On a sunny, winter Saturday, 100 red quilts blanketed the lawn of the US Capitol Building with survivors’ stories of rape and abuse. In three hours, roughly 300 visitors saw the 100 quilts. The project, The Monument Quilt, is an effort to create public healing space for survivors. With the symbolic capitol dome as a backdrop, supporters of the project, passersby and DC tourists witnessed and honored stories of sexual violence.
One visitor stated, “The way that [the quilts] are displayed you can choose to read the stories or you can just come here and appreciate the visual effect of it. So everyone can get the experience that they want to get from it. There’s been a lot of foot traffic. It’s been interesting to watch people who didn’t know about it stumble upon it and read the stories and be exposed to the message of it. I think its been a really powerful experience.”
The Monument Quilt is a crowd-sourced collection of thousands of stories from survivors of rape and abuse by the creative activist group FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture. FORCE says, “By stitching our stories together, we are creating and demanding public space to heal. The Monument Quilt is a platform to not only tell our stories, but to work together to forever change how the US public responds to rape. We are creating a new culture where survivors are publicly supported, rather than publicly shamed.”
Force will be collecting quilt squares from survivors of rape and abuse across the country for The Monument Quilt over the next two years. In a final display, The Monument Quilt will blanket over one mile of the national mall to spell “NOT ALONE”.
Many of the 300 people who saw Saturday’s display were moved by the experience. One visitor, who found the quilt while visiting the Capitol Building, said “It’s beneficial for everyone, for the general public, to be aware and know the emotional needs of victims.”
Elaine Schleiffer, a volunteer with FORCE, stated this about shame and the quilt: “It’s something that a lot of the stories here speak to, in the quilt. A sense of shame, or silencing or not feeling community or not feeling supported by the people who are closest to you. So I think part of what the Monument Quilt accomplishes is making support public and red and giant and obvious.”
“If I had to sum up my experience of the quilt in one word, I would say the quilt was ‘safe,’” said one visitor. “As a survivor, my biggest struggle in life has been to feel safe. It’s been a struggle to feel safe in intimate relationships, and it’s been a struggle to feel safe in the presence of co-workers, or just walking down the street– I have never, in my entire life, felt it was “safe” to publicly express my grief, pain, anger, or sorrow related to the trauma that I have survived. For the first time in my life, I walked into a public space where it was safe to be a Survivor. It’s a life-altering experience that all Survivors deserve.”
Each quilt is completely different, like each individual experience with sexual violence. Some quilts contain detailed stories. Some quilts contain parts of stories. Others contain messages of support or statements about sexual violence. Some squares contain no written language but are rather a landscape, an emotion, or a representation of an experience.
One quilt stated in bold letters: “2 DRUNK 2 TALK = 2 DRUNK 2 FUCK”
One survivor wrote, “Please don’t tell me it didn’t happen or that I should be over it by now.”
One story read, “The last time I saw my step dad in person he gave me a bunch of DVD’s. Home movies he had paid someone to transfer from tape. I watched them like a detective.
I want to know what day it was, what room we were in, what time of year. What was I wearing? How did it start? I want the certainty of a memory that plays like a movie. I can feel what happened—when sex gets close to it—in a very specific way. The weight of a body, the smell of alcohol on someone’s breath. The panic inside my muscles. Fear. Paralysis. My body remembers.”
And one red square quoted a bible verse, stating, “They are extinguished. I am about to do a new thing.”
“Many survivors don’t see themselves and their experience in our media’s narrow depiction of rape. This dominant narrative silences survivors,” says Rebecca Nagle, one of the project coordinators. “US culture narrowly defines and constantly qualifies rape, so survivors are made to feel insecure about naming their experience. There is not a correct way to be raped. There is not a correct way to respond to being raped. There are not grades of rape or lesser ways to experience sexual violence. By creating an unfiltered, equal platform for survivors’ stories, we are working to upset the dominant narrative. We are creating a culture where the power of naming an experience is given back to the survivor.”
FORCE says, “The dominant narrative of rape in the United States is leaving many US residents out. Rape is not only experienced by women. Rape is not primarily experienced by adults. Rape survivors are not only white, or able-bodied or straight. A broad base of Americans are affected by rape and abuse. People experience violence, recovery, justice and access very differently based on gender, sexual orientation, class, race, citizenship and ability. When we correct our collective misconceptions of who is affected by rape, we are taking a necessary step to ending it.”
Visitors to Saturday’s display were greeted by volunteers, offered cookies and handed postcards with self-care tips to take home. A border around the installation reminded visitors to “breathe” and “it’s OK to cry, to talk, to leave, to be still.” “The quilt airs out emotions that are usually confined to private spaces,” says Hannah Brancato, FORCE co-director. “For individuals and communities to heal from the isolating experience of sexual violence, which is so often kept hidden, we have to create a space where people can express emotions openly. Where people can feel angry. Leave. Reflect. Trauma from sexual violence is cumulative and effects just about everyone. In order collectively heal – as individuals, communities and as a country – we have to create space for people to grieve and heal and find support out in the open, in broad daylight.”
On interactive blankets visitors were invited to “SIT, WRITE, REFLECT.” Some chose to share their own experience, while others wrote down messages of support for survivors. One visitor wrote, “I will read, believe and be transformed by every story here. Because I so badly needed an ally to be there for me when I came forward with my own story.”
“These wounds ripple out over decades. Who among us is not touched by them in some way?”
The statement made on the lawn of the US Capitol Building on Saturday is only the beginning. Over the next two years, the Monument Quilt will increase in volume, reach, complexity, and impact. FORCE plans to collect thousands of quilt squares for a final display, that will blanket over one mile of the National Mall. “The vision of the Monument Quilt is huge,” says Brancato. “The only thing bigger is the need.”
For those interested in shaping this nation-wide community art project, there are many different ways to get involved. Survivors and allies can make their own quilt square. People across the country are invited to host quilt-making workshops in their school, community center, place of worship, or town. You can also volunteer time or donate money to help make this vision a reality. All the different ways to engage, resources for survivors, information about upcoming events, and more can be found at themonumentquilt.org.