The Pixel Project is proud to present our fifth annual Survivor Stories Blog Interview Project in honour of Mother’s Day 2018. The annual campaign runs throughout the month of May 2018 and features up to 31 interviews with a survivor of any form of violence against women (VAW) including domestic violence, rape, sexual assault, stalking, online violence against women, female genital mutilation, forced/child marriage, sex trafficking, breast ironing etc. This campaign was created to provide:
- VAW survivors a platform to share their stories and solutions/ideas on how they rebuilt their lives and healed/are healing.
- Girls and women currently experiencing or who have survived VAW ideas, hope, and inspiration to escape the violence and know that there is light at the tunnel and there is help out there.
Our 4th 2018 Survivor Stories interview is with Leah Zeiger from the USA.
This interview is courtesy of The Sunflower Project, an organisation dedicated to educating teens about consent and intimate partner violence.
TRIGGER WARNING: The first two Q&As in this interview may be distressing for some Domestic Violence and Rape survivors.
The Survivor Bio:
Leah Zeiger is a dancer, activist, writer, and survivor. She founded The Sunflower Project, an organisation that uses dance and other forms of art to help heal survivors of gender based violence. She is the co-director of the documentary Untold – a film about her experience with abuse. Leah has a bachelor’s degree in dance, has performed across the country, and has been a public survivor for two years. In her free time, Leah works on her memoir, cuddles with her dog Bagel, and backpacks through Central America. Learn more about The Sunflower Project, and watch Untold, at www.towardsthesun.org
1. What is your personal experience with gender-based violence (this may include domestic violence, rape, sexual assault, female genital mutilation etc)?
As a fifteen-year-old, I entered into a relationship with an eighteen-year-old psychopath. Clearly, I did not know he was a psychopath until well after our 1 year relationship ended, but that’s beside the point. He became verbally and emotionally abusive within a couple months, physically abusive within half a year, and by the ninth month of our relationship, he had begun to rape me every single night. Once I was able to break up with him, he began to stalk me – physically and electronically. He broke into my house twice, once to read my diary and text me a quote from it, and the next time to stand over me while I was sleeping, and use my phone to text my friends about him, pretending to be me.
Eventually I got a restraining order against him, but the police didn’t take much action until they found him and another man conspiring to break into my house, take out my dad with a bat and chloroform, tie up my mother and sister, rape me, and kill me. After I testified in court for almost two hours, the judge gave him a plea deal of 2 years, which he took, and of which he only served 1 year. I haven’t heard from him since.
2. How did you escape the violent situation/relationship/ritual?
After almost a year of being abused, something inside of me shifted. It was as if the veil of manipulation he had so carefully sewn over my eyes had been lifted, and the world looked completely different in that instant. We were talking on the phone that night, and he picked a fight (as he always did), and for the first time in a year I didn’t start to beg for him.
That was what we would do every night – we would fight on the phone, I would end up begging him to stay with me/love me/trust me, etc., and then he would sneak out of his house and into mine, rape me, and leave. I usually woke up to some text about how he had changed his mind and he wanted to break up, and I’d commence the begging for the day, and it would just go around in circles.
So one day, I had suddenly had enough. He said to me: “don’t you want to marry me?” And I said: “No.” It was the most incredible moment, even though it didn’t end the abuse. I had tried breaking up with him six times prior to that day, but that day changed everything.
3. How did you heal and rebuild your life after the violent situation/relationship/ritual? What actions did you take?
I didn’t take action. I didn’t heal. I didn’t do any rebuilding for a long, long time. He continued to abuse me and threaten my safety after we broke up, and it took more than a year after the relationship ended for him to be in prison and officially not my abuser anymore. The day he went to prison was the day I became a survivor instead of a victim.
But eventually, I started to dance again. I choreographed a dance called Unnamed six months after we broke up, and that dance became my mantra. I went to college and the idea for The Sunflower Project was born, and then when I turned 19, my dad and I sat down on our couch, with a film crew in the living room, and we had a conversation about my abuse. That conversation turned into the 28 minute film Untold, and now, two years after it premiered at the Chicago Feminist Film Festival, it has been released to the public online.
The Sunflower Project is how I heal – it’s how I rebuild, it’s how I take action. It’s the only reason I’m still here. Well, that’s a lie, the real reason why I’m still here is because I found my voice through my dancing. And then my dancing found a home in The Sunflower Project.
4. What would you suggest to or share with another woman or girl facing the same situation as you did?
There’s nothing I can suggest to someone who’s in an abusive relationship. Nothing can change someone’s mind when they are being controlled by someone else. The only way a person can get out of an abusive relationship is when they themselves can make their own voice louder than their abuser’s. That can’t be forced from the outside. That only can come from inside.
That being said, there’s a lot of things I can say to those in and out of abusive relationships, which all really comes down to three things:
- I believe you.
- You are not alone.
- It is not your fault.
And for those who have a friend or family member who is in or just got out of an abusive relationship, I have four things:
- Tell them you believe them.
- Tell them they are not alone.
- Tell them it’s not their fault.
- Whatever happens with them, be it PTSD, depression, acting out sexually, anything else, NEVER take what they are doing personally. Taking someone else’s depression personally essentially means you ask them “what can I do?” or “why can’t I make you feel better” or “but you know you can talk to me”. Instead, stop making their healing process about you, and ask them “what do you need?” And then listen to them.
5. How do you think we can end violence against women?
I will scream this from the rooftops: THE DAY WE CAN TALK ABOUT RAPE IN SCHOOLS IS THE DAY RAPE BECOMES A RARITY.
One day, The Sunflower Project will be a non-profit that brings programmes into high schools. We will talk about warning signs, about where to get help, about what the words abuse and rape and manipulation really means. We will do so through art. And then we will help survivors survive by giving them the tools to create art and the space to do so.
Until that day, we need sex education, we need relationship education, we need parents to explicitly tell their children what rape is and explain the nuances of consent. We need to stop pretending like we aren’t hurting our children by declining them knowledge. We need to own up to the reality that our children will face, and then we need to actually prepare them for it.
6. Why do you support The Pixel Project?
I will support any project on this planet that gives survivors a voice. I will support people who demand to be heard. I will support those who actually listen. I will never stop telling my story and I will take every avenue I can do do just that.
The Pixel Project is one of many incredibly important organisations that are doing work that shouldn’t have to be done. Giving a voice to survivors is an incredibly powerful gift, second only to the gift of listening to them.