Friday, March 11, 2011
An Interview with the cast of Secret Survivors
Every now and again, I get to publish something here at My Feet Only Walk Forward that means something. A few months ago, I got an email (or phone call, I can't remember which) out of the blue from the amazing and beautifully radical Amita Swadhin. Amita had recently been elected as board chair of the National Youth Advocacy Coalition, and she was recruiting new board members. The short version of the story is that I rejoined NYAC's board after a decade absence, and I have had the honor to work closely with her over the last few months,
In the process of working together, I came to learn that Amita is a survivor of child sexual abuse (CSA). Moreover, I came to understand that she has done amazing intentional work not only to deal with her particular history but also to share with the world what it means to be a survivor of CSA. Through workshops, panels, and theater, Amita is a fierce advocate, and storyteller, for survivors everywhere. Though I am not a survivor of CSA, I am a survivor of some fairly heinous childhood physical and mental abuse, and Amita has opened up space for me to speak more forcefully about being a survivor and to be more aware of the ways that being a survivor of childhood trauma manifests itself in my own daily work.
In January, Amita mentioned to me that she and a cast of other CSA survivors would be putting on a play called "Secret Survivors" at the theater in El Museo del Barrio. When the information for the show came out, I was surprised to find that I knew three of the five members of the cast. One of whom, Lucia Leandro Gimeno, is an old friend of mine. Di Sands, no less loved, was a new friend that I'd met recently through Kenyon Farrow. And though I have yet to meet the other two cast members: Gabby Callender and RJ Maccani, I have come to know them a little through this interview, and I can say with honesty that these are tremendous people that are intentional, radical, beautiful, and giving us all a gift by telling their stories so openly and fiercely.
Please note in the interview, I will be using the following initials: AS for Amita Swadhin, LL for Lucia Leandro Gimeno, DS for Di Sands, GC for Gabby Callender, and RJ for RJ Maccani.
Interview with the cast of Secret Survivors
1) How did you all find each other? What work did you have to do with each other, first, before you were able to begin working out how to tell your story to a broader audience?
AS: knew of Ping Chong & Co.'s work because they have an afterschool partnership with Global Kids, where I worked for four years. I had seen their "Undesirable Elements" shows featuring Asian Americans telling stories of discrimination and migration, and of NYC public high school students sharing their experiences through interwoven narratives. I also knew they had created shows with refugees, children who had survived war, and people living with disabilities. I felt they would be a good home for this project. I pitched the idea of using the "Undesirable Elements" format to help survivors of child sexual abuse tell our stories in May 2009, and we began assembling a cast in September 2009.
Given that child sexual abuse is so pervasive (1 in 3 girls, 1 in 6 boys will experience child sexual abuse before the age of 18), I knew that a public call for participants would be overwhelming - how would the theater company and I vet the applications? Also, given that I was participating in the show, I knew I had to have a level of trust already established with the other cast members. I've been out as a survivor in my friend circles since 1995, and increasingly in my professional circles, so I've heard many disclosures from other survivors over the years. I have a "survivor rolodex" of sorts in my head, only because I really try to remember people's stories when they share them with me. So I started by approaching my personal friends who I knew were survivors - that's how Gabby joined the cast. RJ and I had friends in common, and he's been doing work with cisgendered male survivors for some time, so a mutual friend put us in touch. Di and I also have a common friend who I know through South Asian queer community, and she put me in touch with Di once I told her about the project. And LL and I connected because I put a call out on my Facebook status for cast members, and he sent me a private message expressing interest. Sara Zatz (Secret Survivors Director and Associate Director of Ping Chong & Co.) and I put together a thoughtful contract for all project participants, highlighting the fact that this project is not a substitute for therapy, and indicating that the script writing process might in fact retrigger trauma. We wanted to be sure people had come out as a survivor to whoever they needed to share with in their private lives, and that they had healing networks and tools assembled to be able to help them get through the creative process. To be honest, about 5 other people initially expressed interest, but withdrew from the project in the earliest stages once I shared this contract with them and discussed where they were at in their personal healing processes.
Once the five of us had agreed to the participation terms, we gathered for a six-day-long writing workshop, held over the course of two weekends. Sara and I led the workshop, which focused on a combination of theater exercises, writing exercises, and oral storytelling. We shared both our narratives and our political views, and were pleased to learn that we were very much on the same page politically as a group - especially around our analyses of the prison industrial complex as it relates to child sexual abuse. Our mealtime conversations were recorded, and Sara used those recordings, our journals, and one-on-one interviews with each of us to create the script that we are performing on Saturday. We had a therapist in the office (in a separate room) in case any of us got triggered and needed the extra support, and we also had a somatics coach visit to lead us through a series of somatics exercises to help us get grounded and centered together.
RJ: Amita and I had met each other a few times and have a number of mutual friends. I remember well her impressive karaoke skills at a joint celebration she was having with a friend of mine. Folks knew I’d been out about being a survivor and active with generationFIVE, a bay area based organization building transformative justice responses to child sexual abuse, so I’m guessing that’s why Amita approached me. Gabby and I have known each other for years and were both on the board of directors of the Brecht Forum at the time so when I heard her talking about participating in the project at a board meeting it definitely was encouragement to commit. Walking into the room at Ping Chong and Co on the first day I was really happy to see LL, who I’ve known for just as long as Gabby… probably nearing a decade now – wow. LL’s been a great buddy in this whole process. And Di, who I’ve never met before, has been wonderful too. As a group we clicked.
GC: We all knew each other in one way or another from our social activism community. Amita glued us together for this production. It was a nice surprise to show up on the first day and see familiar faces.
DS: How did we find each other? Amita knows EVERYBODY!! she told my friend about the show she was going to put together in november (while they were out seeing "precious" together). my friend said, you should meet di, she has a crazy story and can talk about it without getting upset. that's how we got introduced. i already knew LL and Gabby. RJ is also a new friend for me but now i love him and Amita like I've known them forever.
For me telling my story is not the obstacle. I'm very used to it by now. the work we did together was really intense. getting to know one another at the deepest level of intimacy, even if we've already known one another for a long time. but we also all came in there committed to getting it done, so we were never going to let the disturbing material prevent us form succeeding. we all came to this invested in the collective benefit and we kept ourselves and each other present and grounded by being very conscientious of each person's well-being. we were all responsible for reaching out in support when we could and reaching out to ask for support if we needed to.
LL: I've known each member of the cast before the project started. Some for almost 10 years and some for only a couple, all through queer organizing or community. I've known RJ the longest. We used to be part of Critical Resistance in Brooklyn. Our process was first to just get in touch with our stories, our voices, lots of writing, journaling, writing exercises and then through interviews our director wove a story together. We had lots of discussion about how we wanted to craft our stories and our political messaging one of them being: prisons are not the answer to dealing child sexual abuse.
2) Why is this work important to you as an artist/organizer/change maker?And why now? Why not last year, why not next year? What makes telling your story now, in this way, to such a large audience different than how you have told your story in the past?
GC: I have also shared my story in a film documentary called Anomaly by Jessica Chen Drammeh. Also, I have addressed CSA often as an artists and in my performance ensemble Mahina Movement. Mahinamovement.com .
If I can be brave enough to publicly speak about being victim of child sexual assault then maybe it will provide strength and courage for others who are currently going through the same thing.
DS: This work is so crucial to me because i can't see any way to fight the pandemic of CSA on this planet without making space to talk about it. it must be said and it must be heard. i'm as surprised as anyone else who knows me that i'm in this show right now, but i'm just happy for the opportunity to work with 4 incredible activists whose work i admire tremendously.
Maybe it's worth noting that i started working on this project at 29 years old, 25 years after my abuse was disclosed. i wasn't able to participate in any kind of accountability process for my abuse in the past because of my dissociated memories, so i feel it's about time that i play my part to reclaim the narrative about Wee Care and the terrifying things that Margaret Kelly Michaels did to us there.
The major difference between this and any other occasion when i have told me story is the theatrical medium. it's theater and that's so different from an intimate conversation or even straight-up testifying to any number of people. it's a different kind of witnessing experience for the audience. it anonymizes them (is that a word? i guess so), keeps them with us, holds them in their seats, present from start to finish. we offer them numerous avenues through which they can stay engaged even when they want to look away, cover their ears. and if they do get triggered, we have a very powerful safety net for them in the form of counselors who volunteer to provide support to anyone who needs it during and after the show. when i disclose my survivor history in a conventional conversation, there is not much i can do to provide my audience any safety. if i'm committed to telling anyone who will listen that yes, i'm a survivor of CSA and let's talk about it, i also don't want to hurt people with their own trauma or mine.
I think this show is a real trailblazer for creating a medium for advocacy and dialogue about what is sometimes nearly impossible to say and sometimes nearly impossible to hear, but leaving all parties feeling uplifted and hopeful-- among other things.
AS: For me, Secret Survivors feels like a culmination and a beginning. I've been wanting to tell my story publicly since I was a kid, and especially since I never got to testify against my father (who raped me for 8 years). In some ways, I have been telling my story for years - to friends, to colleagues, to some of my students (when they disclose their own survival stories to me). I first spoke publicly about being a survivor in 1997, at a Take Back the Night rally in college. And one thing that has remained constant is that people always disclose to me when I disclose to them - if they don't have a personal story to tell, they know the story of a friend or family member. And that's the thing about child sexual abuse - it is a taboo epidemic - everybody knows a child sexual abuse survivor, even if they do not know who in their lives has survived this violence. The statistics indicate this to be true. We have established nonprofits that (with only a few exceptions) point to the criminal legal system as a solution to this violence, even when my own story and the story of many others indicate that the criminal legal system has failed to heal perpetrators, and has often retraumatized survivors. When I started my MPA with a focus on public policy, I realized that the work I had attempted to do in college was still work I was committed to - creating social and political change that will end child sexual abuse. Because of post-traumatic stress disorder, I was forced to abandon this work back then, but I have now healed enough to hold this work and move forward. Initially I thought about writing my memoir, but witnessing the way mass media likes to deify individual survivors who are high functioning (like Oprah, Maya Angelou and many others), I knew I wanted to create a way for survivors to tell their stories in tandem, to take the spotlight off of us as individuals and really point to the fact that child sexual abuse is an epidemic that affects ALL of us and that is much bigger than any one person. I believe the work that the five of us have created with Ping Chong & Co. is a replicable model that can help more survivors speak out and can really begin to build a movement of child sexual abuse survivors, through storytelling, that I hope will result in the creation of viable community-based prevention and intervention strategies. What keeps me committed to this vision and this work is the memory of all those who have shared their stories with me and later fallen to self-destructive behaviors and even suicide, and the knowledge that child sexual abuse continues to be an epidemic - I want to create a world that is actually safe for young people, and I believe this is the starting point, given the frequency of this violence.
RJ: That’s the biggest piece, the sheer size of the audience. It’s an event, you know, which is important because an event is something that people talk about with each other like, “Did you go to that performance on Saturday? Let me tell you about it…” It opens up a space for people to have more conversations around child sexual abuse, transformative justice and many other things that we might not otherwise have a smooth-ish way to discuss. But are things that we MUST discuss because they are so deeply affecting us individually and collectively.
I’ve done a fair amount of work to get to this place in sharing my story. I really started talking about my experiences of sexual abuse in 2005. In ’06 I created a digital story about it with generationFIVE and the Center for Digital Storytelling. I’ve done a lot of related work in the years since but, yeah, I’m still scared about the performance on Saturday. I was having major blocks even just sending out invitations to people to come to the show. This is definitely the BIG coming out moment.
LL: This is the first time that i have told my story publicly. As someone who is known in the queer world most people don't know that I am a survivor. Why now is a good question. I think that theater has always been part of my history as a creative person. Any opportunity to use it to talk about issues that impact brown and black people I'm so there. I also think that the timing was right. I am in the process of attending grad school to become a therapist and social worker for queer people of color and this felt like a safe and fun way to talk about something that has impacted my entire life. If i'm going to be supporting others do their own healing I gotta be doing that work myself. It's the scariest and hardest and yet most rewarding personal transformation process I've been apart of. And to be able to share with this group of people who care of healing and social transformation it's like icing to my cupcake.
3) What are some of the challenges you have faced working together? How has the reality of being a survivor, and the multiple ways that can manifest in our bodies, minds, and spirits, made it hard to work together? What healing have you been able to find with each other?
GC: I either like to pull myself away from the group and isolate or be the hero and hold space for everyone – all strong suits I created from being a survivor. It’s hard to do either when I’m working with such a great bunch of loving, evolved human beings. We hold down the space for each other and truth be told ..we have a lot of fun!
DS: It's not too often that an outspoken CSA survivor meets another outspoken CSA survivor, so it's been fantastic to discover the conversations that can take place when the factors of stigma and shame can be zeroed-out. the thing that was tough for me in this and many other survivor group experiences is the lie of a hierarchy of suffering. having been in the unusual position of surviving CSA with a group of kids, i have always compared and contrasted my struggles to the visible signs of struggle in
my friends and peers who were also at my day care. it never felt like the right thing to do, but intellectualizing is one of my strongest coping mechanisms, so it's something i've struggled with. working with this group of folks on this project was the first time i could face that struggle with trusted comrades at my side and consider myself an equal.
I think we each had physical and emotional bills to pay for the work we did to create this show. as adults survivors of childhood trauma, our bodies and minds and spirits are very accustomed to the coping mechanisms we have at times in the past and sometimes still do depend upon to keep us functioning. this work has pushed us pretty far out of the ordinary course of experience and there is a stress reaction. everyone responds and handles it differently. i think it's actually really beautiful to see the great variety of ways that our bodies can communicate with us when they are being pushed over and beyond both societal and self-imposed boundaries. but what should also be noted and celebrated is the reward we get from knowing that our sacrifice has made a constructive and healing impact on the whole (including us).
AS: Sometimes the fact that we face similar impairments (for me, PTSD, for instance) and that we have sensitive triggers can make it hard to communicate and be sensitive. However, over the past year and a half the cast members have really gelled into a group that understands each other's idiosyncracies and we've learned, like one does in any relationship to another, how to call each other out from a place of integrity, honesty and respect. I have found somatics thanks to RJ, and have been able to further process issues like addiction, debilitating perfectionism, and difficulty setting boundaries thanks to conversations I've had with other cast members over the past year and a half. I feel blessed to be working with such fantastic comrades.
RJ: Child sexual abuse is about silence. It’s often something that is experienced solo. Child sexual abuse is an epidemic hidden away in millions of little silos. So to be breaking the silence, sharing the secret, alongside four amazing friends is a real gift and totally different than just telling “my story.” Doing this with Amita, Di, Gabby and LL is about breaking the silence AND the isolation. I feel that difference in my body, my spirit.
LL: This is a great question! I think that when conflict happened I think we were really aware of how we would regularly respond, using our survival strategies, and we dealt with them as a group and we were real generous with each other. I remember pulling RJ aside and being like "yo, this is your space too!" he's so aware of how he takes up space as someone who is white and assigned male and read as straight. he didn't talk a lot our first session. and i was not having it. this was a space for him to take up space because he is someone who has experienced oppression, he is a survivor just like me. i called him out. this is one of those spaces where not contributing and not talking is not being an ally, it's holding up the walls and not helping be part of the process. we held this kind of space for each other. as the only trans person in the group i felt really held and cared for about how gender in the space for me and for everyone, trans or no trans, is complicated and that has been impacted by our sexual abuse. we always checked in with each other and supported each other when we made time to do self care (Even if it meant being late). there is nothing like being with a group of people where touch (i.e. hugs) felt safe and healing for me.
4) Having not yet heard your stories, how does queerness intersect with being a survivor?
LL: For me, as gets laid out in the show, when i was realizing that i was queer it felt like i didn't have a right to say that i was queer because i was too scared to explore my desire for other queer people. Negotiating sex and gender and safety was incredibly difficult. So for me being a survivor and queer has taken me a long time to intergrate as a sexual person.
AS: My queerness is definitely not a result of my being a survivor. I believe I have always been queer, at least in terms of gender expression and behavior, and that my desire is and always has been fluid, when I take an honest look back at my childhood. The fact that my father raped me certainly impacted my self-esteem, self-image, relationship to my body, but that is entirely separate from my desire and gender expression. I do think it was easier to come out as queer once I figured out that I was queer, given that I had come out as a survivor 6 years prior to that. One societal intersection I perceive is that because of homophobia, male survivors seem less likely to speak out, for fear of being perceived as gay (as if being raped or molested indicates one's sexual orientation). Also, I think many people are quick to assume that I am queer because I am a survivor, and if this perception is faced by other queer folks, it may keep many of us silent for fear of feeding in to this homophobic stereotype.
GC: There is an outsider”ness” to being a survivor and an outsider”ness” to being queer. Im also a very light skinned black woman who is adopted …more outsider”ness”…. I have found myself on the outside commonality. However, this has served me well…enabling me to see beyond the usual limitations of life.
DS: i think it's challenging to think about these things, and often folks who learn that i'm gay and my abuser was a woman are pushed to yet unexplored levels of curiosity (producing some pretty heinous questions and comments). fundamentally i think sexuality and pedophilia are as different as apples and facebook-- two completely unrelated and separate planes of meaning. just like some people who use cell phones are left-handed, some survivors of sexual abuse are queer. the fact that the dominant discourse in the media populates our day-to-day interactions with folks who conflate sexuality with pedophilia only feeds my motivation to get this secret survivors project out to as many people as possible!
RJ: I’m a man who was sexually abused as a child by a teenage boy. I also had a hard experience later as an early teenager with a much older woman. Within this heterosexist culture, there are particular ways that each of those experiences are generally read that get in the way of speaking, healing and seeking accountability. Going to public schools in Cincinnati, to come out as having been repeatedly molested by another boy was not my idea of a good time. Later on, in the case of the woman, the assumption is that no matter what I must’ve wanted it, which is also not helpful. So I’d like to acknowledge that queerness allows for a much more expansive understanding of what ACTUALLY happens with our sexual experiences, amongst other things. This creates more room for us to share what is going on with us, including when we’ve been abused.
In my chosen sexual life I’ve lived a pretty straight existence. Did being sexually abused by a boy turn me off to men? I don’t know. This isn’t addition and subtraction. The ways of the heart feel more like calculus. Maybe there’s an algorithm somewhere that’ll help me figure this one out.
5) How have your families been supportive through this process? Have any of your families (of choice or otherwise) been less than supportive of this project?
GC: I am no longer in contact with the family who raised me. My friends (chosen family) have been amazing. My wife, Stephanie has been my rock throughout this entire process.
RJ: My mother and one of my uncles have been especially supportive. I’m also grateful for much of my community here in NYC… too many people to list have given me strength, often in small ways, and that’s made a huge difference.
LL: My chosen family has been there every step of the way. I think because so much of my family are part of the story (as being around when it happened) I put distance between me and this process.
AS: My family, both biological and chosen, have been supportive. I think my sister had some anxiety initially, as her story is obviously intertwined with mine, and she is much more private than I am, but she has given me her blessings to continue this work and I believe she is proud of me taking this project on. Also, my mother has struggled to accept that her public image will become complicated thanks to this work, given the choices she made when I was a child, but ultimately, she too has expressed her support for this work and has said she is proud of me multiple times in the past year and a half. I'm very lucky.
DS: In many ways my parents survived my sexual abuse right along with me! they were deeply traumatized in a different way from me, being adults and understanding the violations in ways no child can. they struggle to this day with crushing guilt knowing now what they couldn't have know then, that they trusted their child to the care of a pedophile. no matter how much forgiveness i can love them with, they may never forgive themselves. Wee Care parents handled their trauma many different ways so i feel fortunate that my parents, whatever their continuing struggles may be, have been as open as they could with me about my abuse. for most of my life they were my only source of affirmation. as i mention in the show, i don't think enough community and support exists for caregivers of survivors of CSA and i wish that my parents had had the option of support from a community of people who shared their experience- especially the other Wee Care parents.
another important community of support has been what i call the Wee Care diaspora: other Wee Care survivors, their parents, the investigators, prosecutors, judges, and therapists who worked hard to try to help us. i'm talking about dozens and dozens of people. working on this secret survivors project has brought me close to folks i haven't connected with in decades. it's also given me the opportunity to connect with other Wee Care kids as adults and to be in solidarity and supportive of one another in ways that i couldn't have imagined even just one year ago. this is such an important network of people in my life and i'm only just beginning to discover all of the connections and all of the potential for healing.
6.) What is the change you hope that this project, presented in this way (theater as opposed to a talking heads panel or After-School Special, or Oprah episode) you hope to see?
LL: This play moves people. It connects the personal and the political and I think this play can help open up a space to talking about how sexual abuse is so real and yet so invisible as an issue that we organize around. The first step to creating a world without sexual abuse is to name it and acknowlege that it exists. This play does that.
DS: I guess i talked a bit about this before. the theatrical medium is transformative and ping chong's undesirable elements series has really elevated transformative process to art. we are real people having a profound impact on an incredibly important and dynamic issue without the star power of Oprah or the intellectual masturbation of political punditry.
In fact, because of my bizarre case of CSA, i can testify to how dangerous that very media can be where CSA is concerned. that media, from Montel WiIliams to Mike Wallace on 60 minutes and the New York Times, bought (and sold) my abuser's lies of innocence hook, line, and sinker. they broadcast it as truth to millions of people. we in the Wee Care diaspora will never reclaim our story from our torturer using those same media tools that she deployed to brand us all as liars- once again exercising unlimited power over our lives, once again we were powerless to defend ourselves. we will change it one by one, audience by audience, witness by witness, until everyone knows what happened because they heard it from our very mouths, felt our scars, mapped our struggle. then, i hope, they will know the truth.
RJ: This is a nuanced peek into the lives of five people who have experienced some part of that really broad thing called “child sexual abuse”. It’s not just about the abuse but about history, vision, resilience and so much more. I hope we touch the hearts of the audience in a way that is much more profound than what can usually be achieved in the mediums you mention above. I hope that this project contributes meaningfully to the emerging transformative justice movement in this country.
GC: More visibility around how CSA affects a wide range of people. Ideally, for it to be common knowledge that CSA is truly an epidemic that needs to be dealt with immediately.
7) How can folks that can't be with us on Saturday see the show or get in touch with you?
AS: People can view two clips of the show on our website (www.secretsurvivors.org). We also hope to produce a DVD and educational toolkit to be able to share this work with many others. People can support our work with a tax-deductible contribution (designated for "Secret Survivors") here: https://www.justgive.org/basket?acton=donate&ein=13-2874863
and can contact me at: email@example.com
GC: If people want to see more of me and the work that I do they can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org/ MahinaMovement.com
DS: We are working on the creation of a video of Saturday's performance- raising money and selecting the fiercest outfits- so that as many people as possible can engage with secret survivors. but if nothing else comes out of this show, i want folks to get in touch with the fact that secret survivors is on stage in and around your life every day and everywhere you go. be inspired by the courage of CSA survivors every day, the ones who disclose to you and the ones who don't, the ones with visible scars and the ones with hidden memories, those of us who made it and those of us who didn't. be inspired to have the courage to hold pedophiles accountable in your families and in your communities without relying on the false solution of prisons and jails. have the courage to meet (y)our gaze as survivors and don't look away.
RJ: Hmmm… come find me on Facebook, or through my blog at zapagringo.com
Editor's Note: Lucia Leandro can also be stalked via Facebook!
Thank you all for opening your hearts and lives to all of us. I woke up at 4am this morning and made the mistake of reading RJ's interview responses, and, as with all of your responses, it sent my spirit and my brain into overdrive. I appreciate each of you, your work, and the love that you bring, give, and share with our communities.
(PS, on a personal note, RJ if you ever decide you want to check out the other half of the Kinsey scale...you know where to find me!)