Content Warning: Sexual Assault & Rape
A teacher once told me that a nation’s history represents the facts of a people and the nation’s art represents their true feelings. It was meant to illustrate the difference between the subjects, but in reality--especially in who gets left out of the narrative and who chooses it--the interstitial material between the two worlds has always been closer than a high school prof of world politics in Utica, New York would ever teach. This nation is a product of rape. Hollywood or Minnesota, it will never be a question of when sexual violence will touch the performance world you inhabit. It’s everywhere. It’s at the Guthrie, it’s at the Renaissance Festival, and being polite about it isn’t going to make it go away.
So, let’s engage with this meaningfully.
I got a call a while back from a friend who was directing a show. She asked me to come on for a role quite late in the process, explaining that an actor had to be removed. My heart sank. I was eight the first time I was sexually assaulted--one among 40% of black women. It wasn’t the last time and I wasn’t the only one. The road to recovery and thriving after those experiences is real and paved with the gold of awareness, over a foundation of many voices sharing. Maybe it’s because I’m an actor and a gifted mimic, or maybe loss has a pitch, but I know with the wholeness of my being the timbre of someone telling me about sexual violence. Regrettably, during the following conversation I learned that I wasn’t wrong. I’d done this show before, been in the space before, so familiarity wasn’t the problem. But how the hell does an actor prepare to go into the intimacy of a performance space--a space we often go to for refuge--that’s been marked by sexual violence?
It was a question I asked myself much later, having already agreed to do the role at the beginning of the conversation before she even explained. This is case by case. You are more than welcome to stay away and protect what you need to, as is your right. But this time, I was gonna be damned if I let my people suffer because of that particular type of vileness.
Here’s a small tour of what I felt like and how I processed it:
Grief Gon Come
Witness and victims of these circumstances alike will feel the slowing grip of grief. It’s unavoidable and is an entirely proportionate response. Loss is loss and in the performance space where we have to be present with our internal landscape, it’s important to know that grief will take you. The owner of the theater called me after my friend to thank me for taking up the role. “Be prepared to feel worse about it as the day goes on.” We chatted for a while longer, then I hung up, and went back to doing the day job. That was at 11AM. Somewhere around 1PM was when I hit the breaking point and left work sobbing. So I sobbed, ugly and unedited. Boo hoo’d all the way down the greenline. So should you if you need to.
It’s also important to create space outside of yourself for grief to occur and as artists, we get to be creative about how we do it. After a hardcore rough patch, I once threw a funeral for my former self complete with a formal ceremony, to which I invited all my friends. It really helped. People say there’s no wrong way to grieve, but I will say this: Anything that brings more pain or damage is wrong. Alcohol, tobacco, and certain hallucinogens all have a holy/spiritual association and using them to recover from grief is viable. But your body is your instrument and also going through a lot physically during grief. It even lowers your immune system’s ability to respond to colonizing viruses. Abusing these substances in a time where you’re already vulnerable is not and will never be ok. Other than that, treat yo sad self.
Guilt and Shame
People tend to think of guilt and shame as enemies in the emotional spectrum, but the fact is they’re just emotions. They come and go, dependent on what happened but also whether or not you’ve eaten, slept well, and/or are gassy. Some of them make sense in context and some of them don’t. Giving yourself a chance to step back and just notice what you’re feeling with those two will give you the difference. It was heartbreaking enough to hear about what happened but when I met the cast, it was like going to a wake. There was a lot of self-blaming, a lot of people who felt they should have done better, should have known, and a whopping helping of sadness. I wasn’t even involved until after the occurrence, yet I still felt like it was my fault too.
Guilt and shame are givens, but it’s important to know that those are feelings and--provided that your mental state is relatively healthy--the nature of those feelings is temporary and we don’t need to act against ourselves on them. It’s true that we can all be doing more to prevent situations like these and it’s also true that we do the best we can. An adjustment in behavior on the part of those in charge, a thorough examination of preventative policies in place, and a restoration of justice should be fostered. But what’s beating yourself up backstage going to give you and how will it ensure that this doesn’t happen again? Much like abusing substances during a vulnerable time, leaning hard into guilt and shame can be just as damaging. Navigate wisely.
Don’t Forget Love
Love and generosity both in feeling it within yourself and expressing it with others will save you during this time. I loved that show. I love my friends. I love who I’ve become after all the horrible things I’ve seen. I was annoyed to filled with rage that in addition to catching up with a whole show and being there for my friends, I had to do extra work to remind myself of these facts during the time. But working to do so, especially with the panoply of heavier emotions, was only to my advantage. Love made me say yes to doing this in the first place. Love got that show done and kept the lights on for that theater.
When loss happens, we tend to focus so much on loss that we only see loss. But in order to recover we need to believe in our own abundance. You need to remind yourself that what you bring to the space, even when someone violates it, is needed. There are many ways to connect with the love you have. I usually close my eyes and take time to try and call up all the love I’ve ever felt. Every hug, gentle consensual touch, the vibration of every laugh on my skin, the smell of people who love me. I hold myself there for as long as I can because that is undeniably the real wealth of every single one of us. And while we give and receive it, that is something that can never be taken. Trust and believe that your love is abundant and while it ain’t the whole answer, it must be part of the response.
In addition to what I’ve mentioned, if you have the resources to seek counseling or group sharing spaces, I recommend that as well. In closing: Sexual violence is everywhere and once you experience it as witness or victim, nothing will ever be the same. But the despair we feel at this is not the totality of the truth. “Never the same” by it’s design can’t be an absolute of “less than”, “worse off,” or “broken beyond repair”. Life is change and anyone who tells you any different is selling something. The excellent part about change being constant is that when something like this happens, we can heal and become stronger than we imagined. For more resources, please visit RAINN.ORG.