Even Heroes Need Critique: some thoughts on the philosophy of Project Unbreakable
Back in October, I noticed posters around my school’s campus announcing that Grace Brown, 20-year-old founder of Project Unbreakable (http://projectunbreakable.tumblr.com/) was coming to lecture. I was really excited because I’d seen her work before and had been quite impressed. What Ms. Brown does is invite survivors of sexual assault to be photographed holding a sign with a quote from their attacker (or from victim blaming family, or law enforcement, or even sometimes their own words) in order to take charge of that trauma. Here’s a recent example:
The project has been hailed by Time Magazine and by the Joyful Heart foundation, and by many participating survivors for whom being photographed was a healing experience.
I still love the project for the good it’s done. But I was sorely disappointed by Brown’s speech, and sent her the following email:
Dear Ms. Brown,
As a RISD student, I had the privilege of attending your talk on our campus two days ago (I was the girl who asked three questions). While I deeply admire your project, and it’s abundantly clear to me that you have a good heart and the best intentions, I’d like to bring up some aspects of your talk that I, and my roommate who saw your talk with me, thought were less strong or possibly alienating to survivors of sexual assault. So you know who’s talking and why I think I’m qualified to give this advice, I’m nearly your age (19), a painting major who sometimes addresses sexual violence in her work, and a trained hotline advocate at a center for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. I think you have a wonderful platform, and I’m writing because I want to aid in that platform being the best it can be; as a fellow artist and activist, I assume you welcome constructive criticism.
1) Representation of the survivor character: In your talk, you made several points exhorting survivors to not feel “dirty” or “broken.” While obviously it’s everyone’s wish that a survivor not have self-loathing feelings after their assault, the fact is that often they do, and it’s vital that a survivor’s feelings be validated. This may seem counterintuitive, but it can come off as telling survivors how to feel. Example: a friend of mine, who has survived rape, says she’s sick of people telling her how “strong” she is. Survivors do not have a responsibility to be “strong” or “inspirational,” though they might well be. It’s easy for someone who’s never been assaulted to talk about growth from that kind of pain; however, if that’s what you want to talk about, you need to find a way to do so that does not demand a certain “acceptable” path for survivors. I’m advocating not cynicism, but realism.
2) Self-Congratulation: You came off as a bit self-congratulatory in the speech; talking about how “grateful” your subjects are makes it look like you’re patting yourself on the back. Don’t get me wrong: you’ve done a great thing, and no doubt participating survivors are grateful to have this kind of chance to tell their stories. But that shouldn’t have any kind of focus. If anything, you should stress your gratitude to them- you’re certainly not being exploitative, but you are benefiting personally from their willingness to participate.
3) Condescension: I would get rid of the you-can-change-the-world-too-I-promise speech, if I were you. It’s the kind of thing you tell fourth graders, not a room of activist peers just as well-read and politically/socially informed as you. Yes, what you’re doing is inspiring, but you don’t need to so obviously point that out.
4) Appropriation: This is the most important thing- near the beginning of your talk, you said that the stories of sexual assault told to you by friends and acquaintances “felt like my stories.” These are not your stories; this should not be about you. This makes the project appear to be more about easing your own guilt at escaping assualt and less about actually helping victims of assault. My roommate, a survivor of sexual assault, actually said that she stopped listening at this point, because, as a survivor, she felt alienated and exploited. Please consider changing the way you identify with these stories as a non-survivor.
Basically, cultivate a better understanding of the nuances of your subject matter. Project Unbreakable seems based on a very good gut instinct, and running with that is wonderful, but you need to educate yourself on the outcomes. I notice on the project website that you have a “we are not qualified to give trained support” disclaimer- I suggest that as long as you’re traveling from college to college giving talks on sexual assault, you seek out qualified training of some kind.
Thanks for reading this- I wish you best of all possible luck.
I promptly received the following response:
Thanks so much for taking the time to send this. We all grow from all types of feedback – both positive and negative – and it’s important to hear it and learn from it. I appreciate your voice and passion for the subject.
I haven’t seen anything about Brown’s public speaking since our exchange, so I don’t know if she’s made any changes, but I *do* think that this is exactly the kind of constructive discourse that needs to happen between political artist-activists. I was impressed by Brown’s response, which was very gracious; I still think that the project itself is a wonderful idea. Since this whole post has been critical, I also want to point out what I think are the great things about the project:
-it showcases bravery and empowers survivors.
-it focuses on elements of visual art to deliver the message
-it’s collaboratory and voluntary; all participants give full consent, which is empowering to someone who has had consent taken away
-its puts faces to what may be for the ignorant an abstract issue
I’m afraid that my email may have been condescending in parts, which is exactly what I warned her against, in part. But I feel even more strongly that I needed to say it. Even heroes need critique.