Monday, March 19, 2001

Abuse survivors turn inner torment into works of art for show

By Claire Osborn
Austin-American Statesman Staff
Monday, March 19, 2001

One is slashed with burn marks. Nails protrude from the dark red center of another. A child's torn T-shirt covers the jagged edges of a third.

They are among 34 wooden hearts decorated by Texans who have been sexually abused and by the counselors who work with them. The hearts are on display through March 31 at La Peña Art Gallery, 227 Congress Ave., in an exhibit called "Corazón Lastimado: Healing the Wounded Heart."

Viewing it can be an overwhelming experience. Some hearts are covered with cement or pierced with staples; others feature pictures of the victims and painful stories.

"I tried to wash away him, his crime, his smell, his violations, but all that washed away was my innocence," says one.

Another: "Once hope is dead, so am I. To live like this is to die." Undecorated hearts were sent to every rape crisis center in Texas by La Peña Latino Arts Organization, which worked with the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault to put on the exhibit.

Organizers are hoping that the hearts will inspire people to combat sexual abuse.

"The chances that someone either has a loved one who is a survivor or a co-worker that is a survivor are very great," said Laura Zárate, a coordinator of the exhibit.

Messages submitted with the hearts, made by 26 women, two men who were abused and six counselors, offer moving stories of rape, rage, sorrow and healing.

"I remember being chased by him with a coat hanger, and I remember being afraid, but I do not remember what happened after that," says one.

The girl who wrote it was younger than 8 when her brother abused her. The heart she created, covered with a child's torn T-shirt, has its red center ripped out and a small child sitting on the edge.

"I will fight him and them and all you people who think it is OK to rape. I will fight you harder than the night you raped me, and I will continue to fight until we have won, because one day I want to be a mother to a little girl and I don't want her to know what I know," said the message submitted by a girl who was 13 when first assaulted.

More than 50 percent of those who submitted the art were abused at 15 or younger, Zárate said.

"I am an adult survivor of incest and child sexual abuse. . . . It really does scar you for life, but you can heal and go on," Zárate said.

She submitted a heart decorated with nails of different sizes hammered into it and messages fluttering from the nails. The messages represent events that trigger bad memories. They include "family birthdays," "tattoo of a dog" and "military uniforms."

The exhibit represents the kind of pain people usually don't want to hear about, said Cynthia Perez, director of La Peña Gallery. "People are unwilling to look at this traditionally."

Bess Green, a children's counselor with the Bastrop Family Crisis Center, submitted a heart decorated with plastic flowers with these words painted across it: "She told an adult. She passed the polygraph. Nothing happened."

Many times when children report being raped, no one believes them, Green said.

"Seventy-five percent of kids don't tell anyone, because it was most likely someone that they know, and it would result in a dramatic change in family situation," she said. "They may lose the breadwinner, or it may start a civil war."

Even those who go to the police may not find relief. One of the hearts, with burn marks slashed across it, has pieces of parchment attached with the chilling tale of two women -- one raped at least 15 times -- who didn't get much sympathy or help from the justice system.

Kitty Kahn, who was visiting the exhibit with her two teen-age children to teach them how to protect themselves against abuse, paused in front of the burned heart and read the story. "I think this exhibit is wonderful," said Kahn, who works for Planned Parenthood in Houston.

Often, women who come to Planned Parenthood have never discussed the sexual abuse in their lives.

"So often we see women who never say anything until there's trouble in their marriage or relationship," she said. "Nobody talks about it."

You may contact Claire Osborn at cosborn@statesman.com or 445-3630.

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