The Silence of Friends
Denne artikel er anden ud af to artikler. Den finske kunstner Inkeri Jäntti var del af Nuuk Kunstmuseums residensprogram 2017, og i de måneder hun boede i Nuuk var hun i dialog med kvinder, som havde traume efter seksuelt overgreb; et gennemgribende tema og afsæt i hendes kunst, som har rødder i eget traume. Hendes fokus er ikke stedsbestemt, hverken specifikt grønlandsk eller finsk, men hvad kunsten kan gøre med traume og tabu.
Denne artikel er skrevet af Inkeri ud fra en samtale med to kvinder i Nuuk. Samtalen bearbejdede hun i sin kunst, med kvindernes tilladelse og accept, og gav deres fortællinger et udtryk. Artiklen er skrevet på engelsk, og samtalen foregik på engelsk. Den første artikel er et essay over kunst og terapi og kan læses her.
Foto: Inkeri Jäntti hyrede danser Maliina Jensen til at være model i nogle hendes fotografier. De sejlede til Kangeq – en efterladt bygd lidt udenfor Nuuk – og fotograferede et æstetisk udtryk over traume inspireret af fjeldgængeren eller Qivittoq – dem som gik til fjelds eller forlod samfundet i skam eller skyld.
Text, photography and video by Inkeri Jäntti
Looking at them, you’d think nothing is amiss with these two women sitting with me in a living room in Greenland’s capital city Nuuk. These women who have been physically, sexually abused. Raped.
There, I said it. It’s a strong word.
“I was 12,” Julie, who is 47 now, says. “We were spending time after school at the youth center and a boy asked me to go back with him to our school. He had forgotten his backpack at the school gym and had a key. It was late and he said he was scared to go alone. I went with him because I knew who he was.” Julie has short, smartly cut black hair and glasses. She’s wearing a knitted scarf and matching handwarmers. They look like armour on her when she presses her palm on her chest, above her heart. “My heart is beating fast, when I tell this story. Almost nobody knows. Only my husband.”
I’m sitting with Julie at the home of 26-year-old Ann-Margrethe, Julie’s ex-boyfriend’s sister. I’ve already met Ann-Margrethe earlier, when she told me her story. Now she offered to act as an interpreter between Julie and me. Ann-Margrethe works in a local grocery store and rest of the time focuses on taking care of her one-year-old daughter Lily. Tonight Lily doesn’t want to go to bed and toddles around the living room, laughing loudly. She wants to look at photos of my cat on my iphone. “Avva!” she says and slides the touchscreen expertly to see another photo. “It means dog in Greenlandic baby language,” Ann-Margrethe clarifies. “But Lily says that about most animals.” When she goes to put Lily to bed, I sit with Julie who doesn’t know a lot of English. We trade some language tips, me trying to imitate the soft, throaty “q” sound of Greenlandic and she trying to roll out the hard “r” of Finnish. We laugh when we both fail.
It’s not an easy situation, describing to a stranger how somebody hurt your body and mind, took your sense of agency. But these women seem to do quite easily. Only when I ask how they feel, they reveal the difficulty. “I’m shaking, “ says Ann-Margrethe. But you can’t tell. She’s used to being strong and not showing her feelings. Just like the tens of thousands of other sexually abused women in the world, and in Greenland. Women must stay quiet and take it. “I’m always trying, “ she says. “You always have to try to hide it and be strong.”
A CULTURE OF LOOKING AWAY
“I think it is a cultural thing to have to hide it,” Julie says. “It’s a stigma on the house, if somebody has been raped. Especially if it happened inside the family. You can never reveal what’s wrong.
People will be afraid of what other people will say, will we ever get jobs again.” Rape is taboo. But only for the victim. The perpetrator doesn’t face any of the responsibility.
“It makes women here easy victims,” Ann-Margrethe adds. “The rapists know nobody will reveal it and their actions won’t have consequences. That’s why they keep doing it.”
When Ann-Margrethe was young, around six - she can’t remember exactly - she went to spend the night with her sister’s family. Her uncle also lived there. She hadn’t spent much time with him before and felt happy when he took special notice of her. “He took me to the store and bought me wine gums and cup noodles. It felt like I had a whole new family.”
In the evening, she shared a bed with her uncle and his children. During the night, she woke up to her uncle staring at her and reaching into her underwear. “I remember his heavy breathing. I tried to turn away from him and wait for him to leave. It felt like hours.” Eventually, he was gone and she ran to her sister to tell what had happened. She was told to go back to sleep and the problem would be dealt with tomorrow. “The next day, somebody beat my uncle up a little. But that was it. My family still talks to him. He doesn’t live that far away so I run into him often. I feel sick if I even see him.”
Both of these events happened a long time but to Julie and Ann-Margrethe, they’re still present in their lives daily. Both have suffered from depression and memories intruding on their lives for decades.
“I don’t remember exactly what happened at the gym.” Julie says. “The boy pushed me into the equipment closet and then I blacked out. Sometimes bits and pieces come back. I remember the smell of a cologne and sweaty man. I remember him holding my hands behind my back like the police do when they arrest someone. He was my cousin’s best friend.”
Ann-Margrethe interprets most of my questions as we don’t share enough common language with Julie to talk more than about the snow situation in Nuuk. The two women sit on opposite sides of me, talking in Greenlandic and I watch as Julie’s face moves with her story. She doesn’t cry and she’s not dramatic but sometimes she pauses and I see the inner struggle.
“When it was over, I asked him why did it. He didn’t say anything, just pushed me out.”
For a long time, Julie didn’t tell anybody. She went on to live a turbulent teenage life where everything around her made her angry. She lashed out at others, loving it when she could make somebody else angry. “It felt like they were expressing my anger and for a moment, I felt relief.” She studied to be an accountant and later on a social worker. She now works in a small home for the handicapped, taking care of two patients suffering from a very rare syndrome. She says she loves her work. “For the first few weeks I was a bit lost. But then I knew this is the right job for me.”
FLASHING BACK TO THE PAST
Many feelings follow sexual abuse and trauma, such as shame, depression and contrarily enough: feeling numb as well as uncontrollably aggressive. Anger is often difficult to feel and express after rape but it’s very present in both Ann-Margrethe’s and Julia’s stories. “I hate wearing too tight pants,“ Ann-Margarethe says. “It makes me feel like his hand is still in there. Sometimes that makes me angry and I get irritated with my mother and my boyfriend.” I feel glad, in some strange way, that they are able to feel and express anger. It was a bit different for me.
Many years ago, I met a boy, fell in love and started dating him. People told me he was a bit bad news but I didn’t care. I was having a difficult time, I’d been depressed, my self-esteem was low. Quickly our relationship deteriorated into him being unstable and unpredictable, lashing out at me for talking to his brother (I must have been cheating) or having a urinary tract infection (I must have
been cheating) or even talking about our relationship to my friends. He felt I didn’t need friends when I had him, or maybe I didn’t even have real friends. Who would really like a person like me?
When I started crying after he insulted me for behaving stupidly and not being able to keep my mouth shut, he told me it was for my own good. If I felt hurt, he called me too sensitive. “It’s normal to fight like this,” he said. When it came to sex, I realized I was tuning out. He didn’t care about what I felt or if I felt anything at all. Mostly I didn’t. If sex hurt, he tried to persuade me to continue and sometimes even pushed me to continue. I became afraid to say no. In the end, whatever I said, no or yes, I didn’t know what it meant.
The relationship ended quite soon and I should count myself lucky that it did. Afterwards, it took me months to understand what he did to me and how I changed after that. I distanced myself from almost everybody, I gained weight, I started dressing differently. I was afraid of people walking behind me and if an interpersonal conflict occurred, I could already hear a voice in my head berating me for the stupid things I’d done. One day, I ended up on a web forum for raped women and reading their experiences, I found myself thinking: this is how I feel, but why? It’s impossible to say if what happened in my past relationship was rape, sexual abuse or “only” a bad relationship. I don’t use the R-word often. I stutter as I try to say it in my own language. In English, it’s a little bit easier. My case could never have gone to the police, so in the end it doesn’t really matter how it’s defined.
I was lucky to have received help afterwards. Having been a depression patient for years before, I already had a therapist who I still continue to see today. The women in Greenland are less lucky. “We went to court,” Ann-Margrethe says. “But it was dismissed. There wasn’t enough evidence.” You can only wonder why judges think a child would lie about something like that. “I didn’t know what it was that happened. At that time, we didn’t have access to internet or even that much TV. All I knew was that it was wrong and belonged in the adult world.”
About 5 years ago she went to talk to a social service worker about her case. “It was a really bad experience,” she says. “ I was waiting to get in and they asked me to tell my story there out loud, in front of everybody. When I was assigned to a social worker, she didn’t even ask me in. I was standing at the doorway and the woman said to me: ‘You were raped only once. I can’t see why we should help you. Get over it.’ It still haunts me.” Now that she has recently had a baby, she has more access to health care and could go to a few sessions with a psychologist. “It’s until my baby is two. After that, they don’t care.”
Julie found some help through her studies. She was studying to become a social worker but when she was confronted with a course about abuse, the memories became overwhelming. “I went to a guidance counselor and told her I can’t do this, I’m going to quit school. The counselor pressed me to tell her what was going on and eventually got me 30 sessions with a psychologist.” When I ask her if it helped, she nods.
There are very few health care professionals in Greenland who could deal with trauma and its aftermath. Many regular citizens don’t have access to anybody who would help despite countless studies that show that the effects of sexual trauma can be long lasting and difficult to overcome by yourself.
Most sexual abuse survivors have mental health issues and aside that, frequently suffer of unexplained pains and aches, such as pelvic inflammation and headaches. Their emotional and sex lives are often irrevocably altered. “For a while I would just sleep with people without thinking about it,” Julie says. “But when I had my first child, I started to understand my body. That I should only have sex when I really wanted to.” When sexual agency and choice are taken away from you, it can become impossible to recognize or even tolerate sexual feelings. “Often I don’t want it all,”
Ann-Margrethe says. “It brings back too many memories. It doesn’t feel like a normal part of a loving relationship.”
CONNECTING WITH PEOPLE
Julie and Ann-Margrethe want to help others who share their experience. When they heard about a Finnish photographer (that’s me) coming to Nuuk to do an art project concerning the experiences of abused women, they wanted to tell their story, hoping it could help others. “I’m still working on my trauma, “ Julie says. She’s on antidepressants and has bad spells. “If I have a bad day, I talk to my husband. My life is better now and I have a good relationship.” As our interview drags on, Julie’s husband calls her to check when she’s coming home. It’s sweet that he worries about her.
Ann-Margrethe, as a new mother, worries about her child. “Having Lily made me want to talk about this and bring things to light. I never want anything like this happen to her, or any other baby.
Sometimes I can’t sleep at night because I’m so worried about children having these experiences. The only way to make this situation better is to talk about it openly.”
We meet in the evenings when Lily has gone to sleep or Lily’s father is home from work and can look after the baby. Ann-Margrethe’s house is cozy and lovely, a traditional colourful wooden house at the center of Nuuk. “It’s become hard to connect with people after what happened,” she says. “It feels as if other people can never be in the same place if this has never happened to them. Trusting people becomes almost impossible.”
Despite the feelings of isolation, there’s a kinship when I talk to Ann-Margrethe and Julie. During our talks, most of what they says rings true to me. In this horrible thing, we are united and we can share each other's experiences. I can only be grateful that they have been able to trust me enough to share their experiences with me. Looking at them, I don’t see shame or a stigma, I see women who have struggled and become stronger for it. It’s as if we have an odd secret society now. Listening to them, I realize that deep down in all of our communities, there exists a vibrant thread of women supporting each other. We need to trust it and bring it forward. We can nurture change.
The best way to help is to talk about it, out loud.