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What Art Taught Me About Sexual Abuse

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Today is my last day of counselling for the treatment of sexual abuse. I went to 25 sessions, spread out over two long years.

When I started, probably fortunately, I had no idea what I was letting myself in for. I remember my counsellor saying to me, “You do understand, don’t you? It’s going to get harder before it gets easier.” And I said, yes. I understand. Of course, I didn’t and in an unbelievably short time I was so overwhelmed that my boat nearly capsized and I almost didn’t make it. I look back and feel amazed by what I survived, and by all that I’ve come through.

Here’s what I know about sexual abuse.

When I was in Paris, I got to see countless paintings, sculptures, buildings and other pieces of art. Each had been a painstaking labour of love, conception and skill for its artist. A thousand details and decisions, big and small, had to made, and although perhaps invisible to the average viewer, the care and attention of the creator went into every aspect of what they were trying to convey through the marble, the paint, the fresco or the canvas.

And some of those works had been really damaged – by time, weather, neglect, or a violent mishap. Some had been exposed to cruel lighting, water, mould, war, careless transportation, improper storage or other elements of wear, tear and harm. In some cases, these objects have been lovingly and painstakingly repaired by experts who were doing their very best to restore them to dignity and integrity. And some, like the magnificent Winged Victory of the Samothrace in the entrance to the Louvre, have to be enjoyed the way they are. They are wonderful and regal, damage and all.

I can’t help but think of the artist — the creator — and feel a sense of loss that we will not be able to see the authentic work the artist originally intended. Repairs can be made. Works can be beloved and glorious as they are. Damaged objects are not worthless and they cannot be dismissed.

A Da Vinci is a Da Vinci.

A Botticelli is a Botticelli.

A Michelangelo is a Michelangelo.

A work created by a master is a priceless extension of the artist who envisioned it and gave it life. And yet, what a very great loss never to see that mighty work of marble or canvas in its wholeness and its entirety, as the artist envisioned. I believe that this is important to say, because I think that in a good intentioned hurry to reassure victims that they are not “damaged goods” the people we actually placate are those who have done the harm to begin with. The resulting message can sound like: the results of your actions are minimal, can be easily fixed, and anyway, they are in a place where nobody can see.

Those who have been harmed know the truth: that the hurt is pervasive and permanent. The costs and the processes of reclamation and restoration are expensive, overwhelming and painful. That the very pieces that are missing are the ones that would to have been so foundational, so important to healing.

“It’s only the face that is scribbled over, who needs an identity!”

“The spiritual connection is irretrievably damaged. What could possibly go wrong?!?”

“All the sexual impulses have been unplugged, reordered and/or reinstalled by a mad person. But that won’t interfere with functioning, surely?!?!?”

You will never be the same.

But you are a Da Vinci.

The damage can only be repaired, never undone.

But you are a creation of Michelangelo.

This is the paradox.

Because the painting was priceless, the damage is, too.

Here is to the art restorers, to those who slave away behind the scenes in the most unglamorous places imaginable, trying with devotion, patience and care to repair these inimitable masterpieces. May they experience moments of deep joy and satisfaction as a reward for their commitment and sacrifice, cleaning up other people’s messes.

And here is to the casual, every day art lover, who stands in wonder, and sees only the loveliness and the hands of the great artist. They little know how healing the love and admiration of their gaze can be.

— Written by Claire Anderson 
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