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  • Lana | Untold Narratives

    Lana's Project Go Back to Inspired By ... 2024 Project List

  • Claire Plagens | Untold Narratives

    TUN Fellow Claire Plagens ​ For her fellowship project Claire wrote a personal essay about her experience being a survivor. The numbers were added to replicate page breaks in the original submission. ​ (1) This piece explores the lived experience of an adult survivor of child sexual abuse. Survivors, I am with you. I believe you. You are not alone. Your safety and wellness are very important to me. Please read with care and protect your heart. ​ If you are in need of immediate support, reach out here: National Sexual Assault Hotline: a service of RAINN Online chat hotline Spanish online chat hotline Telephone hotline: 800-656-HOPE (4673) National Helpline for Male Survivors: a service of 1in6 Online chat hotline Resources in Michigan 24/7 Sexual Assault Hotline: 855-864-2374 Find resources in your county ​ (2) I was eighteen, and I’d just moved to East Lansing for college. I got my first job at a non-profit in the neighboring town called the Firecracker Foundation, an organization that provided services to child survivors of sexual assault and their families. I was an administrative assistant – I drafted emails, tracked donations, took notes during meetings. On my first day, we moved all the organization’s belongings from my boss’s attic into a small, shared office space about a mile down the road. At the time, the block we were on felt particularly empty and quiet, except for the pub across the street and the small thrift store next door. Once we’d finished moving for the day, Tashmica, the organization’s executive director and my supervisor, suggested we celebrate with a drink. I declined, sheepishly sharing that I wasn’t old enough yet. She threw her head back in laughter and insisted we go anyway. So we did, and she asked the bartender for a tall glass of milk for me. I am pretty sure she was only half-joking. It has been almost a decade and she still asks if I want a glass of milk when we visit together. Tashmica is and was a force. She moves with strength and conviction. She has the type of laugh that is contagious and life-giving and fills up the whole room, and the devotion she has for the work that she does is magnetic. We often had meetings on her front porch, which sat behind her beautiful, billowing garden, and her little dog Lucy was usually in her lap or at her feet. The work always felt personal, because it was, not just for Tashmica, but for the rest of us on the team, too. I am a survivor. And when I was eighteen, very few people knew that I was one. I had spent my adolescence in “survival mode”; on high alert, always waiting for the shoe to drop, wound viciously tight as to avoid experiencing the unsafety in unraveling. I had been taught to schlep those hurting, shameful parts of myself around on my own, without disturbing anyone else. The disclosures I’d made as a child that had gone ignored or dismissed taught me that much. As a teenager, I thought that the very best thing I could do for myself – and for my family – was to become divorced from the things that I had experienced as a little girl. And I thought that “justice,” “healing,” and “closure” were unobtainable, abstract concepts in the context of my trauma, meant for other survivors but distinctly not meant for me. I became fixated on fighting for those things for others if not for myself. I worked at the Firecracker Foundation with Tashmica. I got a degree and then another, both in social work. I went to marches and rallies, organized with other survivors on my college campus, interned at a handful of other organizations that provided services to survivors and their families and communities. I studied and won awards for my research and advocacy. I spoke at conferences and on committees with state and federal legislators. It was a lot, but it was a lot on purpose. I was busy. I was distracting myself. I was trying. Deeply avoiding and quieting my own lived experiences while being submerged in advocacy work for and with survivors often felt unbearably complicated. I still struggle to explain why it felt like somewhat of a solution for what I was experiencing at the time. But I was basically still a kid in the midst of the important task of Getting Through, and I was getting through the best I could. ​ January 2018 I started to learn about and interface with the systems of accountability that we collectively recognize here in the US. From the outside, these systems often operate in largely inaccessible ways, with painfully complex laws and statutes that exclusively rely on punitive and carceral solutions. For many victims and survivors, these processes are not what they want or need to heal, but are the only options presented when seeking safety for themselves and others. I quickly realized how the nuances in each case impacted their trajectories and outcomes. If an assault happens one block off campus, the university is not liable and Title IX-related recourse may not be an option. To avoid a jury trial, a prosecutor may offer a plea deal that significantly diminishes charges, perhaps avoiding sexual misconduct being on a perpetrator’s record entirely. A day or year too late in coming forward and you may have no path forward due to various statutes of limitations. Victims might sit in the hallway of the emergency room for many, many hours before being seen by a nurse examiner and hospital staff may neglect to dispatch a victim advocate. A police report number must be presented to access the crime victim compensation application and other supports, like breaking a lease to leave an abusive living environment. The roadblocks and demands that landed on the backs of victims and survivors felt endless because they were. It wasn’t at all like Law & Order: SVU. There weren’t any Olivia Benson’s around courageously fighting for what was right. There weren’t any glittery bows tying these stories up with triumphant, hopeful endings, either. Sometimes survivors weren’t believed. Sometimes there wasn’t enough evidence. Rarely did survivors get to “have their day in court,” and even less often did they see their perpetrators held accountable in the ways we constantly tell them they would or should be. Usually there were just strings of raw, thorny moments stuck together in time by nudges of solidarity and support from the few of us who chose to stand by. The survivors I knew were profoundly strong and brave, but they seldom saw that in themselves. They were depleted, isolated, marred. They were hurting and afraid, which I understood intensely, and we were reliant upon a deeply flawed system for relief. In Michigan, the statute of limitations on second through fourth degree criminal sexual conduct (CSC) is 10 years from the date of the assault or the victim’s 21st birthday, whichever is later. As a 21 year old senior in college, buried deep in my work and studies, I began wondering if my experiences were up against a clock too. (I would later learn that the abuse I’d experienced was a collection of first degree felonies. First degree CSC does not have a statute of limitations.) It wasn’t the first time I’d considered reporting, but it was the first time I felt confronted by the possibility that if I left it any longer, I may not have the option available to me. My abuser, a family member on my mother’s side, was starting to have children of his own, and the deep-seated desire to protect others from his harm was bubbling up against my dependence on remaining detached from the situation. The complex history and relationship I had with my abuser made me fear “getting him in trouble,” and I felt like a monster for even considering the idea of entering into a process that could end with the loss of some or all of his life to jail time. I wanted to understand August 2002 why he had chosen to hurt me, and why the adults in my life had failed me so miserably, but I had seen what the process had done to others and didn’t believe I had the fortitude to make it through. And still, I felt selfish for not having done enough to stop him as a kid, and there was a burning obligation to “make it right” as an adult. The severe dissonance between the beliefs I held about myself and those I held towards the survivors I’d worked alongside added a layer of turbulence while I weighed my options. It was agonizing. And then I realized that the magical readiness that I had been waiting for, the ‘a-ha’ moment when everything would fall into place and choice would be clear and make sense, was never going to come. I was never going to be prepared. There was never going to be a “right” time. There was simply going to be a better time, perhaps the only time, and this was it. ​ I continued working and going to school while we sorted out details and waited to meet with the police. My internship with a domestic and sexual violence agency in town had started that fall, and I was working three days a week in their shelter facility on the crisis hotline. It was January, and the multi-day sentencing hearing for Larry Nassar was wrapping up. The sentencing hearing in Ingham County was historic as more than 150 victims and survivors shared victim-impact statements over the course of several days. On the final day of the hearing, local nonprofits had organized a crowd of support to appear outside of the courthouse. The shelter had asked me and another intern, my friend Sydney, if we could go to the public library down the street to host a sign-making event that afternoon. We had a small room in the basement reserved for us, and we sat there for a few hours while community members and volunteers wafted in and out. They somberly and wearily wrote their messages of hope and affirmation on poster boards, often disclosing their own experiences of abuse to us as they did so. The crowd outside grew despite the weather, everyone bundled up and huddled close, and I knew many of their faces: former clients, classmates, old bosses, friends. Even those I’d never met before were familiar, fragmented in recognizable ways from living, working, and surviving in a community experiencing this kind of extraordinary crisis. Medals honoring the survivors’ bravery were passed out as they made their way out of the courthouse, and crowd members coordinated to ensure reporters couldn’t access the survivors on the way to their cars unless they chose to engage. It was a deeply emotional and, for the most part, near silent demonstration. But the community showed up that day and their message to the survivors affected by that case was clear: We are with you. Your truth matters to us. You matter to us. You are not alone. January 2018. Still from Athlete A, documentary by Bonni Cohen and Jon Schenk on Netflix. Two weeks later, I drove myself an hour and a half down to the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office (OCSO) to make my in-person statement to the detectives assigned to my investigation. I spoke to the detective and his sergeant in a dark and decidedly uninviting interrogation room, unlike the soft interview rooms many departments have created for crime victims. I wondered if they had a separate room for interviewing perpetrators, or if my abuser had been in the chair I was sitting in, too. The officers were stiff from across the table. They asked me to recite the statement I had written down for them aloud. They asked me to clarify how I had been restrained during one of the assaults, so I lifted my arms to show them. They asked why I had waited until I was 21 to report, and I explained to them that I had told – my parents, my high school English teacher, my friends – but that none of the adults in my life had intervened. They shared that they were having trouble locating my abuser and asked me if I could drive by the address to confirm the number on their house on my way out of town. “Just send me a text when you have it,” he told me, short and without eye contact, as if driving by the house I was assaulted in as a little girl was a simple task and one that could safely be done on my own. And then, towards the end of the interview, the detective asked if I had decided to come forward because of “that Nassar thing.” It was a casual comment, thrown in at the end of the conversation, sort of like he’d put the pieces together - my line of work, my experiences, my relationships - while we talked that morning. A cold shock plunged down the back of my neck, and I gave them a restrained, “No, that had nothing to do with it.” Calling the Nassar case “that thing” was painfully reductive for how massively devastating and disruptive the case had been - for those survivors involved directly, of course, but also for those survivors simply living, working, and trying to heal in that community too. At the time, I couldn’t go to work or class without it being brought up; couldn’t stop at the drugstore or go out to eat without seeing a headline or news story; couldn’t walk down the street without spotting a teal ribbon wrapped tree trunk or telephone pole honoring the survivors involved in that case. I couldn’t even sit in a police station 90 miles away, discussing the details of the abuse I’d endured as a little girl almost a decade prior, without talking about the Nassar case. I struggled to feel inspired or hopeful or like I had a sense of solidarity with other survivors, despite the way the media talked about the situation, and felt guilty for how exasperated I was instead. I was tired. Maybe even resentful and a tad envious. For me, there was no “sisterhood,” no community. I had fought tirelessly to make space for myself in the offices of legislators and leaders, only to have that space filled with a narrative that wasn’t mine before I even had the chance to speak. Sometimes I was told that voicing my lived experiences or identifying myself as a survivor in professional settings was inappropriate, sloppy, a testament to my character and unreadiness for the “work,” despite seeing others, particularly those involved in high profile cases, respected as subject matter experts, lauded for their bravery and their truth. The detective’s question was a simple one, and made sense given circumstances. But in its simplicity was the foundation of my advocacy for the next several years: dispelling the idea of “good” or “worthy” victims and survivors, and calling out the impending fallout of sensationalizing victimhood in the #MeToo movement. My abuser was arrested in early March. I walked at my college graduation on the first Saturday in May, and the following Monday I was in court. His parents - my aunt and uncle who had been involved in raising me - and his girlfriend were there. His parents were sequestered, but his girlfriend sat behind him throughout the hearing. The judge interrupted me spelling my name for the record, asking me to speak up, my voice quiet and muffled and wavering in panic. In our preparation minutes before, the prosecutor told me I didn’t have to look at him when they asked me to identify him – I only needed to know the color of his shirt and jacket, and to glance at the back of his head to pick those out when I was escorted into the courtroom. My advocate Brooke sat on the bench behind the prosecutor, and I focused on her as much as I could while on the stand. I was asked many things, including if I was a student, replying, “Yes – well, I graduated with a degree in social work two days ago.” For some reason he chuckled at that, sitting up in his chair more forwardly, and I reflexively looked his way. He was smirking, eyes sunken, his frame much smaller and frailer than I remembered. He was different but still the same, and I suddenly felt small again. His defense attorney, a severe looking woman in her forties, dragged me through a line of questioning so foul I thought my bones were lighting on fire as she spoke. It deeply rattled me. Truthfully, it still does. I was led out of the courtroom when she was done and waited to hear if the judge bound the case over to circuit court for trial. She did. As we left, we watched my abuser and his family hug each other and then his attorney, with pats on his back and his hand clasped in his girlfriend’s. In the parking lot, Brooke asked if I was okay, if I wanted to grab coffee before heading back. I declined. My knees were like Jell-O, my heart sunken and missing from my chest, my head detached from the rest of my body. I just wanted to get home. A page from the court transcript of the preliminary hearing in May 2018. ‘Q’ is the defense attorney. My responses are marked ‘A’. We were referencing an incident that took place when I was twelve. After his initial arrest, he had been released on bond with conditions, including a GPS ankle monitor. Several times throughout that summer and fall, I would get a call from pretrial services to notify me that his monitor was off – a dead battery, a tampered or broken strap – with instructions to check in with the detective the following business day. I had very little awareness of the activities happening in court, and often learned of new developments by searching for public documents online. The detective and prosecutor called me when dates were changed or pushed back, or if they needed something from me. The case was not about justice for me – it was about public safety and justice for the State (​​it was, after all, the State of Michigan vs. Him), and my presence was only dignified in so far as it served that pursuit of theirs. I knew that, I guess, from having watched it on the sidelines in school and at work. But I didn’t realize just how dehumanizing it was until I became the evidence myself. Trial was initially slated for August. Then September. Then later in September. Then early November. Then the week of Thanksgiving. I was told to brace for just one more delay, likely until after the new year. It was an impossible guarantee, that it was the last delay. But I clung to it, exhausted and weary and alone, genuinely uncertain how I was going to continue. I became quite desperate for an ending. My life had been ripped wide open for ten months at that point, and strangers were poking around at it with a sharp, hot stick. My family, both immediate and extended, had long since retreated, and friends became withdrawn and exhausted by my constant distress. I was on autopilot, in that familiar survivor mode from my adolescence, and had barely enough in my tank to make it from one day to the next. I tried my best to keep myself centered and focused on my “why,” but even that had become muddled and poorly defined as time wore on. For the safety of the kids in his life. For those he may have harmed in addition to me that I did not know. To learn why he chose to hurt me. To see him and others in my life who failed me as a little girl forced to face their mistakes and abuses. That’s what this is all for, right? Right? It had all become so weakened and blurred, and I was struggling to convince myself that those reasons were enough to carry me through. At the end of October, I got a call from pretrial services. It was Sunday morning, and I was about to head out for my weekly grocery shopping trip with a friend. A woman greeted me from the other end of the line. She was quiet, an apologetic and regretful timbre to her voice, and said, “I’m just calling to let you know he’s not being monitored anymore, and to contact the detective on your case as quickly as you can.” Her message was direct and jarring, with a new script that was unlike the others I’d received from that phone number before. I asked if he’d been arrested, or if he was hospitalized, and ran through other explanations that might make sense. She stopped me and simply repeated herself to me, adding, “I would maybe call your family. I can’t say anything else. It’s our policy.” It was a strange conversation. Maybe he had violated the terms of his bond. Maybe he had returned to some of the things that had gotten him in trouble with the police in the past. Maybe he had removed the tether entirely and decided to run. I didn’t know. I didn’t know. I called my mother, and it rang twice before she answered. She didn’t say anything. The silence hung in the air, and then it clicked. I asked if he was alive. She didn’t say anything. I asked if he had died. She didn’t say anything. I fell to the floor and asked again. She didn’t say anything. I heard her breathing. I asked one more time. “He’s gone.” It was an accidental overdose. Fentanyl. I hung up without saying anything, and for about 30 seconds, violent, heaving sobs came from my chest. And then, just as suddenly as I learned the news and crashed to the floor, it stopped. Everything stopped. I stood up, washed my face in the sink, and drafted an email to Brooke, who was away at a conference. “I just found out he overdosed last night. I didn’t know if I should email or wait to tell you in person or something but I’m not exactly in the clearest of head spaces so I figured I would just pass it along.” I left my body that day. I made my friends dinner and paced in the kitchen while they watched a movie on my couch. I taught a class the day after. I sat across from my therapist in her office and told her none of it had mattered. He was gone, and all that remained was an unfathomable, indescribable wake of devastation. There were kids without a dad. A mom without a son. I would never know why he had hurt me or if he was sorry, and the web of people who had failed me and him both got to return to their lives as if there had never been an investigation at all. The detective didn’t know who I was when I reached out to confirm what I’d heard. The prosecutor left her job three weeks later. I never saw or spoke to either of them again. There was no justice, no healing. There was just a life, my life, in pieces, and I was alone in picking those up and putting them back together. It has been four years. I am still crawling my way back to myself. I am still sorting through that year of my life and the years that led me to it. I am still tending to the younger versions of myself that carried the years of betrayal and deep pain that erupted out of 2018. And I’m still coaxing my story back out of me. I attended a performance of the Vagina Monologues on campus with my friend Ale early on in college. The show explores women’s experiences with body image, sexuality, and violence, among other things. At the end, in somewhat of a tradition, the show’s director had asked survivors in the audience to stand. Ale hesitated, and I hesitated, and then she reached for my hand and whispered, “I’ll stand up with you if you’ll stand up with me.” I squeezed her hand back. We stood, and so did hundreds of other survivors in the audience. I realized then that we were not alone, that all the standing people had squeezed hands and exchanged whispers before standing too, each of us with a story and a full and colorful life beyond the traumas we all shared. That moment profoundly changed how I felt about being a survivor. But I lost that sense of connection, that sense of hope, in big and small ways in the years that followed. I learned that in our communities, there’s such thing as a “good” survivor or victim; that only certain narratives that are worthwhile; that there’s a willingness to engage with others’ experiences when their stories are unprecedented or are abstract to the majority; and that there is a line in the sand - a deep fissure, actually - that prevents us from engaging when it involves holding our loved ones and ourselves accountable for their or our own behavior, both abusive and enabling in nature. Those realizations, heavy with loss and disillusionment, coupled with the immense grief and trauma of the last few years, led me sharply inward. I stopped sharing my experiences with the same level of vulnerability or regularity online. I couldn’t bear to be in the environments I had existed in throughout school. I struggled to maintain relationships with those I met during that time of my life. I began thinking others must be tired of hearing from me, and that nothing I had to share was of importance or hadn’t been said already anyway. I stopped daydreaming about my desire to work with and for other survivors. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, I stopped writing. Writing and sharing pieces of my story in the past usually served as a tool for my advocacy - I could only justify opening up when it might’ve been in service to others in some way. It had to feel permissible and appropriate, or when I thought my words might convince those in power to do more or do better. If I was lucky, I might be able to connect with a person or two who might feel less alone or isolated reading what I chose to share and know that I believed them and hoped they were able to find peace and healing. But I could never stand the idea of my story being shared simply because it is worth being known. As I find my way back to myself and those I love, I’ve realized that the sharing of our stories, and of each other, is everything. Our stories teach us how to love each other well. Storytelling is healing. It is strength. It is declaring, “I am here, and you are here, and that is enough.” So, while I am rekindling the fire in my belly that has long since gone out, I will leave us both with this: Your story does not have to look a certain way to be worth knowing. Sharing our stories - in their complexity, their mess, their sour endings, their clunky, awkward, painful parts - is one way we build shared connection and community. It is the way we understand ourselves and, importantly, each other. It’s how we inform change. And it is how we learn what justice, healing, and closure all look like when they’re actually lived in. So maybe that is where we start. I’ll tell my story, and I hope you’ll tell yours. Because I am here, and you are here, and that is enough. Claire Plagens is a survivor, social work professional, and advocate. She received both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Social Work from Michigan State University. While a graduate student, Claire concentrated her studies on gender-based violence in the context of activism, advocacy, and organizational and community leadership. Claire is currently a project coordinator with the National Council for Mental Wellbeing. She lives in Michigan with her pup, Juniper. (c) Claire Plagens 2023 for The Untold Narratives

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Blog Posts (2)

  • Move Beyond Imposter Syndrome, Be a Champion Instead

    Representation matters. I hear these words a lot these days and they are absolutely true. As I think about representation, I can’t help but reflect on my own professional journey and the role representation, or lack thereof, has played in my career trajectory. ​ Over the years, many colleagues have told me about experiencing imposter syndrome. That nagging feeling that they are “faking it” in their professional lives, and any day they will be found out for the imposter that they really are. I have had enough of these conversations to feel confident in writing that many people, regardless of race, gender, or background feel like imposters. I can honestly say that I have never suffered imposter syndrome because I know there is absolutely no way I would have achieved what I have achieved in life without having a certain level of skill, intelligence and drive. I know that because I grew up in a community where there were very few professionals that I could emulate or even people who encouraged me to go farther in my education and career. The fact that I had completed high school was more than enough, so anything beyond that was gravy and I treated it as such. If I wanted something, I tried for it. If I didn’t get it, well, I shrugged it off as not for me. ​ What I have felt, though, was lack of belonging. When I have entered certain spaces as a Puerto Rican woman, who grew up poor and left high school before finishing, there were certain assumptions around what I could expect to achieve. When I dropped out of high school, I vividly remember the social worker who asked me why she should help me find a job when I would most likely get pregnant and become a welfare recipient anyway. Those low expectations heavily weighed on me even as I did eventually finish high school, earn a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and, most recently, a doctorate. Low expectations were sometimes set by my family because they didn’t know what was possible. More often they were set by others outside of my family or community because of strong narratives about people like me (see previously mentioned social worker). In either case, I entered a lot of spaces alone and without a road map. As I moved up in my career, I saw fewer and fewer people who looked like me or who had similar experiences to mine. There was a lack of representation at all levels, and it caused me to hold back and go the safe route for fear of standing out or, worse, for fear of failing and causing some folks to continue to believe negative narratives about people like me. Stereotype threat, anyone? ​ On the surface, I did just fine despite all of that background noise and despite the lack of representation. I built a great career where I had senior level roles in quality organizations and, most recently, started my own organization appropriately titled, The Untold Narratives. I do wonder, though, what my life would have been like if I had been surrounded by more people in my professional life who looked like me, who came from similar backgrounds to mine and who pushed me beyond where I safely thought I could reach. ​ I remember a conversation I had with a member of my team many years ago. We were discussing long-term career goals and they shared that they did not see themselves in a larger leadership role. As this person’s boss, I had to admit I was surprised, because I did see that for them. This person had strong analytical skills, strong collaboration skills and a willingness to learn and reflect – all attributes I consider to be the foundation for larger leadership-level positions, so I had to carefully contemplate my response. This person is a person of color who I know from discussions also did not see many people like themselves in leadership positions. I couldn’t tell if they were saying that they didn’t want to be in a leadership role because they truly did not see themselves in that type of role, or if they were reacting to the fact that there had been a lack of representation in their professional lives. ​ When there is lack of representation, many people don’t live up to their full potential. From my observations over the years, living up to one’s full potential is part internal drive and part external opportunities. With a lack of representation, it seems impossible to achieve certain positions unless you are exceptional or unless you have a champion. If you in any way feel like you don’t belong, then how can you achieve? You honestly need an internal drive that’s made of steel, or you need that strong champion. A champion can create opportunities for you and push you into roles you may not see for yourself. I know I personally shied away from certain roles because I didn’t want to stand out. I didn’t want to push harder because, really, what I had achieved was enough, wasn’t it? ​ My response to my team member actually was easier for me to formulate than I had expected. I said “I understand that you don’t see this for yourself, but as your boss, I see this for you. This is a role you can accomplish and excel in, so I wonder if you are hesitant because of lack of representation or if deep down a leadership role like this one is not one you want? If the latter, that’s fine. If the former, let’s discuss ways that you can start to visualize the role for yourself and discuss the ways I can support you in this journey because the profession, the organization and I need you.” No pressure, though! ​ It’s not easy to be on an island when you want to succeed and want great things for yourself and your family. That’s why I have made the commitment to be a champion of people who are simply trying to come up in the world but have few role models that look like them or who understand what it’s like to move beyond low expectations. Until we change the narrative of imposter syndrome to truly understand the role of representation and how lack of it affects our growth, we need champions and people willing to see beyond us as individuals faking it until we’re making it. Let’s create the representation we need and be there for each other as we continue to create spaces of belonging. Elizabeth Santiago, PhD is an author, educator, learning experience designer and founder of The Untold Narratives. Contact her at info@theuntoldnarratives.com

  • The Little Known History of Forced Sterilization in Puerto Rico

    By Elizabeth Santiago, Founder, The Untold Narratives and author of The Moonlit Vine When I wrote The Moonlit Vine, a young adult novel that interspersed Puerto Rican history with present day occurrences, I wanted to shed light on aspects of history that are often ignored or even suppressed. Puerto Rico’s status as a territory of the United States is nuanced and complex. While the island’s political standing is not the focus of this blog, this dynamic plays into why Puerto Rican women were used for years as unwilling test subjects for birth control and forced to undergo horrific and unethical sterilization procedures. If you haven’t read The Moonlit Vine, the story starts with a vignette from 1492 where the Taíno leader, Anacaona, is navigating the aftermath of European invaders on her land. She understands the Taíno people are outnumbered and will not win. She hands her daughter a precious object to save and pass along to her future daughters to help keep the Taíno alive. This is an extended metaphor for how Taíno survival was based on the matrilineal line. Now, imagine, the year is 1950 and you are handed a precious object that has been in the family for almost 500 years. You might feel honored, humbled, awe-inspired and eager to keep the object safe so you can pass it along. You try to have children but discover that you have been sterilized against your knowledge. When I conceptualized this scene, I put myself in the shoes of the character, feeling her anguish, anger and deep disappointment. I wrote a historical vignette I wanted to include, but it didn’t fit with the overall tone of the book. While not including it was the right decision for the story, I have been haunted ever since by what I developed. I still cannot fathom what it would feel like discovering that the choice of having children had been stolen from you. I recently re-read the excerpt and decided I would share this more widely to shed light on the barbaric and racist practices Puerto Rican women endured in the name of science and progress. Before you read the vignette, explore some of the context for why and how this was allowed to happen. The Historical Context La Operación In the 1930s, doctors in Puerto Rico falsely pushed women into sterilizations as the only means of contraception. Between 1947-1948, it’s estimated that 7% of Puerto Rican women were sterilized and by 1954, the rate had doubled (see reference 1 below). In many of these cases Puerto Ricans were told their “tubes were being tied”, medically known as a tubal ligation, which was agreed to, but patients were never informed this was an irreversible procedure. In 1982, La Operación, a documentary directed by Ana María García showed the widespread sterilization operation led by the United States during the 1950s and 60s in Puerto Rico (see reference 2 below). Women and their families were promised security after they underwent “la operación,” or sterilization. The operation was marketed to them as a way out of poverty and many women thought that once their “tubes were tied”, they could be “untied.” This was not the case and they ended up losing their reproductive rights. The filmmaker was quoted as saying, “All the women interviewed could be you, your mother, your wife, your sister, your daughter, and your friend. One way or another this issue touches everyone's life." (See reference 3 below) Test Subjects for Birth Control Puerto Rican women were also used as test subjects (unbeknownst to them) for the then considered experimental birth control pill. This started with Margaret Sanger, a birth control advocate who in 1916 opened the nation’s first birth control clinic. Sanger also supported eugenics, a theory that non-white or less desirable populations could be reduced or eliminated by controlling their breeding. While she believed that women weren’t free until they had control of their bodies, she did not believe that all women were of equal value. She partnered with Gregory Pincus, a biologist who specialized in mammal reproduction, to create a large-scale, modern form of birth control. Pincus had preliminary success in Boston through small trials for the Pill in 1954 and 1955, but without large-scale, human trials, he knew he would never get FDA approval, which was necessary to bring the drug to market. Given the strong opposition to birth control in America in the 1950s, he had to find an alternate place to conduct his experiments. In the summer of 1955, Gregory Pincus visited Puerto Rico, and decided it would be the perfect location for the research trials he needed. There were no anti-birth control laws and there was already a network of birth control clinics in place. I also learned that Pincus thought that by showing Puerto Rican women could successfully use oral contraceptives, he could quiet his critics' concerns that oral contraceptives would be too complicated for women in developing nations and American inner cities to use. (See reference 4 below) Dr. Edris Rice-Wray was in charge of the trials. After a year of tests, Dr. Rice-Wray reported that the pill was 100% effective when taken properly. She also informed him that 17% of the women in the study complained of nausea, dizziness, headaches, stomach pain and vomiting. Pincus quickly dismissed the conclusions believing that the benefits outweighed what he considered minor issues. Although three women died while participating in the trials, no investigation was conducted to see if “the Pill” had caused the young women's deaths. In later years, Pincus's team would rightfully be accused of deceit, colonialism and the exploitation of poor, brown women. The women had only been told that they were taking a drug that prevented pregnancy, not that the pill was experimental or that there was a chance of potentially dangerous side effects. In other words, they were given no choice as to whether they would want to participate in these trials. Pincus and others believed they were following the appropriate ethical standards of the time. In the 1950s, research involving human subjects was much less regulated than what we see today. Would he have gotten away with the same behavior toward middle class white women in the United States? Probably not, which is why the argument that they thought they were following the appropriate ethical standards rings completely false to many. The medical community thought they could easily exploit Puerto Rican women and they did exactly that. Unused historical vignette from The Moonlit Vine San Sebastián 1950 Ides gazed toward a vast piece of green land that stretched out into nothingness. The sun was rising, but the beauty of the morning light illuminating the countryside was lost to her. All she could think of was how she could never have children. Hot tears filled with loss, anger, and frustration sat on her face. She held the amulet her mother had given her for safekeeping and for passing on to the daughter she would never have tight against her chest. A sound escaped her mouth and soon she was screaming. Why would they do this to her? What had she done? She had been treated like a nothing, a thing unworthy of a future. THEY approached her at the hospital where she was being treated for appendicitis. Do you want children? No, not now. We can help! THEY helped alright. THEY helped themselves to her daughters and sons. Now that Puerto Rico was ruled by the United States government, they wanted to keep the population under control. We are like rats to them, Ides thought. They wanted to control the spread of us and they did this without permission or mercy. Ides dropped to her knees – the weight of her unborn children pulling her toward the soil. Who might she have given birth to? She thought. Perhaps one of her daughters would have set them all free. She opened her palm and looked at the amulet wondering what would happen if she unlocked it. If she called her ancestors and if they came. What would they do? Could they help? No. Ides thought. No one could help her now. She would have to give the amulet back to her mother and tell her to give it to Juana or to Isaura. She would have to reveal what she learned at the clinic just yesterday. She had gone there to inquire what she might do to get pregnant since she and her husband had been trying for three years without luck. It was then she learned that she had had “la operación.” Ides walked back into her home, which consisted of two rooms. Her husband lay asleep in one room while she put all of the items back into the box with a note for her mother. The note simply read, “fallé.“ She left the box in the hiding place her mother had shared knowing her mother would look there first for the items. She then walked off never to return. No one knew what happened to her. One day she was there and the next she was not. Esmerelda, her mother, did find the objects and tried to understand the message, “I failed,” but never figured it out. Three years had passed before Esmerelda passed the items onto Isaura, her youngest daughter. References: The Role of Sterilization in Controlling Puerto Rican Fertility, Vol. 23, No. 3 (Nov., 1969), pp. 343-361 (19 pages) La Operación (Short 1982) - IMDb "La Operacion" by Kimberly Safford The Puerto Rico Pill Trials | American Experience | Official Site | PBS Want to learn more about this topic? The long history of forced sterilization of Latinas | UnidosUS The First Birth Control Pill Used Puerto Rican Women as Guinea Pigs - HISTORY The Untold Narratives is a website to help you learn the art and craft of storytelling so you can tell whatever story you want to tell and bring your voice to life. Not seeing oneself or one’s community represented in narratives can make you feel like you don't belong. It can also give an inaccurate representation of history and reality. Visit us to learn more. We look forward to experiencing your amazing stories!

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