As patrons of the arts, most of us realize that an artist often suffers for his art. But what about the many who have been brought to art because of their sufferings?
I had recently read a story about Mary Murphy, an accomplished dancer and choreographer on the world-wide stage. However, she did not start dancing until she was in college and already a young bride. At age 19 she married a Jordanian man from a prominent family, and soon after she found herself being regularly raped and beaten by her new husband. From then on until their subsequent divorce, he also belittled and manipulated her at his will. He would only show her a sliver of goodwill at his whim and fancy, almost starving her for affirmation about her self-worth.
But one day she sees a posting requesting a dance teacher who the studio itself would be willing to train. This was the turning point in her life. Being away for an hour or so at the studio was a welcome respite for her from her husband who sexually, verbally, emotionally, physically, and financially abused her for almost a decade.
She began to feel again. Through dance, she felt safe from his oppression; through the art of movement, she felt free to fully express herself and to feel joy; through the grace of her body (the body that her abuser so reviled), she felt beautiful within herself knowing that she could create something that was so beautiful.
The level of fear and anxiety that particularly exists in domestic abuse very quickly actualizes itself into a pain that becomes so innate within the heart of the abused that we journey to a place where we can’t separate ourselves from our abusers. We subsequently can’t separate ourselves from the pain inflicted by the abuser. Like the saying, “Become one with the music,” we become to identify and become entwined solely with that level of suffering. That pain becomes innate, as though it was always there and could never leave.
But for those of us who can find healing through the arts, we no longer need to hold onto that pain and conversely it no longer needs to hold onto us.
For me and so many countless others, this form of victimization rears its ugly head in many forms, all of which threaten to create a permanent emotional crippling of its intended target. Domestic and child abuse take the form of a silent and deadly killer: it's almost always hidden, the abuser denies it, the abused is engulfed with shame and confusion, and loved ones who witness or are made aware of the abuse can be filled with shame and guilt.
When everyone feels that they have to tip-toe around this “secret”, the abused individual then continues to tote around that burden and left to continue feeling victimized and violated. And then you can either choose to live or to die. After coming full circle with my painful past, an aunt of mine had told me that you can’t do either one half-way. If I chose to live, then I must conduct my life as I see fit and not continue to be beaten down and made to feel helpless by my abusers. At that time, I had once again lost a sense of myself and once again I needed to find the inspiration to return to myself.
Fortunate to have found my original inspiration as a child through writing, I was inspired through an intricate network of caring teachers (writers and artists) to find refuge and perhaps even solidarity through the written word. I gained exposure to another world through other artists' living works. I was encouraged to write in order to discover an innate, latent talent that was percolating just below the surface of the hurt and anguish.
I was inspired to ravage my school's library throughout the academic year, my city library during the holiday breaks, and the daily newspaper delivered to my home. I was inspired to detail the world around me and to catalogue it through my point of view. I was inspired to apply a reason, a just cause, to my existence and forced subjection to a violent life at home. And I was inspired to realize and always remember that something better was waiting for me on the other side of this torment; in turn, to remain centered: to not lose my core sense of independence, determination, and self-worth.
Art inspires healing. It continues to inspire me to be connected with my emotions, uncovering them for the first, second, and umpteenth time. I have come to understand that is OK to acknowledge, feel, and express them – perhaps many all at once, perhaps the same emotions every day, however I was moved in that moment.
When Mary had found dance and was exposed to its healing effects on her emotional and mental state, it gave her a quiet strength, strangely enabling her to better endure the pain of the abuse. She regained control over her being, slowly relinquishing domestic abuse’s power over her. She now had her art that no one could touch or take away from her. It drowned and washed away that destructive force. And then she was free.
I myself know that I have always been at my happiest when I'm active in the arts. It could just be seeking out new literature or admiring and finding inspiration through a photograph or artwork. I was moved to be better, to feel better, to do better; and to believe that I could be liberated from this present place and time to one of my making.
We can sometimes romanticize artists' lives, their fiery temperament, and even their past and present sufferings. However, for some of us that suffering is so palpable and so ingrained in us that it threatens to destroy us if we don't have an outlet through which to channel it.
There is a timely saying that observes “That what destroys me nourishes me.” I believe that sometimes we as human beings are made to endure both the worst depravity of human nature and the most unfortunate life experiences in order to retain our resilience and to be fastidious in our life-long quest to find the inspiration to lift up our hearts and enlighten our minds towards personal and community (or societal) growth. We have to always look for that inspiration that art gives us to think, to feel, and to be better within ourselves.