"Incest Survivors Speaking Truth to the Next Generation"
"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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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:
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.
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.
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.