GIANT LETTERS FLOAT IN REFLECTION POOL TO SPELL CALL FOR NATIONAL MEMORIAL TO SURVIVORS OF RAPE AND ABUSE.
Giant styrofoam letters state “I CAN’T FORGET WHAT HAPPENED BUT NO ONE ELSE REMEMBERS” in the national reflecting pool. The poem, written by a survivor, highlights the isolating and silencing experience of rape in the United States. The action is a call to create a permanent memorial to survivors of rape and abuse.
FORCE, the group behind the action states, “We want to build a national memorial to survivors, because we want to live in a country that holds public and supportive space for survivors to heal. We want to build a national memorial to survivors because we want to live in a country that believes rape can and must end.”
The call to build the permanent memorial started on a warm February day with about 20 volunteers unloading enormous letters from a rented U-HAUL van. The red letters were strapped together to create a giant raft. After gathering for a photo on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the group pushed the poem into the reflecting pool among cheers, cameras, and a crowd of curious tourists.
“I’ve never seen anything like that floating in the reflecting pool and I’ve lived in or around DC my whole life,” said one observer. “So I was very drawn to it. It was a beautiful message and it was a haunting message.”
Two friends, visiting from Utica, NY, paused to look at the letters and talk to the people putting them together. “Its a topic that sometimes gets swept under the rug, so I think bringing it to terms, doing what you’re doing with making a memorial, helps bring awareness to rape and sexual abuse,” said one man. “Getting it out there and making sure that those people aren’t alone: everyone has a heart for that.”
His friend stated, “It shows that we can all come together and be one nation and do what we have to do to get everybody aware of what’s going on in the world.”
“The most compelling part for me was watching the tourists react,” said a volunteer down from Baltimore to help for the day. “All these people were taking photos. Families talked about it. This man on a rented bicycle stopped and asked questions. For about an hour and and a half, it was part of people’s regular visit to the mall. I could kind of see how such a thing would work. I think people would really respect it.”
Recently, rape has dominated the headlines. News stories have covered the Penn State trials, the off-color comments of politicians (see Todd Akin’s legitimate rape statement), a gang rape and ensuing protests in India, and the social-media documented rape and repeated sexual assault of a 16-year old girl in Steubenville, Ohio. It seems like a lot of people are talking about rape. Is our country and even the world ready for a more open conversation about what many consider to be a long-silenced topic?
“We are in a special cultural moment where rape is getting a lot of media attention,” says FORCE. “It is important that we use this attention to not just talk about rape, but end it. ”
The author of the poem “I CAN’T FORGET WHAT HAPPENED, BUT NO ONE ELSE REMEMBERS” says this about the need for a permanent memorial: “There are no safe places to talk about my experience. People look at me with pity, or they associate what happened to me with the choices I made, when I do tell my story. I know I am not alone in my inability to define my experiences and even now, I do not completely understand them. A lot of my healing process has been internal. A public memorial would create both a physical space and a psychological space that does not exist in our culture- one where survivors are not blamed or judged, but rather are honored and respected for their ability to survive and thrive through trauma and shame, where they do not need to learn to live with part of their identity hidden, and where their character is not judged by their assault.”
The floating poem is not the first stunt carried off by FORCE. They recently received international attention for their panty prank “PINK loves CONSENT”. “PINK loves CONSENT” was a fake website pretending to be Victoria’s Secret promoting the practice of consent to customers with underwear slogans stating “ASK FIRST” and “NO MEANS NO”. Before pretending to be Victoria’s Secret, FORCE also projected RAPE is RAPE unto the US Capitol Building. The group exists, as they put it, “to upset the culture of rape and promote a culture of consent.”
FORCE launched the campaign for a permanent memorial for rape survivors as part of an international day of protest- 1 Billion Rising- the 15th anniversary of V-Day. V-Day is a movement begun by Vagina Monologues author Eve Ensler. This year, V-Day organized 1 billion people to dance in solidarity and symbolism for the 1 billion women worldwide that have been raped or beaten in their lifetime.
The organizers claim a national memorial to survivors of rape and abuse is needed in the United States because, “In a country where 30-45% of women and 13-16% of men experience sexual violence in their lifetime, most of them by the age of 18, rape is not just a national problem. Rape is an epidemic.”
Many of the rape statistics in the United States are alarming. American women are twice as likely to experience rape in their lifetime than breast cancer. An estimated 65 million Americans are living with a history of rape or sexual abuse. Meanwhile, rape remains one of the most under-reported crimes.
“The sad truth is that these statistics are old news,” says Rebecca Nagle, organizer of the project. “We are quoting the same statistics that were used in the 1970’s. Nothing has changed. We all know that rape is happening. We all agree that rape is wrong. So what the missing link? Why haven’t rape statistics change in 40 plus years?”
“Rape is treated like it is inevitable. Rape and sexual violence have not been treated in our culture like a cause for outrage, but rather as just the way things are. The missing link in ending rape is the basic belief that rape can end. A national public memorial would be a symbol for our country to ground the vision of a day without rape and carry it forward for future generations. If we don’t create a culture that believes rape can end, then without a doubt we will be quoting the same statistics in 2050. And by then three more generation of Americans will have experienced the same rates of violence and trauma.”
But on the national mall? Amidst the monuments and marble pillars that tell the best version of our nation’s history, wouldn’t a memorial to such a violent and personal tragedy feel out of place?
“I don’t think so,” said a tourist from North Carolina who walked by as the poem was being pulled out of the pool. “Not all of our history as a country is easy. And there is space for that here. Just look at the Vietnam War Memorial.”
Indeed, if you were to walk a mere 300 yards north of FORCE’s temporary memorial you would encounter a granite wall engraved with the names of the 58,272 Americans who lost their lives fighting in the Vietnam War. The politics of the Vietnam War left our country divided, creating a difficult home-coming for returning soldiers and a feeling of shame for families grieving lost loved ones. Without taking a side on the divisive politics of the War, the wall honors the dead. The creation of such a wall was organized by a group of veterans, who saw the need for a public symbol to honor their fallen friends. While Americans may still argue the rights and wrongs of the Vietnam War, our country now holds public space to honor and grieve the war’s American casualties. The wall receives daily visits from veterans, families and tourists learning perhaps a less glorified version of American history.
“Memorials create a platform for individuals and communities to grieve trauma,” says Hannah Brancato, FORCE organizer. “The existing memorials on the national mall are places to honor the heroes of our history, to grieve the losses of violence, and for society to remember. When our nation remembers difficult parts of our history, we are better able to prevent injustice and atrocities from repeating. This process has not happened with sexual violence.”
The connection between veterans and survivors of rape was made by author and psychologist Judith Herman in her work Trauma and Recovery. After explaining the healing effects of war memorials for veterans, Herman states, “The most common trauma of women remains confined to the sphere of private life, without formal recognition or restitution from the community. There is no public monument for rape survivors.”
FORCE says, “One of this first steps on the road to healing from sexual violence and PTSD is telling the story of what happened. As long as the telling of such stories is forbidden in our culture we are hindering the process for millions of survivors to heal.”
While the group is rallying for a physical memorial on the mall, they are building a virtual memorial on tumblr. At mourningandrage.com survivors and allies are posting their stories, their anger, and their support for a memorial. As one survivor stated on the tumblr, “We need a memorial so that survivors have at least one place to look where they can say, ‘This wasn’t my fault. I am not alone.’”
You can contribute to the online memorial by posting at mourningandrage.com or tweeting what you think about a permenant memorial with #mourningandrage.
Will FORCE’s effort to create a national memorial to survivors succeed? Building a national memorial requires congressional support, financial resources and the will of the American public. While carrying the 44 giant letters up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial was no small feet, gaining the congressional and public support needed for a permanent memorial is a much larger undertaking. “We’re in it for the long haul,” says FORCE. “Today was the first day of a long journey. We’re just getting started.”
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