Clothesline Project

By Brian Morris

(Listen to an audio version of this story).

The issue of violence against women has stalked Cape Cod for many years. The Cape and Islands have the highest per-capita rate of domestic violence in Massachusetts, an alarming trend often fueled by substance abuse and the pressures of surviving in a volatile seasonal economy. While help is available, in most cases it's only temporary, and battered women find that permanently breaking free of abusive relationships is much harder than just walking away. Sixteen years ago, The Clothesline Project was founded on Cape Cod as a compelling way for abused women to tell their stories, and begin the healing process. Since then, some 60,000 stories of domestic violence have been written on shirts around the country.

In October 1990, Brewster resident Carol Chicetto attended a women's rally on the Hyannis Village Green. She was struck by a collection of thirty-one shirts mounted on a clothesline. Each was hand-decorated by women victims of domestic violence, with powerful words and images about their struggles. It was the first exhibit of the Clothesline Project, and Chicetto vividly recalls her reaction.

Carol Chicetto: "When I got to the end of the line, I was in tears. And I thought it was just because all these shirts, most of them were made by my friends. And it took a few weeks before I just started crying one day and couldn't stop. And I really thought I had just lost my mind. Through counseling, and talking with other survivors and friends, I realized that my early childhood, I knew it was violent, but I didn't think it had the impact on me that it actually had.

For Chicetto, years of memories she'd tried to block out came flooding back. Over time, she's come to terms with the emotional and physical abuse of her childhood, and now works as Education and Outreach Coordinator for the Clothesline Project. The Project originators saw domestic violence on the Cape as a huge issue that was being largely ignored. So they asked women to tell their stories by decorating shirts, which are hung on clotheslines and periodically displayed.

Carol Chicetto: "And the whole idea of the Clothesline Project was just a genius of an idea, because symbolically, women were the ones who traditionally always did the laundry. So this was women's work. And then it was also a symbol of airing society's dirty laundry, because back in 1990, believe it or not, this issue was not being talked about publicly - not like today, where we have movies and magazine articles and newspaper articles. It just wasn't being talked about."
< br> Domestic violence statistics on Cape Cod are alarming. In 2004, Independence House, a shelter for battered women, reported 311 new victims of domestic violence on the Cape, and 1,773 restraining orders. Chicetto says when a woman lives with an abusive spouse, breaking free can be incredibly difficult, especially when kids are involved.

Carol Chicetto: "So a woman decides to leave... which is a huge decision...and then, where do they go? There are real consequences, and there are a lot of women who've come forward to me and said, 'I tried to leave, but I decided that it was better for my kids to stay, because at least they could stay in their own home and stay with their friends. And I'm willing to stay and get beaten up until they graduate from high school.' I mean, to me, we shouldn't be living in a society where those are your only options."

The original Clothesline Project received startup funding from the Ryka Rose Foundation, and the idea has expanded to forty-one states and five countries. Each Project generates income from private donations and fundraisers, like the recent Clothesline Concert in Eastham.

The Clothesline Concert was originated by Chicetto and Orleans singer/songwriter Greg Greenway.

Greg Greenway: "When you see Harwich, you see Orleans, you see Eastham, you see the places where these things happen...and it's undeniable that it's everywhere, it crosses every demographic, economic bracket, everything."

In the lobby, concertgoers pause to read the shirts on the clothesline, their bright colors at odds with the messages of pain and sadness hand-written in magic marker. A young woman, Nicole, at first declines to be interviewed.

Nicole: "It's hard for me to say...cause I was one of them . . ."

She walks away, but returns ten minutes later, timid but willing to talk.

Nicole: " What kinds of questions were you gonna ask me?"

Nicole asked that her last name not be used. Though she sounds younger, she's 22, and a victim of abuse.

Nicole: " I was one who was hurt. And it's very touching to come here, and way sad...cause it brings up a lotta things, but in a way it's a good thing..cause I know I can't be hurt any more. And this is a way I can feel safe.

In a halting voice, she reads from one of the shirts.

Nicole: " . . . always afraid, always scared of her life; she never did show it, but she cried softly at night . . . "

Many victims of domestic violence feel that silence is the best survival tactic while they're being abused. But speaking out is often the first step toward independence, even though it involves a great deal of courage. The Clothesline Project empowers abused women to make their voices heard, and challenges the community at large to listen.

The Clothesline Project
Carol Chichetto
P.O. Box 654
Brewster, MA 02631

Independence House
Independence House has facilities in Hyannis, Orleans and Provincetown.
160 Bassett Lane
Hyannis MA, 02601
Fax: 508-778-0143

Cape Cod Center for Women
P.O. Box 141
North Falmouth Ma, 02556
508-564-SAFE (7233)
Fax: 508-540-4416

Broadcast March 23, 2006

Re-broadcast January 11, 2006

Brian Morris reports for the Cape and Islands NPR Stations