When I called Rebecca Nagle of the anti-rape group FORCE this week, she was in a van winding its way north out of Birmingham. Her collaborator Hannah Brancato was traveling with her, as was Shameeka Dream, a Reiki healer. An enormous quilt was in the rear of the van.
“We just got a speeding ticket,” Nagle explained, a little flustered. “We didn’t try to pull the, ‘But it’s a good cause...’ Maybe we should have.”
The crew had just completed their second stop on their Monument Quilt Tour, which winds through much of the eastern half of the United States this month. The tour had been in the works for quite some time. Brancato and Nagle had gotten the idea when they read a book called Trauma and Recovery. In it, the author Judith Herman muses on the role that memorials and monuments play for war veterans. Herman notes that while war veterans and rape victims both experience PTSD, veterans have public spaces in which to reconnect to their communities. No such public spaces exist for rape survivors, who cope with their trauma in private.
Nagle and Brancato were experts at culture jamming, of piggybacking on existing iconography (formerly, sexy brands) to promote their anti-rape message. But what if they tried a culture jam on a larger scale?
Let’s make a monument of our own, they thought.
They began by floating a poem made of Styrofoam letters on the reflecting pool on the National Mall: “I can’t forget what happens, but no one else remembers.” It got a good response, but Nagle and Brancato wanted to do more. “Then, we thought of the quilt,” says Nagle.
Inspired in part by the AIDS Memorial Quilt, which first toured the nation in 1988, Nagle and Brancato decided to spearhead a like-minded project to honor victims of rape. They made a Kickstarter, raised some funds, partnered with groups across the country to source initial quilt squares, and began to plan their road trip, which kicked off on August 9th in North Carolina and will wend its way north to Middletown, Connecticut, on September 2nd. Each quilt square—there are about 250, currently—measures four feet by four feet and is mostly red in color; once 6,000 squares are amassed, the group plans to display it at the National Mall for a week.
That number—6,000—is the same as the number of people sexually assaulted each week in the United States.
The analogy to AIDS is more apt than you might think, says Nagle. “If you look at the AIDS quilt, the cultural and political goals were very similar” to her own, she says. “The quilt was a response to an epidemic that was being swept under the rug. There was also a lot of shame and stigma around AIDS.” The AIDS quilt and activist projects like it helped “put a name and a face” to AIDS, decrease stigma, and bring about a culture where survivors were no longer blamed.
“That can happen for rape,” says Nagle. “We can put a name to the epidemic, we can decrease the stigma so we’re no longer blaming survivors and isolating them. That is part of the process of ending rape.”
So far, says Nagle, the Monument Quilt tour has gone well. The first stop was in Arden, North Carolina, to coincide with “Roots Week,” about the intersection of the arts and activism. Ms. Dream, who is also a poet, collaborated with other artists to perform a spoken-word ritual. Though the forecast mentioned a chance of rain, they decided to risk it and put the quilt outside. “It started pouring,” says Nagle.
But there followed an inspiring sight: “Immediately everyone folded up the quilt and brought it under the awning. It took five minutes, and everyone got drenched.” But it was a “beautiful moment to see everyone come and pack up the quilt and get it safe,” says Nagle.
The following day, the quilt stopped in Birmingham, Alabama, displayed on a park hillside. This showing gathered a broader mix of people, some who came knowing the quilt would be there, others who had just been wandering by.
Reactions have been strong, and range widely. It is common for visitors to cry, which is one reason why the group is working with mental health professionals and healers like Dream. “We all cried yesterday,” says Nagle, the day after the Birmingham display. “Yesterday was the cry day.” Both men and women have reacted strongly; Dream tells of encountering a man who lingered a long time by the quilt and reported feeling "overwhelmed" when she approached him.
But though encountering the quilt itself can be a weighty experience, Nagle says that many people report feeling safe in its presence. “There’s a lot of hope in the quilt, too,” she says. “It’s a very uplifting, positive space at the same time. I think that having the quilt in a big open space where there’s the sky above... the grief weighs heavily, but you can actually see it being aired out.”