By Sara Vos • Photos by Joni Strickfaden
It has been more than a year since the #MeToo hashtag rippled through the collective consciousness. Inspired and moved by the hashtag, a team of southeast Michigan-based activists, educators, parents, survivors, and community members came together to host a community-based healing initiative called the #MeToo Storytelling Salon. The first #MeToo Storytelling Salon took place in late 2017 in Ann Arbor, and over 60 people attended from all over the region.
The organizers of the salon utilized their skills and experience to create a safe, holistic, and strong-walled container to support survivors of sexual abuse in order for them to share their stories at the microphone. The salon was also a fundraiser for Washtenaw County Safe House Center, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to provide safety, support, advocacy, and resources for survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence and their children, “and to work relentlessly to change the systems and attitudes that allow this abuse to continue.” Activists from around the country reached out to salon organizers to ask how to run their own #MeToo Storytelling Salons, and the organizers have created a free PDF download (link at the end of this article) to share with anyone who is interested in running salons in this format.
In the shadow of the Kavanaugh hearings, I talked with two of the organizers, Jean Henry and Carisa Wilder, about what inspired them to create the event and how they hope to see the movement evolve.
Sara Vos: Jean, it’s been 15 months since #MeToo. How did it change your life? What thoughts are moving through you as you reflect on what is different now compared to this point in time, say, 18 months ago?
Jean Henry: For decades, I had been talking openly about rape culture, violence against women, and sexual violence of all kinds. When I spoke of the pervasiveness of sexual violence, I was often met with incredulity. But more often the response was a kind of virtual shrug.
Sexual assault was both normalized and denied. I guess normalization is really its own kind of denial. We tell ourselves we are powerless to stop it, and so we must be strong enough to survive it. That’s the story we told ourselves of necessity in the wake of abuse. That’s also the story we told ourselves about rape culture.
Like every coping mechanism, it’s useful but not the way out. We had to change the cultural narrative. And it wasn’t one powerful voice that moved us forward but the collective force of many voices, all strong but with as much variation as there are humans—quavering, tentative, angry, sad, matter of fact, resigned, soulful, contemplative, analytic, and even vengeful.
In retrospect, it seems obvious that this movement was the only way. I just never really imagined it happening with such incredible force.
Finally, the message was heard. One could feel the curtain being pulled back on sexual violence. And the conversation became as dimensional as the voices in it, by which I mean as dimensional as the humans speaking their truths.
I say “humans” rather than confining this movement to a gendered experience. Make no mistake—#MeToo is a feminist movement. And women comprise the vast majority of survivors of sexual violence. But not all.
If you think about it, everyone is negatively affected by sexual violence. It erodes our humanity. Feminism is a humanitarian appeal made through the lens of the female experience.
Sara Vos: Where do you think the movement is headed? What is at the heart of it?
Jean Henry: #MeToo is asking for sexual violence in all its forms—in all its stories— to be addressed culturally. So, how now to take this new awareness and codify the shift into our individual actions and our society as a whole? This is my focus going forward.
How can we engage men in the process without eroding the solidarity we have built? We can’t have safety without engaging men. We need men to become whole, as well. This is my perspective. I know not everyone sees things the same way and I totally understand. This is just where I am now. It’s the work I see. And I honor the work that others see and take on.
Sara Vos: Right before we hit the one year anniversary, the Kavanaugh nomination happened. Can you speak about that?
Jean Henry: The Kavanaugh nomination, hearing, and confirmation was mentally and emotionally exhausting for many of us. The end result shows how long and deep this work still needs to go. We persist. There’s so much to do.
If we all take our piece and work where we can most effectively, then #MeToo will be a cultural movement with lasting impact, not just a cultural moment. We will do this to honor the courage and experiences of Christine Blasey Ford, Deborah Ramirez, and the other survivors and allies who came forward asking to be heard and seen. And that collective agency will render Kavanaugh and men like him just a small part of our larger story.
We can deconstruct rape culture piece by piece. We still have the opportunity to give Blasey Ford the last word. The pendulum of social progress always swings back before redirecting and pushing ahead again with even more force. "The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice." (Martin Luther King, Jr. quoting Theodore Parker)
Our time has just begun. I believe we have started something unstoppable. I am having really amazing new kinds of conversations with men about sexual violence. I am talking to business owners and workers about how to address gender bias of all kinds. I am still listening to the stories of survivors.
Over the past couple of months, in the wake of the Kavanaugh hearing, three old friends told their stories publicly for the first time. I am present—listening, engaging, and working. I can’t say exactly how it will go any more than I can predict the weather after this week, but I believe I can tell which way the wind is blowing. I just know I can’t go back, only forward, and I know I’m safe, because I know I’m not alone. Onward!
SV: I am feeling so inspired by your perspective and what you have shared here. I’m on board, but what about the nay-sayers? We live in a time of 90-second news cycles, and some nay-sayers have said that #MeToo is no longer relevant. How can we help folks see that this work is still absolutely imperative?
Jean Henry: The #MeToo movement will remain relevant so long as there are stories of sexual abuse to be told, so long as sexual violence is pervasive in our culture. I look forward to the time when that is no longer the case. The best way to maintain awareness and momentum is to keep telling our stories and making spaces to do so.
SV: I know you as someone who is very politically active on many progressive fronts. Do you have any thoughts as to ways community organizers and other activists can take up the #MeToo Storytelling Salon format in their own communities?
Jean Henry: I would invite everyone to make their own model as suits their community. I would also challenge them to define community broadly, to consider who they exclude by intention or neglect, and why. What we did was both intuitive and intentional and also utilized the community resources we had at hand. Most communities have the capacity to host their own event.
SV: If someone in another area wanted to run a salon for their community, what advice might you give them? What wisdom was gained from the one you ran in December 2017?
Jean Henry: There are a few things we did to create a space conducive to very personal and vulnerable sharing of which I am quite proud. We made sure to have people on hand (and well identified) with experience in treating trauma to be available to the brave women who told their stories as well as listeners. While volunteer professionals are ideal, I think peers could provide this support with some instruction on keeping the focus on the other person’s experience and being affirmative and attentive in response. It was well facilitated, with enough structure and flexibility to put people at ease and encourage them to speak.
We did not limit who could attend, but we set affirmative standards for audience engagement. We also allowed anyone in the room to let us know if someone was present with whom they had personal experience, who made them feel ill at ease. And we politely asked those people to leave. And the two people so identified did so, willingly, and without complaint. I think that’s a credit to the atmosphere our collective presence made in that room. No one wanted to be disruptive of the healing that was being offered there. There was very little ego present. Those were our standards and practices. Each community will have its own.
If anyone is interested in adopting our format, we would be happy to share with them in greater detail [link below]. But storytelling is as old as humanity. We know how to do this. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. Creating a supportive environment is essential.
Jean Henry describes herself as a local business person, mother, survivor, and “trouble maker.” She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sara Vos: Carisa, you’re a holistic psychotherapist in private practice in Ann Arbor,and one of the reasons the #MeToo Storytelling Salon came into being. Why were you inspired to mobilize the community around an event or gathering, post #MeToo?
Carisa Wilder: As a therapist, I had several clients who had experienced significant sexual trauma and were activated by what was going on in the news at the time. One person even went to the emergency room due to a panic attack while watching and listening to the news. She was told that nothing was really physically wrong with her—that she “really should take better care” of herself. No one ever asked her about past or current trauma. The medical system is but one of the systems that has not yet caught up to the reality of sexual trauma in women’s lives, or how that trauma impacts us over the course of our lives.
Of course, when #MeToo erupted, I saw and read many FB posts—family, friends, young, old... the vast majority of female-identified people have experienced some level of gender-based trauma. At the time, I was re-reading Bessel Van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score [which has large sections on group therapy and various healing settings for trauma integration] and had also been thinking about how powerfully healing it can be to share our stories in safe spaces.
I can feel that powerful healing with my clients in our sessions. However, I became aware of a need to gather in the physical presence of a group. To witness and be witnessed with care and consideration without attachment to a particular outcome. I believe we accomplished that [with the #MeToo Storytelling Salon] in a way that worked.
SV: I am a huge fan of Bessel Van der Kolk’s work. When The Body Keeps the Score came out in 2015, I read it cover to cover and lent it to friends. I was surprised to read so many examples in the book about the ways that the medical system, generally speaking, does not yet understand or know how to recognize, treat, or resolve trauma effectively. For example, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders still does not recognize complex-PTSD although many trauma experts have named it and researched it for years.
To know the truth of what is going on in peoples’ lives and experiences, and have that juxtaposed against what the dominant culture says is true or allows space to talk about in our public spheres, can make you a bit crazy. To that end, it feels like #MeToo is this huge, sweeping cultural educational moment AND movement, in which the stories that women and survivors have been telling for years are finally being able to be heard, and thankfully, often believed, in a wider way. And yet, there is still so much educational work to do.
SV: How are you seeing the effects of this cultural change in your own life and in the general post #MeToo landscape? Have you noticed any changes?
Carisa Wilder: In my daily life, I notice a shift in my own level of empowerment around choosing what feels safe and how I feel safe, as opposed to being at the mercy of decades of programming around how I’m supposed to feel and respond to the violence I experience and witness. I notice this with others, too. There’s more permission to speak up.
I believe the #MeToo experience culturally pushed us along a path of greater public awareness of the prevalence of sexual violence and how profoundly those experiences affect our lives and our communities.
I hope the movement continues to encourage individuals and communities around the world to dialogue and take action to heal both perpetrators and survivors. I hope the movement continues to address the factors that have created systemic sexual violence. I hope that we continue to see more folks take leadership roles in their communities to listen to, support healing, and provide safety for all survivors. I hope communities everywhere continue to organize #MeToo events.
SV: Do you have any ideas about what could make this successful? Perhaps as a similar model to free support groups modeled in the recovery community, such as 12-step or Celebrate Recovery?
Carisa Wilder: I imagine communities developing approaches that are relevant to them—likely through organizational support from groups that have been working for many years to address violence and sexual violence. When we hear each other’s stories publicly shared on a national level — like Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, many are activated from that sharing and while that can be very triggering and uncomfortable, that’s also a cue that something needs to move, to shift. Some won’t be ready yet, some may engage in a level of external support, and some will be inspired and moved to create space for public sharing on local/regional levels.
I could see a general model eventually being developed, and that could be – especially when communities make it their own. When we planned the Ann Arbor #MeToo Salon, we reached out to several communities to incorporate the knowledge gained from their experiences.
SV: Do you see any barriers to accessing the Storytelling Salons? Is there anything you would do differently the next time around?
Carisa Wilder: Yes. I would like to see resources of time, money, and logistical support gifted to organizers and leaders in historically marginalized communities to run salons. The networks of the organizers and speakers, along with the venue selected, the time of the event, how the event is advertised, are all factors in attendance, participation, and inclusivity, so I think it’s very important that all of those factors shift and are flexible so that the audience/participants shift, too! What I mean by that is these salons offer the potential to disrupt sexual violence at the community level, and it’s imperative that they are as accessible to as many different kinds of communities and groups as possible.
SV: What do you think may inspire or motivate other therapists and community organizers to run more #MeToo Storytelling Salons?
Carisa Wilder: I feel that inspiration sometimes comes from the most unexpected places so that’s difficult to say! Many of the therapists and community organizers I know are already doing deep healing work in their practices. In this case, I was driven to take on the extra tasks of organizing a salon because I felt that it would benefit individuals and our community. I reached out to friends because I knew I couldn’t, and didn’t want to, do it alone.
Carisa describes herself as a holistic psychotherapist, facilitating healing for individuals, couples, and other intimately connected relationships. You can learn more about her at annarborholistictherapy.com or email her at email@example.com.
Interested in attending the Next #MeToo Storytelling Salon? There will be another one in 2019, on March 16th from 7 PM to 9 PM, which will take place at Sun Shen, 2466 East Stadium Boulevard. For more information, you can contact the author, Sara Vos, at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The #MeToo Storytelling Salon organizers would like to share their process, too. Interested parties can download the free PDF, How to Run a #MeToo Storytelling Salon, at bit.ly/#MeTooStorySalon.