt bad for her, like I had failed her. The panicking got worse.
As we were going to print, some of the collected stories had to be pulled. Some of the people who some of the stories were about were too violent and there were safety concerns for my participants. Others, were told if they went ahead their families would disown them. I grieved for all of them who were blocked from the freedom of sharing. The feeling of failing them was getting stronger and stronger.
I was threatened with big, fucking serious lawsuits. I had a lawyer trawl through the book with me to make sure 100% that not a single predator was identifiable. The process was so incredibly defeating. I grieved for every person that was not allowed the freedom to tell their story as it truly was.
I had to make a lot of decisions on behalf of a lot of people. Could this person's story land me with a defamation suit or just contempt of court? Defamation was too much, I don’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars to fork out. Contempt of court was ok. Maybe a couple of hundred hours community service. If it came to that I would do it and post that shit to social media every day to highlight the injustices of the court system, I decided.
It was at this point I think I realised just how massive this project actually was. This was no walk in the park. This was HARD.
I was getting a lot of media attention. I had been telling my story over and over and over. It got to the stage where every time the phone rang I was gripped by fear. I talked to at least 30 reporters and ignored about 20 more. I couldn’t even answer them. I was hiding under my blanket. The panicking was getting worse. To all those reporters that didn’t hear back from me, I’m so sorry. I should have been brave enough to get the message out through every channel possible, but I wasn’t. I was failing people and it sucked the big one.
At this point I feel that I should point out that what I saw as failures others saw as strengths. It was my internal dialogue that had been written from the abuse I endured. About not being good enough, about not achieving enough, about not being perfect enough. Small things that were happening felt like huge tsunamis of guilt inside me. However no matter how many times I was told I was actually achieving, not failing, the guilt over these little things was growing exponentially inside me.
I never spoke at the opening of the exhibition. The reason being I was absolutely exhausted. I was feeling so bad over every single little thing that had gone wrong instead of concentrating on all of the things that had gone right. I was wracked with guilt over a few small mistakes that had been made in the book and I posted the wrong version of someones story online.
I began to feel like everything I was doing was wrong. It has been hard to live my life blissfully unaware of all my own suppressed emotions and memories, and then have them suddenly all rush to the surface with such force. It's hard to suddenly have problems with PTSD and anxiety and panic attacks that were never there before. It's hard to suddenly have such deep sadness and grief triggered by everyday things you encounter. These are problems that every single person who took part in the project deals with on a daily basis and now they are what I deal with too.
The biggest blow came last year. At the time I did what I always do and suppressed the shit out of it and hid my head in the sand. Earlier in the year I approached a professional touring company about the exhibition and had a wonderfully positive response. I was praising the universe that this tour would be funded as I had completely drained all of my resources and finances getting the exhibition to this point.
It had felt like just too much work to only show it once. People were asking for it to come to their area all around the country and even though I didn’t want to let anyone down I also couldn’t afford to tour the show myself. A proposal was made and was presented to all of the art museums around New Zealand.
The first contact I had from the company was to tell me that the Hamilton Art Museum had had an emergency meeting about the exhibition, only to turn it down. Strange, he said, as most board members don’t like having to come to meetings more than they have to, so to do that and turn it down was something he had never encountered before. But he was sure that the show would still be booked, he had been in the business 20 years and had never been wrong about these things.
Then a couple of months later came another call that was pretty devastating. Every single art museum in New Zealand had turned it down. He was a little distraught. He had not been this wrong before. Was it him, or are all these people complete cowards? Not only that, he couldn’t get a single gallery to tell him why it had been turned down. Radio silence.
He was stunned. I was sad. I had told a lot of people this was happening and now it wasn’t. I felt like a complete idiot.
So that was 6 months ago. I have really needed this time to heal. It has been a super duper hardcore bloody crazy ride. I have never had such a paradox in my life where I have been told a hundred thousand times what an inspirational achievement I have made while feeling like a complete failure.
It has hurt me so bad to do this project. I am wounded.
But, you know what? It has been worth it. When someone messages me and says I have a better relationship now with my friend/lover/parent because of your project it is worth it. When I see some of these beautiful people feel proud of themselves and feel honoured and validated it is worth it. When someone says to me “I feel less alone now” its is worth it. And I would do it all again in a heartbeat.
This project is bigger than me and my feelings and that makes it worth it.
Now that I have had time to go through what I needed to go through its time to pick up my feet and try again. I have people out there, who I greatly admire, who support me 100% and it inspires me to keep going. The hard work is done now, I'm not sure there's anything that can be thrown at me that I haven’t dealt with already.
It has been over a year since #metoo and I really don’t see any greater understanding of sexual assault. There won't be, until the people of the world put on there grown-up pants and start listening to the survivors. That's where this project holds great importance and needs to keep being shown.
There will be a way. There will be a funding or arts patron or someone or something out there that supports this message and will help me get this on the road. And if New Zealand isn’t grown up enough to handle an adult conversation about sexual assault I’ll crate it up and bring it to Australia and see if they can do any better.
As for my new life as a triggered woman. That's ok too. Every single trigger is an opportunity to know myself a little better, care for myself a little more, put attention to the areas of my life that need it the most. Yes triggers a fucking hard to deal with, but each time it happens and I analyse and apply the right love to the right area it becomes easier.
Yes I have triggers, and panic attacks and anxiety. I have all of these things AND I am beautiful, strong and valid, and I am ok. I am bruised but not broken. I feel failure but I am only failing if I give up. And fuck giving up when there’s still so much to be done.
Thank you to all of the people who are the heart and soul of this project. I wish you could also be told every day how many people you have helped. I wish you could see every tear that has been shed for you, and how much love is felt for you, and how many people have seen themselves in you. Please know that even though it was tough I don’t regret it for a second.