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Sexual Assault Survivors Step Out Of The Shadows And Into The Footlights

Charlotte Albright
Survivors of sexual abuse tell their stories at The Lebanon Opera House.

Every two minutes, advocates say, an American woman will be sexually assaulted. But the majority of those crimes go unreported to police. Many victims fear reprisal, or worry they will be shamed. Yet last week, about a dozen people walked onto a stage and told stories of sexual assault – their own, or others’ – to a live audience.

The theatrical project was organized by WISE, an advocacy group serving the Upper Valley.

About an hour before the curtain rose, the performers – mostly women and a few men – paced nervously in a room offstage, helping themselves to fresh fruit and cheese. Each had a stark story to tell about sexual assault. Gretchen Curtis had never broken her secret in public before.   

“This is a really important cause to me,” Curtis said. “I have a daughter; I have a son; this is my story and it’s a really tragic situation, the status of how women are treated, how they’re accused, how they’re put on trial. And the world has to know that these are true stories. These things do happen and they’re not made up.”

Onstage, Curtis told of an attack by a stranger who hides in her bedroom closet and, after she goes to bed, starts to rape her. She chases him with a knife. He tries to strangle her. She fights him off. He flees, leaving a trail of blood. Neighbors in her apartment call the police. But the officers don’t believe her, despite physical evidence.

“They told me there was no knife,” Curtis told the audience when she took center stage. “They had proof that I was a liar because after four hours of interrogation, I failed the lie detector test. I failed to identify anyone in the mug shots. I was the one to blame. To not be believed, that is the worst of all.”

That theme – of not being believed –runs through many of these narratives and poems.

The material was solicited by WISE,  a non-profit resource center for victims of sexual abuse. WISE Assistant Director Abby Tassel says she hopes the program will dispel myths about sexual violence that often place the blame on the victim, not the perpetrators.

“So it was an opportunity for peoples' voices to be heard and also to bring some clarity to what their experiences actually are,” Tassel explained.

Men as well as women read from scripts they had written, and performed songs they composed.

“There’s a sad blue river flowing by, it’s filled with all the tears I cry,” sang Georgann Stephens, of Wilder.  “It keeps on flowing around the bend, now it seems this river has no end. It runs from love, it runs from me.”

Stephens says she has been struggling with substance abuse – a side effect, for her, of sexual abuse. But music, she says, has been healing.

“This song somehow, it’s like a band-aid, or hug. I think it’s a hug more than a Band-Aid, because a Band-Aid wouldn’t fix it,” she said.

Amy Trage says shaping her story into creative prose helped her deal with the trauma and its aftermath.

“It became easier. And then standing with all these people who are living the same thing as I am and just trying to hold hands and heal and send a message out there that we really need this; we really need people to listen,” Trage said.

On stage, she read : “I hate when you ask ‘Are you sure it really happened?’ Let me check in with my nightmares and get back to you. Would that make it more real? Would you feel better? Yes, I’m sure, I’m sure.”

To start and end the production, an a capella choir from Hanover High School sang a haunting and slightly dissonant version of the  Wailin’ Jennys’ tune “This Is The Sound of One Voice.” Many audience members dabbed their eyes with tissues provided at the door, and took home the thick program booklets containing many of the writings by the assault survivors.

Charlotte Albright lives in Lyndonville and currently works in the Office of Communication at Dartmouth College. She was a VPR reporter from 2012 - 2015, covering the Upper Valley and the Northeast Kingdom. Prior to that she freelanced for VPR for several years.
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