Playwright and Blood Water Paint author Joy McCullough reveals how the fate of a 17th century artist – the subject of McCullough’s debut novel – presaged everything experienced by women speaking up about sexual abuse today.
At nineteen years old, I was seated in a downtown Chicago boardroom, listening to a YWCA staff member outline the legal requirements for consent, when I realized for the first time that I had been sexually abused. I hadn’t repressed the memories; I had simply never before had the language to name my experience. That moment of naming it changed the course of my life.
A classmate had asked me to volunteer with her at the YWCA’s Sexual Assault Response Program, which involved forty hours of training and then on-call duty, during which we could be notified by emergency rooms if a rape victim came in. I said yes.
My parents flipped. I was a sheltered suburban teenager. It was enough for them that I’d crossed the country to a theater school in a big city. Now I would to be taking the “L” across Chicagoland at all hours to meet crime victims in the ER? But my gut told me I belonged in this program – to help people who had suffered real trauma, I thought.
And so the training began.
As a woman still unpacking her trauma more than twenty years later, the idea that any amount of training could prepare us was ludicrous. To walk through the immediate aftermath of an attack with a woman stripped of everything – her clothes, her DNA, her dignity, her choices – should be a task entrusted to experts with advanced degrees and years spent shadowing mentors.
Before I named my abuse, I would have said I’d been through a horrible experience in high school, that part of the reason I fled across the country for college was to escape the memories staining every corner of San Diego. But it wasn’t until I was literally being taught consent as defined in Illinois law that I realized there was no way I, as a teenager, could have consented to the adult man – my youth pastor – who controlled my every move and relationship; who belittled, manipulated, forced me into sex; and who threatened to kill himself if I told my story.
The realization that this was far more than a bad relationship – that it hadn’t even been a relationship at all – was a gut-wrenching moment of pain and clarity. Suddenly I was renaming everything, accepting terms like “sexual abuse,” “assault,” and “rape” as part of my story.
Still: I sat and took notes, rode the “L” home, and went to my classes the next day. Studied, wrote papers, ate in the cafeteria, called my parents. My façade was cracking, but rape culture’s lies ran deep. I hadn’t been held at gunpoint. I hadn’t screamed and clawed anyone away. How could I call that assault? Trauma was for people had who really been victimized.
I started cutting myself with knives. Not right away, though – it takes some time for trauma to seep into the darkest places. That first year after the YWCA training, I threw myself into my playwriting course. I was fascinated by Marilyn Monroe – her life, her death, her sexuality, her victimization. The play I wrote about her won an award and was staged by the university.
My parents flew out for the production. They were concerned with how close I had become to my playwriting professor. They asked pointed questions, were relieved to hear he was gay. Inside, I raged: Why hadn’t they shown the same concern over how close I seemed with my youth pastor?
In my apartment the next school year, I hung a poster of Marilyn gazing directly at the camera, wearing an enormous tulle skirt and clutching the bodice to her chest. I’d never articulated why Marilyn became an obsession. Like my gut need to volunteer for the YWCA, I had followed a driving instinct. But sitting alone in that room, staring at that poster, the connections became clearer.
With Marilyn gazing out at me, I wielded a knife against my own skin. I wanted to see blood – a visible, logical reason for the pain that only intensified the longer I tried to dismiss it.
I didn’t believe Marilyn had intentionally taken her own life, but however it ended, it had been in deep pain and loneliness. If I stayed alone in my room with only my knife and a poster of a long-dead film star for company, I could end the same way.
But I knew my abuser wasn’t alone. He was still a youth pastor, still adored, still abusive. That was its own realization – I hadn’t been special. It hadn’t been a twisted sort of love. It was only ever about power. With me off to college, he certainly had a replacement victim. And indeed, there was a girl in his youth group people obliviously referred to as his “new Joy.”
I had to tell my story, not only to keep from self-destructing but so more girls wouldn’t end up alone in rooms with knives and deep wounds.
I went to a family friend first. With his support, I told my family and high school friends, some of whom were still close to this man. I flew home to meet with church staff, to meet with the sheriff’s department.
I did everything you’re supposed to do.
Decades later, this man is still a youth pastor.
A few years later, I stumbled upon the story of Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi. When she was seventeen and her skills outmatched her father’s, he hired a painting teacher, Agostino Tassi, who then raped her.
In 1611, Artemisia couldn’t press charges against a rapist. The crime was against her father – property damage.
At her urging, Artemisia’s father did press charges against Tassi for damaging his property. The transcript of the trial survives – interviews and testimony, in which Artemisia had to account for every facet of her existence. Pulse racing, I read of the court-ordered torture Artemisia underwent to verify her story, of the lists of men her attacker claimed she’d already slept with.
It was all so familiar.
My abuser told everyone I was crazy, attention-seeking, pointed to my eating disorder as proof. My case didn’t even go to trial. But if it had, like Artemisia, I would have been the one scrutinized, my life and character torn apart.
Artemisia’s torture was not only psychological: Her hands were slowly broken as she cried out in the courtroom, proclaiming her innocence. There was a very real chance she’d never paint again.
But she did. As soon as her hands healed, Artemisia began one of her most famous paintings, Judith Slaying Holofernes. An ancient Hebrew story, it was a commonly painted scene—a Jewish woman and her maidservant decapitating an Assyrian general. Male painters made the beheading look delicate, feminine, charming. Artemisia painted the blood.
Her Judith features an astonishing amount of blood—spurting from the man’s neck, drenching the bedding, speckling Judith’s body as she struggles with the sword. If the face of Holofernes in her painting bore a remarkable likeness to one Agostino Tassi, I would not be surprised. To reduce her work to only revenge or catharsis diminishes her genius, but there is no reason she could not be both angry and brilliant.
If Artemisia fought so hard in a time when she was nothing but property, I had to fight, too. She didn’t have hashtags or marches or a movement of women rising up around her to tell their truth, but she found her way to say, “Me too.”
And in discovering her story, I figured out how to tell mine.
My word, alone, had not been enough to bring down my abuser. But suddenly I wasn’t alone with only a knife and my skin for canvas. I had Artemisia’s story, like Artemisia had had Judith’s story. And each of us found a way to wield a sword.
Years later, I dedicated my novel about Artemisia to my daughter. I want her to know the stories passed from woman to woman. I hope she never has a story to tell like mine or Artemisia’s or Judith’s, but regardless, I want her to be unafraid to speak her truth.
I don’t know whether the #metoo movement will change a rape culture that has persisted for centuries. But women are now telling the stories they’ve buried for years, buried because they denied the weight of their experiences or they didn’t think they’d be believed or they feared repercussions. And for every woman who tells her story, others are listening who can’t speak up yet, but now they know they’re not alone.
Maybe we’re not trying to change the culture. Artemisia wasn’t trying to change the patriarchy when she painted her pain. She was doing the one thing she could do—telling her story. And her story reached across time to me, and I’ve written my story, which is reaching readers, who are sharing their stories.
And perhaps we do change the culture eventually, as story by story, we paint the blood.