By HTP Editorial
Katherine Kendall is an accomplished film and theater actor, photographer, classical dancer and educator. She is also a powerful advocate in the fight against sexual assault, harassment and discrimination.
Q & A with Katherine Kendall
You have said that your experience with sexual assault left you feeling victorious and broken at the same time. Why is that?
When my assault happened, I remember being so stunned and petrified. To see a very large naked man walking towards me, I had an immediate rush of fear take over. I now know it was cortisol. At first I thought he would surely have his way with me, but something flipped. All that cortisol and adrenaline gave me a sense of power and energy. As I got angry, I stood taller, in a strange almost out of body way. I absolutely needed to survive this, and that pushed me to stand up for myself and give voice to my fury no matter what he might do. I negotiated my way past this massive bully, and I felt like I had the power of 10 woman standing beside me while doing it. The moment when I decided to fight was a very powerful moment for me. Come hell or high water I was not going to be his prey, I showed myself a strength I didn’t know I had, and that was the victory. The broken part came when I left. I was still shaking like a leaf. I wanted to cry, but I didn’t know how. I was terrified to talk to anyone. I told my boyfriend, and my mom, and a few close friends over time. I felt like it became my burden to carry. After all, I had gotten away untouched physically. I felt a strange sense of isolation and shame. It soured me a great deal on the business of Hollywood. I think I felt scared, and my ambition was thwarted.
You have described recovery as a kind of cyclical progression, with periods of healing followed by a re-triggering of the trauma. What do you think has worked best in your recovery and what does not help?
I think having someone hear my story, and listen with compassion, and feel the gravitas of what happened made me feel much more empowered. Sometimes in an effort to make me feel better someone might have tried to minimize it, laugh or just say, “Well that’s the way the world works.” I would try and buck up, but I never felt good inside. When I tried to act like it was no big deal, it was a lie. It was a very big deal. It had a huge emotional effect on me. So, I think when people listen with empathy, that’s a huge component for healing. Feeling safe and heard. I’m learning to let myself grieve. I couldn’t cry then. I had to be strong for myself to get through it. Now I can cry for that 24-year-old. I can safely say, “That sucks that you went through that, how scary and disappointing.” Most importantly I can say, “You didn’t deserve that, and it was not your fault.” I’m learning that even if a trauma happened a long time ago, it can still be trapped in our bodies. Some of the best medicine is to grieve and release it. Exercising, singing, dancing, doing things that have rhythm help repair parts of the brain that trauma erodes. Making sure I have healthy boundaries and that I find safe spaces in the world, safe communities and safe people.
Your activism has led to some interest in possibly creating a new organization to support assault survivors. What can you tell us about this organization and its objectives?
In the last month, I’ve been connected to several other women who were also assaulted by Harvey [Weinstein]. We are working on creating an organization that will replicate the community that we formed and provide resources for other sexual assault survivors. The idea is still in the works but I’ll keep you posted.
How did you become involved with the Hidden Tears Project?
I was brought to them by my friend Katya Martin who has worked with them over the last few years.
What are your thoughts about the Shades of RED project? (using virtual reality technology to promote understanding and empathy?)
I think that promoting empathy is one of the most important things we can do in helping to heal victims of sexual violence and assault. Empathy also creates community and this is the space where everything can start to change for the better. The use of VR is particularly cool because it is such an immersive experience. You experience things as if they are actually happening. I grew up being a dancer, so watching stories expressed through dance, or dancing myself, both are incredibly moving. Sometimes the body can show us things that words can’t, so I think the combination of VR and dance will result in a powerful project.
How would you respond to those who say that because of the Me Too movement, they are afraid that everything they say or do—including asking someone on a date— might be interpreted as sexual harassment or assault?
I certainly hope that the Me Too movement does not inhibit people asking others out on dates and finding healthy, meaningful partnerships. I can understand why people are scared, but I think it’s great that the conversation has started and I think women and men are going to have to work this one out together. It’s a huge learning opportunity for our entire culture and having a dialogue about it is the best thing we can do.
Recognizing that every assault and every experience of assault is different, is there any advice you might offer other survivors?
To find a loved one or a community that feels safe to share your experience with. Find someone who will listen and know that it is not your fault. The shame belongs to the perpetrator, not the victim. This does not mean that you need to speak publicly about it, but finding a safe person to tell is important to free yourself of the weight the trauma puts on you.