In the first pages of “An Autobiography of Miss Wish,” the reader meets Kimberly Stevens multiple times: In handwritten notes; dark, cinematic images; drawings of knives and books; and a beaming childhood portrait. Then there’s her psychiatric history written in detached clinical jargon, and a portrait of her prone, living on the street.
This visceral book lays out her life, drawing readers in even before fully understanding what they are looking at. “An autobiography of Miss Wish” is a collaboration between Nina Berman, a documentary photographer, and Ms. Stevens, a survivor of sex trafficking and child pornography whom Ms. Berman met 27 years ago in London.
Ms. Berman had traveled there to photograph the impact of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s policies. She met Ms. Stevens, who at the time went by Cathy, while photographing young drug users living on the streets. The others she met had been standoffish, but Cathy was curious and fascinated to learn more about the U.S. Over the course of the time of their subsequent relationship spanning decades and continents, Ms. Stevens faced chronic homelessness, drug use, mental illness, and severe post-traumatic stress from the years of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse in childhood.
Medical records, diaries, and letters in the book show how her abusers cowed her into silence and brutally punished her when she spoke up. They also attest to how she was failed by people with whom she shared her tale. A back-and-forth — of wanting to share yet being terrified of the consequences — runs throughout the entire book.
“I thought it would be the most powerful move I could do, to tell everything I had been told to keep a secret my whole life,” Ms. Stevens said. “I can look at [this book] and close it again.”
Ms. Stevens was born poor, a young girl of color adopted into a middle class white family, and was often put in danger by the authority figures in her life. In her earliest writings, it is clear that she knew her word would be doubted, and that the burden of proof would be on her. So she began collecting things.
“I’ve spent my entire life collecting evidence,” she said. “I used to go with my family and take things from various places — in a constant fight to prove what happened.”
The twist in her case was she had Ms. Berman’s help in safeguarding the material, a challenge given Ms. Stevens’s chronic homelessness. The documents, writings and drawings by and about Ms. Stevens constitute a remarkable record about a life that far too often would otherwise go unnoticed and unchronicled.
The book comes out at a time when headlines about sexual violence are a daily occurrence, given the recent outpouring of accounts of sexual harassment and assault in the worlds of film, finance and media.
“Women of a certain privilege are speaking out in every industry,” Ms. Berman said. “It is tremendously important, and hopefully people will start to understand that this is endemic.”
For Ms. Berman, the book is in some ways a continuation of the work she has done over her career, addressing recurring themes, like how hierarchies of power operate, how justice is fought for and found, and how individuals live with the effects of violence. Yet, it is a departure, too, because it is more personal and non-traditional than her previous projects.
“This is work that I live,” she said, “not just a project that I go out and conceive of and go out and shoot.”
Though the London images went unpublished — editors were blasé — Ms. Stevens traveled to New York in 1991 thanks to prize money from a music competition and ended up staying with Ms. Berman. While napping at the apartment one day, Ms. Stevens had a series of flashbacks and nightmares: Ms. Berman even made an image of Ms. Stevens in the midst of one episode. That was the last one she took of her, aside for snapshots for family albums, until around 2008, since she felt uncomfortable photographing her in that vulnerable state.
Ms. Stevens eventually resettled in New York, where Ms. Berman spent years advocating for her care and speaking with her doctors and social workers. She went through good and terrible phases; both she and Ms. Berman were uncertain if she would even survive. But she did, and the two discussed collaborating on a book about her journey.
The process involved both of them anticipating and confronting the pushback they imagined the project would cause. Both cared deeply about verifying Ms. Stevens’ memories — Ms. Berman went as far as to go to London to corroborate her recollections and make images that spoke to them.
“I only included the memories I am fully aware of and very clear on what happened,” Ms. Stevens said. “Everything that’s there, I’m fully aware of.”
This concern about the reliability of traumatic memories reflects not just journalistic standards, but, in recounting sexual violence, it also ties into a larger history of how women’s memories of assault are remembered and accepted.
For example, Dr. Judith Herman’s writings on the history of trauma studies traces the discipline back to Sigmund Freud and his study of women in the late-1800s experiencing what was then called “hysteria.” His interviews with women experiencing flashbacks and nightmares — that are now seen as symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, led him to conclude that sexual assault was the root cause. Yet, given how widespread hysteria was among women, he withdrew his findings, because to accept them would mean that sexual assault and abuse were commonplace. Instead, he said his female patients’ “scenes of seduction had never taken place … only fantasies which my patients had made up.”
Women’s testimonies continue to be dismissed, making cases of sexual violence among the hardest crimes to prosecute successfully. “All too often, survivors of sexual violence are challenged and asked to defend their narrative,” Ms. Berman wrote, “while perpetrators, because of the rules of evidence and the fear instilled in victims, are left free to continue to profit from their violent schemes.”
For women who lack the stature of celebrity or access to the media, the book echoes the current conversation and includes a group often excluded. It also challenges traditional storytelling methods and what it means to be on one side of the camera versus the other. Ms. Berman and Ms. Stevens each characterized their relationship in different ways at different times — photographer-subject, mother-daughter, caregiver-patient, and collaborators. Throughout, they spoke often about the effect that they were having on each other and what that meant for their common creation.
Just as important, Ms. Berman rejected a sentiment among some who document the lives of the less fortunate: that they are “giving voice to the voiceless” — a condescending construct, if anything. Ms. Stevens is hardly voiceless, but her voice was suppressed or ignored by authorities and agencies that were supposed to help her.
And while the book is about Ms. Stevens, it is also a glimpse into Ms. Berman’s life, and it contextualizes her other works. In an industry that emphasizes objectivity and erasing oneself from the work, this book allows the reader to see what both Ms. Stevens has lived through and what Ms. Berman has experienced with her. Ms. Stevens’ two suicide attempts at Rikers Island when she was jailed on a minor drug charge showed Ms. Berman the flaws of New York City’s criminal justice system, and these experiences are echoed in her subsequent projects on subjects ranging from police stop-and-frisk policy, to the role of the security state and surveillance in post-9/11 America.
Ultimately, Ms. Stevens hopes this collaborative book will be a testament to resilience.
“I feel a lot stronger having made the book,” she said. “Before that, I felt like a victim. I don’t want to be called a survivor or a victim, I just want to live—I don’t want to just survive. I want to move on to the next chapter of my life.”
Source: New York Times