My father and his brother arrived at Ellis Island in 1922, the only survivors of a pogrom in their Russian village. My mother moved to Harlem from rural French Canada. My parents’ desire to see a better world led them to join the American Communist party and become union organizers.
In the 1950s, during the McCarthy era, my father was charged with Conspiracy to Overthrow the U.S. Government. For ten years, as the case dragged on, he was rarely able to work. When he did, he was confronted by men jeering, “Two red-hot Rosenbergs on the grill, one more to go.” My mother’s life was tense and frantic with fear.
It is against this backdrop that my story begins.
I didn’t remember what happened when I was six years old until I was thirteen. Up until that time, I had been a quiet kid. After I remembered, I couldn’t stop talking. I chattered about everything, anything – I just never told any one exactly what happened. They knew from the police and my dad, but no one asked me. All I wanted was to be listened to and cared for. It isn’t that my family didn’t want to help me; there hadn’t been any safety for them, and they didn’t know how to give me something they never had.
(But they gave me a vision of global justice and a commitment to deep systemic change. These were the priorities, during this turbulent era. Individual stories were not valued.
In the end, the charges against my father were dropped, and we moved to California.)
Over the years I dealt with what happened to me through psychotherapy, art, political organizing. Members of my family began to tell me their own silent stories – the rape and murder of my father’s mother in a pogrom; the rape of my mother by her cousin, a priest… and eventually, my sister told me of her assault by the same man who had kidnapped, raped, sodomized, and threatened to kill me. With each story placed on my shoulders, I listened, comforted, and wept. But still there was no place and no one to whom to tell my story.
When I was 34, my mother told me that she wanted to go to counseling together, to deal with what happened to me. I said, “I’m all right, we don’t need to go.” She said, “I need to go, because I need to know what happened, and to talk about what it was like to not be able to protect you, and nearly lose you.” We sat there in the gathering dusk, at her small, quiet house, holding hands, crying. Finally there it was: a place for me to tell my story.
But we never got to counseling. The following day my mother was raped and murdered by a young man in the neighborhood. Over the next months and years, I lived in a world of vast grief. My world fractured into other stories and images, and it was a very long time before I did indeed tell my story.
It wasn’t until the second spring after her death that I started to find myself here, with the living, again. What sustained me and kept me from bitterness towards life? My art, my passion for justice, my hands in the garden soil, loved ones… and those loving words from my mother, on our last night.
– Elizabeth Ross, Listening and Telling
The story can be viewed online at http://www.silencespeaks.org/case-studies/40.html.
“With the creation of a narrative, a fragmented present tense becomes a coherent past tense. To narrate one’s life is to have agency. To know and feel this agency is important for everyone, especially for those who have been victimized.” – Michelle Citron, 1999
We sit side by side in the cramped office, staring at words on a page, reading about the unthinkable. Elizabeth’s breathing seems shallow, and as I take in what she has written, I understand why. She’s part of a workshop that I’m teaching in partnership with a nonprofit group that seeks to end childhood sexual abuse.
In that office, Elizabeth and I grapple with how to convey the essence of her personal wounding while also acknowledging the social and political structures within which the story unfolded. Like her, I feel torn. And as the workshop progresses, with participants finalizing their scripts, collecting images, and recording voiceover narration, we have to decide what approach to take to her story.
Elizabeth is concerned that bringing in the back-story of her family’s response to her molestation will make her piece too long. She has very little computer experience, and she is visibly drained. She worries that adding to the script will make it difficult for her to complete her story. I listen carefully, I pay attention to what her energy is telling me, in addition to what she’s saying.
And in that moment, I make the decision to encourage her to move forward with her script just the way it is. The sparseness of her language, and her plan to use a combination of family photos and digital versions of her own artwork to illustrate the story feels very complete. We sit together in silence, for a while, and then I help her record narration.
But it doesn’t take long for me to question my decision. After the workshop, as the months pass, I became aware that the organizational partner we worked with to put on the workshop wasn’t showing Elizabeth’s story, publicly. She explained that they felt uncomfortable with what they saw as its lack of attention to the interconnections between sexual abuse and politics.
While Elizabeth felt hurt by this and remarked upon the irony of her exclusion, given that much of her story focuses on the ways in which for so long, she was not listened to, she also shared that she was very happy with her piece. And that for her, this outweighed the disappointment of being “excluded” from the group.
And ultimately the “problem” was solved, when we began to develop a compilation DVD of the collected stories. Elizabeth drafted some written text providing background to her story, and we successfully integrated it into the piece. Everyone was happy, more or less… I went on to do several more workshops with the nonprofit organization, and Elizabeth became a dear friend.