How do you survive rape? This is how.
What do we do with this information? I mean, other than cringe and ask why and say a silent prayer to our sisters around the world?
I’ve been reading a lot of feminist literature lately (totally start with Yes Means Yes! and Wonder Women if you’re interested) and a few mental health books, too, wondering to myself, “what do I do with my rape?” Do I talk about it? Do I shut up about it? Face it, dissect it—or move on? How am I not supposed to cringe about it as I sit here and write an article about rape?
I can tell you this: there’s no one-size fits all answer for coping with rape. Reading about other women who’ve dealt with it helps. Talking to other women helps.
Reading Augusten Burrough’s essays from This Is How: Surviving What You Think You Can’t helped a great deal. We’ll talk a bit about it later.
But making art? It’s done so many women so much good. So let’s talk about them. Let’s talk about the talented women who’ve turned assault into art, how they’re doing it, and how you might be able to do it, too.
Rape & Good Art Isn’t a Fair Trade
Before we get into all that, let’s get clear on the sober truth about sexual assault: it isn’t art, it isn’t beautiful, it isn’t ‘natural’. It surely isn’t the fuel we want for our art; surviving rape doesn’t mean you’ll be good at making art; and even if it did, it sure as hell wouldn’t be a fair trade.
The tortured artist thing is a crock of bullshit if you ask me, so I’ll be extra careful not to glorify survival as a means to ‘deep art’ as I write. I’ll ask you to approach assault with the same kind of mindfulness, whether you’re the victim or it’s someone you know: don’t push expression on a victim, and don’t think you need to be a victim to be good at creative expression.
This ideology turns assault into a tool, and—if it makes you good at something, like art—a useful tool, at that. And if something is useful, can’t it be—come on, like just a teeny bit excusable? Um, no. So let’s shed that tortured artist fantasy before we begin.
What’s a Gal to Do?
“Do not wait for healing to arrive. It will never come. The holes will never leave or be filled with anything at all. But holes are interesting things.”
—Augusten Burroughs, This Is How
There’s always a hole. Accepting that is the greatest kind of relief. While these talented women below may not be filling any of these empty parts, they’re sure doing some cool things with art as they relearn how to live.
Some Female Artists Use Visual Art as Catharsis
Did you know there were feminist heroes in the early 1600s? (And man, we thought we had it bad in the 2010s.)
There were. Meet bad bitch Artemisia Gentileschi, Italian Baroque painter and extreme revenge-haver.
Artemisia was sexually assaulted by her mentor, Agostino Tassi. Afterwards, she painted a famous biblical scene of Assyrian general Holoferne’s assassination by Israelite heroine Judith, but get this—she painted herself as Judith and painted Holoferne’s as her assaulter, Agostino Tassi.
While I’m not saying revenge is a constructive goal to cling to as a survivor, there’s no doubt in my mind that the hours—or, let’s be honest, days, or weeks, even—Artemisia spent on this painting were nothing short of empowering and cathartic. Let the people know, Artemisia. Let the people know.
The question isn’t Are you good at painting? Are you good at drawing? No, it’s not about whether you’ve ever done it or were good at it or think you might (or might not) be good at it.
The question is: Do you want to? Do you think it’ll help? Are you willing to try it out, even if you’ve never considered yourself a visual artist before?
I can almost hear Artemisia’s ghost whispering, “Hey girl, give it a shot”.
Some Female Artists Write Memoirs
Loads of lovely ladies have written about their experiences with rape: Rape and Writing in the Heptaméron of Marguerite de Navarre, in which Patricia Francis Cholakian analyzes Marguerite de Navarre’s role in patriarchal French Renaissance society; Telling, in which Patricia Weaver Francisco struggles to navigate through her grief; Lucky, by Lovely Bones author Alice Sebold, so named because police told her she was lucky to survive her rapist’s assault; to name a few.
Pandora’s Project, a nonprofit dedicated to helping survivors and their loved ones, offers an extensive list on their site, organized most helpfully by relationship abuse, child abuse, date rape, secondary survivor resources, male rape, and more.
A lot of survivors helped author the book of essays Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape we briefly mentioned above. And if we’re going to find a tiny, tiny bit of light shining through a dark and shitty situation, couldn’t that tiny light be the fact that essays by survivors like An Old Enemy in a New Outfit: How Date Rape Became Gray Rape and Why It Matters and Killing Misogyny: A Personal Story of Love, Violence, and Strategies for Survival are great resources for other women struggling to navigate survivor-hood? (There are 27 essays in the whole book, and trust me—they’re all this good.)
You don’t have to write it for other survivors. You don’t have to write it for anyone but yourself. Heck—you don’t even have to write it. But again, let’s ask ourselves: might it help?
Some Female Artists Perform It Out
Some female artists act it out—use their anger and sadness to fuel roles onstage or on camera. Some female artists make others laugh through standup that puts the conversation of rape on the table for the masses.
Some female artists make a thousand tally marks on a wall, embedded with ‘hidden secrets’ like “his kiss was a bomb” and “I blacked out” — and then paint over it, because “purging is the best way to describe this piece”. That’s what Shannon Mackenzie did, and that’s how she described her Rotatio performance art piece at the center of the short film by the same name.
Performance art wasn’t the original intent. Shannon says that at first, it was part of her meditation practice; it was a cleansing. But when filmmaker Ian McClerin urged her to let him turn it into a short film that would go on to win film festival awards and gain almost a million views on Vimeo, she let him.
“It’s not out of revenge or anger. None of that is left. It’s just a story that, for me, just needs a new home”, says Shannon in the short film. “This is post-traumatic growth.”
Some Female Artists Spread Awareness
Some female artists spread awareness not just about surviving rape itself, but about surviving the backlash that comes after. In what many are calling the “modern-day Scarlet Letter”, the documentary called Audrie & Daisy, Daisy Coleman and her family give a glimpse into what it’s like when you come out with your accusation of rape—and then the whole town turns against you.
Daisy and her family literally had to move towns to escape harassment, and even then it didn’t stop. I won’t spoil the documentary for you (it’s on Netflix), but let’s just say that surviving the actual assault was the first step on a long road for Daisy and her family.
In the film, Daisy answers personal interview questions, walks the watcher through her process of coping, and attends meetings for assault survivors. She does the simplest, yet hardest thing a survivor can do: she tells her story.
And now, Daisy’s channeling her creative expression into building a career as a tattoo artist. Rock on, Daisy.
What a Gal ISN’T To Do
“…the facts of life may be, at times, unbearably painful. But the core, the bones of life are generous beyond all reason or belief. Those things that ought to kill us do not. This should be taken as encouragement to continue.”
—Augusten Burroughs, This Is How
Here’s what you aren’t to do:
- Force yourself to paint or draw
- Force yourself to write about it
- Feel pressured to perform anything for anyone
- Think that—just because a lot of survivors spread awareness—you have to do coping this way, too.
You don’t. You don’t have to do anything. My advice? You examine your experience creatively if you can, but you don’t go into it thinking it’ll “fix you”; or thinking that you need fixing at all; or that just because these art forms helped these women, it’ll help you.
There’s no one size fits all to surviving assault. Everyone’s story is different, and everyone’s grief is different. You might not benefit from expressing it all through art; all I can tell you is that these ladies did.
But, let’s say, you could find release through art. Let’s say painting, writing, performing, or speaking lit something in you—gave you a goal, a new perspective. Let’s say that it’s entirely possible that art could help you learn to live again.
Would you do it?