I’ve written and rewritten this speech so many times I’ve lost count. There is so much to say but I also know I’m held tonight in a space which honours survivors, so just know that my heart wants to thank each and every one of you beyond this. And also know that any tears tonight are happy ones because you are giving me this space to share. So here is my story without shame or fear but with love.
Every day of my survival has been about creating and holding stories. I work in theatre for a living – lighting and creating art – and let me be clear, this is the space your inner child wants to run away to. It’s filled with crazy wonderful people who today have really become my family when I thought I had no one to hold my story together. When I literally couldn’t articulate what had happened to me out loud and my world felt like it was in free fall.
On the 9 April 2014 I looked into the eyes of darkness when I was gang raped, beaten and burnt outside my home. Choosing to become a survivor is a daily fight for me towards light and away from darkness. Working as a theatre lighting designer I really don’t have a choice. When I really think I can’t anymore, the show must go on and so theatre forces me up a ladder to literally switch on light and paint in colour.
Let me say that again – I was gang raped outside my home – a space I was supposed to feel safe. I went to a private hospital emergency room that night carrying with me, all the money I had, because medical aid was not possible for a freelance theatre technician like me. And I knew I couldn’t sit in a government hospital. I didn’t know how I would pay my rent after this, or literally eat my next meal, but I hoped the money I had was enough to be seen in trauma.
I had inadvertently walked into the safest space this city offers in the aftermath of trauma. A space made for survivors like me by an amazing organization called the Jes Foord Foundation. I had no idea then how profoundly this team would change and influence my survival. The kindness and care I received, cost free, at St Augustine’s for two weeks was beyond extraordinary.
I think it was the 2nd day after admission that my friend Jackie brought me an article to read about Jes. I remember holding on to Jes’ words “You have taken my body, but you will never take me”. Michelle my wonderful counsellor at the foundation would repeat it to me later too. I have never understood something as clearly or wanted to fight for my spirit as hard.
Every day since then has been a choice. A choice to be stronger than those who hurt me. And every day is a fight to re-mem-ber my soul and claim my life back. Remembering as opposed to dismembering – putting it back together but in the most powerful way.
These are not world changing choices – I’m not sure I have Jes’ strength in that way – but they are allowing me to come back and give back and share with those who have been through the same experience.
I’m glad no one told me then how hard most days would be. But 3 years later, I’m slowly turning the tide and now most days are good ones. I’m fortunate in that I have a support of love around me that allows me to have bad days without judgement. Most survivors don’t. On my bad days I can paint my nails turquoise, lie in the sun, make theatre that matters with my friend Neil, watch films, read a novel, and re-imagine my life with my cats, and my thick bushy hair.
I made it, so that I can watch trains and wave as they pass. Stand on the bridge, feel small, feel big, take up space, walk, count every step, run, run faster, catch my breath, hold it, breathe out, let go, the universe as small as the palm of my hand, dispersed dandelion wishes, let go, let go and in letting go hold on to the things that really matter.
What matters is what my friend Aaron calls “speaking truth to power”. For too long I’ve been unable to find the words to speak about what happened. To see that in my sharing I could help someone else and most importantly that it would give me power to face tomorrow. Statements are enough in broken climates.
I want to make theatre that matters and bring children to see shows so that for a moment they too can have a childhood of imagination. I want to give child survivors an afternoon in a magical theatre space where they can reclaim their childhoods – even if just for a moment.
I don’t want to hold secrets anymore. I want to paint light around me in the shape of my heart. I want to listen to an orchestra or a musical theatre performance – to arts ability to transcend.
Since then, I’ve gotten a permanent job at a theatre I really love and I’ve gotten a new cat. Yesterday two gorgeous puppies moved into my life. But I’m really here because of the extraordinary love of my friends Steven and Greg who gave me a space to begin healing. I try daily to feed myself small spoons of kindness. Swallow. Repeat. Share that with someone else. Bake a cake and deliver it to someone who doesn’t expect it. Have tea out of teapot and not a mug. Laugh at one thing, let the laughter engage my whole body; laugh at the madness, stupidity and beauty around me. Because even in the darkest places I will claim me as the beauty.
I need to defend the scabby kneed, jewel of me, cast a line all the way back, champion that heart through the decades, wrap it in tissue paper, and keep her safe. Champion all the incarnations of me. Remember how it felt when I understood what it meant to die and not live for another second. I need to cry that out.
I try not to worry (my anxiety doesn’t always listen). But if I can, I just try to stay. Focus on showing my strength so others will not feel the need to wrap me up in cotton wool and think of me as a victim. I am not the sum total of what happened to me. My eulogy is not written on my body in the scars left where I was burnt. I will not let this be the end – I have a new story to write.
In the process of re-mem-ber-ing, I like to think of myself as a brave explorer. I know that have climbed a hundred metaphorical mountains before breakfast – every damn one an Everest expedition and that’s just to get out of bed most days!
I know something of world weariness, the longing to be still and numb here, where everything ceases to matter, that unbearable nothingness; it’s a quiet death not sharing my voice and I want to thaw from its freeze. Feeling is the medicine I forgot we needed. It’s what my on-going therapy is teaching me.
I don’t want to build higher walls to feel safer or put more alarms in my house. I want to live and be a better human. The only way to do that is to take down the barriers between us and talk. Support organizations like this that make a REAL difference! But most importantly when we don’t know what to say, simply to listen.
To fellow survivors, I want to share the most important thing I have learnt – We are more than our adorned miseries. Our hearts are not the last vestige of hate and suffering. We are not victims with broken limbs, birds who forgot their wings. Yes, we know the impermanence of life; we consult with our scars every day, yet in choosing light and love we must turn away and speak.
I want our stories to be heard – their words like seagulls declaring truth – I am a phoenix rising. AND THIS WAS NOT MY FAULT.
Yes, we are survivors negotiating our way through a land scarred with hate and blood. I don’t have all the answers. I choose to travel this new path with my ancestors – the sisters and mothers who have travelled this before me. Africa has at least given me that! We are not broken in need of repair, and we are never the ignored elephant in the room – instead we need to festoon our stories with marigolds, offer up a cup of tea and speak truth to power. Reclaim it.
In writing our new stories down I imagine we meet and are held for moment in a devastating despair, but we face it together, we sound out sadness, mouthfuls of vowels swelling in gutful’s because this is the only way. To write new stories, to listen, to hold each other and know that despite it all we can choose to survive and burn brightly in light.
And if that feels too overwhelming, Just try, it is enough. Just show up, it is enough. Sometimes, we sparkle the most in the midst of our messy, oh-so-human realness. Unlike my theatre family, you don’t need a costume. You don’t need to perform. Or rehearse any lines. Be awkward. Be weird. Be imperfect. Be brilliant. Be big. Be fierce. Be you. And if you stumble a little, that’s okay. And if you say the wrong thing, it’s okay. Stand tall in your heart. Speak. It’s the antidote to immense struggle. Nothing can take this away from us.
Thank you for holding me.