We will send a message:
We were wounded. Now we thrive. We are your neighbors, your fathers, and your sons.
In the last of our summer series on self-care and thriving, we’re grateful for this week’s feature interview with David Lisak as he shares his beautiful and profound photo project, The Bristelcone Project. Bristlecone is a mosaic of photographs and words that portray the reality of men who were sexually abused as children. Dr. Lisak is a researcher and forensic consultant who for 25 years has studied the causes and consequences of interpersonal violence. Himself a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, Dr. Lisak is one of three courageous men profiled in the documentary, Boys and Men Healing, a Big Voice production directed by Kathy Barbini.
Bristlecone Pine trees survive and thrive in the harsh conditions of the western Rocky Mountains. Despite thin soils, strong winds, freezing temperatures, and limited water, Bristlecones can live for thousands of years, and are among the oldest living organisms on earth.
Can you briefly describe the Bristlecone Project?
The goal of the Bristlecone Project is to introduce male survivors of childhood sexual abuse to other survivors, as well as to our larger communities. By looking directly into the camera lens, by telling their stories, by giving their names, Bristlecone volunteers communicate to the world that they reject the shame and stigma that was foisted upon them. And they communicate that childhood abuse can be overcome.
What personally inspired you to begin Bristlecone?
I have always loved photography, and in particular portrait photography. One day, my son asked me whether I was planning to do any special photography projects. Out of the blue – or so it seemed at the time – I started talking about doing portraits of male survivors. In retrospect, I’m pretty sure the idea had been percolating below the surface of my consciousness for some time.
After interviewing all these courageous men, what most impresses you about these men?
Courage. Their courage in struggling with the many legacies of the abuse they suffered. Their courage in deciding to come forward and volunteer for Bristlecone. Their courage in putting their names, their faces, their stories on a web site and in public exhibitions, all to help other men who have suffered as they have.
And do you know what continues to amaze me? By and large, these men have no real idea how courageous they are. I think we are all used to thinking of courage only in physical terms: running back into a burning building to save someone. Certainly, that is courage. But it is equally courageous to squarely confront the stigma that has for so long shrouded male survivors; to say “enough!” And to put your face and your name and your words behind that statement.
How does Bristlecone speak to the idea of thriving for men who had unwanted sexual abuse in childhood?
I think that the sheer number of men on the Bristlecone site (approaching 40 and an equal number waiting for their portrait sessions), and the tremendous variability in their life histories, speaks eloquently to the fact that when we persevere, we find pathways forward. We heal, and as we heal, we become more ourselves, and we create the space within and around ourselves to grow more truly into who we are.
What are some of the key elements you found that helped men to thrive?
There are so many different ways, but probably the most common is through relationships. Not a particular type of relationship, but rather just relationships. Friends, life partners, therapists, even chance but profoundly meaningful encounters.
Probably the next most common element that I’ve encountered has really surprised me. A significant number of men have described life-changing, profound spiritual experiences that are at the core of what has enabled them not only to survive trauma, but to thrive in the face of it.
What are your dreams for Bristlecone?
My dreams for Bristlecone include:
1. That it continues to grow; that more and more men from more and more backgrounds and places become a part of it, a part of the web site, and a part of the public exhibitions.
2. That we begin to receive some funding so that I can increase the speed at which I am able to meet with the many volunteers who are awaiting their turn, and so that we can put on a greater number of public exhibitions.
3. That we begin to have critical masses of Bristlecone volunteers in different locations – say, 10 or 12 men – so that we can begin to put on local exhibitions in those locations.
4. That Bristlecone becomes an international project. I am talking to men in Ireland, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. As soon as I have a little funding, I will begin to internationalize the project.
5. Finally, I have begun to film the interviews with each man. These are extraordinarily powerful video documents. In the near future, we will begin to add to the web site edited, five minute videos of each man telling his story.
What are you hopes for male survivors of sexual abuse in general?
My main hope is that through our collective efforts, our collective willingness to step forward, we will erode away the stigma, the shame that has kept so many of us silenced, shame that was never, ever ours to carry.
Can you speak to the idea of men breaking silence, and how Bristlecone is part of breaking this silence?
I believe to the bottom of my soul that the act of breaking silence, the act of looking openly into the camera lens, is an act of incredible courage and incredible power. It is a liberation from unwarranted shame; a casting off of stigma. It is a statement of assertion: “Here I am.”
Many of us are raising awareness, making headway in breaking silence. In terms of where we are now, what is most needed for male survivors of sexual abuse?
At 1in6.org we have long talked about our twofold efforts:
1. Eroding the stigma that so many survivors are burdened by so that they are more willing to talk, to seek help, to heal;
2. Training professionals across the country so that as more men come forward and seek help we will have an infrastructure that is ready and capable of meeting their needs.
I think we still need intense effort on both of those fronts.
What some ways can we do to erode stigma?
I’d say number one is by more and more survivors coming forward in some fashion and talking or writing openly about their experience. We need to remove male sexual abuse from the shadows. I think what flows from this movement of survivors speaking out are numbers two and three. What emerges are books, films, documentaries, TV specials, newspaper articles, blogs, Facebook posts, public exhibitions, all manner of public statements, public communications, that gradually erode that stigma so that, in a few decades, the only people writing about the stigma will be historians.
You’ve interviewed many men, and plan on more interviews. Do you find men want to talk about their experiences?
Yes. None of the men I have interviewed for Bristlecone have been at all hesitant about talking about their experiences and their lives. In fact, these interviews are much more like meetings. I am a survivor myself, and what happens is a conversation and a deeply personal connection.
Can you share some most poignant responses to the project?
In some ways the most poignant responses I have had are the ongoing email exchanges with men who are considering the idea of participating but not yet sure if the time is right for them. A guiding principle of Bristlecone is that the experience of participating must be a positive one for each man. So if there is any hesitancy, we take however much time is needed to talk things through. And we wait until it is clear that the time is right to participate. The dialogues that I have had with men have been incredibly enriching, and extremely meaningful to me personally.
One of the most poignant scenes in Boys and Men Healing was your interview with James Thomas, on death row–and the significance cycle of violence for men who had horrific childhoods of childhood sexual abuse and severe neglect. Did you ever think of interviewing JT or other men on death row for your project?
I have thought of including men on death row in the project, and it is something that may yet happen. However, the logistics of doing those interviews, and of bringing camera and lighting equipment into a maximum security prison are extremely daunting. When I have more time to devote to the effort I will find out whether it will be possible.
How do you think Bristlecone might make an impact on young men and teen males who experienced unwanted childhood sexual abuse?
From the outset of the project I expected that most of the men who would volunteer to participate would be men who were roughly middle aged. That has proven to be true. Most of us survivors travel a long road toward healing, and traveling that road takes time. So most of us are past our youth by the time we are ready to do something as radical as sit for a portrait and tell our stories publicly.
I think that this is, in a way, a beautiful thing. That us older men are willing to take this step in order to open a door for younger men. To show younger men that it is possible to cast off the shame, to look with pride into the camera lens and say, “here I am.”
That said, I have been surprised and thrilled at the number of younger men, men in their twenties and thirties who have volunteered. Some are already on the web site, others are waiting for me to find a way to meet with them.
How is Bristlecone most meaningful to you personally?
Wow. How do I answer that question? This project is the most important thing I am doing as a professional and as a survivor. To meet these men, to witness their courage and determination, to hear their stories, and to be a vehicle by which their voices can be heard and their beautiful faces can be seen; it is an experience that I am profoundly grateful for. I feel blessed.
The Vision: A mosaic of photographs and words that portray the reality of men who were sexually abused as children.
The Focus of the project: The present, not the past. Who each man is. What defines him. What is the focus of his life. Each man will be portrayed through a series of photographs, a brief written portrait, and his own voice.
The Purpose: To portray this reality — who we are now, living meaningful and dignified lives — to the many men who feel isolated and stigmatized by what happened to them. And to portray this reality to whole communities through the Bristlecone web site and public exhibition
If wind were wood it might resemble this
fragility and strength, old bark bleeding amber.
Its living parts grow on away from the dead
as we do in our lesser lives. Endurance,
yes, but also a scarred and twisted beauty
we know the way we know our own carved hearts.