by Sunday Saari
I walked down the street on the way to meet my friend for dinner and noticed a lovely summer sunset. It was a street I had walked down hundreds of times before. As I passed a church on the usually crowded street, I noticed three men tumble out of the bar up ahead. Instinct kicked in, telling me to keep my head high, eyes forward and move quickly past them. I dealt with guys like these before. I figured I would pass them and go on my way.
Only, this time was different.
As I walked by, they looked at me and laughed. I felt one of them grab the back of my arms and pull me toward them. Whispering words into my ears that I won’t repeat here, there was a sudden and fierce attempt to drag me with them–their hands reaching for all parts of me.
My brain went into autopilot. I pushed back and used self-defense techniques I had learned. Maybe because they were drunk and not anticipating so much resistance, I was able to get out of their grasp. I ran down the street, heart pounding in fear. I remember wanting to scream and cry but instead pulled myself together and tried to shake it off and appear pleasant. I told an abbreviated version of the event to my guy friend at dinner and I laughed it off.
It was a different story when I got home that night.
Staying alone at a friend’s house, I remember feeling like I was in shock. I was so angry with myself. Why didn’t I do more? Why didn’t I say something? Why did I laugh? Should I have reported this to the police?
Why do we feel as if we need to appear fine? I eventually called and told my parents and my sister, but it took time. I kept trying to tell myself it was no big deal; something worse could’ve happened. That night, I couldn’t shake off the sense of feeling violated, dirty, and empty. I had a stream of enraged thoughts running through my head: “What makes them think they can do that to another human being?” “What gives them the right to touch my body?” “What makes them think they can put their hands on me?”
I couldn’t sleep. Instead, I grabbed a pen and paper, sat down at the piano, and started to write. Lyrics and music have always been my remedy for emotions too large to keep inside, so for me, it seemed to be the most natural and helpful thing to do. I spent the rest of that night writing lyrics, coming up with the melody, piecing together a chord structure, and finally— having the rough draft to the song now published as “THINK.”
[As I developed this song,] I knew two things: I wanted it to have a jazz-style brass background to create the overall feel of the song. I also wanted an accompanying music video, comprised of elements that boldly exposed the effects, reality and capacity of sexual assault.
I also knew I couldn’t do this alone. So I hoped to comprise a team of creative people: The majority of strong women who could be the backbone of this project. I am proud to say all the pieces fell into place due to the capability and generosity of my incredible colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University.
As I began sharing this project idea with my female colleagues, including two of the most powerful and hard-working female directors I knew on campus. They shared their own heartbreaking stories of sexual harassment and sexual assault. With these stories came the realization that the video could be more than just one person’s experience. We would create a composite sketch representing what we had all experienced and felt. Together, we came up with a team of independent, diligent, fierce women, who would bind this statement piece.
The dream became a reality and was a collaboration of the voices, strength, and experience of women in my community with courage to share their stories. These are women who refuse to accept abuse, harassment and assault as the norm.
Although my college, Carnegie Mellon, has a strict no-tolerance policy against violence or harassment, these offenses still occur in the performance industry where I live out my vocation.
A strong message still exists that other women are competition and that men can behave how they want because they hold the power and are a woman’s ticket to success. Stereotypes abound that pigeonhole us by height, weight, class, race, sexual orientation, gender identity and more.
We are taught that our worth is based on society’s standard of beauty, that we should be charming and accept hurtful behavior. This is a tragedy that harms us all, but it does not need to remain our reality.
The women and men who helped with this project are proof of what we can accomplish through teamwork, love, tenacity, and courage. Our lighting designer, Truly Cates, said: “Working on a team led by women who were determined to convey a message and are survivors themselves, made for an inspirational and exciting experience with an impactful outcome.”
Our hope and intent with this project are to share our story with others: those in our industry, students on college campuses, or anywhere gender-based violence and harassment occurs. Our message is that you aren’t alone. Stand up, share your story, and things can change.