When Melissa McMillan was 15, she was raped by her boyfriend. For years afterward, she blamed herself, even without fully understanding what had happened to her.
“I thought it was my fault,” McMillan, a senior sociology major said. “I cried myself to sleep almost every night the first year. Everyone was mad at me and I was so alone. When my friends in college told me I was raped, I didn’t believe them. I didn’t know what rape was.”
McMillan said that she had repressed her feelings since the incident, attempting to hide her true emotions of pain that prevented her from trusting others.
“My sophomore year, my friends convinced me to go to the Clothesline Project,” she said. “Reading all of the stories, that was the first time I ever wrote down the word, ‘rape.’ Accepting what had happened to me was one of the first steps to my recovery.”
The Clothesline Project is a national program that started in 1990 in Massachusetts displaying shirts depicting personal experiences with sexual abuse and rape.
Rotating 300 shirts a day, more than 725 testimonies from abuse victims were on display in Transitions Monday through Wednesday. The Clothesline Project came to JMU in 1992 after the success of the event on other college campuses.
Each T-shirt varied from simple statements and personal laments to pictures. Some shirts had graphic drawings depicting rape or other forms of abuse. Others had images such as a bloody handprint or an angel.
“This event is necessary to bring about awareness about sexual violence,” said area director of the Office of Residence Life Pam Steele. “It happens at any age to any person, no one’s exempt. This gives a voice to victims and allows them to express themselves artistically.”
But not all of the T-shirts held stories of abuse, some of the shirts had words of encouragement and healing from the victims and their friends.
“Not being able to talk about something like this or being called a liar is really difficult,” McMillan said. “It’s almost like my responsibility to listen to them. This is something that needs to happen. Some of the shirts are difficult to read, but it’s encouraging to read them as well.”
McMillan feels that the shirts can allow victims to gather strength, know they are not alone and start healing, a cruical part in regaining confidence.
“I am never going to be OK with what he did to me, he did something horrible,” she said. “But you can learn to take your story and learn from it. Learn to say, ‘this isn’t me and this event doesn’t define me.’”
Freshman Amber Lynn Schmitt believes the atmosphere was solemn and sad. Despite the sadness of the event, she felt that some of the supportive and uplifting messages helped add a feeling of hope to the program.
“What goes around comes around to those people,” Schmitt said. “Your pain was not for nothing and your pain has helped you grow as a person.”
Women weren’t the only ones represented at the project. Stories of men being sexually abused were also on display.
“Sexual abuse can happen more than once, three different men, I became a prostitute for three years. I am a boy. It can happen to anyone,” a shirt read.
Adam Ballou, a sophomore international affairs and Spanish double major said he originally didn’t know anything about the project but was left shocked after attending.
Ballou said the event inspired him to get involved with the Clothesline Project and make him more aware of potential sexual threats in the future.
“My perception was immediately changed,” Ballou said. “I was always raised to respect women. Going in there, I realized how unaware I was of how many cases there were. It made me think, what type of man could do that? It saddens my heart that this is reality.”
A group of tables in the far corner of Transitions was a station for participants to make their own T-shirts. 42 shirts were created this year, doubling the number of shirts made last year.
Several pieces of paper shaped like hands were laid out for people to come and write down their reflections. Each hand was then taken and taped to the wall for other students to see.
Another banner was hung on the wall and students were invited to trace their hand print as a way to sign a pledge that says, “These hands will not hurt.”
Students interested in helping prevent sexual violence on campus can join Take Back the Night, 1-in-4 and other abuse prevention groups. Help and advice for victims can be found at Varner House, the Campus Assault ResponsE program and the University Health Center.
McMillan believes the Clothesline Project was one of the most influential parts of her recovery and she feels more comfortable telling her story if it helps other people to not feel so alone.
“I didn’t have a voice before the Clothesline,” McMillan said. “I didn’t feel safe, but there you can. You’re not stigmatized, you can communicate. I wasn’t expecting to share my story, ever. This changed my opinion completely. I can use my experience to help other people now.”
Contact Eric Graves at firstname.lastname@example.org.