Chicago, Illinois, United States
When we’re small and we hurt ourselves, we usually find ways to fix it. We may cry a little, suck the wound, or run to Mommy so that she can kiss it and make it better.
But what if we don’t know for sure we’ve been hurt? If no one hears us cry? And what if Mommy helped put the wound there?
I’m not a doctor, psychologist, or therapist. I’m a writer, musician, businesswoman, and art collector. I’m also a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, and I’ve learned a few things about healing. But it’s taken me almost half my life; so if sharing some of what I’ve learned helps anyone else, I’m grateful for this opportunity to speak to you through this journal.
I’ve worked with sexual abuse survivors for over twenty years now. In the beginning, I learned from my cousin, artist and sexual abuse survivor Judith Dawn Hickey. I watched her rediscover herself as an artist as she spent years healing the wounds created by multiple episodes of sexual violation. When I lost her to cancer in 1998, I created the Judith Dawn Memorial Fund for the Arts; so that other survivors of rape and sexual abuse could apply for financial assistance to pursue their healing through artistic expression.
Applicants to this program have received funds for painting, photography, voice lessons, piano lessons, musical instrument purchases, woodworking, writing, and quiltmaking—all different paths they hope will lead them to healing. Over the years, as I have read the applications and cried over their stories, I struggled to verbalize what I was learning about art and healing.
I believe creativity is in all of us, part of the earliest self. When sexual abuse occurs, it damages that early, innocent self and leaves wounds that we aren’t even aware of. We become objects that are used by our abusers, and we may lose that part of the “innocent self” from which our creativity springs. As objects and victims, how can we be free to express our true selves? And what happens when we try?
Our culture seems determined to block off any exploration of our wounds. Get over it, we’re told. Are you still dwelling on that? Can’t you put it behind you? You don’t really expect me not to invite your uncle to Thanksgiving dinner, do you? You should be living in the present, not in the past. Be part of the solution.
And yet, without exploration and expression, there is no solution. So the wounds burrow deeper and deeper, as we bury our pain and shame, and our creativity along with them.
I hear the stories, and I recognize the patterns. And I listen to the survivors. Because sometimes they need to tell their stories over and over and over again, to make up for all the years they couldn’t, or didn’t, and all the people who didn’t listen.
And I tell my own stories. My deepest healing came with the completion of the book I wrote about my cousin Judith. I had to finish my healing without her, and I didn’t know how to do it.
And now I’m laughing as I write this because I just fell into that same old trap. I talked about “finishing” my healing even though I tell people over and over again that we’re never finished healing. I had the worst panic attack of my life after a party where I socialized with my abuser, convinced I was “all healed.”
WE DO NOT “GET OVER” SEXUAL ABUSE. Those of us who are fortunate enough to have found some healing are not “over it.” We think, and we grow, and we process, and we learn, and we pray, and if we are lucky, we find ways to integrate what happened to us as children into who we are today. But we carry the wounds, and the scars, every single day of our lives.
So, as adults, how do we heal our wounds?
We write, we sing, and we paint. We look for safe places to share our stories and for people who will listen to us. How many songs, paintings, and articles will it take? Where do we go to find those people and those places?
In creating the Awakenings Foundation, I am building a safe place for survivors of rape and sexual abuse to create their stories and to share them with a world that may finally be ready to listen. And in helping others heal, I heal myself.
JEAN COZIER is the founder of The Awakenings Foundation and the author of Dear Judith: A Portrait of Survival. Artwork by rape and sexual abuse survivors is on display at the Awakenings Center and Gallery, 4001 N. Ravenswood Ave. in Chicago, Illinois. Contact Jean to schedule a visit.
If you are interested in the artists represented by The Awakenings Foundation, view Monika Filipiak Peszek’s work also featured in this issue.