“[…] a fictional story exploring how the trauma of sexual assault might affect a person’s perception of reality and how they might deal with it in their daily life – which is to say that they probably would not talk about it, but instead bottle it up.”
What began as an undergraduate work quickly transformed itself into a project that put Stoian in contact with the survivors of the trauma with so many names: sexual and physical abuse, harassment, violence, coercion, intimidation…A sad and awful list. To her surprise, many survivors seemed determined to share their stories, sometimes allowing themselves to be identified, but often choosing instead to remain anonymous. Some people she interviewed face to face, and others she only ever met through email conversations. And it became clear to Maria that the survivors of sexual harassment and violence should not be left to suffer in silence and in shame; that each of their stories mattered and should be shared with an ever widening public.
“All this made me think that if I were to draw up all these stories and put them in a book, it would speak to people when they read it. It would speak to them so loudly, and so clearly that it couldn’t be ignored by people who thought that the source of the problem was women’s lack of “dignity.””
And so, TAKE IT AS A COMPLIMENT was born. That the book is a collection of deeply personal and intimate revelations is expected with its subject matter, but what startles the reader is that each survivor’s story—there are twenty in all—is recounted in the form of sequential art. It is, in effect, a masterfully illustrated collective graphic memoir.
In TAKE IT AS A COMPLIMENT, the survivors speak for themselves. The only words on each page are theirs. Supported by Stoian’s honest, unflinching, discomfitting and yet deeply empathic illustrations, each survivor’s testimony is presented in a distinctive manner. Each voice is given its own, characteristic mode of expression. Some stories include many more words while others are told only in images, in widely varying palettes. The changes from one survivor’s story to the next are startling.
When I picked the book up at the library, I had no idea what it was about. The cover art attracted me and its title seemed tongue-in-cheek. In fact, the title of each chapter is drawn from the testimony of the person willing to tell their story: heterosexual and LGBTQ, teens and adults, men and women. At the back of the book are a series of recommendations about how to recognize, help and support survivors: how to be vigilant and even how and when to intervene when it becomes necessary. It also includes a list of ways for survivors to reach out and find the support they need.
The effect of this brave and disturbing book is immediate. It’s impossible to open it without being both drawn in and made very uncomfortable. TAKE IT AS A COMPLIMENT educates because it humanizes its subjects, allowing the reader to accompany each of them through the painful events that have injured them and changed them. Its creator says:
“My hopes for TAKE IT AS A COMPLIMENT going forward would be for it to keep doing what it’s been doing, which is to keep the conversation going. Even after the project was finished, and it was on display at my university’s grad show, I was approached by an older woman who said, “I really connected with your project because I’ve also been raped. Thank you.”
When we stand up and talk about these experiences, we can make more of an impact together, than we can by suffering in silence on our own.”
Maria Stoian’s urgent desire to destigmatize the experiences of survivors of sexual violence in all its forms is part of an expanding “coming out movement”, led by survivors from all parts of the world. The conversation certainly is continuing, and having an impact.
We need only think of the very recent #MeToo movement, spearheaded by women and men within the entertainment industry who, in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, have begun to speak, share and stand up publicly to their aggressors.
But doing so is still an act of great courage and the price paid when one refuses victimhood and shame is still too high. Just a few days ago, I stumbled upon Anna Maria Tremonti’s interview of former Sergeant Vicky-Lynn Cox, of the Canadian Armed Forces. In the introduction of the segment, Ms Tremonti stated:
“Two years ago Sergeant Vicky-Lynn Cox broke her silence answering a call from the very top of the Canadian Armed Forces that victims of sexual assaults and sexual harassment need not be afraid to report what happened to them. Two years later, it is she and not any of the men she named who is leaving her coveted career on a medical discharge. “
Still, survivors continue to stand up. In her refusal to submit to the ostracism and isolation that threatened to destroy her life after the acid attack that left her permanently scarred and disfigured, one heroic woman, Monica Singh, became the inspiration for another work of visual storytelling, Priya’s Mirror, the second comic book in a series which also includes Priya’s Shakti.
Nothing less than indomitability is required in the super heroic fight against sexual violence and the stigma and shaming that are its result. Thankfully, it would seem that there are people around the world willing to speak so loudly, and so clearly, that their message can no longer be ignored.
Excerpts from TAKE IS AS A COMPLIMENT:
“It was August when I visited Barcelona. It was over 35° and the city was packed. I was stepping onto the tube at around 2pm when I felt a hand slide under my skirt onto my bare skin. We were all pushed away onto the tube and I dismissed it as an accident. Immediately as the tube began to move the hand came back with about four more […] I twisted and turned and pushed the hands away. They didn’t stop and no one was noticing. The tube was silent, and I needed to vomit. The tube ride was about 3min long, and then they got off. I moved to the side of the train and began to cry. I was 15.”
From Maria Stoian, TAKE IT AS A COMPLIMENT
my first real relationship
turned out to be abusive.
I confided in my best friend
who was much older than me
and provided great counselling and support
In the summer I turned 18,
half a year after the end of the abusive relationship,
I was supposed to go to the fireworks with said friend,
but we went to eat in my place first.
that’s where the abuse happened.
the feelings of betrayal, guilt, and self-hate cannot be expressed
in existing words.