Elizabeth Tobias "Survivor!" | LA Art Show

by Ryane Gonsalves

Survivor! Share Your 98 Second Experience. The latest masterpiece of artist Elizabeth Tobias. Her and the ensemble of artist survivors she has put together, are addressing stories of the millions through their work. Their performance has the potential to lower the shocking statistic that every 98 seconds, there is a sexual assault in America. “When I began to do my research and realized that a sexual assault occurs every 98 seconds in America, I found that statistic unconscionable and was compelled to do whatever I could to change that,” says Tobias on her innovations to make change. By using a series of spoken word and improvised sound, these artists will give recognition to sexual assault survivors within the art community and throughout the public sphere as a whole. Tobias and her group of artists want to make sure their performance makes sexual assault survivors feel safe and supported enough to speak out about their own traumatic experiences. They also hope to lower statistics of sexual assault by showing others that they don’t have to stay silent. She spoke about research that she read about Dr. Jennifer Freyd, an expert on sexual and relational violence and betrayal trauma theory. “Based on this research, we believe our performance has the potential to make a direct impact on lowering the statistic. On a personal level, I feel like I have lifted a really dark and heavy burden off of my shoulders. I’ve masked my shame long enough. If just one artist in our ensemble or one audience member experiences the same thing that I have, our project will be a success.” This team of artists will be sharing their stories through a performance that addresses trauma and courage at the 2019 The LA Art Show.

Under the description of your exhibit, Survivor!, I read that every 98 seconds, there is a sexual assault in America alone. Is this something that gave you inspiration during the process of creating your performance? What was the greatest innovation you had?

I was invited by the Executive Director of The Los Angeles Art Association, Peter Mays, to create large-scale performance piece for DIVERSEartLA in late September of 2018, the week that Dr Christine Blasey Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. That week, The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network announced that the number of calls to its National Sexual Assault hotline surged by 201 percent. Millions of people saw themselves in Dr Ford.

Listening to the terrifying details of her assault flooded me with memories of my own traumatic experiences. Listening to Brett Kavanaugh, the President and the conservatives discredit and belittle Dr. Ford drove me to create this project. When I began to do my research and realized that a sexual assault occurs every 98 seconds in America, I found that statistic unconscionable and was compelled to do whatever I could to change that. 

To help shape social and political change, I knew that I had to try a really experimental approach for this performance. The greatest innovation has been weaving together my experience as an artist, Expressive Arts Therapist and political activist with the stories of other survivors.  

What was it like working with sexual assault survivors? How did their contributions as survivors and as artists benefit your piece to make the issue a huge eye opener for the public?

As an abuse survivor and trauma-informed Expressive Arts Therapist, I was confident that I had the necessary experience to understand the needs of the participating artists. Survivor! is rooted in compassion and mutual respect, which has provided our group a strong foundation. This foundation has made it possible for us to take the risk of exposing our deepest and most profound vulnerabilities, to help heal ourselves and embolden others to do the same. We know that “the personal is political.” There is a strong connection between our personal experiences and our ability to bring awareness to larger social and political structures.

Do you hope that those who have been sexually assaulted in any form will feel encouraged to speak out about their experience after seeing your performance? 

Since sexual abuse and interpersonal violence overlaps with many other social justice struggles, often the people who are the most vulnerable remain marginalized, silenced and never have a real chance to have their stories be seen or heard. We are trying to change that. Survivor! is an intersectional collective and we represent a diverse community of artists. Within our group, there are non-binary and gender non-conforming artists. 

They can have a big impact on encouraging an audience member who may also be non-binary or gender non-conforming. Witnessing someone like you being supported and encouraged communicates universality and says that your story matters.

Do you think your performance has the potential to decrease violence and lower statistics of sexual assault? What do you hope is the biggest takeaway that others have from your performance?

During the time that I was a domestic violence group facilitator, I learned about the work of Dr. Jennifer Freyd, an expert on sexual and relational violence and betrayal trauma theory. She coined DARVO, an acronym that stands for Deny Attack Reverse Victim and Offender. It is a highly effective tactic used by perpetrators to discredit their victims by reversing roles with them. They make themselves out to be the victims of false accusations. The DARVO strategy leads courts, law enforcement and the public to believe that many reports are false. Most research shows that only between 2 and 10 % of reports are unsubstantiated.

I watched Brett Kavanaugh using this strategy to defend himself against Dr. Blasey Ford’s allegations. My outrage over this prompted me to call Dr. Jennifer Freyd. During our conversation, she explained two of her significant findings, which are widely published. Knowledge about DARVO directly reduces its effectiveness. When people are introduced to the concept, they begin to recognize it and can call it out. Her research also revealed that groups coming together to speak out against systems that normalize or minimize sexual violence are very effective at calling attention to the issue. She calls this institutional courage. 

Based on this research, we believe our performance has the potential to make a direct impact on lowering the statistic. On a personal level, I feel like I have lifted a really dark and heavy burden off of my shoulders. I’ve masked my shame long enough. If just one artist in our ensemble or one audience member experiences the same thing that I have, our project will be a success.

#MeToo ignited the movement. As #WeToo, we can stand together and insist on change.

Why do you think addressing topics such as sexual assault is important? 

There is a sexual assault every 98 seconds but at least 77% of these assaults go unreported because victims are shamed, bullied and intimidated into silence. And, silence has too often been misconstrued as consent. This performance is breaking the silence and de-stigmatizing the shame so that this violence is no longer normalized, glamorized or accepted.


Photo by Dawniel Carlock Stewart and Elizabeth Tobias