By Sibylle Whittam
Recently, I toured the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. I loved the museum, but was blown away by Jenny Holzer’s Thing Indescribable exhibit in particular. Holzer is well-known for tackling social issues head-on. For forty years, she has used carefully curated writing displayed through LED signs to shed light on dark corners of the human psyche. While I was familiar with her work before visiting the museum, seeing it in person was different.
One portion of the exhibit titled, “I WOKE UP NAKED,” used LED lights to explore first-hand testimony from survivors of sexual assault and rape. The audiovisual was an incredibly powerful reminder of the devastating costs of sexual assault and why fighting for the rights of survivors and holding perpetrators accountable is so important. The featured personal stories came from non-profit humanitarian organizations including Save The Children, United Nations, Human Rights, and Protect Our Defenders (POD), an organization near and dear to my heart dedicated solely to ending the epidemic of rape and sexual assault in the military.
It is hard to put the feelings evoked by an exhibit like this into words. But for those who were not able to experience its impact in person, I wanted to share a few excerpts from U.S. military survivors who have worked with POD and were projected during the exhibit, including a hero of mine, Terri Odom. Their words help bring to life the significance of the exhibit and efforts to give a voice to survivors of violence.
“The fallout from the lack of support was as bad as the rape if not worse because you think someone’s going to help me. The military is going to take care of me. Somebody’s going to take care of me. They promised if I got hurt they’d take care of me. And nobody takes care of you. I felt nasty and dirty and I still do. And I was sorry that I let my country down. I didn’t mean not to fulfill my contract. I’m sorry I let my country down.”
– Terri Odom
“He ordered us to go up to the attic and clean it out as a way of working out our differences. We were in this isolated area up in the attic and my rapist said well no one is going to believe you anyways. There he was confessing what was happening. He knew he could get away with it because of the chief’s repetitive behavior ignoring such allegations and that’s probably why he did it.”
– Survivor 1
“I think that was the part that finally drove everything home and killed my spirit. He was like women don’t belong in combat women don’t belong in the military you’re all trash. All women are trash and that’s where you belong and he threw me in the dumpster…There was no way I was gonna tell anybody as long as I had a uniform on what had happened to me that day.”
– Survivor 2
“I was left out in the cold with my short pants all the way down to my ankles exposed. I felt very dirty very scared. I felt helpless. Those are the feelings I had when they finally left me by myself. I thought I was going to die because I was fading. I even tried to give myself CPR by pressing my chest towards the ground just to get some more air. I felt like I was running out of oxygen and I couldn’t breathe anymore.”
– Survivor 3
There is so much work to be done to make change. It was humbling to see the brave stories of survivors who have worked with POD projected for the world to see at the Guggenheim Museum and re-affirmed the movement the organization is leading! If you live in California, please join us at a benefit for Protect Our Defenders with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on Thursday, November 21, 2019 in Atherton, CA and meet POD’s team.