There’s power in numbers.
On a recent weekend, in a gallery in New York City, I saw that power come to life in a remarkable exhibition of The Bristlecone Project, a collection of photographic portraits of men who have reclaimed positive, productive lives after having had unwanted or abusive sexual experiences in childhood.
For many of the men, the journey has proven long and indirect, as described in a brief description accompanying each portrait. Often, their paths to healing have passed through periods of addiction, broken relationships, isolation, re-victimization, and shame. Each man, in his own way, has discovered that speaking about his experience, learning he is not alone, and finally seeking and accepting help from others have been key steps to his success.
The Bristlecone Project is an awareness campaign of 1in6, a national organization committed to expanding the resources and information available to the 1 in every 6 men in the United States, and around the world, who experienced sexual abuse in childhood. Dr. David Lisak, (who is also the board chair of 1in6), has now photographed 58 men. More than 80 more have contacted us, wanting to add their image and personal declaration about the possibility of healing to the project.
In my work with 1in6, I’ve met many of the men portrayed in the photos, known their individual stories of recovery, and heard about the challenges they’ve each overcome. Viewed together, the 35 representative portraits in the exhibition told a deeper story; one of community, connection, and hope for the future.
Contrary to social norms that attempt to define the male identity, we know that men, like women, experience emotions along a full spectrum; from sadness, fear, and vulnerability to joy, confidence, and safety. What became so striking when confronted with the array of Bristlecone portraits was the realization that each of those emotions was conveyed – with pride – in the eyes of the courageous men on the walls. And viewing the portraits collectively, something new emerged. It became powerfully clear that each of the men was capable of becoming whole – of healing – when he acknowledged and embraced the full range of those ever-changing emotions.
Hundreds of visitors stopped by The Heath Gallery to view the portraits during the three-day show. Some came from the neighborhood or from across town. Others traveled from as far away as New Zealand, Norway, and Ireland just to celebrate the event.
One visitor observed that the common thread in the portraits is dignity.
This month, The Bristlecone Project is poised on the threshold of an exciting new dimension: the addition of video. The goal is to create short video vignettes of each participant that will live on The Bristlecone Project website and bring these important stories to life. 1in6 has launched a Kickstarter campaign running from December 9th to December 27th to fund the travel, production, and post-production costs attached this project. We hope you’ll consider supporting the campaign or sharing it with family, friends, and colleagues.
We’ve heard it takes a village to raise a child. In a way, these men, by connecting with each other, are recreating the network of support and nurturance idealized in the image of that protective village – which for so many men was unavailable in their own childhoods. As a larger society, by acknowledging their journeys, validating their truth, and encouraging their determination to heal from childhood sexual abuse, we can all support their effort to raise themselves up.
Watch for announcements of presentations of the Bristlecone Project in other cities in the future.
Photos courtesy of author.