Note: Tori Amos’ new song “Flicker” was written for the documentary “Audrie & Daisy,” which Netflix released streaming and in theaters at the end of September. The film, directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, tells the stories of two girls, both victims of sexual assault and social media bullying.
In this first-person piece, Amos writes about her own experiences growing up and dealing with sexual violence, and what led her to write “Flicker.”
While on tour in 1994 I made a choice to perform every night the song “Me and a Gun,” which had been on my debut album “Little Earthquakes.” It’s a potent a cappella song I composed after my own experience with sexual violence. It turned out to be an important keystone for my subsequent work as a songwriter, performer and advocate.
It was not an easy decision. It’s one thing to be singing a song like that in clubs in L.A. or London, but it’s quite another to share the personal horror depicted in that song with large crowds of fans along with journalists and even family. In the wake of my own ordeal, I chose to share my damage with the world through a song that I hoped would encourage other victims to find their own story and become survivors.
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One night during that 1994 tour something awful happened — a girl fainted during the show. She was brought backstage. I could see she was young, underage even. After she came to, she said to me, “If I go home tonight, my stepfather will rape me, just like he did last night and the night before.”
Her fear, honesty and vulnerability shook me, especially when she said, “Can I just come with you? I’ll work in the kitchens.” For a moment — without walking the thought through — I almost said “OK.” My team jolted me back to the reality of her situation: bringing her with us would constitute kidnapping. She had no advocate. Her situation was intolerable.
After confronting the shock of my inability to help this particular girl, some of the women at my record company put me in touch with Scott Berkowitz, one of the co-founders (now president) of the large anti-sexual violence organization RAINN. My partnership and work with them continues until this day. Besides their important policy advocacy, they also provide the public with resources on the front lines of dealing with sexual assaults throughout the country.
The damage — and responsibility — that ripples into the world with every incident of sexual violence is not properly reckoned, or dealt with, by outmoded ideas of evil perpetrators and hapless victims. For their part, survivors like myself, or the countless fans I’ve spoken with over the years, live with that damage, carrying it into their futures.
But the sexual violence epidemic in American life, right now is not merely the result of bad apples. No, our society itself is implicated. The weaknesses of the justice system are implicated. Evil is not born; it is made.
This has always been a tough conversation, and I fear that some aspects of it have gotten tougher to discuss, despite a perceived relaxation of sexual values and gender norms. While a new visibility has certainly been achieved throughout media regarding this issue, my own experience as a mother of a teenage daughter leaves me wondering how younger generations will effectively confront the role of the community and of society in this crisis.
In 1975, when I was just 12 years old, I had a transformative experience at school that fundamentally shaped my life. I had an English teacher, Ms. Fitz. The way she led her classroom was different from our other teachers. She had devised a way to instill in the entire class a sense of community, free of the shaming and bullying patterns prevalent around us.
As an adult, I’ve often reflected on how skilled Ms. Fitz was at establishing absolute equality among us through transparent guidelines for how we behaved and through fostering a habit to, as she always put it, “walk a thought through.” With that motto, she meant for us to do the tough work of imagining consequences and potential harms of our actions, of taking care of one another by being careful, curious and respectful.
My personal sense is that, nowadays, latitude for such communal, moral and critical education, the lessons of which last a lifetime, is frequently withheld from our teachers who are kept on a tight leash by high-stakes testing and a lack of support and resources.
After I first watched “Audrie & Daisy,” I felt a deep shock and sadness. “Flicker,” the original song I wrote for the film, was inspired by not only the heroines in the film but also my conversations with the directors, Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk. Our discussions of innocence lost made me think again of Ms. Fitz and what my life was like when I was that 12-year-old student.
The film hit me to the core. I found myself walking a thought through, a thought I hadn’t really given proper attention to, despite my motherhood and constant interaction with the community of sexual-assault survivors. By that I mean the filmmakers helped me confront what is happening to 12-, 13-, 14-year-olds by their peers and their communities. It’s the same old mechanisms of shaming and bullying, but amplified by digital footage, social media and moral attrition.
I recalled once when Ms. Fitz caught me passing notes to a classmate — our preferred, if primitive, mode of texting. “Amos” — she always addressed us by our last names, no prefix like Mr. or Miss., no first names — “those notes have the potential, at best, to allow all kinds of people to dissect your personal business. At worst, you could get hurt with a scar that will last.”
That scene seems almost embarrassingly quaint now, especially since being shown what Audrie and Daisy experienced after their sexual assaults went viral. Devastatingly, Audrie perishes, while Daisy has thrived despite tremendous obstacles. These young women’s stories, and the countless stories shared with me by survivors over these many years, are the reasons I continue to do this work.
People say watching this film is tough, just like they said listening to “Me and a Gun” was tough. But as we all are realizing, we have to have this conversation. The ubiquity of sexual violence persists. We have to walk this thought through.