Local theatre wants child sexual abuse survivors to tell their stories

Mar 25, 2013

Denise Miller reading one of her poems at FIRE Historical and Cultural Arts Collaborative
Credit Rebecca Thiele, WMUK

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Laura Sprague's occupation. 

Though it’s thought to be one of the most underreported crimes, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimate about 1 in 6 boys and 1 in 4 girls will face sexual assault before the age of 18. On Friday night, FIRE Historical and Cultural Arts Collaborative will show a taping of the New York theatre troupe Ping Chong & Company’s production Secret Survivors, where survivors of child sexual abuse use theatre to talk about their experiences.

Denise Miller is the co-founder of FIRE in Kalamazoo. She’s also a survivor of child sexual assault. 

“Growing up I never really had an opportunity to process the experience cause I was in it, right? So then I go to college and all of the sudden, all the feelings that I should have been able to have during the experience came…like just kind of blanketed me,” says Miller.

Miller says writing poetry really helped her to work through what had happened.

“When I finally started to do it for myself and really get the story out for my own process, that’s when it started transforming for me," she says. "That’s when real healing started.”

FIRE is working to create a program like Secret Survivors in Kalamazoo. Sara Zats of Ping Chong & Company is the writer and director of the original production in New York.

“Given the rates at which it [sexual assault] happens, everyone at least knows someone who is a survivor," Zats says. "And so it’s really something that’s happening all around us and we as a society have a responsibility to try and prevent that violence from happening to children.”

Miller says most of the project is simply about helping survivors to express themselves through art, and not just writing.

“I look for people to access their experiences and to share their experiences however they need to," she says. "So if it starts out a couple of words and all of a sudden somebody wants to grab a marker or a watercolor pencil or whatever the case may be, I hope to facilitate that.”

FIRE will also work to help victims to address the physical side of abuse. Laura Sprague is a personal trainer and founder of the Body Love Project.

“What happens to the survivor is often a hatred of the body," says Sprague. "Many survivors end up self-harming, many end up with eating disorders because they are taking it out on the closest thing to the event.”

Sprague says her goal is to help victims of child sexual abuse find out how their trauma affects them physically.

“Seeing if they can identify where in their body they hold that or where they feel tense when it’s mentioned," she says. "And then try to work with that on easing that tension and figuring out, you know, how they’re perhaps making themselves feel worse or sick even.”

Adriane Davis of FIRE says, even though it’s a difficult subject, talking about it openly is the key to solving the problem.

“I hope that this show will open conversation at the very least," she says. "I want people to be able to talk about it. And go home and talk to their children and ask ‘Has anyone done anything appropriate to you.’ I mean, it’s an important question.”

Denise Miller says survivors don’t have to perform their stories publicly to be in the project. Most importantly, she says victims should know abuse doesn’t have to affect their lives.

“A lot of my poems deal with domestic violence, sexual assault—a lot of the things that I grew up with—but I can still smile after. I can still love," says Miller. "I can still live and breathe and really enjoy life.”

FIRE still needs help to make this program work. They’re looking for therapists and stage hands, as well as participants. You can see the taping of Secret Survivors at FIRE Historical and Cultural Arts Collaborative, Friday night at 7.