When Brooke Axtell was a child, her nanny took her to the basement of a strange house and sold her to men who raped her.
Last night, 27 years after being trafficked, she became the face of an awards show’s push against domestic violence, speaking at the Grammys before an audience of millions.
“Authentic love does not devalue another human being. Authentic love does not silence, shame or abuse,” Axtell said in a spoken-word piece that introduced Katy Perry’s stripped-down rendition of “By the Grace of God.”
“Please reach out for help,” Axtell implored. “Your voice will save you.”
Axtell’s speech, which followed a video public-service announcement about rape from President Obama, lasted less than two minutes — a brief blip in the glitz of the three-hour event. But for Axtell, a longtime activist against sexual violence, it’s the latest and most high-profile achievement of her life’s work.
Axtell’s experience with sexual abuse began when she was 7 years old. Her mother was hospitalized and her father traveled for his job, so she was cared for by a succession of nannies, among them a young seminarian she calls “Jim.”
In a piece titled “What I Know of Silence,” written for an anthology of women’s writing in 2012, Axtell recounts in graphic detail how Jim abused and threatened her.
“Jim tied me up and called me a whore. He gave me to other men who pay to rape little girls and film it for their private pornography collections,” she wrote.
The essay goes on to describes the basement where she was trafficked, furnished with a cot, a cage, chains and a camera, and the shame she felt for what happened there. Even after Jim left, that shame kept her from reporting him.
Axtell carried the secret of her abuse into adulthood, when she again became a victim of sexual violence — this time at the hands of her boyfriend.
“I was terrified of him, and ashamed I was in this position,” she said in her speech at the Grammys. “I believed my compassion could restore him and our relationship. … But my compassion was incomplete because it did not include me.”
It wasn’t until her boyfriend threatened to kill her that Axtell sought help. She told the story of her abuse to her mother, who connected her with a local domestic violence shelter.
“This conversation saved my life,” Axtell said.
In “What I Know of Silence,” Axtell describes the role art played in helping her recover from her experiences. A singer and poet, she has released three albums and two collections of poetry.
Art, she told Salon, is what made her a survivor, not a victim.
“When we express our creativity, we have the power to decide how we will relate to our trauma and the story we will tell about our lives,” she said.
After attending a recovery group for survivors of childhood sexual abuse, Axtell decided to start speaking openly about her experience.
“I sensed that if I could draw pictures of the abuse, write about the abuse, and bring every trace of shame into the light, it could not destroy me,” she wrote in “What I Know of Silence.”
Axtell went on to found Survivors Healing and Empowerment, a support group for victims of sexual violence, and became a speaker for the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. She also started working with SafePlace, a domestic violence shelter in her hometown of Austin. That’s where Grammys executive producer Ken Ehrlich heard about Axtell’s activism.
“Ken said they want to find ways to not only honor the creative work of their musicians and performing artists, but also to give them a platform to speak about issues that are important to them,” Axtell said in an interview with Slate.
After putting a spotlight on marriage equality during last year’s ceremony, when Queen Latifah officiated a mass wedding of 33 same-sex couples while Macklemore performed “Same Love,” Ehrlich wanted to focus this year’s show on violence against women.
“By the Grace of God,” the song Ehrlich chose to pair with Axtell’s speech, is not explicitly about domestic violence. Though Perry said she contemplated suicide after her breakup with Russell Brand, whom the song is about, she has never described their relationship as abusive.
But for domestic violence survivors like Axtell, Perry’s lyrics — “And I looked in the mirror and decided to stay/Wasn’t gonna let love take me out that way” — could easily be interpreted as an anthem.
“Her performance was powerful,” Axtell said of one of Perry’s rehearsals of the song, adding that she was grateful Perry “is using her her voice to advocate for survivors.”
Given that Grammy nominee Chris Brown was convicted of assaulting Rihanna in 2009, some commenters accused the awards show of “sending mixed messages” with the Obama video and Axtell’s speech. How did Axtell know she wasn’t going be used as part of a PR stunt?
“If I were just there to stand up as some sort of prop to promote [Perry], I don’t think I’d be given so much range and freedom to have my own content,” she told Slate. “They accepted the first version that I sent them. … Not a word has been changed.”
Instead, her only regret of the night was her mode of entry.
“I was really hoping to ride in on a lion,” she said.
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