I have this idea for a series of paintings. Which is unusual for me because I don’t really paint.
The idea came to me when I was floating in a lake. I was visiting a friend I hadn’t seen in a long time. We were both lying on inflatable rafts that we chose from a big pile of rafts stacked by the back door to her parents’ lake house. I wanted a raft with a bottom and she found me a raft with a bottom. What I’m trying to say is that there was a feeling of abundance. Our needs were provided for. The water was warmer than I thought it would be. The lake was completely still. It was the early evening and no boats were passing by.
My friend was there to work on her screenplay.
We could have been talking about her screenplay. We could have been talking about my manuscript. We could have been talking about her sculptures. We could have been talking about my publishing project. We could have been talking about the tacos we were making for dinner, the relationships we were navigating. We could have been talking about anything.
But we were talking about rape.
Here is a painting: Two women float on rafts, bird’s-eye view. You can see two stripes of a red bikini and two stripes of a blue bikini. On the shore, a dog buries its ball in the sand. The sun is just starting to set and the water is a soft greenish-black.
The title of the painting is: Brilliant Women Talking About Rape Again (Instead of Talking About Their Art or Any Other Topic).
Now let me be clear: I find tremendous value in talking about rape and sharing stories of your rape with other survivors. There is great power in this, and it is necessary.
But there’s this frustration I feel when I’m sitting with a brilliant and talented friend and I realize that for the past 20 or 30 minutes, we’ve just been talking about rape: our rapes, rape in general, rapists, rape culture, date rape, rape statistics, TV rape, rape apologists, rape flashbacks, celebrity rapists, our rapists.
In these moments, my anger vibrates inside me until it shakes loose and gains buoyancy. It floats up into the air, where it hovers directly above me and my friend and our conversation. There, it does a study for another painting called Brilliant Women Talking About Rape Again.
This talking is important work. Part of the violence of sexual abuse is the silence that surrounds it. How often survivors feel too much shame or guilt or trauma to speak about what happened. How this silence gives the rapes and the rapists more power.
Here is a painting: Two women sit at a kitchen table, bird’s-eye view. Between them is a nearly empty cheese plate. The table is crowded with empty beer bottles and mugs stained with red wine.
Sometimes a conversation about your rape is the first conversation you have with somebody.
It was 1 a.m. or a little bit after. There had been a reading at my house, and all the other guests had left hours ago. She and I were picking at the last of the cheese plate and talking about rape.
I had met this poet before, at readings and parties, but this was the first time I’d really had a chance to talk to her. There was so much I wanted to ask her—about her childhood in Texas, the epigraph of her chapbook, her mobile library project—but I swallowed these questions. Another topic had asserted itself and it was impossible to deny.
And so I learned the facts of her life as they related to her rape: for example, that she went to college in Austin, but moved away when she was 23 (“the whole time I lived in Austin I was afraid of running into him”).
Here is a painting: Two women talk in a bookstore, bird’s-eye view. One sits in a pale blue armchair, and one browses the shelves. The books are disorganized, but in a welcoming way. Other customers come and go.
We could have been talking about her literary magazine, or the talk she was planning for the Berkeley ecopoetics conference. But.
Here is a painting: Two women sit at a bar, bird’s-eye view. Each one has a beer in front of her. TVs mounted high in two corners of the room show sports highlights.
We could have been talking about our lyric essays, her letterpress studio. But.
There was so much I wanted to ask this poet. I had heard her read an essay a few months before that so gracefully accomplished everything my own essays aim to do in regards to writing the body into the text and making the personal universal.
Maybe it was because I was shy; I didn’t know how to just blurt out, “Tell me how you wrote your stunning essay.” Or I tried and it was a hard conversation to start. Anyway, the topic didn’t really pick up and we found ourselves talking about rape instead.
“I don’t know anyone who hasn’t been raped,” the poet said. “It’s like that Claudia Rankine quote.”
She lent me her copy of Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, and I flipped through it on the train ride home. There it was, on page 72: “I think surely some percentage of women hasn’t been raped. I don’t know though, really. Perhaps this is the kind of thing I could find out on Google.”
In order to reconcile the ubiquity of rape, we need more images of rape as it actually looks—i.e., it’s rarely a violent struggle with a stranger followed by a helpful trip to the police department.
And in order to understand the impact of rape, we need more images of how rape stays with us—i.e., it’s not just something that happens one night.
That’s what these paintings are about. They are visualizing how much of a woman’s life can be spent processing the trauma of sexual violence, helping other women heal, strategizing ways to make safer communities. They are honoring the work we are doing in these conversations.
I think of the subversive WPA murals—grand cubist factory scenes with a little hammer and sickle in the corner. These paintings have the same motivation: to celebrate the strength of the worker while also criticizing the system that forces her to work.
I would very much like to walk into a room full of these paintings.
So then why won’t I paint them? It’s not that I don’t have any paint. And it’s not that I’m an awful painter. And it’s not that I don’t have the time. It’s that someone else should paint them.
I don’t want these paintings to be paintings of me and my friends having these conversations. I think a lot of us are having these conversations. If not in lakes, in oceans. If not in bars, in cafes. These paintings are of all of us. These paintings are yours to paint.
Amy Berkowitz is the author of Tender Points (Timeless, Infinite Light, 2015) and Listen to Her Heart (Spooky Girlfriend, 2012). She lives in a rent-controlled apartment in San Francisco, where she edits Mondo Bummer Books and hosts the Amy’s Kitchen Organic reading series.
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