Today is Valentine’s Day, but it’s also V-DAY. Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues are traditionally performed around this time of year, with the end goals of raising awareness of abuse against women and girls, and raising money for organizations that prevent and heal.
In college I performed twice, and loved every minute of it. The first year I was the British lady with the hand mirror. My parents and some family friends came to see that, which threw me off a little. I loved performing, I loved selling chocolate vagina lollipops, and I loved working with other women who believed just as strongly as I did in this important cause.
The second year I was cast in an alternative play, A Memory, A Monologue, A Rant and A Prayer. This show is also comprised of monologues, but they weren’t written solely by Eve Ensler. Instead, she drew on her years of working with incarcerated women to put together monologues that reflected their experiences. It’s a powerful play, and our director had us play it straight, as a group of women seated in a circle as though in group therapy, sharing our stories.
Mine included sexual abuse by a prison guard. When he was done, he left a pack of gum on the table.
We were lucky enough to be invited to perform at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women in New York state. It was an unnerving experience, to say the least. My first time going into a prison facility. We went through layers of security, down miles of secured corridors.
On the way we learned about some of the programs at the facility. Bedford Hills is innovative in focusing on reducing recidivism through programs that humanize the inmates. They have prisoners raising service dogs. Families are allowed time to play together. That’s heartening.
They had an auditorium with a stage, which we set ourselves up on. Then the room began to fill with women in uniforms. I wondered who they were and what made them the chosen few who would get to see us while others in here did not.
There was dead silence when we began. They saw us, and they came to recognize that what we had to say spoke to their experiences.
When I said the line about the gum, there was an audible, united gasp from the audience. It made me stumble, because no other audience had reacted so strongly to that line. The whole room inhaled. That moment drove home for me what we were really doing.
Women in prisons have been through rough things. Often they endured years of struggle and abuse before being part of the crime that landed them in jail. The struggle doesn’t stop when they’re inside, like my monologue made clear. When they get out, there may be more pain waiting for them. They’re not defined by their crimes–do one bad thing as though it’s only thing you ever did in your life. It’s one bad thing amongst a host of other difficult things that led up to that point.
Violence against women and girls is pervasive. Some days it seems so baked into the culture–every culture–that it will never go away. But it can end. When we rise up and say no more.