It was the pain that Cherri Low Horn remembered first. Then the rest of it flooded in: being given a bath at age 5 by a woman who was caring for her. The shock when suddenly the woman’s fingers were up inside her, penetrating, as searing pain shot through her. She had never experienced anything like it in her young life.
Then she “forgot.” For years this traumatic memory of betrayal remained buried—a reaction from her body, Low Horn thinks, to protect her until she was older, independent and healthy. Years later, when Low Horn was finally in a safe place and ready to start a family, her body gave back the memory so that she could begin to heal, she said—and protect her own daughter from a similar fate.
“I was having a conversation about wanting to have kids, and that's when the memory came out,” she told ICTMN in a recent interview. That led her to counseling, and to other victims. Once she found a community of fellow sufferers, Low Horn wanted to reach out further. Sexual abuse is never easy to talk about, let alone go public with. And when the abuse happens between two females, it can be even harder to discuss.
“When I started talking to professionals and other victims, I realized that I was among many people staggering in the dark,” Low Horn said in a media release about the film. “I was trying to figure out what happened to me, and there was no one out there with a compass to guide me.”
Thus the Blackfoot filmmaker, now 33, tackled this painful subject of her own trauma by making a documentary, It Was a Woman: Surviving Female Sexual Abuse, produced by Mushkeg Media Inc. It debuts on Thursday January 9 on the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) at 7 p.m. Eastern Time.
The film follows Low Horn as she tries to make sense of what happened to her. The Calgary, Alberta resident documents her personal journey, from discussions with experts to her realization that stories of female sexual abuse must be shared. A trained visual artist, Low Horn also uses her artwork to illustrate her story. She spoke with Indian Country Today Media Network about how the documentary came to be.
Who was in your life to speak out to? How did your story first get told?
I didn't really have anyone to talk to when I was younger, I didn't have people I could go to. Basically as an adult I went to a local clinic to talk to a social worker because I didn't have a support network [for talking] to someone.
The underlying societal assumption is that men are the ones who commit such abuse. Did the fact that it was a woman make it harder to speak out and to prove/draw attention to the abuse?
I think I was lucky enough to talk to a psychotherapist who has been working with both survivors and perpetrators, so I was really lucky to find people who understood where I was at. I talked to other survivors [who] have gone to psychologists or to the police and were just ignored or told, ‘It's in your head,’ or [the authorities] didn't know how to deal with it. I was pretty lucky to find people who had already worked with people who have gone through this type of abuse.
Have you spoken to victims of abuse by men? If so, what are the differences, if any, between such victimization by a woman versus by a man?
I think one of the biggest things is because it’s the same gender, I found that I was questioning myself—like my sexuality, being a female person—and I think if it was the opposite sex I think I'd be questioning myself in different ways. Because it was a woman who did this to me I really had to face my femininity and work my way around it.
Did being abused by a woman make you feel especially isolated, given that women are seen by society as the trustworthy ones?
I guess at first I was in shock. I was wrapping my head around it. You know, ’cause growing up it was always, 'Watch out for men, watch out for the guys, watch out for the boys.' In the beginning I was shocked. I guess through therapy I was able to deal with this on my own, which I wanted to do because I am sort of an introverted person. But when I started doing the documentary, that's when I started meeting other people and started to feel less alone. I did feel alone in the beginning, but at the same time, I didn't know what was happening.”
How widespread is abuse by women? We never hear about it. Is that because it’s less prevalent, or because it is less seen?
“I think there's more to it than what we see. In rape cases, very few rapes are reported and I think the same thing of abuse or any sort of abuse. I think there's a lot more than what we see.”
What made you decide to make a documentary about your experience?
“I thought about it and I realized I don't see this anywhere, not in TV or in books. I realized it wasn't out there. There's two reasons: First, I just wanted the subject to be out there for other people and for them to know that this happens, and that if it happens to them, to let them know they are not the only one. The second reason is because I have a daughter, and I wanted to protect my daughter. I did report this person to the police but there's only so much the police can do, and I want to protect my daughter.
This documentary discusses the myths and misconceptions surrounding female sex offenders. What are some of these?
With any sex offender, they're seen as extremely mentally disabled or they're of another breed, another species, or monsters or beings that are not human. What I found out throughout the documentary was [that] often female perpetrators are victims themselves.
What was the turning point for you? When did you decide it was time to make sense of your experience?
It was when I was talking to my dad about wanting to start a family and [said] I was worried about starting a family. I don’t know why, but the more I talked, that's when the memory was triggered. I realized what that memory was, and then I understood what had happened.
How did you infuse your artwork in this film? Why was it important to do so?
I drew out my experience. In the documentary we talked about filming something, or how to portray this experience. We found that artwork would be less invasive and less intimidating. While I was drawing I found that my artwork was actually regressing to a time when I was younger. Using artwork for this film was therapeutic because it brought out the younger part of me and giving a voice to that person.
How are you spending your time these days?
I work a lot, I spend time with my daughter and my sister. I take care of my 10-year-old sister and I work at HIV Community Link, and I'm going back to school for social work.
See the trailer for It Was a Woman: Surviving Female Sexual Abuse, and learn more about Low Horn, her film and the issue in general at the documentary's website.