One of the primary difficulties in sexual violence is how NOT black and white it is. Growing up, I was taught that sexual violence looked like a stranger attacking you out of nowhere, forcing you down on your back, maybe holding a knife to your throat, and definitely penetrating your vagina with his penis. Sexual violence did not come to you in the form of a beloved or a family member or a friend. Those people were not capable of hurting you. If you felt hurt by "those" people, you must've misunderstood something, you must've done something wrong, you must not be trying to understand the other person's perspectives or feelings hard enough. Sexual violence did not come to you in the form of forced oral penetration or forced viewing and reading of pornographic materials or the expectation of your wifely duties. Those sorts of things were just "weird" or "gross" or "embarrassing" and certainly, they were still, most likely your fault.
Also --and this is probably the most problematic one -- I was taught that sexual violence was carried out by full grown men who knew exactly what they were doing. This, turns out, to not be true. With one exception, the boys and girl and young men who hurt me had no idea that what they were doing was a violation of my body. I believe they knew that what they were doing was "wrong" but only insofar as it had something to do with sex which, they had been told, was "wrong" in every circumstance. And this feeling of "wrong-ness" probably only made what they were doing MORE titillating to them.
The "one exception" I mention above was the case of being date-raped by my boyfriend in high school. He knew that what he did was wrong. The day after he did it, he even said, “I date-raped you.” “Date-rape” was the first phrase that gave voice to the fact that it is possible to be raped by someone you know. It is now, I believe, an antiquated term but that is what we called it then. Still, even in this circumstance, he didn’t exactly “know” what he was doing because he was very high on LSD and I was very drunk. Yes, I did say no no no no no no no – again and again and again. Yes, he did do it anyway. But both of us were too out of our minds to really understand what was going on. What he did was wrong. He should have stopped. He should not have raped me. But it still didn’t look like the thing that I was told “rape” was. So, when he said “I date-raped you” the next day and then apologized, I had sex with him again anyway a couple of nights later. He was my boyfriend. I really didn’t realize what had happened a couple of nights before was a red flag. I forgave him. I moved on. We moved on – and stayed together for another 12 years. So… even though he knew what he did was wrong, the signals I sent him AFTER the fact gave him every indication that what he did was right – or, at least, fine/ no big deal. I should not have stayed in a relationship with him. I should not have told him I forgave him. I should’ve broken up with him. And, perhaps… probably, I should’ve pressed charges.
I have written about the truth of the sexual abuse, sexual assault and rape in Marina Abramovic Is My Mother. There is one story in the work called “His Back” that is about an incident involving my father – my real, biological father – even though, in the story I refer to him as “the man they called my father.” I tell the truth in that story that I have never known the full truth of that story. I have what therapists call “body memories” but that is the only night of my life (other than drunken nights of having blacked out later in my twenties) where I have repressed memory and cannot recall at least several hours. Whatever my father did to me that night was wrong. He knew that it was. But… he was also clinically insane and he sometimes lived inside a rage that grew so much larger than him, he could simply not control it. That is not to excuse whatever it is that my father did to me. That is not to excuse the many things I have full memory of him doing – the emotional abuse and physical mistreatment. That is just to say, sexual violence almost NEVER looks like the ONE story we are told about what sexual violence is. Sexual violence is complex and convoluted and overwhelmingly difficult to explain to other people.
Each one of my offenders was someone I knew, someone to some degree (however small) that I trusted. Each one of my offenders acted out in sexual violence without maliciously pre-meditating their actions. They acted out in a moment of embodying the rape culture that they were raised in. Because of that same rape culture, I never had any idea that what was happening to me was not my fault or was not something I had somehow asked for. Each one of my offenders was someone with whom, in addition to their sexual violence, I shared happy occasions, laughter, and fun. They were people that I loved.
Marina Abramovic Is My Mother IS a #metoo story. However, it is also a story that reaches beyond the simplicity of declaring that I was raped. I was raped. I was violated. AND, I was confused and, sometimes, complicit. My offenders were wrong to do what they did. They took something from me that it has taken me most of my life to get back. But this declaration is not accusatory, nor do I make it in order to free myself from silence. I have not really been silent. I make the declarations I make in Marina Abramovic Is My Mother so that you can understand that sexual violence is so pervasive, so threaded into the rape culture in which we live that you might not even recognize it if it happens to you; you might not even recognize it when she tells you it happened to her. I also make these declarations in order to help you understand that sexual violence is just one part of a much larger story; both in our culture AND in our private lives. Our stories – thankfully – are far bigger and far more complex and far more tragic and far more interesting than the moments in which we were victimized.
Regardless of whether our offenders are called out or brought to justice, we are stronger, more solid, more capable, and more fearless than we might have lead ourselves, at one time, to believe. This is one of the truths that Marina Abramovic has taught me. This is one of the Truths of Marina Abramovic Is My Mother.
I have written about the difficulty and insufficiency of separating "truth" from "fiction" in this work. However, I want to make something plain: I am the survivor in this story. The sexual abuse and assault that is described in this story was experienced -- in truth, in reality, in NONfiction -- by me. EVERY part of the story that details sexual abuse, assault or rape is TRUE. I have written in many other places, in many other works about the childhood sexual abuse, sexual assault and rape that I have experienced in my life. There was no denying the influences these events had on my psyche as I allowed myself to experience and be healed by Abramovic's work and so, they were an essential element in this work. Also, having experienced sexual abuse, sexual assault and rape in my young life was a primary contributor to the enlarging and sensationalizing of my childhood story in my own head. That is, my childhood, in some ways (not in EVERY WAY, but in some ways) felt absolutely terrifying to me. Because of the sexual abuse, sexual assault and rape, my childhood and early adulthood felt much scarier and much larger and much other-worldly than it really was. There is something in me that used to tell this sensationalized story (the story of the ugly duckling) to myself that has, since I found Abramovic's work, calmed down. Facing the FACT of my sexual abuse, sexual assault and rape -- without the drama of a swan raised as a duck -- has healed the child that used to think there was something wrong with her, that she had done something wrong, that she had some reason to be ashamed. I have absolutely NO reason to be ashamed. I have absolutely NO reason to not declare these events as truth because I did not cause them and I did not perpetrate them. I also did not make them up -- which is the convenient thing the world tells little girls who have been violated: "You must've made that up." It is also the convenient thing we tell ourselves when a hard truth comes spinning to the surface: "She must've made that up." It would be all too convenient if every #metoo story was, in fact, made up. It would mean that every woman with a story is just insane or, at least, just a horrible liar. I am an artist. I am a writer. But I am not a liar -- and, I am also, no longer, a little girl.
I call this work a semi-fictional memoir. I am aware that "semi-fictional memoir" is seen as an oxymoron or paradox to some. There are many people who believe that it is possible to tell an absolute truth from our limited single-human perspective. I do not believe this is true. I believe that ALL memoir and autobiography has an element of fiction in it, in that we tell our stories from our own perspectives. What is true for us is not always true for the other people involved in those stories. Still, THIS work pushes that boundary even farther by building actual fictions into the story.
The primary fiction in this work, as I have discussed in The Introduction, is the concept that Marina Abramovic is my mother. Of course, she is not my biological mother. The work asks you, the audience, to consider that certain people, certain artists seem to BELONG to us in a deep, meaningful, often unexplainable way. Marina Abramovic is only my mother in that her work connected to something so beneath language in me that it made me FEEL as if she and I were somehow connected, that she knew me, that I had come -- somehow -- from her. The work suggests that Marina Abramovic is my cultural mother. If you follow Abramovic's work at all, you will know that I am not alone in considering her a cultural mother. She has trained and worked with many artists who seem to have a similar connection with her. She has touched the lives and hearts of many of her audience members.
In each act of Marina Abramovic Is My Mother, there is a performance -- it is usually the first piece. These performances were written in imitation of the format that Abramovic uses to write out her plans for a performance. As a writing artist, I was fascinated by Abramovic's self-made genres. She invented a way to write out a performance. She invented a way to tell her life stories in these tiny vignettes. The texts that appeared near each work in her retrospective at MOMA were as interesting to me as the work itself. I sought to emulate and imitate her genres in some parts of this work. The performances that begin each act of Marina Abramovic Is My Mother have not been performed. I do not have any intention of performing them. They were written as a kind of magical, dreamlike symbolism. They are complete fiction.
Another voice in Marina Abramovic Is My Mother that borrows the form of Abramovic's memoir-vignette is "The Self." These little stories start with titles and they are all true stories from my real life. And yet, they are also a dramatic reenactment of an imagined history in which I am actually/ biologically the daughter of Marina Abramovic (which, again, is a fiction). Every mention of Abramovic and I interacting in these stories is complete fiction except for the concept that "Marina" becomes a symbol for my own relationship with my creative life. Occasionally, I mention something that, for Abramovic, was fact -- she did really walk the Great Wall of China to meet her partner, Ulay, for their final performance together. They did really perform a piece called Communist Body/ Fascist Body in which they slept in bed. However, she was not abandoning ME to walk the Great Wall and I was not sleeping between the two of them in their sleep performance. What is true in these stories is everything having to do with my real mother, Ramona, and the rest of my family members. What is not true in these stories is that Ramona was not my real mother and her husband was not my real father and her other children were not my real siblings and so on. In these stories, I PRETEND that Marina Abramovic is my biological mother and this other family was just the family I was forced to live with.
The second-person "Energy Dialogues" are truth. These are pieces in which I am talking to myself about the fine mess I've gotten myself into. Of course, in these pieces I sometimes use figurative language like "You were born to a family of wolves." I was not born to a family of wolves. Wolves are a metaphor in this sentence. As a poet, I don't think metaphors are lies. Metaphors help us understand reality on a level that falls below language. There ARE however two primary lies in the "Energy Dialogues": I have actually been married twice and I have two children, not one. It was not meaningful to the story and only made a complex work overly-complicated to leave both of my marriages and both of my children in. Thus, for the sake of this semi-fictional memoir, I re-wrote my story to only having been married once and only having one child. Also, "Energy Dialogue" itself is a borrowed genre, of sorts, from Abramovic. She speaks of "energy dialogues" occurring frequently in her performance work. This is how I imagined "energy dialogues" might look in writing.
There is a lot of poetry in Marina Abramovic Is My Mother. The "Can I..." Questions after Erickson's stages of Social and Emotional Development; The Daughters; The Mothers: these are all poetry. And so, none of these can be considered fiction or nonfiction. They are as true as poems are true. The language of poetry is metaphor -- and I've already explained the difference between metaphor and lies. In these poems, there are many specific references to Abramovic's performances and her life: cutting the belly, star on fire, breaking glass with her hand, her mother dreaming she was a snake, slapping his face, breathing into each other's mouths, among others. These poems are my responses to Abramovic's work and the beginning of an explanation for what they stirred in me.
When I chose to re-tell the story of the ugly duckling in this work, I had no idea that Abramovic had been asked to illustrate a version of The Ugly Duckling. In fact, I made this re-telling part of Marina Abramovic Is My Mother in 2012 while her version of The Ugly Duckling didn't come out until 2017. When I found out about this, I was shocked and frankly... weirded out. It felt like another connection between us. In retrospect, it is POSSIBLE that I absorbed some information in my study of Abramovic's work and life that she had an affinity for the story of the Ugly Duckling and that is one of the reasons that I made a re-telling part of my work. BUT... even if that is the case, before I even attended "The Artist is Present" at MOMA in 2010, I had been working with a therapist back at home in Michigan in 2009 who asked me to identify the overarching narrative of my life -- and I identified "The Ugly Duckling." So, if I read somewhere that Abramovic had an affinity for that story, I only felt more connected to her then as I had already recognized my own affinity as well.
In any case, the re-telling of the ugly duckling in this work is a dramatic reenactment of what my young life felt like to me. It is also symbolic. It is also metaphor. Obviously, I was not a duck or a swan. In truth, I was a human. My mother was a human. So, the re-telling of the ugly duckling in Marina Abramovic Is My Mother is a way for me to sensationalize and fairy-tale-ize my childhood story. This is extremely appropriate and helps ME to recognize a "big T" Truth about the story I told myself about my childhood -- it was sensational and it was a fairy tale. There were monsters and villains in the story I told myself about my childhood. I was the victim. This re-telling of the ugly duckling is "true" in the sense that this was how my childhood FELT to me. This re-telling of the ugly duckling is absolute bullshit in the sense that I was a fucking kid, so what did I know?
There you have it. I had hoped to make a concise list of what was true and what was fiction in this work but, as it turns out, the point is... that's impossible. There is, perhaps, more truth in the fiction that there is in the truths. In each of the truths there is the overriding fiction of my personal perspective. Thus, I think, it would be best to attempt to experience this piece NOT by sorting out what is "true" and what is "fiction" but by simply letting it be what it is: art.
I feel arrogant when I proclaim my work "Art" and I can understand if readers think I am arrogant when I proclaim my work "Art." But, do understand, I'm not telling you this is good art or bad art. I am merely declaring that Marina Abramovic Is My Mother is attempting to function as art; not as a historical document and not as a self-help essay, as art. Therefore, this work is best experienced, just like Abramovic's performances, as the reaction your inner-world has to it; as whatever it is capable of stirring inside of you.
JodiAnn Stevenson is a poet and writer living on the Northwest Coast of Michigan's Lower Peninsula. Her poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in various print and online journals since 1996. She is the author of three published chapbooks of poetry: The Procedure (March Street Press, 2006); Houses Don't Float (Habernicht Press, 2010); and Diving Headlong Into a Cliff of Our Own Delusion (Saucebox Books, 2011). She has also produced the chapbooks In the Temple of the 7 Buddhas, I Wrote This Poem For You, Hung With A New Rope, Midnight in the Blackbox Theater Saloon, To Make the Words that Made the Language and The (Human) Body for The Broken Nose Chapbook Collective which she co-founded in 2013 with Jeremy Benson. She co-founded Binge Press and its sister online journal, 27 rue de fleures, in 2004 with Rebecca Hardin Thrift and served as the managing editor of both until 2014. She is the author of www.bowlofmilk.com which has been a one-woman show of visual poetry since 2004. You can connect with and support JodiAnn on her Patreon page or by emailing her.