Thursday, June 27, 2002

More than Monologues: If we see this as just entertainment, we’re not seeing it

Published in the Portland Phoenix

My vagina singing all girl songs, all goat bells ringing songs, all wild autumn field songs, vagina songs, vagina home songs. — Not since the soldiers put a long, thick rifle inside me. So cold, the steel rod canceling my heart. Don’t know whether they’re going to fire it or shove it through my spinning brain.

These words describe a particularly violent rape that occurred in Kosovo, but scenes like it — perhaps without the rifle, but with similar spirit-deadening effects — will play out not only on the stage at Merrill Auditorium June 28 as part of The Vagina Monologues, but across the state, in our neighborhoods, even our homes, at an increasing rate, according to the state police.

Annual crime survey numbers indicate that Maine has seen an increase from 273 rapes and 3,986 incidents of domestic violence in 1999 to 325 rapes and 4,944 incidents of domestic violence in 2001. State numbers also indicate that 22 percent of all domestic violence in the state occurs in Cumberland County, more than in any other county.

In the Portland area, Sexual Assault Response Services of Southern Maine received 453 calls in 2001, and spent over 200 hours on the phone, in hospitals, police stations, and courthouses assisting victims of rape and sexual assault. As of June 19, the Portland Police Department had responded to 29 calls for sexual assault this year.

The department has also responded to 545 calls for domestic violence. Assistant district attorney Anne Berlind, in the Cumberland County DA’s domestic violence unit, says about 40 percent of domestic violence incidents reported to her office go unprosecuted, largely because the victim is unwilling to testify. But of those in which a defendant is charged, 60 percent are convicted.

Berlind says first-time offenders convicted of domestic violence assault or terrorizing typically get two days in jail for a first offense, with two years probation (including batterer’s counseling courses and possibly substance-abuse treatment), and 118 days in jail hanging over their heads for violations ranging from continuing to abuse women all the way down to failing to call a probation officer on time. In 2001, Berlind said, about 300 people in Cumberland County went to jail for domestic violence.

Portland Mayor Karen Geraghty will issue an as-yet-undetermined proclamation in Portland on June 28, and will give playwright Eve Ensler the key to the city as well. Ensler will star in the production, a rare event anywhere and a first in Maine.

The Phoenix sat down with Geraghty to talk about the issues and how regular people, even those who don’t know their neighbors, can help combat domestic violence and sexual assault.

Phoenix: You don’t stop domestic violence by issuing proclamations or putting on a play.

Geraghty: What helps prevent domestic violence is awareness, and anything we can do to draw attention to the problem here in Portland — and here in Maine — will cause people to intervene earlier in situations that they may know about, or if they live next door to somebody who’s in that situation. This production gives us the opportunity to highlight that some people in our community are suffering. Though the proclamation is symbolic and the key to the city is involved, I think it’s important to elevate the issue in whatever way we can.

Q: What is the nature of the proclamation going to be?

A: Well, we haven’t written it yet. We’re in the process of drafting it right now. But basically it will talk about the problem of domestic violence. It will talk about the fact that people in Portland are killed as a result of domestic violence, and it will talk about the importance of intervention and also prevention strategies.

Q: Have sexual assault and women’s issues been one of your focuses as mayor?

A: Everybody on the [city] council works full-time. I work as a lobbyist at the Legislature, so I’ve had the great pleasure to work with both the Sexual Assault Coalition and the Domestic Violence Coalition in that capacity. It’s something that I’m very committed to, trying to end violence against women. You don’t grow up as a woman in this culture without being constantly aware that you could be the victim of a sexual assault. I have good friends in Portland, one friend in particular, who has been victimized in the last year. I don’t think there’s any woman in this country — and certainly nobody that I know — who doesn’t have a story: a sister, a sister-in-law, a niece, a mother, a grandmother . . . It’s so widespread that I think every woman, and I would assume every man, is aware of it

Q: One of the groups The Vagina Monologues will benefit is Mainely Men Against Violence Against Women.

A: That’s one of the really neat things that I’ve noticed in the last couple of years, that the Domestic Violence Coalition did the “Silent Witness” program. They have those — I don’t know if you’ve ever seen them — but they’re all painted red and they have a plaque on them which gives the woman’s name and a little bit of her story. Every time there is another homicide from domestic violence they take the Silent Witnesses out to — like if it happens in Portland, then they come to Portland — and there are lot of men, in particular police officers, who come out and stand and be part of that demonstration and call for an end to the violence. That has done a great deal to raise awareness and to get more people in the community focused on [the fact] that it shouldn’t just be women standing up decrying this violence. It should be every member of the community. I think that the Silent Witness project gives people something concrete they can do: They can actually take to the streets and say, “This is wrong.”

The Sexual Assault Coalition has something called “The Clothesline Project.” What they have is T-shirts, just regular, plain T-shirts, that people who have been victimized either by childhood sexual assault and incest or as adults have been sexually assaulted and raped, and they have painted these T-shirts. The T-shirts say a variety of things, and it’s wherever the person is in their recovery and healing. It’s just a powerful, powerful image when you go into an event where they have strung this clothesline and there are all these T-shirts and some of them are very small, so they’re [made by] children who have been assaulted and they write things on there — just really incredible. And then there are T-shirts from 75-year-old women and every age in between. Images are very powerful and they make us think. They just make you think. They make you think about what could you do to help change this situation for women.

Both coalitions have done a great job in Maine trying to be creative about how they educate the public about what’s happening to women in our state and in our community.

Q: What can we do, either as a man or a woman, to end or to attack domestic violence and sexual assault?

A: There are a whole variety of things. The first thing we can do is make sure that we’re clear in our own lives and in our own relationships about how we’re behaving . . . In terms of domestic violence, I don’t know how many times I’ve heard somebody say, “Well, you know, I heard something. I think the woman who lived below me, or I think the woman who lived in the apartment next to me — I used to hear fighting and I never was sure what was going on.” A lot of people have a story like that, or “I work with a woman who occasionally would come in and had ‘fallen.’ ” Just being aware of what’s happening to the people around you, the people at work, the people in your own family, the people who you may live near. Just being aware and trying to offer some intervention. That’s incredibly helpful. And not being judgmental, not saying “Oh you’re so crazy, why are you with that person?” but understanding all of the reasons why people are afraid to leave. There’s a lot that we can do.

Clearly, people who are raising children have a huge responsibility to raise boys and to teach them non-violent ways of expressing their anger and their frustration and teaching them that women are not the outlet for their aggression when things don’t go well or when they feel powerless. There’s a million things that we can do, and I think many good things are being done.

Q: Sometimes that’s hard, to hear a neighbor who maybe you don’t know because it’s a big apartment building, or you’re next door in a different house. To step in.

A: Call the police right away. If people call 911 and say, “There is a violent argument going on next door to where I live or in the apartment below me,” the police will respond immediately. You don’t have to know the person’s name that lives next door to you or below you. You don’t have to know anything other than, “There is a violent fight occurring and I feel someone may be in danger.” That’s all you have to do, and the police will go right away. Sometimes it’s the police who are in the best position to be the interveners and to try to provide a way out for the woman and her children. I wasn’t suggesting that people should run over and get involved directly.

Q: But even to say after the fact, “I heard something at your apartment last night.” In one sense maybe that’s too late, but in another sense there’s a privacy barrier.

A: You have to get to know the person. I think there are ways to make friends with people. If you suspect somebody and you don’t know them very well but they’re a neighbor, there are ways to make friends with people. And through the process of trying to reach out and make friends they may share things with you or they may give you clues which would then allow you to have that other conversation about, “Hey by the way . . .” But I don’t think you can go up to a complete stranger and say “I think . . .” because clearly that wouldn’t be safe for the person to reveal anything to you. But just trying to get to know people who you think might be in trouble and then waiting for the opportunity.

Q: Are there things that government can do, at the city or the county or the state level?

A: There’s a great deal that is already being done by the federal government, by the state government, and certainly through the city level. [There are] many, many different programs aimed particularly at the victims, but also now we’re starting to see more programs targeted at the abusers. So yes, I definitely think there is a role for government in any kind of violence against people.

Q: Are you going to be at the performance?

A: Yes. Yes definitely. I’ve never seen a production of it and this one is going to be really fabulous, because it’s using so many Portland-area performers. That’s going to make it really, really interesting and exciting to showcase local talent.

Sexual Assault Response Services of Southern Maine hotline (sexual assault and rape): (800) 313-9900.

Family Crisis Services hotline (domestic violence): (800) 537-6066.

The Vagina Monologues shows at Merrill Auditorium, in Portland, June 28. Call (207) 842-0800.