Survivors of Trauma and Sexual Assault: An Exhibit at the Nightingale-Brown House

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Sexual assault is a dark offense, to say the least, that terrifyingly occurs across the world. It knows no boundaries of age, gender, race, or class and is generally under reported. It is a topic that tends to make people uncomfortable and is therefore swept under the rug instead of being discussed.

However, within the past year survivors of sexual assault have made their voices publicly heard. People are bravely coming forth and publicly sharing their personal stories, bringing attention to the personal and structural dimensions of sexual assault. Universities throughout the U.S. are being investigated for negligence and their sexual assault policies are being reviewed. Individuals sharing their experiences have shined a spotlight on the issue.

On Thursday, October 16th, at the Nightingale-Brown House, an exhibit opened showcasing the creative work of survivors of sexual assault. “Survivors of Trauma and Sexual Assault” will be continue to be open to the public through October 30th, with gallery hours from 1-4 p.m. The exhibit displays art of varying mediums, including poetry. All of the pieces are anonymous with some accompanied by the age and gender of the artist.

The work is not necessarily from Brown students. Local agencies that support survivors of sexual assault contributed the majority of the pieces. Other pieces are from a psychologist in Providence. Survivors gave their permission to have their work be a part of the exhibit. The exhibit did not follow a formal submitting or editing process, allowing survivors to bravely and honestly express themselves. There is true talent in all of the work and I couldn’t help but remark on the beauty that came from such painful experiences and the process of recovery.

I had the pleasure of interviewing the coordinator of the exhibit, Julie Pearson, who is herself a survivor of sexual assault. Her one hope for the exhibit is that someone will see something that makes them feel less alone. She wants sexual assault to be a topic that younger generations feel comfortable talking about.

When talking to Ms. Pearson over the phone she emphasized the importance of giving survivors’ voices a platform and letting them know that what they have to say matters. At the opening of the exhibit, she explained what she meant in more depth. Framing and mounting each piece can serve as validation of an experience and add power to a person’s voice.

Sexual assault is a unique kind of violation. Sex itself is an intimate subject, something that tends to bring a rush of warmth to someone’s cheeks when their ‘private’ life is brought up. So when that privacy is breached physically and without consent, how much less likely is a person to talk about it?

It takes something that is supposed to be pleasurable and makes it controlling and degrading. It takes something that draws people closer together and makes it cause pain, anger, shame, guilt, devastation, confusion, and embarrassment. All of these emotions and more must be personally worked through in order to recover.

This is where art, like poetry in Ms. Pearson’s case, comes in. She started writing as a young girl and has loved poetry ever since. For her, writing was one of the main parts of her recovery. She said that sometimes when she would write everything would come spilling out of her onto the page. It is this sort of release that can be difficult to say out loud to someone else. But a piece of paper or a canvas can’t convey anything in return, it only absorbs.

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One poem, placed neatly within a thick black border and framed, reads “To sleep, to rest/ to put away/ for one more day/ the thoughts that/ uninvited fill my mind/ until I give them what they want- a voice.”

Sexual assault is a multifaceted issue, as Ms. Pearson put it. It is a crime that makes the victim feel unsafe in their own skin, a place they can’t escape. But they’re not the only ones who need help. Before the crime is even committed those who become aggressors have their own story that at times is just as saddening as their future assaults.

Therefore the psychology behind the aggressor is important to consider. Finding some sliver of a thread that connects those who commit sexual assault could help in preventing that thread from attaching anyone else. Ms. Pearson believes that children should be taught to more in depth about sexual assault and what it means to respect the dignity of every person.

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In another piece, colored pencil on paper, an overarching blue moon with a thin mustache/beard fills the majority of a circle; the rest is filled by a crying yellow sun. Beneath the circle the word “DREAMS” is neatly written in orange.

As a whole, the exhibit is a beautiful representation of the variation of experiences and universality of sexual assault. It is honest and brave, and each piece gives an uncanny amount of beauty to an experience that caused great pain.

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