“Don’t hurt the ones you love,” “Love should not hurt,” “You weren’t a dad, you were a nightmare” — these are some of the statements that will be displayed on T-shirts in the grove beside Trumbull Library from Friday, Oct. 9, through Friday, Oct. 16.
The decorated shirts, part of the 8th annual Clothesline Project, tell the stories of victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse, experiences that are meant to be seen and shared — not obscured or suppressed.
“The most important aspect of the clothesline is the publicity — it’s meant for everyone in town to see it and for people to think about it and realize that this is an issue that goes unreported all the time, and that these victims need to be given a voice,” said Steve Hodson, who started the project after seeing lines of shirts strung up on the campus of Swarthmore College during a college visit with his son.
“It was pretty impactful,” he recalled. “I couldn’t help but read them, it was like the Vietnam Memorial in D.C. — I was just frozen reading reading them.”
The Clothesline Project started on Cape Cod in 1990 to address the issues of violence and abuse, giving both the victims and witnesses as a vehicle to express their emotions by decorating a shirt.
The project coincides with Domestic Violence Awareness Month in October and, since coming to Trumbull, has united several local organizations included the Center for Family Justice, Trumbull Cares, Trumbull Library, Trumbull Rotary Club, and Trumbull Woman’s Club.
Hodson, a Rotary member who still organizes the event, said that residents may hang their own decorated shirts on the line or leave them at the library service desk and someone will place them on the line. He added that community members may also ask for a free shirt to decorate at the library’s circulation desk.
“The Rotary has a ladder and we’ll put up all the old ones at 8 a.m. on the 9th,” he said. “But we’ll continue to hang shirts that weekend as they come in.”
In the past, shirts have been decorated with a variety of artistic expressions ranging from drawings and paintings, to poems and quotes, to photos and other strong images.
“The number one goal is getting people to heal through this expressive, symbolic gesture,” Hodson said, “and then our second goal is trying to raise community awareness and spread it to reach every member in our community.”
According to Deb Greenwood, the CEO and president of the Center of Family Justice, 195 Trumbull residents were documented as victims of domestic and sexual violence last year.
However, that figure doesn’t tell the whole picture.
“The stats are what we document — the people who take advantage of our services,” Greenwood explained. “Domestic violence is significantly under-reported — it’s the most under-reported crime in the United States and in the world.”
The center, which is a non-profit organization in Bridgeport, helped more than 4,200 victims from the six towns it serves in eastern Fairfield County in 2014 — only a portion of the 58,000 victims statewide.
Of the 195 victims in Trumbull, Greenwood said 135 were female and 60 were male.
“Most people think about it as a feminine issue, but male sexual assault happens all the time, and we serve men at our center too,” she explained. “We’re an advocate for everybody…
“The truth is domestic violence doesn’t discriminate — it exists across all ages, genders, cultures, and races, and it doesn’t care what your socioeconomic status is,” she added.
“These are people who have come from all different backgrounds that share their stories but the common denominator is that almost everyone knows someone who’s been affected by this issue,” he said.
“It doesn’t just happen in cities — it happens everywhere, in places like Trumbull or Easton or New Canaan,” he added. “It happens across the spectrum, and that’s why it’s a worldwide issue.”
Nonetheless, Trumbull is the only town in the area that hosts a clothesline project, according to both Hodson and Greenwood.
“We’re going to try and get it going in other communities — Stratford, Monroe, Newtown,” Hodson said. “It’s not difficult — all you need is some rope, some clothespins and some markets and you’re good to go.”
Positive from a negative
Despite the fact that domestic violence and sexual abuse goes largely unreported, Greenwood believes there’s room for optimism based on the center’s most recent statistics.
In Trumbull, there was a 7.8% increase in the number of residents using the center’s services from 2013 to 2014.
“The reason is not because there’s more violence,” she said. “It’s because people know where to go for services.
“That 7.8% has to do with awareness,” she added. “We have the support of the task force, the police chief, and the first selectman, along with lots of media outlets — radio, newspapers, television — that have helped get the word out about where to go.”
Greenwood highlights the center’s satellite office, at 121 Old Mine Road, as an important resource for Trumbull residents.
“It’s part-time hours but whenever we get a call we send a counselor up from Bridgeport,” Greenwood said.
She urged any victim to call the domestic violence 24/7 hotline at 203-384-9559 if in need of assistance.
“We can get them out of the situation and get them to a safe place,” she said. “We always have three human beings answering the phones — 365 days a year, even on Christmas. We don’t sleep. It’s a 24/7 operation.”
Hodson is grateful to the town for welcoming the powerful image to the community, and to the library for allowing the artistic display to expand over the years.
“It’s really the perfect place for it,” he said. “The creative writing and the art work that goes onto some of these shirts — they’re very colorful and they say so much, sometimes without any words.”
The praise doesn’t stop at the library. though.
The Trumbull resident is appreciative of the effort of the local police department, who always support the issue and take a leading role in the discussion of how to prevent future crime.
“Police officers always say that domestic dispute calls are their most risky,” Greenwood explained. “It’s because they don’t know what they’re getting into — it’s a very emotional and intense situation, especially if there are weapons or kids involved.”
Hodson said that the clothesline week is made complete by The Center for Family Justice, which will host its seventh annual domestic violence candlelight vigil to help raise awareness in the Trumbull Library’s community room at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 14.
“They bring in wooden, life-size cutouts that represent the victim and have a write-up saying who the person was and when and where they were murdered — it’s an extremely moving visual,” he said. “And then they ring a bell at the vigil for every second an incident of domestic violence happens in the world.”
Spreading the word
Year after year, there’s been more and more support for the clothesline.
Hodson is most proud of the community’s youngest population — its middle and high school students, who have taken an active interest in stopping domestic violence.
In fact, students part of the Interact Club at Trumbull High School have gone as far to create their own clothesline.
“They recognize that they probably know somebody who’s gone through it and they haven’t shied away from the discussion at all,” said Hodson, who has children who have attended THS and St. Joseph High School.
“If people can be taught at a young age that abuse isn’t right, then we’re going in the right direction as a society,” he added. “The only way it’s going to change is through education — teaching at a young age that certain behavior is unacceptable, and we’re trying to find ways to get more programs into schools to keeping instilling this important message in our kids.”
Hodson said he’s very happy to see that Trumbull boys and men have taken the White Ribbon Campaign pledge to end violence against women and girls, promote gender equity, healthy relationships and a new vision of masculinity.
“The clothesline display gets larger and larger every year, and that’s because more and more people have heard these terrible stories of violence, of women getting murdered,” he added. “Once you hear it, you can’t unhear it.”
He likened the younger generation’s participation and awareness towards the issue of domestic violence and abuse to previous generation’s stances against smoking cigarettes and not wearing seatbelts in cars.
“Education is the best tool — the best resource — and soon enough, I think we’re going to see the positive impacts of everything that we’ve been trying to teach our kids,” Hodson said. “They will continue to push this awareness, and spread the word to future generations.”