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Building a Monument for Survivors of Sexual Abuse

| March 27, 2014

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Visitors to the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. saw an unusual sight on the winter-browned south lawn on the afternoon of March 1: 100 red quilt squares covered with sewn and handwritten words. Some squares contained stories about sexual abuse, documenting people’s pain. Others carried messages of support and healing. 

 
“End the silence (release it). Begin the healing.”

“We are listening, you are not alone.”

 “It’s not my fault.”

The red squares were a preview to a larger-scale project called the Monument Quilt, being organized by the Baltimore-based creative activist group FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture. “This whole project means a lot to me,” said attendee Melanie Keller. “I am a survivor of rape myself, and it’s been a really long and difficult journey for me to get through that. I think that having a public space for people like me, for survivors and victims of abuse and rape, is something that can help us get over the shame and the guilt that we have.”
 
By holding quilting workshops across the country and informing people how to create and mail in their own quilt squares, FORCE plans to collect enough squares from survivors of sexual violence and their allies to cover the entire National Mall in 2016. Not only will each quilt piece have a unique story or message, but together they will spell out the words “NOT ALONE.”
 
While the Monument Quilt builds on projects like the Clothesline Project (which addresses violence against women) and the AIDS Quilt, the organizers view this undertaking as different. “In those spaces—that are important and totally valid—survivors are educating the public,” said FORCE co-director Rebecca Nagle. “I think the space of the quilt is very unique in that the public is there to support survivors.”
 
In the United States, nearly one in five women have been raped or experienced attempted rape in their lifetime, and so have one in 71 men, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Yet we lack adequate information to help survivors heal, to punish perpetrators, and to prevent such abuse from happening in the first place. As a result, it is very common for survivors to feel pain, confusion, and shame. Many blame themselves and keep silent about what happened.
 
FORCE hopes the quilt can help change this.
 
“The quilt airs out emotions that are usually confined to private spaces,” said Hannah Brancato, FORCE co-director. “For individuals and communities to heal from the isolating experience of sexual violence, which is so often kept hidden, we have to create a space where people can express emotions openly.”
 
If any of the 300 people who attended the event wanted to express their emotions by writing their own messages and stories, there were several blank squares and colorful markers available. On a blank square, one person wrote, “I will read, believe and be transformed by every story here.  Because I so badly needed an ally to be there for me when I came forward with my own story.”
 
Informational signs around the quilt let attendees know that it was okay to feel sad, angry, overwhelmed, speechless, or numb from the stories. It was okay to need to walk away or leave, or to talk to one of the counselors standing nearby. Self-care tips and snacks also were available as attendees absorbed and reacted to what they read and saw.
 
For Nagle, the afternoon was especially moving. A survivor of rape, she contributed to the quilt by writing, in beige paint on a bright red square: “The closeness I felt towards him was always mitigated by a knowing fear. My stepdad raped me when I was in the third grade.” Writing it, she said, was the first time she had publicly shared her story.
 
Partway through the afternoon, Nagle was one of a handful of people to speak. With a voice that broke several times, she shared her story aloud, with the U.S. Capitol as the backdrop. “I have a broad range of emotions sharing my story in such a public way,” she said. “From feelings of empowerment and pride, to feelings of shame and depletion. I am not immune to the negative messages our culture sends to survivors, but am in it, working through it. My healing process and the development of the Monument Quilt are completely intertwined, and I've made some of the largest strides, peeled back the most stubborn layers, through this project. What I think is truly amazing about the quilt is the opportunity to help create something that is greater than what was taken from me.”
 
To see this project grow so that the stories of survivors and their allies cover the National Mall, bearing witness to their pain and helping them heal, FORCE is asking people across the nation for help. Survivors and allies can make their own quilt squares to mail in, and anyone can host a quilt-making workshop in their school, community center, place of worship, or town to create collections of squares.
 
“The vision of the Monument Quilt is huge,” said Brancato. “The only thing bigger is the need.”

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This Saturday on WMC Live with Robin Morgan on CBS Radio WFJK 1580 at 11:00 a.m. in the Mid Atlantic Region

Robin’s Open Message to Gloria Steinem on her 80th birthday, and on Scandinavian men’s pro-feminism. Guests Julie Zeilinger of The F Bomb teen feminist hot blog; Atima Omara, President Young Dems of America. And Ikumi Yosimatsu returns—now taking on the Japanese Goverment. 
 

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