The victim impact statements given by those women abused by Rolf Harris are both unique and universal. In my work with women, men and children who have been sexually abused, particularly as children or teens, I have heard similar accounts of the severe impacts of that violation. Each survivor suffers in their unique way, but a common thread is described below as the “very essence” of a person being destroyed .
“What Mr Harris took from me was my very essence. I believe that it was for Mr Harris a forgettable moment but it was something for me that I have never moved on from and will never forget.
The impact is also not just limited to myself, but my family and my children have suffered as a result. I am not able to parent them as I would have loved to do and each day is filled with the emptiness that losing your children brings.
I know that the person I am today is not the person I should have been. I have lost 28 years of my life and it is impossible to ever recover the loss of time or the complete me. I know that I will only ever be a small fragment of who I was meant to be and struggle each day with this. I want Mr Harris to understand the pain and destruction that his actions have caused me and my children.”
Survivors tell me similar stories of a life irrevocably altered by abuse. Self-medication, self-harm, mental illness, extreme loneliness and isolation, poor education and poor work prospects, and family violence are common. Many victims succumb to their suffering through suicide. I cannot know from where I observe how an abuser is thinking about their actions, but clearly none are thinking about the wellbeing of their victim, however they may wish to claim otherwise.
Over the years I have explored and express these impacts through my artwork and writing:
excerpt from THE CREATIVE SPACE, Art and Wellbeing in the Shadow of Trauma, Loss and Grief. Anne Riggs. 2010
Two bodies of work, This Unwept Loss and Ghosts of a Lost Childhood, endeavour to invoke contemplations of the impact of sexual abuse upon the child.
Separately and together, these works invite the viewer to look beyond the exterior, beyond beauty and allure, and beyond the mystery of the objects, to examine and contemplate what sexual abuse takes away from, but also imprints upon the child, and how it makes children both fragile and seemingly impervious to emotion.
The children’s clothes in This Unwept Loss are splayed, steamrollered and flattened. Like the children they represent, the clothes are drained of life, and almost obliterated by their encasement. With each layer of thin plaster then gesso that is applied, the garment is made more inert. It became less prone to cracking but more removed from its original state. It is less vulnerable, but at the cost of being unviable, colourless and purposeless. Imperfections were sanded back and removed, fractures mindfully restored. The clothes carefully contorted by human intervention suggest a means of control, of grooming – the child and the childhood distorted by abuse.
The happy, content childhood is imprisoned, along with the abuse, within the garments’ now flattened, inert form. They bring to mind the post-traumatic stress experience of the person being stuck in a memory, or as one participant remarked, “an old woman trapped in the trauma of the child”. This Unwept Loss speaks of life reshaped by trauma. It hints at the gleaming white scar tissue that signifies a form of healing, a closure of the wound, but does not claim a return to normal. And like scar tissue that diminishes the capacity to feel or move, This Unwept Loss, in its reflection of the child’s trauma, denotes a reduced capacity to feel or move.
Although in their transformation the clothes have a new beauty, there are present in the remnants of fabric oblivious to the whiteness, moments of the rebellion some survivors yearned for, the desire to step beyond the constraints and constrictions of the family and the abuse. This glimmer of the past prompts us to contemplate a different beauty that is likely to be found buried within each victim of trauma.
The second of these two bodies of work, Ghosts of a Lost Childhood, further explores the vulnerability of the child. The treatment of the children’s clothes with clay slip/paper pulp instead of plaster and gesso, however, allows for a different emphasis to prevail. As with the other artworks using this material, the object and paper burn away, leaving a thin and fragile clay shell. Here in the careful attention given to the form of the garments and the retention of the integrity of the fabric, the memory of the body is embedded, the ghostly remains of innocence, of a lost childhood.
Although within most adults there is an innate desire to hold children (especially the infant) safe, in responding to this work one must also gaze into the disturbing context in which these works exist and the failure of some adults to protect the vulnerable child. The innocence, vulnerability and smallness of the child are enfolded into the ceramic clothes to evoke feelings of immense sorrow at the plundering of that vulnerability, and in the fallen, crumpled and discarded clothes hints of abuse remain.
The pure white ceramic garments are beguiling and extremely fragile. Viewers, unsure of what exactly they are looking at, unconsciously reach out to touch. However, to touch is to endanger them.
Participants in the Creative Arts programs I run at SECASA, Connections and NCASA are taught and encouraged to explore and express their experiences and emotions through making. As I discussed in an earlier blog (Art and expressing difficult emotions), we use materials, their transformation and artists to inspire new ways of expressing the pain and suffering of abuse.
In each of these artworks participants have uniquely conveyed the long term impact of child abuse. When you read impact statements of Rolf Harris’ and other abuser’s victims, know that as they convey the devastation unique to themselves, they are also talking about a universal experience.