Unraveling Incest | Performing Arts Sidebar | Chicago Reader

Unraveling Incest 


Michelle Citron

at the C.G. Jung Institute of Chicago, January 14

Though one should in battle conquer a thousand men a thousand times, he who conquers himself has the more glorious victory--Buddha

In her powerful lecture/performance Speaking the Unspeakable: How We Talk When Words Fail filmmaker Michelle Citron seeks to unravel the trauma of incest. The precursor of this piece, a more conventional play called Bliss, was seen almost two years ago at City Lit Theater; Citron is presently developing the material into a screenplay, too. The story revolves around an outwardly conforming but disturbed young woman, Dora, whose highly erotic relationship with a married man uncovers a submerged part of her psyche and memories of sexual abuse in childhood. But just as in the myth of Pandora--after all of life's sorrows were released from her box, hope flew out last--there is a sense that beyond this woman's veil of trouble is hope; we sense that she will travel forward and not be overcome by the remembered tragedy. Curiously, this hope is underlined not by the two actresses--Valerie Fashman and Paula Sjogerman--who play the One Who Knows and the One Who Doesn't Know, but by the serene Michelle Citron herself.

The lecture/performance format is successful but slightly surreal. Sitting in chairs on a low stage and facing the audience, Fashman and Sjogerman describe the raw emotions of incest in both the first and third person, while Citron coolly speaks from a lectern to the right of them. She first analyzes and explains in plain terms the ramifications of incest, from its biochemical effect on the brain to the way it can produce false memories to its connection with posttraumatic stress syndrome, then delivers autobiographical snippets--all with the same lack of emotion, as though she were comparing the relative virtues of asphalt and concrete in paving our nation's highways. A yawn? Hardly. The audience sat rapt: Citron's dry, restrained approach seemed to keep everyone on the edge of his or her seat.

Lecture and performance alternate throughout the evening, the lights coming up on whoever is speaking. The actresses read their monologues portraying the One Who Knows and the One Who Doesn't Know (or, more specifically, the Dora in the mind and the Dora in the world). But when Citron started to talk about how she herself was sexually abused, the ordinary boundaries of theater began to fray. There was a sense of danger--that this gaminesque, eloquent lecturer might fall apart, that her voice might break or crack. But she never did fall apart, not even during the question-and-answer period. The actresses (though they were reading from the script) were overwhelmed by emotion toward the conclusion, eyes misted and faces colored, but Citron was ever the cool professor, not missing a beat. There was never the sense that any of this charged material might have the vaguest connection to her own life. At the same time, she suggested during the question-and-answer period that had she not been abused, she would never have embarked on the path she chose, becoming an artist and professor.

On tabloid TV, talk-show hosts stage meetings between convicted rapists or murderers and their victims or victims' families, and the often tearful and emotionally overwrought victims have an opportunity to tell the rapist or murderer how their lives have been irrevocably altered. But Citron stands at the podium victorious, brilliant, shining, her soft, well-modulated voice penetrating with the brilliance of rare and acute wisdom the dark places we'd rather not think about. She doesn't need to confront her attacker. As the Buddha advised: Forget your enemies, conquer yourself. Citron is a living embodiment of arduous work on the soul.

Can intellectual brilliance be cleansing? It seems so. Can it be blinding? Certainly: I once saw an educational film that showed a scientist dropping a cat onto an examining table over and over again to prove that the animals have an uncanny ability to right themselves in midair. His intellectual point was valid, but he showed absolutely no compassion for the cat or understanding of how ludicrous his demonstration was. But Citron provides both intellectual brilliance and spiritual illumination. After all her troubles have been released from their box, hope remains--"the thing with feathers," Emily Dickinson wrote, "that perches in the soul--and sings the tune without the words."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Judy Hoffman.

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