Photographer Rowan Renee struggles with when to tell partners about the sexual abuse Renee experienced as a child — abuse committed by Renee's father.
"Once I told someone on the second date, while drifting to sleep after sex," they write in their essay "Bodies of Wood: A Legacy of Sexual Abuse," which accompanies their new self-portrait series Bodies of Wood. "Like I couldn't resist immediately making them run the gauntlet. 'I know it's intense, can you handle that? If not, you can leave now.'"
Now, with days until the April 7 opening of Renee's solo show for Bodies of Wood at Brooklyn's Peninsula Art Space, Renee is preparing to share their story with the world. Rather than represent events as they happened, the project's photos explore the lingering aftermath of incest and a family legacy of abuse by "depicting things I have felt in the process of working through my memories that I don't really have words to describe," Renee tells Refinery29.
The essay that complements the series offers more literal retellings. "My mother grew from a childhood where she was beaten up every day into an adulthood that was a revolving door of deeply abusive men," Renee writes. "Throughout my childhood, my mother told the story of how her brother beat her up at her mother's behest." Renee's mother's mother had been beaten and molested by her own father, leading Renee to ask, "Is abuse the legacy of all women? Does living this story make me a woman? It's a definition of woman I am reluctant to accept. Yet, I know it has defined my experience within my body."
"In the course of putting together this show, I have asked myself multiple times what I hope to achieve by telling this story publicly," Renee says about Bodies of Wood. "The answer is a complicated one, but what rises to the surface is that I believe the act of speaking is one that implicitly contains a desire, and an energy towards change."