"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 to create revealing portraits with intimate stories and memories. Taylar Nuevelle 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.
We adopted a novel visual and storytelling strategy that allows her to personally represent her experiences. First, Mark Isaac and I photograph her and create digital negatives. She takes the negatives and distresses 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 brings the negatives to her therapy sessions, where they are used as a means of achieving healing. We pass the negatives back and forth, working on them until we have fully represented her pain. Some of the photographs also incorporate text from court papers and personal diaries. This emphasizes the manner in which our courts and our prison system have dehumanized those with mental health issues.
By telling the stories of multiple women who have been incarcerated instead of treated, we will call attention to a critical aspect of the mass incarceration crisis. By sharing their deeply traumatic and painful experiences with me, they are opening the door for others to find their voices, challenge societal stigma and bring about much-needed reforms.
Demons Pain and God
"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."
Facing the Demons
"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."
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."
"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."
"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?'"
"Reentry is lonely. I spend a lot of time in silence. I have always found myself feeling lonely and alone and so I sit in silence. Dreaming dreams of drowning. The silence I sit in is surrounded by water. Water that does not cleanse me, but reminds me of shame and feeling I do not exist."
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."
"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."
"This makes me think of drowning. Water has been used to abuse me and I take medications for nightmares. Many of my night terrors are of drowning. I stopped swimming in high school. I would not go near water. My mother used to bathe me in bleach because I wet the bed until I was 11. If I die, I don't want to drown."