“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” Jesus, Gnostic Gospel of Thomas
Witness is a series of collaged/mixed media pieces designed to bring awareness of a subject that has been tabu – incest and the sexual trafficking of children – out into the hearts and minds of the general public. By making incest and abuse of all sorts that occur inside families something that is never spoken of, we have – perhaps unintentionally – fostered it. This needs to stop. We need to be able to speak openly and without shame about these subjects. It is the perpetrators who deserve to carry shame, not those who endured the abuse.
There is nothing either violent or sexual about any of the pieces; the work is about how it feels and how it feels is complex and confusing both when it’s happening and when you are walking around out in the world trying to live with it as it eats you up from the inside out. I have used family photographs because they carry my truth. None of the adults pictured is now alive.
It was my mother who fostered my life as an artist and I suspect that it was her death that gave me the freedom to create this work. I would never have wanted her to be vilified by anyone on my account. We are all, after all, victims of victims, her life and the decisions she made were no doubt shaped by the very same men who helped to shape mine. We all try to do the best we can and we all make missteps along the way. Although I despised my mother when I was young, I grew to respect her as I became an adult and eventually, after what was left of her remarkable mind had mostly left her, I grew to love her. This gallery is dedicated, with love, and huge respect, to her.
(I told you, it’s complex.)
Witness has been exhibited as a public service in Bedford, PA at Locality Gallery and in Winchester,VA at the gallery of the Shenandoh Arts Council, both times in conjunction with local social services for women and children. I am open to Witness showing in any appropriate public venue as a non-profit public service to the community. While I cannot at this point afford to ship the entire show, I will happily drive it to anyplace I can reach in a day from my home. I am also happy for an organization will pay to cover shipping expenses.
The individual pieces in the show are not for sale however, I would consider an offer from a non-profit organization to purchase the show outright.
A Dubious Inheritance : I never really knew my father’s parents. My paternal grandfather died when I was two and my grandmother lived in grand style in Havana, Cuba in Miramar. Their house – which I visited – was like a palace to me, with marble floors, wrought iron bars on the windows and bathrooms as big as bedrooms.
On the other hand, my mother’s parents were a far too intimate part of my life. Once every bit as wealthy as my father’s parents
had been, they lost everything in the crash of ‘29 but by then they had become accustomed to a lifestyle that far outstripped their means so it was imperative that they discover ways to afford at least some of the luxuries to which they had become accustomed. Besides insurance fraud, occasional access to the grand-daughters proved useful.
Making It Work : If hell is where you live then you learn to live in hell and if your body is infused with memories that could render you mentally unstable then you have two choices: either break down or construct a reality into which your nightmares fit.
My mother’s dream had been to become a librarian, play the piano and sing in a choir, get married and have babies. Her father belittled her dreams and heaven knows what else he had planned for her. He separated her from her peers, ensured that she skip grades because her intelligence and his position allowed him to.
She became the youngest woman in the United States to enter medical school and had exactly one friend whom she left behind but in medicine, as a pediatric pathologist, she found a place to hide her nightmares.
Newlyweds Out on the Town : My mother told me, some time after my father had divorced her, when she was in her 60’s, that he had cheated on her even when they were engaged. She had known who he was and how he was and had married him anyway.
There was no point in their marriage when he had not been having random sex with other women. He also kept long-term mistresses, at least two of whom my mother managed to talk into leaving him. Mom had been more than a little bit of a free spirit when she and my father had first met and he became pathologically jealous of her once they became engaged. She dared not look towards another man in his presence.
The photograph in this collage was taken in their first year as a couple.
Somewhere Over the Rainbow : The first conscious memory I have of my mother hugging or holding me was when I was dying of scleroderma, in my mid-forties. Although she ‘took care of me’ when she was not working, she was not one to display affection overtly.
In retrospect, it seems to me that although my mother was a Catholic and not having children would have been out of the question, she might have hoped that having children would change my father’s wandering ways with women.
As it turned out, that was true … but not exactly in the way that she might have dreamed.
Visiting the Fatherland : My mother’s family was, for the most part, of Germanic descent but that influence was non-existent in our household. My father’s family had most of its roots in Spain and our family was, therefore, Spanish and that was that. Nothing else counted.
My father’s family had moved to Cuba sometime before he was born. His mother was an entrepreneur and built the first middle-class subdivision
on the island; his father was a physician and my father was sent to boarding school in the United States as soon as he was ready for school.
I was the first grandchild to result from what my grandfathers third marriage.
The Way Out is the Way In : I began leaving my body when I first experienced sexual intercourse at about age five. Luckily for me, that happened in a wooded area. I say luckily because when it happened my immediate and natural response to being so overwhelmed was to get out; so I got out of what I could, left my body, dove into the earth, swam through the dirt and up into whatever tree was the closest, going to the highest branches where I would sit, watching the activities below.
The trees spoke to me, explaining about the energy of people below and their drive to do the things they were doing. They also taught me about the earth and nature. They saved my mind and my life, gave me a foundation for living and made me what I am, an empath. Most of the information that was imparted to me in the trees lay dormant for many years though it had subtly influenced me throughout my life.
In 2015 I was delighted to come across a book, How the Trees Got Their Voices by Sue Lion. The book has won 16 national awards and honors and for someone like me, for whom the trees were both saviors and teachers, it was… is… a delight and a blessing. Written for children, it is engaging on many levels, and speaks to the child in all of us. It expanded the healing of my heart. I cannot recommend it strongly enough.
This Little Piggy… : It was at the hands of my mother’s father – literally – that I first experienced penetration. My body held the memory of the experience for decades and granted me dreadful nightmares of being an infant, wrapped in something light from neck to toe but wrapped so tightly that I could not move, at once struggling to be free yet dreading being free, because once I was released, I felt an awful sense of fullness, a kind of dreadful pressure, filling me up inside.
It was my grandfather who taught me to submit. That would prove important when he rented me out to his friends a few years later. I became the perfect product: no tears, no trouble. No dummy, I, for I had seen what happened to little girls who gave him trouble; they ended up in the trunk.
Well Begun is Half Done : My maternal grandmother was a harsh woman; she made my mother looked downright cuddly. I believe that she saw her role in my life as twofold: ensuring that I was obedient and that I kept my mouth shut.
She taught me a lot about cooking, sewing, doing laundry and cleaning, things I never would have learned at home where all these tasks were accomplished by “the help,” whom I was counseled to avoid.
Her response to me when I attempted to tell her what was going on at night, when she was (ostensibly) asleep was, “Bite your tongue.” Following her advice, I never spoke of the abuse again and thereafter, for decades, whenever I felt an upsurge of emotion of any sort, I literally bit down hard on my tongue.
No Sense Crying : My grandfather began my ‘training’ before I was one year old; I can’t speak for what happened with Debi. He began his exploitation of us when I was around five; again, I am not sure about Debi because, although we were mostly together, we were drugged for much of what went on, (a delicious drink my grandmother made for us with lots of sugar and vanilla). Debi may have been ‘started’ a bit later than I since she was younger.
The string on the collageis an allusion to having been treated like puppets. My grandfather pulled the strings, and we did as we were told or suffered the consequences. My string is now neatly wound and set aside but my sister has been a delusional, paranoid schizophrenic since the sixties, her mind unable to let go of the fear that men are after her and that drug dealers lurk around every corner.
Staying Sane : I don’t know when I started counting and reciting the alphabet continuously in my head; it must have been pretty early though because I was reading well before I started school. I also learned to play my eardrums … though I don’t know how that started either. I used the skill to accompany myself as I chanted numbers or letters inside my head. I still play my eardrums every day when I do yoga.
If you look closely, you’ll see that the alphabet pictured is not quite right. That’s because, in order to make more of a song of it, I doubled up some of the letters here and there … often, out of habit, I still do.
That he ended up turning me, for all intents and purposes, into one of his mistresses – confiding in me as well as incesting me – felt, at the time, like love. The romance ended at thirteen when I began to menstruate. It was then that I came to know the man my mother had married.
My father once told me, when I was in my early 30’s and had been complaining about his behavior, that it was his birthright, as a man of Spanish descent, to do as he damn well pleased.
I thought it a strange response at the time, but when my father stopped focusing his attentions on me and began to stay out at night – occasionally ‘raping’ me when he got home, I understood. My time as his ‘lover’ was over; I was now just another woman, to be used on an as-needed basis.
I wanted to die. I spent more time than I can calculate on the Henry Avenue Bridge, staring down at the shallow rocky creek far below wanting more than anything to have the courage to jump. I ceased caring for myself, not even brushing my teeth, hoping to make myself repulsive to him but nothing worked. I felt as if I could neither live nor die.
Out of the Frying Pan : I began studying the Esquire and Playboy magazines in my parent’s bedroom as soon as I noticed their existence. They were kept quite visible and wre easily available. My dream, as a child, had been to be a Vargas pin-up girl or Playboy center-fold when I grew up.
Thus, though married, 33 years old, and with two children, when I got the opportunity to apply for a job as a Playboy Bunny at the Atlantic City
Casino, I could not resist. 3,000 women applied; 300 were accepted and I was one of them.
Already in the grips of uncontrollable promiscuity this ill-advised job opportunity proved to be much like throwing gasoline on an open fire.
Losing Custody : When I wanted to leave my first husband, take my kids and flee to Atlantic City where I was working, he brought up the fact of my sister’s mental illness and suggested that I was mentally ill as well. He managed to convince me that I couldn’t do it, that I was, in fact, crazy. He frightened me into leaving the children with him, signing papers to the effect that he had custody.
I returned to the marriage about eight months later when he promised to treat me differently. I would have believed anything he said; I missed my children terribly. His promise to go to couples counseling quickly went by the roadside, I was the one who needed it, he said, so I stayed with it and began to learn my real strengths. When I finally gathered up enough courage to leave again in 1984 and insisted on taking the children, he threatened me with telling the children about my ‘bad behavior’ and his lawyer promised me a battle I couldn’t afford over the previously signed paper. I thought I would die. My children had been the only true love I had ever known. I was devastated.
Scleroderma : I contracted scleroderma in April of 1988, suddenly, as the result of what must have been an allergic response to some herbal remedies I had taken. It was as if a switch had been flipped somewhere in my body. The process of my muscles, flesh and organs turning into scar tissue proceeded so rapidly that by the time the disease was diagnosed that November, my doctor projected that I would have about six months to live.
As my body slowly curled in on itself, developing what felt very much like a shell, and delivering more pain than I thought it humanly possible to endure, I asked myself over and over again … what is it that I am trying to protect myself from? What could be so awful?
It would take a few very painful years to discover the answer to that question. When the memories returned, only about a week after my father died, they came on me with the effect of an emotional tsunami. That moment marked the beginning of what would be about a 25 year healing journey.
After the Memories Returned…
This little piece was created on the day that the memories of incest flooded back to me once I was able to extract myself from the trance state I was in.
Inside the passively standing golden figure is a smaller golden figure, arms up and outstretched… she is crying to be freed; both figures are placed in a vaginally-referenced form.
It was the only form of expression available to me for hours as my overwhelmed mind sought to process the truth of my life.
Shaman’s Dream : During the period of time in which I had scleroderma, because there was – and remains – no cure for the disease, I was introduced to many alternative approaches to healing, among them the art of shamanic journeying. It turned out that I had, unbeknownst to myself, been journeying as a child, during the period when I dove into the earth and then traveled up into the trees, there to receive an education about life and energy that I might otherwise not have been introduced to until much later.
New to me, though, was the idea of a Power Animal, a creature that, if not ‘nourished’ by you, might wither and die, causing you to follow soon after. The concept rang a bell with me and, under the guidance of a trained instructor, I set out to find my so-called Power Animal and I did. Thereafter, my animals (I had two) accompanied me to every hospital visit. Those loving beings left me when I became healthy again, leaving me open to find another… or for it to find me; after some years in therapy, that happened as well.
Traditionally, in some cultures at least, one is ‘killed’ by one’s power animal during the search. Mine came in dream and did, indeed, kill me. I awoke still in an altered state and with my insides churning. After many hours and much physical unpleasantness, I embraced my new Power Animal. It struck me how alike the Power Animal was to scleroderma, without which experience I wouldn’t have the strong sense of personal power that I have today. As with the Power Animal, I was forced to surrender to the disease process and in doing so was raised up.
My mother’s death in 2012 opened a door for me into the deepest levels of my psyche though it took me about six months to process her death enough to realize how much the biggest sorrow of my life – losing custody of my children – had its roots in the abuse I’d endured. Facing that broke my heart all over again but in that way one hears spoken about, in the way that the heart must break to let the light in. It was her death – she being the last of the adults that had been connected with my history… and the only one of them to even hint that anything ‘wrong’ had ever happened – that allowed me to stand and face the feelings I’d been carrying for my whole life in a reasoned way and to create the collages that you see here.
When that light broke through what I saw was how much a part of humanity my story was/is and how my story could have been the story of countless millions of other women. It was the beginning of a very palpable sense of oneness with all of humanity.
The Power of Creative Engagement: The role of the arts as tools for healing – and not just healing, transformation! – cannot be underestimated. And while poetry and songwriting are valuable, pure music and image both allow an expression of that which is ineffable. It is our bodies that feel; it is the task of our minds to ‘translate’ those feelings for us. Writing music is a stretch for most of us, as it is a complex art that can require years of study; creating visual art, though, is as possible the nearest stylus is close at hand.
Talking something out can never do what creating a visual piece can do precisely because the visual can take you to places that words simply cannot, no matter how heartfelt – or accurate – they may be. Creating Witness was not easy for me, just gathering images that would convey my feelings often left me drained and once an entire piece came together I’d often have to hide it away until it was time to work on it again. But it changed me at a profound level… an ineffable level. It is, I think, the most important work I have done. It raised me up.
Taking Flight : I have come through this journey to an exquisite place of comfort, joy and love, surrendering all the way. I send back to my childhood self the wonder of each new day, the supportive love that has found me, the thrill of being able to create, the blessing of being able to be of assistance to others. I send it all back, knowing that linear time does not exist, that all of me exists in an ineffable Now Moment that encompasses everything I am, was, and ever will be, knowing that little Vicki, being carried off into the darkness with her sister, will one day shine as brightly as any star and dispel the darkness that once was, a small part of the rising tide of a humanity that grows ever more enlightened in spite of itself.
I wish such peace for everyone.
Waxing moon in Scorpio, July, 2014.