This winter I've been deep in the throes of creating a new body of work. It's been a bit of a manic phase of creating, as though there's all of this creative energy that's begging to take form.
But even more than that, there's a story in me that's desperate to be told.
For years I was terrified of sharing my past and revealing my own experiences. There was so much shame linked to my feminine experiences growing up, I expected to meet with much of the same shame when I began to share with other women.
I began by penning an essay for The Hairpin in 2012, about an arranged marriage that caused me to break from my childhood religion for good.
But as a visual creature, I've also felt the need to create pictures that speak to the things I don't have words for.
Sometimes, as in the case here, I create an image and that opens the flood gates for more words than I could have imagined.
The below image, The Purity Knife, came to me unexpectedly while I was working on another image. It seemed to demand release.
Once created, the words began to flow. Below is the essay that explains the origins of the image:
When I was in my mid-teens, our church strongly encouraged all second generation members to follow a new edict called the "Seven Year Course" after highschool.
The first two years consisted of a program called "Special Task Force" or "STF". Living in vans, we travelled across the country selling trinkets as a part of our "fundamental spiritual education...and [solidifying our] relationship with God." It was said that "Such training helps [us] to deepen [our] conviction, faith, and commitment as well as...mature [our] character and gain an understanding of God’s heart."
After the first month of this training, I was fundraising in North Carolina. I walked into a barbershop and began my sales spiel. "Hi sir, I'm fundraising for my church's youth group and -"
The gentleman at the front counter stopped me mid-sentence. "Are you with the Moonies?" I paused, trying to gauge how I should answer. My heart always jumped at the question, remembering my parents' stories of first generation members being physically threatened, jailed or kidnapped. But, I knew that if I lied I might allow 'Satan to invade.'
"Yes," I answered, hoping that God would protect me for telling the truth.
"Oh shit," he said, shaking his head. "Awww shit; I'm sorry for your loss," he said again with a humane empathy that I rarely encountered when people discovered my affiliation. We were usually cursed at, or thrown out of an establishment, but he didn't make a move to do either.
My confusion must have shown on my face. He grabbed a remote from the counter, turned the channel on the television to the local news, watching my reaction as the pictures on the screen sunk in. What I saw there defied everything I had ever been taught.
In a monotonous voice the news anchor reported that just a few short miles away another fundraiser, a girl I had considered to be a sister, had been lured into an apartment, sexually assaulted, killed and robbed.
A wave of shock overtook me. I thanked the man in a daze, backing slowly out of the barber shop and fled down the highway of the strange city. Every passing car suddenly sounded like a threat. We had been taught that we were special, that God would protect us while we were doing His work. How could something like have happened?
I found my way into a local McDonalds and, sobbing, asked to see the manager and borrow the phone. Patrons kindly left their meals to come over and comfort me, but I was wild with fear and could barely speak coherently while I dialed home.
My parents answered and took in my story as I choked out the words. The respondent silence on the line was deafening. Their world had just ruptured a little bit too and they had nothing of comfort that they could offer.
Shortly after that day, hundreds of young people convened for a workshop where leaders did damage control and praised the young woman for being such a pure sacrifice to God and True Parents. Initially leadership denied that she had been sexually assaulted, presumably to keep parents from reacting and removing their children from STF.
Later, when enough news reports were out and had confirmed that undeniable truth, "mediums" claimed that she was "separated from her body very quickly as a way to protect her from pain. She was allowed to escape the trauma of what happened to her to a very large degree."
Leadership encouraged parents not to take their children home, otherwise Satan would be able to claim victory after the tragedy and, publicly, the young woman was given something akin to sainthood. But privately it was whispered that she had been struggling with her arranged marriage. How else could she have been "opened for attack from Satan"?
As we prepared to go back out into the streets to fundraise, the young women were each armed with a personal alarm and mace. A few sisters said that their mothers had given them Purity Knives, and that all of the mothers should have given one to their daughters. This ideological relic comes from the old Korean tradition where young of women of high birth wore a knife and were "expected to commit suicide to ‘protect’ their virginity, as opposed to using the knife to defend themselves."
While giving out these purity knives was never an official church custom, Moon did recommend that members carry "a knife to kill yourself before you will be violated" because it was a theological belief that losing one's purity was far worse even than dying. Moon had said that "Women should always carry a small pistol or razor blade to protect lineage and sexual organ" and that "if you are assaulted, you should either kill yourself or stab the attacker in the stomach with a knife."
At least there he spoke of a woman defending herself - even if the first option is to kill yourself. And this wasn't a one-time quote of his. According to Moon "if someone is trying to invade you, you would rather kill yourself than go through the fall. At least you won't go to hell that way. Even if you die, you don't go to hell."
The issue here, and it is not unique to the church, is the victim-blaming mentality that can arise. Young women were constantly belittled in the church for wearing makeup, wearing shorts that were deemed too short, having wet hair at a summer camp, even for eating certain fruits and candies - all because it was possible for someone else to project sexualized thoughts onto them. By doing these things we were causing someone else to "struggle" and were called responsible for their urges.
This warped view is what leads victims of violence, whether sexual or not, to be blamed for what was inflicted on them. The "they were asking for it" defense is one we hear too often in our culture at large. To saddle a victim with the theological weight of "you would be better off dead" is inexcusable and inhumane.
I created this image, in part to discuss my own memories, but also in honor of V-Day, created by Eve Ensler, which seeks to end violence against women across the globe. This is an issue that affects us all, no matter our race, creed or faith background. Until we can end the violence that so many face, victims need safety, shelter and understanding to heal. Most importantly they need a voice, and a place where they can lovingly be heard. They do not need blame, they do not need to be made responsible for the violence, and they do not need “Purity Knives.”