"Incest Survivors Speaking Truth to the Next Generation"

The goal of this project is to encourage a larger discussion about how parents, caregivers, and family members can speak truth about incest to the next generation in a way that is honest and protective, yet sensitive to the developmental needs of children.

We portray what we have learned as incest survivors. We portray empowered (rather than fearful) responses to telling others about our abuse. Through this, we hope to encourage others to be proactive in preventing the continuation of incest within family systems by confronting it thoughtfully and openly - through words, images, and discussion.  Working with colors, textures, and images has been an enriching elaboration to our dialogue as individuals and groups. 

Exhibits of our work have consisted of five thematically connected art quilts. The first quilt, which was part of the Faith Quilt Project, was made by a group of incest survivors at the Cambridge Women's Center.  In their meetings, the quilters discovered they all shared a strong faith in their ability to make a positive change for the next generation.  This faith is what helped them survive their abuse during childhood and what helped them through the painful process of recovery thereafter.

The second quilt was made by a group of professionals, including several members of Incest Resources, Inc., who work with child victims and adult survivors of sexual abuse.  All are incest survivors themselves.  Their group discussions brought together their expert opinions as both survivors and professionals about how to speak truth to the next generation about incest.

The third and fourth quilts were made by an artist whose mother was an incest survivor.  As an adult, this artist has used the quilt-making process to address some of the complexities and personal experiences that came out of being raised by someone with an incest history.  She is one representative of the next generation, conveying what it’s like to hear about incest from a parent.   
The fifth quilt was made by Michelle Harris, an art therapist and incest survivor who facilitated the making of the other four quilts.  Michelle's quilt was completed as an integrative, creative response to the survivor quilt-making process as a whole.

"Incest Survivors Speaking Truth to the Next Generation" is a moving and powerful exhibit that gives voice to survivors, increases awareness of the devastation incest causes, promotes public discourse on a subject that remains taboo and is all too often intergenerational, and provides hope to victims. The exhibit had its public debut at the Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center in November and December of 2008, with an opening reception and panel presentation on discussing sexual abuse with children in age-appropriate and sensitive ways.

For questions or comments about "Speaking Truth to the Next Generation," please contact Michelle Harris, founder of the Survivor Quilt Project, at mharrisatr@gmail.com. To make a tax-deductible contribution to the Survivor Quilt Project, please make checks payable to Cambridge Women's Center, with SQP in the memo section, and mail to Cambridge Women's Center, 46 Pleasant Street, Cambridge, MA 02139.

Quilt 1 - Incest Survivors' Interfaith Quilt - Artists: Michelle Harris, Collaborators wish to remain anonymous

Our quilt is round, organic, whole, and we plan to display it so that viewers can enter into its circle as we had while working on the quilt. We depict a series of women, each honored as aspects of ourselves both as incest survivors and as members of the broader community of women.  Gradually, through many hours of discussion and reflection, seven characteristics emerged which we chose to embody in the quilt:

  • Woman of Sexuality is full-bodied and sensual, holding two masks representing “The Woman Who is Frigid” and “The Woman Who is a Whore”.
  • Fragmented Woman struggles to pull together the pieces of herself that are broken and that are reflected back to her in myriad shards of shattered mirrors. One of her hands is held out to say “stop” while the other hand is extended in welcome. Her colors are as explosive as hot lava yet her heart is clearly visible. She is pulled in two directions in her struggle for survival; the house of broken glass is familiar yet she needs to leave it in order to follow her heart.
  • Nurturing Woman is big enough to hold the love we need and the love and care we have to give as well.  She is a protector for the next generation.  Her orange orb is a space she holds to embrace the stories from generation to generation.
  • Righteous Anger Woman is young and spunky with big red boots and fire in her heart!  She has justified anger and can say, “No. Don’t do that!”
  • Invisible Woman disappears, or tries to, out of fear, dissociation, and the desperate need for safety.
  • Woman of Shame peeks out timidly from behind her hands, trying to hide yet afraid that her bruised self will stick out like a sore thumb.
  • Celebration Woman has on her dancing shoes, her skin made of birds, her sunset-colored scarf flowing in the wind, representing finding wholeness.

The center of the quilt is made of concentric rings of color and quilting lines symbolizing the wholeness of each of us individually and as part of a unified world.

We are a variety of women representing many faiths and experiences.  One aspect of ourselves drew us together, the management of the insidious impact of incest.  In our conversations we found that our faiths overlapped as a hope about beauty in life and nature and our sense of spirit in the world transcending suffering. Other aspects of our selves are captured in the written statements around the outer edge of the quilt.  Floating in the safety of calm blue water and forming a permeable boundary for our imagined world, these statements reflect that fact.  The quilt has been embellished with momentos and symbolism important to the creators of the quilt.  We invite you, as you gather round this circle quilt, to witness to the experience of survivors……

I am the Woman Who Chose to Survive, I am Safe, I am Shame Woman, I am Grieving Woman, I am OK With Imperfect Woman, I am Celebration Woman, I am the Woman Who Can Leave The House, I am a Mother, I am Invisible Woman, I am the Woman Who Remembers, I am Fragmented Woman, I am a Mother Who Protects, I am a Spiritual Woman, I am Nurturing Woman, I am a Grandmother, I am Whole-Unified Woman, I am Righteous Anger Woman, I am a Sister, I am Frigid Woman, I am Woman of Sexuality, I am The Woman Who Is A Whore, I am the Woman Who Chose To Survive.

Quilt 2
Artists: Michelle Harris, Art Therapist, Facilitator of the Incest Survivor Quilt Project 
Frances Grossman, Psychologist
K. L., Clinical Social Worker 
Kathy Morrissey, Co-Founder of Incest Resources, Inc.
Elaine Westerlund, Psychologist, Co-Founder & Director of Incest Resources, Inc.

In this quilt, the horizontal panels, moving from the bottom to the top, represent the inherited family history that goes back generations.  We did not learn about the legacy of violence in our families as children, and this left us vulnerable.  So we have chosen to tell the next generation our truths to protect and strengthen them.  We understand that disclosures about family violence are painful, and the next generation does not always want to know.

The tree represents the comfort we all experienced as children when we climbed trees to hide, to feel safe, to feel held.  Our trees were strong, welcoming, and alive.  Enveloped in a tree outdoors, we were connected to a sense of nature and spirituality.  We were at home in the larger universe we belonged to.

The home in the quilt has three levels.  The basement is gnarly and dark and symbolizes the abuse.  Above the basement is a house that looks normal from the outside, but is hiding violence and terror within.  The attic catches the light from the sky.  An abused child is fleeing out the attic window by means of the tree, again the lifeline, the way out, the rescuer.  The branches of the tree offer freedom from the vigilance, helplessness, and isolation.  We are that child who has escaped to safety.

The top two panels of the quilt represent finding support and community, a sense of belonging with connections creating greater light in our lives.  As we healed from our abuse the sky became brighter and the world became more colorful and vibrant.

The shadows behind the figures symbolize the legacy of trauma.  Our hope is that the darkness from our abuse will be lighter for those who follow.  The risk for the next generation is to pretend that they don't have a shadow, and to live in denial of their vulnerability and that of future generations.  We offer the gift of knowledge by speaking truth to the next generation.

The truth we tell can be difficult to hear.  As survivors and professionals in the field of child sexual abuse, we are learning more about how and when the truth can best be told.  We believe it is important to find healing ways to break the silence of survivors both to honor our histories and to honor the next generation.

Quilt 3 - My Mother's Journey Artist: Constance Chamberlain

This quilt square began as I thought about my mother’s experience of incest.  I first learned of it from her about 20 years ago, but not until 2 years ago did I become convinced that it actually happened.

The process of making the square began as Michelle watched me choose the fabric pieces.  I felt embarrassed by her attention and at the same time, comforted, and felt that I was doing important work.

As I worked on the square over the next weeks, I would sometimes think of my mother’s history but my mind and feelings usually returned to the process at hand which was meditative, soothing and exciting.

The ocean depicted is full of movement, beauty and joy.  The overlapping waves represent secrets and darkness.

Quilt 4 - Don't Fence Me In - Artist: Constance Chamberlain

"When you were still very little I knew that I never wanted to own you. I wanted to protect you from what I went through. Your education was very important to me since I had none to fall back on after the divorce. There were also other things which made it really difficult for me to be the mother I would have liked to be for you, Connie. There was quite a bit of unfinished business from my female-slave existence in Germany where I was owned and exploited throughout my childhood and adolescence physically, psychologically and sexually."

My mother left my two brothers and me in 1988 and joined a group of people who were seeking the Light. She remained with them for 17 years. I was 30 when she left our family. The above quote is from a letter she wrote me at the beginning of her association with this group.  She and I are now in touch again. I have learned more about her childhood and young adulthood and the sexual exploitation she endured. She knows about my work on this quilt project and is very supportive and pleased that I (we) are a part of it. I feel a deeper understanding of my mother and the choices she made in her life because of the work I have done, with Michelle's help, on my quilts.

Quilt 5 - Balance - Artist: Michelle Harris

The quilt is about storytelling; both weaving a story and holding the story in a way that is attuned to the audience.  Some of my life stories are in this quilt.  The red weavings are from Guatemala, where I lived.  The white lace is my wedding shawl, and the beads on it are what my friends and siblings sent to stand in for my missing parents.  The green fabric of the child figure is from a quilt I made with my tribe, the Coast Miwok.  It contains a blessing I intend for my children, whose legacy as native Americans includes intergenerational trauma from slavery, genocide, and loss of culture, even as it also includes the resiliency that grows from surviving all those things.  The fabric of the butterfly the child looks at comes from a second quilt, where it represents the legacy of abuse.  The contrast between the butterfly’s form and its meaning is ironic to me and I like to think about how carefully we need to construct the truth so the child can learn it and not face too early the overwhelming void.

The “Yellow Mother” figure is holding the silhouettes from her own history which is reflected in the lower two rectangular panels.  They show what I have frequently seen, one caregiver being too distant and the other, too engulfing.  Neither really seem to see or know or support the child.  The Yellow Mother holds these dynamics in her body; this is often where I feel myself holding the “truth” of incest from my life.  The mother and child are bowed together, sharing stories.  Above the child is the weaving of the stories withheld for later, when the child is older and can better come to terms with them.

The shawl forms a triangle, a shape that is both balanced and pointed, precarious—a fulcrum.  The mother is not always able to stay present, and is not always available to engage the child in the truth of her emotions.  The child reaching out to her makes it a seesaw.