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Linda L. Nelson was a founding director of Opera House Arts at the Stonington Opera House and is a board member for Survivor Speak USA. She was the independent producer for Dee Clarke’s play, “The Last Girl,” which she co-directed with René Goddess. Nelson is currently the economic and community development director for the town of Stonington.
It’s been more than a month since nearly 500 people witnessed and participated in the staged public reading of Dee Clarke’s memory play, “The Last Girl,” at the Westbrook Performing Arts Center. The presentation of this work was commissioned by Portland Ovations and co-presented by Ovations and the nonprofit dee founded, SurvivorSpeak USA.
In “The Last Girl,” Clarke — one of Maine’s most persistent and effective advocates for those in struggle against sexploitation, racism and food and housing insecurity — memorialized her own story of having been sexually assaulted and trafficked as a 12-year-old in Boston’s Combat Zone in the early 1970s, her eventual escape to Maine and her work to heal herself and others. The cast of 16 included a mix of trained actors and survivors who ended the play by inviting the audience to share their stories. Many did, including a 17-year-old Maine girl.
The play explicitly challenges us to be aware of, to acknowledge and to respond to the sexual assault and trafficking that happens right here in Maine, in each of our communities. Like the best live theater, the play opens our hearts to see and be transformed by what is happening all around us: to others, to those alongside us, to ourselves.
As I collaborated on this play over the year since Dee’s premature death in 2021, I became painfully aware of the extent to which we as individuals and communities wall ourselves away from the pain and suffering of others. The comments I received prior to the presentation were very consistent: “That doesn’t happen in Boston!” — never mind in Maine. “That only happens in New York, or Mumbai!”
Wherever there is poverty, wherever substances are being sold and used, there is sexual trafficking. There are those whose desperation for power, control and money creates the violent environment where they use others’ bodies as objects for personal gain.
As Clarke poignantly described in the scene in which she is first sexually assaulted and then trafficked as a 12-year-old, she “didn’t know it was rape.” More than 50 percent of calls to Maine’s sexual assault crisis and support line are from or about someone who experienced sexual violence under the age of 18. Traffickers commonly use sexual violence as a tool to assert power and control over women, children and men, regardless of the type of trafficking they are engaging in. According to the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MECASA), 1 in 5 Mainers will experience sexual assault in their lifetime. That is, on average, 14,000 Mainers every year.
To say sexual assault is prevalent misses the point. Sexual assault, like racism, is one of the primary systems of control in which we swim.
As Clarke understood and as Isabel Wilkerson so beautifully describes in her book “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” white U.S. culture depends as much upon the creation of classes of “untouchables” as does India. In order for a ruling caste to achieve dominance, whole groups of people are oppressed. These are those we do not acknowledge, the ones from whom we avert our eyes. To acknowledge them, to align ourselves with them, takes courage. Acknowledgement exposes truths about our own vulnerabilities as well as the power some of us are privileged to hold and fail to use.
Clarke’s premise in writing “The Last Girl” is that in every community, in Maine and around the world, we must see and stop the creation of “last girls” and “forgotten women,” terms coined by Clarke’s treasured colleague, professor and international activist Ruchira Gupta. Clarke’s play helps us witness how the oppressive power structures of gender, race, and class create perpetrators as well as survivors. Only in really seeing this can we discover and support the humanity, as she did, in us all, stopping endless cycles of violence and abuse.
To do your part to stop the creation of forgotten women: pay attention to the women and children in your community and speak up about your concerns. So many children are unable to function and learn in school because of the violence, sexual abuse and addiction in their homes. Donate to or volunteer for your local sexual assault support center, the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault or to Survivor Speak USA. Survivor Speak also encourages contact from survivors seeking fellowship and social service providers and law enforcement officials interested in training opportunities.
With our awareness and support, survivors of sexual abuse and trafficking can lead the way toward solutions.