When Jasmin Mara López was a child, she was abused by her grandfather, a beloved minister who regularly served his community. She didn't tell a soul. In fact, like many survivors of childhood abuse, López lived with those tormenting memories and the trauma it carried in silence for decades. It wasn't until 2014 when the New Orleans-based mexicana opened up about the sexual violence she had experienced in her youth. In doing so, she, unbeknownst to her at the time, allowed her relatives who had also suffered similar abuse in silence to discuss their haunting pasts and heal together.
But López, an award-winning journalist and producer, wants to explore the culture of silence around sexual abuse deeper, and she is using her family’s history to do that. The 37-year-old is writing and directing a documentary about that past.
“Silent Beauty” is an experimental documentary about the impacts of trauma, and the healing that sometimes occurs when opening up about it. The film, which is expected to be completed in fall 2017, includes López’s family’s super 8 archive (silent home films), cassette tape recordings and interviews that offer a unique tapestry of film, sounds and voices from her past and present.
We chatted with López about her film, the need to ditch the culture of silence around childhood sexual abuse in Latinx homes, what she has learned in the process of making “Silent Beauty,” her distinctive use of sound in the documentary and more.
Why did you want to tackle the culture of silence around child sexual abuse in Latinx homes?
I wanted to explore the culture of silence within my own family. I wanted to learn about and understand my own experience. I was sexually abused by my grandfather, a highly regarded minister. Twenty-five years after the abuse, I realized I was living with the effects of trauma. The birth of my niece, Amelia, served as the catalyst for my coming forward in 2014. When I did, other survivors within my family began to do the same. I realized this was far greater than my own experience. I began to uncover sad truths: this had happened to the generation before mine, and no one really talked about it. If anyone tried to speak up, they were manipulated and silenced, made to feel ashamed. No one denounced the crimes. Misogyny, the need to preserve our family’s image and stigma were at the root of this silence.
When it comes to child sexual abuse, stigma and silence exist across cultures. I wanted to encourage a dialogue around it and learn how it translated within other families.
How might this silence intensify an already traumatic experience?
When you silence victims, you cause further harm. Sadly, in my family’s case, the complicit silence of the generation before me aided in the perpetuation of the sexual assault of children. I suspect that this is why so many of them still aren’t talking about it or denouncing it today.
Personally, I didn’t feel safe enough to talk about it, so I wasn’t able to process the traumatic experiences and became confused. I felt unloved and extremely isolated. This affected my mental health and intimate relationships for many years. I blamed and hated myself, and eventually turned the pain outwards. This is a pattern that I’m finding among other survivors.
What do you think causes so many Latina survivors of child sexual abuse to keep the violence against them to themselves?
A lot of work has been done to break the stigma of child sexual abuse, but it still exists within our families and society. As a child, I remained silent because I feared and respected my perpetrator: my grandfather. I knew that he was revered by many, and I didn’t think anyone would believe me. I also feared destroying my grandmother and family, and losing them all. Without realizing it, I convinced myself that it hadn’t happened and carried this with me into adulthood.
More than 90 percent of child victims are abused by someone the family or child knows. These are complex relationships and situations that often prevent children from speaking up. Abusers often manipulate victims using a number of different tactics. Abusers might tell the child that the activity is normal or that they enjoyed it. An abuser may make threats if the child refuses to participate or plans to tell another adult. You grow up with these fears, or shame, so it’s often difficult to break away from them, especially when you don’t know if you’ll be supported.
This film is based on your own experiences with child sexual abuse and your own family. How difficult was it for you as a journalist and producer to make something so personal?
It’s incredibly difficult. I’m both the journalist and the subject of this project, so I put a lot of pressure on myself. It’s like I’m working double time. I’m open to criticism and judgment, both as a survivor and a journalist. That can be scary. But I also charged myself with this task three years ago, so I have prepared significantly and am excited to heal and share what I learned.
What did you learn about your own family by making this film? Was there something that you learned about yourself?
What happened to me also happened to others. My cousins went through life with similar pain and isolation. We were alone, together. But we had the strength within ourselves to reclaim our life and make it beautiful. I also learned that there were people in my family who chose not to say anything. My uncles refused to believe me and tried to sabotage my coming forward. These were devastating facts to learn about my family. However, I also understand the fears and shame behind admitting that your father is a pedophile.
How has this project been healing for you?
Life will never be easy, but I continue to find beauty in myself and my life every day. I wasn’t able to find that before coming forward. One example is when going through the super 8 film footage, I saw my mother in a new light, and it allowed me to have more compassion for her experience. From acknowledging my strength and worth to having compassion for my mother and her siblings, I’m able to heal. To be able to share my story with my older nephews, Jacob and Marcos, and hear them tell me that I’m the strongest person they know, brings tremendous amounts of healing.
What has been your family’s response to your making this film?
When I first came forward in 2014, two uncles accused me and the other survivors of lying. They have since stopped speaking to me. I’m not sure if they are in denial, afraid of how this might implicate them or scared that this might damage their careers in law enforcement. But, despite my transparency and constant communication, they haven’t spoken to me since I called them to tell them the truth. My mother, siblings and cousins, however, have supported me and this project. Friends and colleagues have also become extended family.
Can you talk about your approach to the documentary, because I know it uses a combination of silent home movies and sound design?
Using my family’s super 8 archive – silent home movies – and my background in audio documentary production and sound art, I will produce this work with an experimental approach that brings forth my voice and the voices of family members. This film will also incorporate sound design that mimics the sounds I constantly hear because of my hearing loss. “Silent Beauty” will become a rich tapestry of sounds and voices that explore what my family went through and who helped me find healing in this process.
As someone who has in recent years experienced significant hearing loss, why was experimenting with sound important to this project?
In the time that I began to expose the sexual abuse in my family’s past, I experienced the onset of hearing loss. Because of it, I entered a new form of isolation. I went inwards. I often found myself deep in thought while everything moved around me, examining my emotions or considering a deeper meaning to all aspects of my life. This loss was poetry because it created a space that brought depth, meaning and beauty. The film is also an acknowledgement of the power of silence and sound.
What do you hope viewers get from this documentary?
My hope is that survivors will be encouraged to continue their journey toward healing, justice and awareness. I hope that viewers will begin looking into this question of silence and how it might exist in their own lives.