When Davonna Livingston was just 14 years old she and her mother fled Stockton, Ga., which she describes as being just “left of the middle of nowhere.” With only a pillow and a change of clothes they boarded a bus at midnight for Portland, leaving behind her father, whom she describes as abusive.
Livingston went on to get a degree in English from Portland State University and worked as a technical writer while also dabbling in poetry and short stories. Several years ago she started having panic attacks, which she discovered were related to the trauma she went through as a child. Seeking to dig deeper to get at the roots of what she was going through, Livingston began reaching out to women in prison who’ve suffered similar experiences and began documenting their stories for a forthcoming book, “Voices Behind the Razor Wire,” which will be released this fall.
Now Livingston, 43, plans to reach more people who’ve made it through a traumatic experiences by launching a new nonprofit organization called Changing Perceptions. Housed in First Presbyterian Church in downtown Portland, Changing Perceptions will lead participants through a series of self-exploration writing workshops meant to confront their past and rebuild their confidence.
Jake Thomas: I was hoping you could talk a bit about your background and how you got the idea for this nonprofit.
Davonna Livingston: I’m a writer. I’ve been working as a writer for years, and I’m also a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. A couple of years ago, I started having issues. I started having really bad panic attacks and never really knew why, and I was trying to figure out what was going on with myself. I decided to use writing to figure out myself by figuring out other people.
I started interviewing a series of women who were in prison. I wrote them and told them I had this idea of putting a book together, and I asked if they would like to be a part of it. All of them said they would love to help.
So I started putting this book together, and in the process I could tell how much it was helping me by helping them. It gave me something to focus on, something to get out of bed in the morning for. So by the end of that journey, I realized, that I was a completely different person for having done this. And I realized what an impact it had on the women I interviewed. So I started working with women in Portland, and I still work with women in prison.
What I do is start out by asking them a series of really benign questions, really innocuous questions: Where were you born? How many siblings do you have? That kind of thing. It’s hard to talk about these sorts of things with people you don’t really know, so it’s nice to have an icebreaker before you get into the details. Then we start to talk about what happened. And over time they meet with me or I get a letter from a woman in prison, I put more of their story together, and I send it back to them.
The premise is that most people are willing to have suffered, as long as it wasn’t for nothing, and so when you can give the women or the men something to do with what happened with them, it creates a whole new way of looking at it. Rather than seeing it as an obstacle, they can see it as a way of empowering themselves. They know they have this power that they didn’t know they had.
J.T.: What prompted you to get involved with this project?
D.L.: I love to figure out what makes other people tick, and I wanted to know why it was that my growing up coming from abuse, I grew up and went to college, and I knew so many women who were abused that didn’t go that way. Some went to prison. They had very troubled lives and some became alcoholics. I wanted to know why I had gone that way and why so many had gone the other way.
J.T.: What drew you to prison populations?
D.L.: I had heard lots of stories from someone I knew who works at a prison. I knew that if I was looking for a group of women who were abused, I knew that a prison was a good place to start, and they are kind of a captivated audience for lack of a better term. So I looked for women I identified as having been abused who had been in for a couple years and had accepted that this is where they were and had a couple more years to go because I wanted them to complete the program. And since then we’ve moved into doing the people on the outside.
J.T.: Tell me how writing is different than other therapies.
D.L.: I think partially, the way we do it, the women work on their own and write in their own words, and it gives them a chance to be heard. And I know that for me it’s incredible. It’s one thing to know your life, but it’s completely surreal to see your life on a piece of paper and to see it interpreted. And women have full control on what does and doesn’t go into their stories. And I told them that I would never judge them on anything, and, given the depths of the stuff they’ve told me, I would imagine that they’re coming pretty clean with me. But, again, it was put to them, it was up to their comfort level, and everyone that I work with is anonymous.
That sense of anonymity allows them to get everything out and it gives them a way of purging some of these things that they’ve held onto for so long that have just been wreaking havoc in their bodies, because you can only expend so much energy pushing this stuff down until you realize you can’t hold it down anymore. And once you get rid of it, you ask yourself why you ever walked around like that trying to keep secrets like that.
J.T.: Have you heard any stories that really stand out?
D.L.: The one that really stays with me is the most brutal, from a really strong woman. She survived so much. The only thing she was in prison for was robbery, and she robbed a pharmacy to kill herself because her husband said he was going to rape her daughter.
They were getting divorced and her husband took off, and he called and said that he had raped an 11-year-old girl the night before and said he was planning to rape their daughter too and then hung up. For her, that was the final straw. She had been through so much before in her life, but hearing that about her daughter was too much to take. So she robbed a pharmacy to take the pills, and they found her in her truck and took her to the hospital and then to prison for her trouble. And she said when she woke up and saw the guy with the FBI vest on she thought, “Damn. I can’t even kill myself right.” And so she went to prison and the whole time she was there she was taking classes and trying to better herself.
J.T.: Was her daughter OK?
D.L.: Her daughter is OK.
J.T.: Tell me about some of the challenges that these women face coming out of prison as well as the challenges facing survivors of domestic abuse.
D.L.: A lot of it is self doubt. They feel unworthy. Even the ones that haven’t been to prison, the ones that have been abused are less likely to reach out for help and less likely to stand up for themselves. To be able to give them back that feeling of control is the most important part. Another thing that they face is just the lack of confidence and lack of believing in themselves.
When someone is abused domestically or sexually, it kills the person that they would have been. It just takes that person away and replaces it with this new version of who they’re going to be and a lot of them don’t feel like that person is good enough to do what they wanted to do. And it holds them back from seeking education or going for jobs and gets them into situations of worse domestic violence. It just sets them on a path of destruction. There are a lot of people who have been abused who go on to be perfectly fine, but I think that every single one of us has that self doubt and feeling less than worthy.
J.T.: How do you help people get past that, these feelings of self doubt?
D.L.: Well, the biggest thing for them to understand is that it’s not their fault. No one is responsible for the abuse that was done to them, and what they need to do is understand that just because this happened it doesn’t take away who you are and what you can be. I look at it for me that this is the ultimate way to thumb my nose at my abuser; the more I do this is a slap in the face for every abuser out there. It’s a way for them to regain their control and let them know that they are not alone and don’t have to sit there and be quiet about it. There’s this culture about keeping it quiet, and it’s wrong. I understand that in some cases it can destroy families. But you’re an adult and you need to be able to stand up and say, “This happened to me and it’s who I am and I didn’t ask for it.” It helps them get some confidence back.
J.T.: Does the writing you get from the people you work with have a common thread?
D.L.: You know, I think there’s a commonality in all of them. One of the women was being bullied really bad. It’s a confidence destroyer. Any kind of abuse just wipes away their power. That’s common through all of these. Some of these women had the best parents. They come from all economic backgrounds, they’re all kinds of women. But they all have that loneliness that feeling separated as a commonality. They’re the ones whose families did know what was going on. They still have trouble relating to them. When you have a teenage daughter being beaten by their boyfriend, it leaves them thinking that they’re alone.