Written by Cathryn Wellner November 30, 2001 for the 16 Day Blog a Thon to End Violence

Cathryn Wellner is a writer and storyteller.  Her focus is understanding the world around us through storytelling.  The following blog post provides her account of a National Conference, that was not organized by the Elizabeth Fry Society.

the request

“We want you to tell stories about violence against women. It’s for a national conference.”

My husband and I were entertainers—storytellers and musicians—not therapists, so we hesitated. The organizers of a conference on domestic violence wanted us to not only tell stories about the issues but to actually portray rising tension, culminating in an episode of violence between us.

They hit us in our weak spot. They actually believed in the power of storytelling to thread the labyrinth of professional distance and find the soft center, the place where the barrier of protection is breached. Still, we refused until they promised to let the audience know what they had asked us to do and to make sure counselors were on hand afterward.

Both victims of abuse and abusers sit in any audience. If we were as effective as the organizers hoped we would be, we would be unleashing emotions that might shatter the shields of degrees, licenses, and professional objectivity. The conference committee understood our concern, agreed to our terms, and sent a contract.

The performance

We chose stories from folklore and mythology that were metaphors, thinking they would provide just enough distance for safety. We added some contemporary songs. Around them we wove the thread of tension between us that was to culminate in my husband’s pretending to hit me. Rehearsing was emotionally draining.

On the day of the performance, the organizers failed us. They did not explain to the audience of counselors, social workers, physicians, and therapists what they had asked us to do. And we realized in the aftermath that they also did nothing to make sure counseling was available for those who saw their own stories played out before them.

In the silence at the end of our performance, we knew we had met the organizers’ hopes. The audience sat in that quiet space where even moving feels like sacrilege. Then someone broke the spell, and the audience applauded enthusiastically.

That’s when the organizers failed us again. The audience was to lead the question period, but the organizers left us to do it instead. Most of the questions were variations on the first, and they were all aimed at trying to get my husband to tell them when and why he had started abusing me.

In the hours that followed, many women waited until they could catch me on my own. They wanted to pour out their own sorrows, confusions and fears, the complicated ties that kept them from leaving abusive relationships.

The acknowledgement

The only person who would speak to my husband, whom the group now identified as a monster, was a woman who approached us together.

“Thank you,” she said. “You got it right. That’s exactly how it starts.”

She was one of the speakers, a woman who had just been released from prison. She had murdered her husband after years of horrendous abuse. Gradual awareness of the vulnerability of women in abusive relationships had led to her being pardoned. She had become a powerful speaker, sharing her story in an effort to make the world safe for women being battered by their partners.

Her appreciation was the one bright spot in the day for us. If we had had any lingering doubts about the power of storytelling, they disappeared that day. The experience drove home a lesson we had tried to impress on the conference organizers, that finding the dark heart of human emotion is accompanied by responsibility. What we had feared, and the reason for our insistence they set the context for the performance and then offer counseling, had proven true. We had the capacity to reach inside the hearts of those who had experienced, or perpetrated, domestic violence.

We were asked to perform at the next year’s conference. This time we refused until they agreed to set the performance up so the audience knew what to expect and then to clearly identify where anyone traumatized could receive help immediately. They did a miserable job on both counts so we never agreed to participate again, but at least the second year we built into the performance a lifeline that left the audience more hopeful and more empowered.

The world we want

Our storytelling at those two conferences and my community development work with numerous women’s groups before and after were driven by the vision of a world where women no longer have to be warned not to go out alone after dark, a world where no one is afraid to go home, where no woman has to turn herself into a pretzel trying to appease her abuser. That is a story worth working for.

Domestic violence and sexual abuse continue to imperil the lives and emotions of millions of women. They are our neighbours and friends. They are the family members who are afraid at home and shamed into believing they are at fault. Their stories haunt me.

Until the assault on women ends, none of us is truly safe. But I believe a different world is possible, and it is the world envisioned by Donna Milner in the poem she wrote for a production of The Vagina Monologues in Williams Lake. She titled the poem, “A community, a world without violence against women or children.”

Read it, and let’s work together for that day.

Read more from Cathryn Wellner