BY S.K. CLARKE
I am a firm believer that humankind requires food, water, shelter, and intimacy. After our stomachs are full and our bodies are kept warm, we desire the ability to be seen by another human being, to be heard and understood.
The pivotal moments in my life have centered on someone acknowledging my self, the oft-guarded soul that is tucked away from casual observers. Often the other’s ability to see me results in an enlightenment; a move from shaded reality to exposed self-truth. It is important to note that this truth is not always beautiful. We may not always be ready to accept the knowledge when it is thrust upon us by the seeing few, but it is honest and bears the weight of import, all the same.
Aristotle called this moment of self-reveal or recognition, anagnorisis. Often in Greek tragedies, the protagonist is in the dark about some aspect of their being. InOedipus Rex, Oedipus was ignorant to his truth: he had killed his biological father, married his biological mother, and gave her children.
In the case of Oedipus, his understanding of self, both what he stood for and who he was in society, came with the reveal of his paternity. But what’s interesting to note, is that the audience was fully aware of who Oedipus was long before the big reveal. The Greek people were a learned audience who had seen these stories play out several times before. The Oedipal legend was old and the men who had gathered to see the play performed would have known the ending before the characters on stage would live it. The reason they went was in order to see which playwright wrote the best version; which Oedipus would spark something new within the audience.
In this I find a unique formof anagnorisis that can only be found in art: a recognition of ourselves within the creative minds of the artist.
This movement of self-knowing from the external to the internal can often be found in the paintings, the music, the poems and stories that traverse time and space to enter our psyche through the crackle of a record player or the luminescence of a Kindle screen. Lyrics and verses and compositions and brushstrokes that navigate time, space, and language to knock at the cement fortresses within our souls and say, “Hey, I know you. You are not alone.”
For me, there has been a therapy in the words of Neil Young, Billy Joel, Damien Rice, and Ray LaMontagne. Their lyrics call to me, assuring me that someone somewhere has been a miner for a heart of gold and they, too, see me in all of my vulnerability, in the darkest places where my self lies hidden from the daily world. Their careful placing of syllables and emotions finally, exuberantly, pitifully give voice to all that I’ve been wanting to say, whether I knew it before or not.
I’ve found it in the carefully constructed words of authors Sherwood Anderson, Edgar Lee Masters, and Colum McCann, the dark despair of poetess Christina Rossetti, the inspirational instruction of Brené Brown. Within the isolated activity of reading, within their solitude of writing, I found a piece of myself. A communication between myself and an unknowable stranger who, reaching across distance, reaching beyond death, declares that they see me as I am and have shared in what I have felt.
As an educator, theatre artist, and writer, I often strive for this feeling of communion with my students, aiming for them to experience the power to be known. I hope that in the pages of dramatic literature, my students and actors can say, “In this, I see me.” I hope that they can find the human in all and through that magic of recognition, they will see themselves in Stella, Ophelia, and Everyman. And, perhaps, that Stella, Ophelia, and Everyman will cause them to see humanity within themselves.
Through this seeing, this knowing, a beauteous progress is made. Stagnation is held at bay and something entirely cosmic enters into our lives, whether we expected it or not.
As an instructor, I often do not anticipate this progress to be made in my own life. I have read Hamlet no less than thirty times. For me, the recognition has already been made and now I get to enjoy those steps in my students.
However, when I began directing a play this past semester, I was shocked to find that art still had more to show me.
The play centered on the cycle of abuse within relationships, both romantic and familial. A young wife is beaten within an inch of her life and through a series of increasingly absurd circumstances, is all but forgotten by the end of the play. Both she and the brain damage she possesses are erased from the family’s consciousness. The end of the play leaves the audience with the impression that the mental and physical abuse done to her is doomed to be repeated because it has never been fully addressed.
The artist in me latched on to the uncomfortability of this, the unfinished, unpolished ending that would remind us all that abuse knows no happy conclusion. I wanted the audience to feel embarrassed and uneasy, hoping that through some self-reflection they would see abusive behaviors in their own lives and after much thought, seek to eradicate them.
The future mother in me, however, felt that I personally needed to create a positive change in the community. I needed those who I worked in and around to know that this did not have to be the answer: that cycles can end and progress can be made to heal, to repair.
Encouraged by projects such as Humans of New York and PostSecret, the drama club and I worked together to place boxes throughout the college campus, asking for students, faculty, and staff to submit their “secrets,” their moments of abuse, harassment, or discrimination in hopes that, through the sharing, they would gain back a voice they did not feel they had.
Over the course of three weeks, we received over 150 responses. A few of the posts were drawings of a penis ranging in anatomical accuracy, but the majority of the submissions were heart-wrenching confessions of disease, abuse, insecurity, and desire.
“I feel like I have no true useful purpose and no true direction,” one submission said.
One confessed: “I forgot my little sister’s birthday.”
“I suffer from claustrophobia because my father used to lay on top of me,” exposed another.
Many revealed a long-harbored affection toward their best friends while others admitted to instances of infidelity. A large majority dealt with mental illness and some confessed the wish to end their own lives. One revealed that they were HIV-positive.
My arms yearned for these strangers, these men and women who walked in the shadows of their minds, feeling alone, feeling as though they did not share a thread with any part of society. Perhaps feeling that no one could empathize. No one could understand.
But I am writing this today to tell you I do understand. I do see you. I get it.
As I paged through secret after secret, I felt an unexpected click of recognition, a cracking of my defenses, a revealing of my truth. Many of the secrets dealt with rape. Many of those same confessions were also partnered with the statement that they had not told anybody, some for many years. Some had not mentioned their abuse until they had put it down on the slip of paper I now held in my hand.
I did not submit a secret to the project, but if I did it would read: I was raped and for three-and-a-half years I believed that it had been my fault.
I was staying at a friend’s family home in Italy. My friends and their family were all tucked away in their beds. I was downstairs being raped.
The guy was placed in my path deliberately. He was supposed to be a good flirt. A morale booster. He was not supposed to sit on my chest and force himself in my mouth. He was supposed to hear me when I said no. He was supposed to stop. He was not supposed to tell me that I deserved it, that I had led him on, that I had to finish what I had started.
I was not supposed to believe him.
But I did.
For years I believed that it had not been rape. It should have been more violent. I should have had scars. If it had been rape, I would have fought harder. The only rape that counted was the violent kind, not the kind that left me asking him quietly to stop, lest I wake anyone.
And so, I remained silent. I did not speak up about what had happened, did not utter the “R” word. I did not tell my friend who had slept upstairs. She had seen me flirt with him earlier in the night and I assumed she would think I was a tease. I didn’t tell my grandmother, though I called her the minute I got back to my apartment. I wanted her to hear my voice. I wanted her to fix what had broken inside of me. She had sounded tired when she had asked me if something was wrong and I chose not to burden her. She was going through chemo after all, and I felt that I was just another whore. I did not tell my mother who holds the key to most of my secrets. I was her good girl, not a sexual being who would be found in those types of situations. In my journals, I remained dumb. In therapy, I skirted the issue.
But as I sat there, holding the secrets of strangers in my hands, I felt the crack of anagnorisis, an understanding of my truth, of what I am and what I stand for.
“I see you,” I said to the anonymous submissions. “And you see me. You never deserved this. You are not wrong. You are not dirty. You are a victim.”
I am not talking about rape culture in America, extremely prevalent though it is. I’m not going to talk about how politics and the media make it difficult for victims to come forward, as was the case in Oklahoma and Brigham Young University. I won’t mention how rape is normalized in television shows such as Game of Thrones or how the porn industry seems to capitalize on male sexual aggression against often unwilling women. Nor will I mention that out of every 100 rapes, only two rapists will go to jail.
This is about finding those men and women who are afraid to view themselves as victims, those who feel alone in their stories of abuse or harassment. You may never hold 150 secrets in your hand, but you now hold mine. What I ask is that you see that unlike the me of three years ago, I now know that I never deserved what was done to me. I also never deserved to hold it within me in silence. I’ve acknowledged that no matter what I was wearing, no matter how I had been conducting myself prior to the incident, I had not given consent. I did not say yes and something that was precious within me was taken and tarnished. I was raped.
You, too, do not need to hold yourself in the shadows.
Whether you suffer from debilitating depression, whether you have experienced rape, sexual harassment, physical or mental abuse, or dependency of any kind, you are not alone. Your secret does not make you any less deserving of love, nor does voicing it admit any weakness. Through using your voice, by putting the words on paper, or sharing your story, you can begin the healing process.
The Aristotlean definition of anagnorisis is often associated with tragedies: King Lear realizes that Cordelia’s love is the truest only after she has died, Nora’s desire for self-knowledge causes her to abandon her husband and children, Bruce Willis discovers he’s dead in The Sixth Sense.
I would like to argue that there can also be a rebirth in the recognition, a happy ending. Only through the dead of winter can we prepare for the blossoming of spring. Only from the gravel can we build a foundation. Only from the ashes can the phoenix be born again. And only through recognizing your truth can we grow, learn, and heal as a whole.