As soon as the first chord was struck on the upright piano, a woman put her hand to her chest and gulped in the air in the tiny church rehearsal room. When she let her breath out, tears came with it.
Three more somber chords, repeated twice, and then a small choir began to sing: “You tell me it gets better, it gets better in time.” Moments later, the words turned defiant and the voices grew louder: “Tell me how the hell could you know?”
The woman nodded in seeming agreement, then added her quavering voice to a chorus made up of 12 sexual assault survivors. By the end of the tune, Lady Gaga’s “Til It Happens to You,” three boxes of tissues were circulating around the room.
This singing group for sexual assault survivors serves as an artistic and communal microphone, giving victims of violence a voice. Inspired by vocal ensembles of gay men in the 1980s — a time when many remained in the closet — Sarah Super formed Survivor Voices this summer.
Super, an outspoken rape survivor from St. Paul, has lent her face to a movement to humanize victims of sexual violence. She has spoken and written about her experience being raped by an ex-boyfriend, and by going public, she’s drawn an extensive social media following of other survivors looking to connect.
A year ago, Super founded Break the Silence Day, an event where survivors publicly tell their stories. This year’s event will be on Aug. 17, a date she successfully lobbied the city of Minneapolis to recognize.
Now Super, who also teaches yoga to people who have experienced trauma, has created an opportunity for survivors to come forward in another way: through song.
“Singing in a choir gives a sense of community in way that you don’t have to be touched, in a way that you can be vulnerable without having to share your story,” said Super, 27.
She sees the act of singing as a nonmedical way to mend. “You can’t solve trauma by a prescription drug,” she said.
The group is open to survivors of any gender and will be expanding after its first public performance at Break the Silence Day.
Its members say the group has already helped them heal.
“Being with other survivors in a fellowship has brought a new healthy release of stress to my life,” said AmyRose Law, 24, of Eagan. “Just being with these other people who have been through similar traumas that I have, even though we are just singing, makes me feel like I’m not alone.”
Direction and practice
Super found a vocal director for the group in Cynthia Mortensen, who was Super’s choir teacher in her high school days at Cretin-Derham Hall.
Mortensen had come across a newspaper article about Super that revealed the harrowing details of her rape by knife point by Alec E. Neal, who had been waiting in her apartment for her. Neal pleaded guilty and is serving a 12-year prison term.
“It broke my heart to read about what she had been through,” Mortensen said. She reached out to Super on Facebook, and their renewed communication sparked an idea. Super asked Mortensen if she would lead a singing group of sexual violence survivors.
Mortensen, who is the minister of music at First Congregational Church in Minneapolis, not only agreed, but offered space to rehearse. The group meets in Mortensen’s homey office above the church’s social hall, her little dog Ellie lounging next to the piano.
At a recent rehearsal, the singers worked their way through new sheet music. They started with “One Voice,” a song about the support of friends by country trio the Wailin’ Jennys.
When they got to work on “Til It Happens to You,” those first chords were loaded with more than notes.
Lady Gaga and Diane Warren composed it for “The Hunting Ground,” a documentary about campus rape. Gaga memorably performed the song on this year’s Oscars, seated at a piano and joined onstage by dozens of sexual assault survivors who clasped hands.
The song, sad and raw, speaks of a deep misunderstanding between those who have lived through trauma and those who haven’t. It brought several of the singers to tears before it was over, including Julia Bodin.
“It was really powerful for me, because that song puts into words a lot of things that a lot of us try to express and really can’t,” said Bodin, 27, of Robbinsdale. “Just being in a whole room of people that understood what it was about, it was incredibly emotional, but it also felt really good to sing it together.”
The power of the words
Selecting such a potent song was an act of empowerment, said group member Alison Bergblom Johnson, a theater artist who performed a piece about sexual assault in the Minnesota Fringe.
“I think art is culturally a meaning-making tool,” she said. “What’s cool about art in this context is that you can put up artistic choices and make your stand, where, in many of the experiences many of us have had as survivors, there are very few choices — and the choices we have are not very good ones.”
After the tissues had been passed and the song was retired, the mood changed in the rehearsal room. The singers next practiced Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me,” and ended with a medley of “I Will Survive” and the Destiny’s Child song “Survivor.”
“It got me all fired up, and I ran out of worries at the end,” said Alba Villaldama Lopez, 34, of Minneapolis. “It was extremely healing.”
But even uplifting tunes couldn’t keep tears at bay.
On the way to rehearsal, Erica Hanna, 35, of Minneapolis, was playing the “Survive”/”Survivor” mashup in the car and singing along loudly. Suddenly she found herself “bawling” through the lyrics, although it wasn’t out of sadness.
“I was crying because it felt so powerful to say those words,” she said. “It’s a wonderful feeling when you’re a survivor and you can say it out loud.
“You’re no longer a victim.”