Tuesday, 10 January 2012

jan 10, 2012

today, i went to the home studio of a textile artist named carl stewart to talk to him about a project that he's launching at the end of this week. it's called "belated", and it's made up of two bodies of work about his younger brother owen, who was hit by a car at the age of 3 and died in front of him.

one part of the work is called memoria - a series of cross-stitch portraits based on the only picture his family still has of owen. we talked at length about the gradual creation of the portraits by way of thousands of tiny stitches - 1296 stitches per square inch, to be exact. "it's like mending," he said. "it's very much like mending." i smiled.

carl holds the fabric in his hands and makes stitch after stitch after stitch, which gradually creates an image. it's the patient work of putting something back together after a long time; recreating his brother's face from the only picture he has. to me, it felt like a remembrance ritual as well as an examination of memory itself. it's a slow process for carl, each portrait taking up to two months to complete. together, the series of 11 portraits tells a story. it starts with a very high-contrast image of his brother - midnight blue thread on white fabric (see picture). as the series of portraits progresses, the colour gradually lightens in tone, with the last portrait being white-on-white. invisible. a portrait of owen, whose face is there and gone at the same time.

in describing the work, carl talks about the loss of possibility. i imagine this could include the loss of his brother's life, the loss of the fraternal relationship, his mother and father's loss, the loss of myriad potential experiences for owen and the loss of the overall potential of his life - all the things that the world never got to experience because of owen's early death.

all of this made me think of my relationship with my sister, which is fraught with a lot of confused emotion. like the stewart family, we never quite recovered from early childhood events in our family life. in our case, it was the effects of my sexual abuse. when people talk about sexual abuse, we often think only of the victim and the perpetrator, but the effects tend to ripple outward in unexpected ways for the whole family. it's like a weird, quiet cancer that takes over. my sister, for example, was jealous that i was considered beautiful enough for someone to want to abuse me, and she resented the "attention" i received. she resented being (comparatively) ignored. for her, it seems to be about wrestling for focus and air time.

it's been a while since these emotional patterns have driven our relationship - probably since our early twenties - but, just before christmas this year, my sister wrote me a letter that showed me she still hadn't moved past this notion that i'm the lucky one, the good one, the spoiled one, the princess, the favourite. she thinks i get whatever i want and believes that i expect the family to walk on eggshells around me and dote on me. still, these undertones of the past. it's strange to say, but i think i've been able to let go of more of the experience than she has. she can't seem to accept that i had nothing to do with the abuse. there's something she can't handle about not being chosen; at the same time, she feels incredibly guilty for not protecting me. in her letter, my sister asked me not to come to christmas because my presence (my experience?) makes everyone so uncomfortable. i disagreed with her read of the situation, but i obliged. i obliged with a lot of sadness in my heart.

so, today, looking at two dozen portraits of this beautiful, innocent child stirred up a lot of emotion. owen was three years old - like i was when the abuse started. sexual abuse is a kind of death in itself. it leaves a ghastly mess behind...a sort of non-childhood to live in a child's body. too much knowledge and not enough wisdom. this may be insensitive to say, given the subject matter of my post tonight, but i've often wondered if it would have been easier for my family if i had died rather than having to deal with all this ongoing crap that the abuse created. the competitive suffering, the yearning to reverse the past, all the regrets and guilt and shame...and the worst part of all: my family having to look at me and think about what happened every time they see me. to think about what he did and what they didn't do and how they failed me. it takes so much more to mend hurts that involve living, breathing people. like carl taught me today, sometimes it can take thousands of stitches to put together a clear picture.


  1. This has a thousand thoughts running in my mind but all I wish I could do is give you a great big hug. A close friend of mine was sexually abused by a family member, who also abused her younger brother. Their family has reacted in different ways, but I really don't think in any situation could it possibly be better for others, for the abused to have died than to have been around to suffer that abuse.

    Feelings of guilt, remorse and shame, those are things THEY feel for THEIR reasons that have nothing to do with you. You yourself say you've moved on more than your sister, even though you were the one who was abused. It's easier for many people to continue hating and fearing something than it is to accept it and live with it. Besides, even if your family isn't willing to have you around, there are more than plenty of people ever so thankful for a little Luna in the world.

    I don't know you at all really, but I'm sorry your family isn't willing to welcome you with love. If only people realized that love heals wounds so much faster than time alone.

  2. Thanks Celynne. I've been really appreciating your comments ♥

  3. hopefully your sis can shake that narrative for one that is kinder to herself.