The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Thousands of stories from sexual assault survivors blanket the Mall

Michael Cruz views the Monument Quilt project, in which survivors of sexual violence across the United States and Mexico have written, painted and stitched their stories onto quilt blocks. They are on display at the Mall in Washington through Sunday. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

In the shadow of the Washington Monument, the messages were scrawled in Sharpie, stitched in yarn, written in paint. There were thousands of them, woven onto red quilts that stretched across the length of four football fields:

“I went into a movie theater expecting my first kiss . . . instead I was met with sexual assault.”

“I was 15. He abused me, emotionally and sexually. I saw him every day after I left him, for 2 years.”

“I was your wife, not your property.”

“My family still doesn’t know.”

Altogether, 3,000 individual stories from survivors of sexual violence blanketed the Mall on Friday afternoon as part of the Monument Quilt, an art tribute that will be on display through Sunday. The messages came from women, men and children across the United States and Mexico — stitched in churches and schools and homes. From the air, the 4-by-4-foot panels of quilts formed the words “YOU ARE NOT ALONE” and the gender-neutral translation in Spanish: “NO ESTÁS SOLX.”

The Monument Quilt, organized by the Baltimore-based activist collective FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture, is the culmination of five years of gathering survivors’ stories. It began long before the #MeToo movement, before the Trump administration and Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh’s nomination hearings, as a way to unite and elevate the stories of survivors of sexual violence.

As the quilt grew over the past five years, it toured across 33 cities in the two countries . But never before has it been displayed in its entirety.

“The quilt was always intended to end on the National Mall, to blanket the National Mall and occupy our nation’s capital with survivors’ stories,” said Hannah Brancato, the co-founder of FORCE.

The quilt’s organizers hoped to highlight the experiences of some of the most vulnerable victims of sexual assault — immigrants fearing deportation, children in abusive homes, indigenous victims of domestic violence, and others whose stories are often left out of mainstream narratives. The quilt also incorporates the stories of those who died in acts of gender-based violence, including transgender and non-binary people .

“The hashtag component of #MeToo that has taken off has been very specific to specific populations of people,” said Kalima Young, one of the project’s organizers in Baltimore. “Our commitment is to make sure that the most marginalized voices, the voices and stories that are kept out of these cultural conversations, are included.”

Each of the quilt-making workshops, held in community organizations in cities across the United States, gave victims of sexual violence a safe place to express their feelings — of pain, or trauma, or empowerment — on a canvas that would preserve their anonymity . It also follows a long lineage of women’s activism through quilts, Young said, and was “an opportunity to take something that is often without words and put it into something that is beautiful, tactile.”

Lorena Kourousias, an organizer in New York City, has spent the past five years working with survivors in Latino immigrant groups in the Bronx and Queens, and encouraging them to share their stories — many of them for the first time. She recalled the woman who wrote a message on a quilt in Spanish, saying, “I escaped my country because of violence. I came here and found violence again.” She remembered the woman in East Harlem who brought a quilt square home with her and returned it with a handprint from her 5-year-old daughter. “Stop Dad,” the quilt said. “Don’t be mean.”

Young recalled a grandmother in Baltimore who was a survivor of sexual violence, and whose mother and daughter had also experienced sexual violence. She brought her 8-year-old grandson along to a workshop to make a quilt. On it, scrawled in Sharpie next to super hero stickers was the message: “I commit to being a better man.”

Survivors are traveling by bus from New York City, Baltimore and elsewhere to see the quilt in its entirety this weekend. Each of the survivors who made a quilt square received a number in the mail corresponding to its location on the Mall and can search for their number on an app and website for the event.

The quilt is part of a three-day event that includes performances, speaking panels and open-mic discussions for survivors to share their experiences. Therapists and licensed social workers will also be offering healing sessions throughout the weekend.

As the event’s organizers laid out the panels of quilts on Friday afternoon, Robbye and Kevin Apperson, of Baltimore, walked around the mall, reading the messages. Robbye Apperson, an artist, contributed a quilt with the words, “To silence our voices is to rape ourselves.”

“I came to see which ones will surprise me,” she said. She pointed out a painted quilt nearby that she thought was particularly powerful: “Let the rain wash away all the pain of yesterday.”

Preston Huey, a 65-year-old D.C. resident, strolled through the display by herself, a large hat shading her face from the blaring sun. Huey, a retired science illustrator, had read about the Monument Quilt a day earlier and decided to see it in person. Many of the messages resonated with Huey. When she was 24 years old, Huey was raped by a stranger while walking home alone in Rappahannock County, Va., she said.

“It’s very moving,” Huey said, looking out over the quilt. “It’s heartening to see how many of these victims have gotten past this, have gotten strength. . . . You’re never the same after it.”

Judy Koeppl, of Wisconsin, happened to pass by the Monument Quilt while touring the Mall with her daughter. As the 77-year-old mother of three walked through the quilt squares, she was reminded of the AIDS Memorial Quilt that stretched across the Mall in 1987. But Koeppl, a grief counselor, also thought of all the women she helped cope with the trauma of sexual violence. She thought of the sexual assault survivor she once counseled while sitting on the edge of a lake in Madison, Wis.

“It’s just amazing,” she said. “You look at all of these people that went through that. . . . This is just one tiny representation.”