The stories she hears

An MU professor chronicles battered women’s experiences using books and the theater to tell the stories she hears
Thursday, May 12, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:46 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Let me tell you about the time Elaine Lawless spent a summer visiting women’s shelters in Missouri. Everywhere she went, she heard story after story after story. A woman would start by saying, “My God, last Thursday …” and Elaine knew that behind “My God, last Thursday” were the words “once upon a time.”

Lawless is an ethnographer — basically, someone who collects stories. She teaches students at MU how to collect the stories of communities, and she goes to academic conferences and speaks about how to listen when people tell their stories.

After that summer trip several years ago, she came home to Columbia and started volunteering at the local women’s shelter. Elaine knew, she just knew, there was something at the shelter that she needed to do. She answered phones and cooked and took care of children. And she kept hearing these stories. These powerful stories.

It seemed like these women were telling stories to understand how they escaped the violence at home.

These women came into the shelter with broken bones and bruises and with scared children with big eyes. These women kept telling stories. Told them in the common room and on the smoking porch, and Elaine listened and listened because stories are so important to her. Stories embody who people are, how they understand what happens to them. Stories give people meaning in their lives.

Some told about cutting their hair so their partners would have nothing to grab and pull or about how a husband had closed a joint bank account and now, here she was with her children at the shelter. Stories about how her family told her not to call again unless she had left him.

Elaine decided to write a book, a scholarly book about how women told stories to escape the violence in their lives. But she couldn’t take a tape recorder to the shelter, and volunteers aren’t supposed to repeat what they hear. So, she posted signs all over the building that said, “If you will share your story with Elaine on tape, for her use in writing this book and her work against domestic violence, come to the office.”

She waited. She didn’t think they would come.

But they came. Absolutely they came to sit with Elaine and her tape recorder for two or four or more hours to tell their stories. They sat with Elaine in the shelter’s back room filled with empty boxes, just them and Elaine.

She worried that telling their stories might be too much for some women, that they would break down or would not be able to go on. Elaine didn’t have a set of questions. She just said, “Would you tell me your life story?” and turned on the tape recorder.

Elaine sat with these women, sat and listened as a woman told her entire story. From the first time she was hit or violated; the first time her husband or ex-husband or boyfriend or ex-boyfriend slapped her and then said he was sorry; the time he raped her, once with a beer bottle; the time her son jumped between her and his father and how his father was about to hit him, had his fists raised, and she said, “You will not hit my son.” From the time their fathers or uncles or brothers sneaked into their room at night and their mothers slapped them for saying such awful things, from the first time their bodies felt violence to the last time before they came to the shelter.

Stories are sacred. The way somebody shapes a story, what they tell and what they choose not to tell is important. Elaine honored the stories these women told about their lives. She was surprised that these women opened up and shared, but the women were surprised that someone had asked to listen. Sometimes they cried; sometimes they were quiet. It was hard to hear these horrible stories, and sometimes Elaine cried with them.

Getting the stories off the page

She wrote a book, “Women Escaping Violence: Empowerment through Narrative.” And she went on working at the shelter, teaching at the university and listening to women tell stories, but she wanted to do more. She had to get the stories off the page.

Then, in 2001, the university offered a class for professors interested in using writing in their classrooms. Elaine signed up and met theater professor Heather Carver, who had all this energy and all these ideas. Heather had a background in using performance as a platform for social activism and was looking for a place to do that in Missouri.

Elaine and Heather started talking, and they were interested in each other’s work. They talked before class and afterward. Heather read Elaine’s book, couldn’t put it down. They started meeting outside of class. Elaine still wanted to get the stories she had heard off the written page, and Heather thought the narratives in Elaine’s book could be adapted for theater, so in 2003, they started the Troubling Violence Performance Project.

Now, there are 15 volunteers. They are graduate students, undergraduates and doctoral candidates. Some are theater students. Mostly, they are just people who care, who think it’s important to memorize a five or 10-minute story from Elaine’s book, or from other narratives that Elaine has recorded, or from stories that audiences have given them. They think it’s important to honor these women by telling their stories, and they think it’s important to give the audience time to talk or ask questions or be quiet after a performance.

And they listen. After performances, they listen when the audience wants to ask a question or make a comment.

Heather doesn’t direct the performers in the way she directs her other theater productions. It isn’t a performance in the traditional sense; there are no costumes or props. Heather helps the performers be natural, to share a story with the audience. The performers sit in the audience, and when it’s their turn, they go sit in a chair and tell a woman’s story, just like it was told to Elaine or to them.

In a way, they are trying to allow a woman’s voice to be heard, and really it could be any woman’s voice. It could be the younger woman in line at the store or the older woman on the treadmill in the gym. It could be the soprano in the church choir or the woman sitting in the third row of chairs. There is no standard pattern for the appearance of a woman abused by her husband, ex-husband, boyfriend or ex-boyfriend.

Elaine, Heather and the troupe don’t give the audience a list of statistics. Statistics can’t say that this bruise came from the time he took her favorite picture from the wall and smashed it over her head or that her nose is crooked because his fist has broken it multiple times. And when people talk, they don’t talk in statistics. When people talk, they tell stories.

Elaine and Heather and the troupe hope that what they do will help someone escape from violence, and what they hope more than anything is that what they do will help end violence in people’s homes.

What people do with their lives gives them meaning, and Elaine wants the things she does to make lives a little better.

Listening to stories helps Elaine figure out what matters in the world. She figures things like justice matter and that hitting women and children is just wrong.

Elaine always gives an introduction when the troupe performs. When they started, she’d just get up and talk like she was lecturing in front of one of her classes. And Heather said no, that she, Elaine, had to perform, that Elaine Lawless had to tell a story.

Elaine has her own stories about a mean father and a bad first marriage, but that was a long time ago, and that part of her story is over.

So, when Elaine gets up to talk, she takes an empty chair and sets it in front of the audience. She rests her hands on the back of it.

Sometimes, it’s a black metal chair and other times it’s a green plastic one, it just depends on what chair happens to be in the room. Elaine takes a breath and starts talking about this one phone call she answered at the shelter.

The call that got away

It was early, she was about to go home, and the phone rang. Elaine knew, knew without looking at the phone, that it was the hotline. And sure enough, she turned around, and the hotline light was blinking.

She grabbed a form and picked up the phone. A woman’s voice said, “How can I keep my children away from him if I leave?” The woman was in rural Missouri, and the cell phone crackled in and out. She had her children in the car, but she didn’t have the keys. The keys were in the house, and he was in the house, and she just didn’t know if she could go get the keys. Elaine talked with her and told her where the nearest shelter was while the cell phone crackled.

Elaine tried to lend her courage, but the cell phone crackled in and out. The connection broke. The woman was gone.

Elaine sat with the other women while they cried and talked and told their stories. She remembers their faces and their gestures, but Elaine never saw the woman who didn’t have her car keys. She doesn’t know how that story ended.

So, before the troupe starts telling stories, Elaine sets out this empty chair. She sets the chair out for the woman she never saw and whose story she never heard. For all the other women whose stories will never be heard.

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