"Who Speaks for Me" by Gabriela Bulisova, Taylar Nuevelle & Mark Isaac
One of the most shocking injustices associated with mass incarceration is the fact that our prisons have become a dumping ground for people who have experienced severe trauma, resulting in mental health issues. Instead of receiving needed treatment, they are subjected to additional abuse and mistreatment. Women are the fastest growing segment of the prison population, increasing 14-fold since 1970, and two-thirds report a mental health problem. Prior to incarceration women experience an extremely high rate of trauma due to violence, physical and sexual abuse, and poverty.
This project is a collaboration with a woman affected by trauma, mental illness and incarceration. Taylar Neuvelle served four and a half years after she was charged with breaking and entering the house of a former girlfriend and attempting to commit suicide. Taylar was diagnosed with PTSD, trauma, and severe anxiety disorder, and a pre-sentence report recommended that she be treated rather than sent to prison, but the judge overruled this recommendation. In prison, rather than receiving treatment, she was raped, locked in solitary confinement and placed on suicide watch.
Mark Isaac and I adopted a novel visual and storytelling strategy that allowed Taylar to personally represent her experiences and create revealing portraits from her intimate stories and memories. First, we photographed her and created digital negatives. Taylar then took the negatives and distressed them to represent her memories of abuse and mistreatment, both as a child and in prison. For example, she used bleach to distress one negative as a means of depicting the abuse she suffered as a child when her mother scrubbed her skin with a metal brush and bleach. She also brought the negatives to her therapy sessions, where they were used as a means of achieving healing. We passed the images back and forth, working on them until we fully represented her pain. Some of the photographs also incorporate text from her writings and diaries. Our collaborative emphasis on her personal experience exposes the manner in which our criminal justice system has dehumanized those with mental health issues.
In the future, we hope to tell the stories of multiple women who have been incarcerated instead of treated, calling attention to an overlooked aspect of the mass incarceration crisis. By sharing her deeply traumatic and painful experiences with us, Taylar is opening the door for others to find their voices, challenge societal stigma and bring about much-needed reforms.
"Before I learned to speak the grown-ups in my world stole my language, my right to speak. My mind has always been jumbled with images of Satan and God and my first memory is of fog and images no one else could see. I stopped looking in the mirror when I was eleven, until I went into foster care in high school, because my mother told me I had 'Seven plus one demons' in me and I could see them so I stopped looking at myself. Can you see that demon to the right? Mocking me. When I turned 13 I started having migraines that felt like if I opened my eyes someone, one of those demons, was stabbing me in my skull all the way down to my eyes. I had no words; just fear, pain and demons reminding me I was damaged. Not even God could love me."
"I’m not afraid to stare down the demons. I’m getting ready. The head is born first then the rest comes. The fog will lift and one day I will walk free and clear. I am giving life to myself and will bury that child born into demon laced fog and pain."
"There is not one day that goes by that I do not look at my neck and those small specks of discoloration from birth and not remember. I stand in the mirror fixing my hair, brushing my teeth and saving the jewelry for last because then I have to look and remember. Ajax, S.O.S. steel wool pads and my siblings watching as my mother scrubbed my neck raw down to the white meat. Blood and white and no pain, because she saw dirt where there was just a skin discoloration. 'You always filthy. Now this tha color your neck ‘sposed ta be.' Blood, white meat and no tears--a mother who scrubbed me clean."
"See my eye? How many times did Ma make my eyes swell shut? I los count by age 10. Life for Black women and girls is very hard. I can see, not clearly, but I can see I never stood a chance. And I cannot make anyone love me or hurt me."
"I laugh because I am lost and I see the fog demons. Look closer, I am not laughing I am grinding my teeth something I started doing at age two. The grinding focuses my mind and so I am not lost completely to the demons that grow from the fog of violence I was created by and hatred I was born in to."
"I love butterflies. Always, but especially after my son Kalil was born and the ‘Very Hungry Caterpillar’ was our favorite book. See the butterflies above me? I am becoming that beautiful butterfly because I am learning to nourish myself and transform."
"Sepia creeps in because my mind and body were bruised beyond their actual years. I have lived many lives and the aged me is inside of my cracked mind and soul the will never know youth. Sepia seeps in so you can see where I’ve been—never young; never a child. Made a woman before I knew what being a child was all about."
This is my chest and it bleeds from the inside out. My disability is not apparent, yet it has been present and acute since childhood. As a child I remember when I first started self-harming—I was in the second grade. I used to take straight pins and stick them through the flesh in my chest, cover myself in a shirt and go about my day as the pins tore into my skin. This was nothing compared to the physical violence I endured almost everyday from my mother and/or stepfather. The straight pins turned to razors and scissors and I found release from slicing and cutting other parts of my body. Sometimes life is too painful to carry and I feel like I might explode and slice here and a cut their and the pain inside is transformed. I don’t use pins, knives, razors or scissors on myself anymore. I had to stop because I take a blood thinner for a hereditary clotting disorder. My ability to self-harm has been snatched from me, but not the desire. The ache of life’s traumas is etched in my memory and carved in my skin—there will never be relief.
"Mug shot of what would be seen of my trauma-to-prison pipeline. Outside the nurse’s office, when I was in elementary school, was a poster titled, ‘Children Learn What They Live.’ I saw this poster often from kindergarten until fourth grade because I became nauseous and vomited often as a child. As I waited outside the office I would read the poster and stop after line seven. Then I would think, ‘There are no good things in my life.’ I knew this by age five. Over the years I have thought about that poster often and then I was given a copy one day while in prison. If mug shots could speak mine would tell you how much I understood as a child about being abused and how often people looked away at the obvious signs that I was living a nightmare. I believed I did not deserve goodness, kindness or gentle touches—Love."
Burns and Memory
"Most scars are easily hidden, but not from the mind—not from my memory. My mother used to burn me with hot combs. These are iron combs placed in fire to straighten the hair and sometimes she burned me with curling irons. Then I went to prison, and there was a woman that worked in the hair salon and one day she burned me on purpose with a flat iron right next to the spot my mother had burned me as a child. This woman in prison laughed and told the other inmates she did it because she did not like my voice and all the hair I had on my head. My mother used to burn me saying, 'All this hair‘n you got a nerve ta be tenda headed. Didn’t gitall this hair from my family it’s from yo’ fatha’s side.' Abusers, despise me for things I cannot control. I can hide many of my scars, but not from my mind and it cracks over and over because my memory burns."
"The abuse in my family is generational. My great nephew was born while I was incarcerated to my niece who is my older sister’s daughter. When my niece was born, I was in foster care, but I went to the hospital the day she was born and I whispered in her ear, “I will never let anyone hurt you. This was a promise I could not keep. My niece spoke up at age five about the abuse and her mother abandoned her, just as my mother abandoned me. Then they all reconciled. Claudia, my mother, wields a lot of power. The words are gibberish, but people listen and I am written out of the story of truth. I am the “crazy” one for speaking up and demanding she say, “You did not deserve violence. I am sorry.” My great nephew, age three wrote me letters in prison and my niece translated them, “Have a happy birthday. Eat some pizza. Make a wish on your cake. Blow out all the candles. Then stop by. I need to ask you some questions.” You can see the pizza. You can see the letters that he wrote, but you cannot see my shame of being locked away unable to, “Blow out all the candles,” and, “Stop by…” and hold him. He was four when we first met and six when I let go. My family is too steeped in their trauma and the gibberish they call truth is deadly. Like prison, my family has disappeared me as well."
"After prison, people who you have loved a lifetime have no idea of how trauma before prison merges with prison trauma and they act and do not do things accordingly. 22 years of friendship and love. Goodbyes hurt but are also freeing. My beautiful lips (yes they are beautiful to me) show I’m determined. I can let go. I deserve people in my life as lovely as my lips that ask, 'Who Speaks for Me?'"
Rainbows and Sunshine
"I am just learning that it doesn’t get any better just because the sun shines and the rainbows appear. Rainbows and Sunshine are not love if they come after you’ve been raped, beaten and told you are worthless—unlovable. Rainbows can be deceitful like abusers."