‘The Power of Voice’ Confronts Abuse

WISE Assistant Director Abby Tassel, left, introduces "Unedited Voices of the Upper Valley'' at the Lebanon Opera House on Thursday, April 3, 2014. (Rob Strong photograph)

WISE Assistant Director Abby Tassel, left, introduces "Unedited Voices of the Upper Valley'' at the Lebanon Opera House on Thursday, April 3, 2014. (Rob Strong photograph)

If silence and shame are the weapons of someone committing acts of domestic and sexual violence, then the chorus of voices telling their stories at the Lebanon Opera House Thursday evening in “Unedited Voices of the Upper Valley” helped to dispel the burden of secrecy that many survivors carry for years.

Sponsored by WISE, the Lebanon nonprofit organization that advocates for people who have experienced sexual and domestic violence, the event, which was directed by New York actor Kathe Mull, honored the resilience of women and men who have endured such abuse themselves, or know people who have.

Standing on the opera house stage, women and men read from accounts written about what it is like to experience domestic and sexual abuse. Some people read their own stories; others read on behalf of people reluctant to speak publicly; all the speakers were anonymous. The stories were blunt and unsparing, and the words charged with anger, confrontation and resolution. Some women on stage chose singing, rather than reading, as a way to express their emotion.

“Tonight is really about the power of voice and the power of listening,” said Abby Tassel, assistant director at WISE, who introduced the evening, speaking to a nearly full house. “Listening to these stories can sometimes be hard because it means accepting the reality that (domestic and sexual violence) can happen in this world and that it can happen to us.”

The stories were interwoven into a litany of both lament and bravery.

“I am alone. I am afraid.”

“He is always smart because I am always stupid.”

“I lost my self, little by little.”

“He makes me want to kill myself.”

“Like a little mouse I slowly crept, finding a way to be safe.”

A woman summons the strength to leave. “I did it for my children.”

One woman recounted how her partner beat her dog as a substitute for beating her. A middle-aged man recalled how he’d been molested repeatedly as a 13-year-old by a male teacher in summer school who ordered him not to tell anyone. The man had kept it hidden for years. “If you can’t tell your parents, seek out an adult you trust and tell them,” he said.

Peter Hackett, a professor of theater at Dartmouth College, spoke about the incidents of sexual assault on the campus, and the statistics that suggest that between 100 and 125 co-eds will be “victims of attempted sexual assault or an assault” during the next academic year.

Other speakers talked about what is a kind of second assault: not being believed or being ignored or silenced by others too uncomfortable to acknowledge the pain of the victim. A woman who had been raped in her home by a stranger talked about the humiliation and betrayal of being disbelieved by the police; the police never compiled a rape kit and they accused her of lying.

A woman recited the kinds of reactions that people can often expect to encounter when they tell someone what’s happened to them. “I hate it when you say, it could be worse.” “I hate that you turn to stone when I say it. Rape.”

A man talked about the moment he learned that his own father (“A 78-year-old grandfather, a patriarch, a pillar of the community.” ) had, for years, sexually assaulted the man’s daughter; the grandfather is serving a sentence for the crime in prison in Concord. The daughter spoke of having to endure the trial, and leaning on her brother for support.

The evening ended with the readers on stage embracing the power of speech to reclaim their lives. “I am standing here, unafraid to tell my story.” “I am no longer the woman who people stomp on at will.”

Performers included DaChords, an a capella group from Hanover High School; The Raqs Salaam Dance Theater, under the direction of artistic director Gina Capossela; and Sayon Camara, who played the djembe drum to introduce each new segment or story.

Audience members seemed deeply affected by what they’d heard. “It was really moving and courageous,” said Carolyn Gordon, a Hanover resident.

Michelle Gottlieb, from Norwich, echoed her sentiments: “It was just beautifully put together,” she said.

“It was about the power of being heard,” said Ann Perbohner, who lives in Lebanon. It was valuable, she said, “that we heard stories from a lot of different types of backgrounds, different economic backgrounds.”

“It’s disturbing to hear the trouble that people have had trying to get justice,” said a woman who didn’t want to identified. “It took a lot for people to share their stories tonight,” said WISE director Peggy O’Neill, adding that they might consider staging a similar event again at some point.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.