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Listening and Telling: Reflections Eight Years Later – by Elizabeth Ross

STORYCENTER Blog

We are pleased to present posts by StoryCenter staff, storytellers, colleagues from partnering organizations, and thought leaders in Storywork and related fields.

Listening and Telling: Reflections Eight Years Later – by Elizabeth Ross

Emily Paulos

Elizabeth Ross is an artist living in rural Mendocino County. With a history of community activism, she is also a somatic practitioner working with people affected by trauma and addiction.

In 2005 I was part of a group who produced stories about the impact of child sexual assault through StoryCenter’s Silence Speaks initiative. Initially after viewing the stories at the end of the workshop, I felt curiosity and surprise at the immediacy of impact: I felt proud, visible, and necessary – quite different from how I had walked into the Berkeley lab feeling on the first day. What has become clear was that this process of internal re-structuring has continued to this day. Making Listening and Telling was the beginning.

An issue that continued to simmer after creating the story, one that took years to understand, was how secrecy and confidentiality had fused in me. In my childhood it was imperative that I remain quiet, silent. The government was scrutinizing my parents’ lives; we hid people in our house. Secrecy was part of surviving the McCarthy era. In fact it was not until after my father’s death that I told anyone outside the circle of ex-Party members of our political activities. There was a particularly peculiar period in high school where I was an unhappy, sullen student during the day, who would then go to my parent’s print shop after school in which lively discourse about Marxism was being discussed with Black Panthers while posters for them were being printed (as well as for Fillmore west and the Avalon Ballroom). I did not speak of one world to the other – my skill at confidentiality increased.

As an adult, I lived and worked in small communities also scrutinized or targeted: harm reduction, HIV, activist-feminist. It never occurred to me there might be a personal cost to my silence until I was saturated beyond the margins of health. While this is another story, having made Listening and Telling set the stage for my self-examination: where of necessity I had developed a behavior which left me hampered in distinguishing between secrecy, confidentiality, and concealment. It is fascinating that the title of my story would forecast what would continue to be a cornerstone of my healing. It has been a rich time of repair.

I am a printmaker and painter. I was in art school in the early 1970s, an era prior to the massive technologies providing greater access and ease of movie and DVD production. I longed to make movies, but I was a scholarship student already working to cobble together the funds to support myself, and the costs of making movies was intimidating. When I made Listening and Telling I felt the economic limitations change, but there were further internal bounds imposed by class and gender that remained unaddressed.

Intellectually, I understood the urgency and importance of expression. I grew into adulthood during second wave feminism and its courageous challenge to domestic violence, violence against women – and men, as the scope became clearer. But the hands-on experience of making Listening and Telling did something theory could not: it dislodged a bottleneck inside me – one that had promoted the fight for others but did not count me in: a subtle and insidious lack of value. I had been given strong messages of support at home, but soaking within a sexist culture merged with an excessive modesty-turned-assimilation from the left rendered me invisible. Unfortunately, at the same time, I integrated what I took to be desire with self-entitlement. It was as if the very insight of class and gender was turned against me, something I was not aware of until Listening and Telling. I think these internalized systemic issues are pretty much inescapable; and while growing up red did not protect me from such broad sweeping problems, it did give me a foundational analysis and passion to question and excavate long-held beliefs.

Within months of completing my story, I encountered a hurdle which remained difficult for a number of years: in order to make the collection of stories accessible to a broad audience, I was asked to write and add to the beginning of the piece a didactic introduction that detailed key historical and political layers in which my family lived. Coming from a working class background, I resisted at first the idea that literal information is necessary to understand another’s life experience. It is easy to stereotype who has intellectual competency (i.e. non-working class, college educated people), what is “political,” and what defines the power of art. On the other hand, I received feedback that the added beginning narrative in my story was helpful, connective, contextualizing, and revealing. Over time, I have come to accept this implanted narrative rather than engage in a fight for a “before” or “after” version. Both views have merit; I laid down some of the fight inherited from my parents’ life the in Party – not to collapse the significant issues debated there but rather the chronic contentious relationships I witnessed and lived with – and this experience of chronic fighting regretfully repeated itself in numerous activist circles throughout my life. It took years for me to develop a keen eye to what battles were worth fighting as struggling and fighting was what I was taught. 

Seeing my story with literally dozens of other stories by other survivors set me in motion. Working with Amy Hill at Silence Speaks over those many hours of production allowed for desire and worth of writing about my life and those of my parents to surface and take hold. Something as simple as what I dreamed of has come closer.