By Ann Carin Niland
Photographs by Janice Goff-Lafontaine
Testimonies by Jenna, Jessica and Jaqui
“We are greater than our trauma,” says Jaqueline Mendoza, 24, who participated in the Speak Out project a year after its debut at Cabrillo College in Aptos in 2014.
“It’s not enough for me to say ‘me too’,” Mendoza says. “Because statistics will tell you it’s happened to everyone.”
Surpassing labels like “victim” and “survivor,” the annual Speak Out project showcases stories and photographs that are a testament to the strength women — and perhaps one day men — feel now that they have started recovering from their experiences with assault. Sexual harassment, domestic violence, rape and other forms of sexual assault are experiences that many are beginning to talk about openly. But once people speak that truth some wonder what to do with it.
This year, along with the project’s launch at Daytona State in Florida and the University of Texas in Austin, photographs and testimonies will debut at an opening in front of the HUB at Cabrillo college on Wednesday April 11 at 2 p.m.
Speak Out opens annually every April and stays on display until the end of May, when the semester ends. Participants will be there to tell their stories and answer questions. Organizers welcome everyone to come support the presenters, and encourage participation in future openings.
Now, with Dianne Avelar and the event’s founder Janice Goff-Lafontaine, Mendoza is part of the organizing team. Though she appreciates the strength women are finding in the #MeToo movement, she never participated in it herself. She has talked about her assault, but prefers to talk about what it is to realize the power within herself and other people who have had similar experiences.
The traumatic experience these women have undergone is only a tiny part of what the creators of Speak Out want observers to take away from this installation. The recognition the #MeToo movement has found makes it important to see past the sensation, and start focusing on the empowerment, self acceptance, and reclamation of one’s body these women are living every day.
“We need to continue that conversation beyond the headline,” said Goff-Lafontaine. She says the participants of Speak Out “got involved because it wasn’t focused on what happened, it was focused on healing.”
For ten years, Goff-Lafontaine brought her book “Women in Shadow and Light” to Women’s Self Defense, Women’s Sexuality, and Women’s History classes, and spoke to students at Cabrillo College about assault and the healing process. After every presentation at least one student would come to her with a story of their own, and ask to be involved if ever she wrote another book. She decided it was time to turn the focus to their stories. In letting the students speak for themselves, she found that together they created a self- healing community.
“It’s like throwing a stone in the water, and the ripples just go… they have all become healers,” says Goff-Lafontaine.
Each person who tells their story becomes part of the healing process for someone they might never meet. The participants do talk about their traumatic experience, but after that brief conversation they are asked when and where in their body they began to heal. The creators work with the participants to shape a photograph that embodies their feelings of perseverance, strength, and pride. The photographs defy the stereotypical victim-image that society recycles.
“When all you have is your strength, that’s when you realize how strong you are,” said Mendoza. “I wanted every decision I made to be mine.” She described the liberating feeling of coming back into a place of peace within herself.
Mendoza is a first generation Mexican-American, and she would not let the statistics about minority women fill her with fear, or control the way she lived, as it once had when she was a child.
“I walk with myself,” said Mendoza. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of, even though I felt the shame.” But despite the shame she felt — because of ways she’d been taught to view sex, her body, her culture and gender — she knew what happened to her wasn’t her fault. For Mendoza, that truth was one of the hardest to come to terms with. Each person who is interviewed for Speak Out struggles with this truth, but they can say it with such sincerity to someone else.
“Why is it that we can say ‘you are a good person, it wasn’t your fault, and now you’re a healer,’ but we can’t say that to ourselves?” Goff-Lafontaine wonders.
“This does not define you. This is not who you are. It’s just something that happened to you,” said Goff-Lafontaine.
She has said it many times, she will say it many more, and she hears the women say it to each other. She hopes this project will be embraced and carried over to colleges everywhere.
TESTIMONIES FROM SPEAK OUT |
For so long after my rape I wasn’t able to even begin healing, because I had put such intense blame on myself. With the help of therapy, I realized I was not to blame no matter what choices I’d made, and a weight was lifted. I became free of so much pain, and started learning how to be happy again. Simple things like going to the beach can make me feel happy and calm. I love this joyful portrait because it expresses my healing so perfectly – I am free, and I am happy.
Jenna was 13. She was excited to go on an annual family camping trip with trusted friends.
At the last minute my brother couldn’t go, but I still wanted to. When I got to their house, the 2 older boys had invited friends I didn’t know. They were all close, so I felt left out. But the next day, one of the new boys started flirting with me. He was the star of the wrestling team. He was cute and popular so I was flattered. Three days in he kissed me, held my hand, and was so sweet. One of our family friends’ boys took me aside and told me please be careful and not to trust this boy who seemed to like me. I had no clue why, since he was being so sweet to me.
The last night, the parents went to sleep in their tent, and the boys and I went down to the rocks along with another girl we’d met camping. The boys were drinking, but the girl and I didn’t. So the boys got us Gatorade, and gave it to us already open. The girl and the boys I knew left, so it was just me, my new ‘boyfriend’, and his friend. He wanted me to drink alcohol so I put it to my lips, pretending to drink but only took a tiny sip, just to fit in. I started feeling so tired, and dizzy, and when I tried to get up, I had jello legs, and fell down. I thought maybe it was because I had those couple sips of alcohol. I remember them dragging me through the trees back to camp, and when I fell he said “get up bitch!”. He had turned into a completely different person.
I woke up in his tent, and my head and down there hurt so bad. I had no memory of what happened, and I just tried to bury the experience.
I started feeling so sad inside, but didn’t know why. I was coping in negative ways, hanging out with kids doing drugs, and cutting myself because I didn’t know why I was hurting so much. When I drank with my new friends, I saw it was nothing like I felt after just 2 sips camping, and I knew something must have happened. When I finally told a friend she said it sounded like I was drugged.
But I didn’t really start dealing with it until I was 17. I was throwing up every day, and it was my doctor who suggested going to therapy. Therapy was the beginning of my finally accepting what happened, and dealing with it. Just talking about it made such a huge difference. When I didn’t talk about it, and just tried to suppress it, it was making me sick, literally. Keeping it inside, I felt very alone, and it wasn’t until I told someone, and got help, that I started to heal, emotionally and physically. I still have times when I feel horrible, but I have better coping skills now. I haven’t cut in a long time, I rarely drink, and taking the self defense class was empowering.
I really like being able to help friends, but I think part of my healing is to help myself a little more, and to really let go of blaming myself. I just want to love myself a little more. That’s what I need to work on now. We all need to know that it’s not our fault, but it takes a lot of work to get to that point. I think there is so much victim blaming, we automatically want to blame ourselves. But here is one of my favorite things on the subject: it’s a picture of a girl at rally. She’s completely nude, with tape on her nipples and holding a sign that ways “Still not asking for it”.
I’m grateful to be part of this project, to be creating awareness. And I hope this is helping other women to be able to talk about their experiences. Even if my story helps just one person, that is huge. If I can help one person, it’s something I can be really proud of.
Since doing this project last year, I finally had the courage to open up to my mom and tell her what happened, almost ten years after the rape. I strongly believe that keeping it from her was something holding me back in my healing journey. Now we have an incredible new connection because of it, and we are closer than ever. This has made me feel free, and helped release me from the shame I carried.
My healing portrait represents vulnerability — a challenging yet necessary part of my healing journey. Making eye contact with others has been a struggle for me, due to fear of exposing the shame and pain that my soul has carried for so much of my life.
Vulnerability has not come easy for me, but I am learning that when I do so, I receive the most beautiful reward: a connection with others.
The seed of shame was planted at age 5 when Jessica was molested by a playmate. Raped as a 14-year-old virgin, shame grew and became deeply rooted in her soul.
I’d just moved here from Ohio to live with my dad my sophomore year. I hadn’t made friends yet, but I’d met Kyle at a pool party, so I called him to hang out. I thought it’d be just the two of us, but he brought his older friend David, and a bottle of Southern Comfort. I wasn’t a drinker, but took some to fit in. I got really scared when I started to black out just as David pulled me into his lap. While I was in and out of consciousness, they took turns raping me.
She woke up with police shining a light in her face, in an abandoned car in a church parking lot, beaten and raped. Yet the police just took her home without even taking a statement.
My step mom called me a slut. Kyle was her friend’s son. My father screamed out, “Baby, you were raped!” I was traumatized and in shock. I got in the shower and scrubbed my body until my skin was raw, then went to bed. The next day nobody said anything, like it never happened. I felt such shame and humiliation, especially when I had to see Kyle and David at school. I felt it was my fault for going along with the drinking. I was barely functioning, smoking pot and skipping school, so I decided to move back to Ohio. I pushed this so far down, and never told my Mom until I was 17. I was talking to a social worker and she asked me questions about sexual abuse, which triggered the memories.
Jessica stayed in Ohio until graduating from high school. She was making a life for herself, when something happened that would shatter her trust again.
When I was 22, I was raped by someone I’d called my “friend.” I trusted him since he’d never come on to me and we had been friends several years. We were at his friend’s house sitting on a couch talking. He must’ve drugged me, because I woke up to him having sex with me on the floor in a different room, with a huge gash on my face. I had no idea how it happened, but it made me not trust myself. Years later, I saw a flier with his mugshot, claiming he was wanted by police for drugging and raping women. My heart broke, but it affirmed that I indeed was date-raped by Steven. Trust is a challenge for me; often the people I’ve trusted most have hurt me. I still often question my decisions and analyze peoples’ behavior before I can even somewhat let my walls down.
Writing has helped my healing, as well as focusing on things which empower me: my education, nurturing my son, raising him to be a good man who respects women. I began my healing journey in 2014, taking a women’s self-defense class, and attending group therapy. That was the first time I ever opened up about my experiences. Speaking out has been scary, yet liberating. To expose the dark secrets I’ve locked away for many years frees me from isolation and helps me grow into the woman I strive to be: confident, comfortable in my own skin, able to trust myself and others, and be happy.
The important thing for me with this project is to inspire other survivors who haven’t felt safe enough to acknowledge what happened to them; to let them know it wasn’t their fault and that it is possible to heal. When I saw Jan’s book, I was deeply moved and filled with hope. To see women who have overcome trauma be lifted up and empowered is amazing and beautiful to me. I hope that I can help at least one person through sharing my experience and exposing the taboo topic of sexual assault.
For too many years I suffered in silence, but now I am finally free and my voice is being heard.
Meditation has allowed my mind to attain a sense of stability, while also accepting how my thoughts and emotions ebb and flow like the ocean waves. This flow lets me come back to myself, and to give to the world a better version of who I was a moment before — never the same, just as the water. And even amidst this push and pull, I remain strong and stable.
Jaqui was molested by her babysitter’s husband from age 4 to 11.
Of course, he told me not to tell anyone. But when I was 11, I was with the babysitter and saw something similar on TV, and burst out crying. I finally told her what her husband did to me, and she said I must have misunderstood, and don’t tell my parents. My mom worked a lot, and I knew the sacrifices she was making for us, but she was gone so much. She thought the babysitters were angels, and I didn’t want to hurt her, so I was afraid to tell.
In elementary and middle school, I did tell some close friends about it as a way of coping, and trying to understand it myself. Then in my sophomore year, I had an instructor who helped me see the power of writing. I began to express the depths of my emotions, thoughts and feelings on paper in ways I had never before communicated. This became the ultimate source of my healing. The vulnerability in my writing carried the clear message I lacked in speaking.
In my junior year, I wrote an essay about my molestation and read it in class. Although I had tried to be vague and used metaphors, my teacher recognized it, and she said we had to report it. So it all came out, and we went to court and he went to jail. The reason I went to court was because I found out he was doing the same thing to another girl, and it was easier for me to want to help someone else. But it kind of re-traumatized me because I had to tell them all the details. It was hard to tell my family; my dad was an alcoholic and never there, and my mom had similar experiences, so didn’t really know how to support me. But my mom is really the one who kept me from spiralling out. She showed me unconditional love, and was very affectionate. She accepted me as me, and would always listen. I went through some very hard times, but my bond with my mom is what kept me from lashing out.
I had some very dark thoughts, and even thought about wanting to kill myself. There were times I would have to detach myself, and almost look at the “trauma me” as a separate person. If I just couldn’t calm down, I would try to see myself as I would see any other human being seeking help, and show myself compassion. I need to remind myself that I can still live calmly even amidst chaos in my home and personal life. Meditation has helped me do this.
I have gone through my experiences for a reason, and have wanted to find a way to help those in similar situations. However, I believe in order to do so I have to be upfront about my own traumas. The act of sharing my story publicly will allow me to put it all on the table, and address the stigmatized issues. Being open about what happened to me will help me heal, and only then I can help those who may still have been silent. Hopefully I can help people realize that there is beauty that can emerge from the darkness.
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