“By following my path of healing, and hopefully helping others to
find their own paths, the truth will out itself.” —Jessica Dodge
By Cat Saunders
Jessica Dodge is a professional artist with a will of iron, a heart of gold, and the guts to paint her history of childhood sexual abuse. In 1989, after years of showing her work in many different venues, Jessica began thinking about how she could translate the pain of her childhood into art. She met another woman, Linda Ness, who had already begun a similar process. They became friends, and Jessica was inspired by Linda’s work to begin her own incest art.
In May of 1990, Jessica’s first shamanic journey provided the final catalyst.Somehow, the journey freed up her concerns about how she was going to do it,what it was going to look like, and how specific she could be.The journey introduced her to some personal symbols, and it gave her permission to begin. She went home that day and started drawing.
Less than a year after beginning this work, Jessica began to show her incest paintings publicly. The Annex Theater hosted a show of Jessica’s and Linda’s work to complement a play based on incest. Then, in November of 1990, one of Jessica’s pieces (called “Under My Skin,” shown with this interview), was a runner-up for Best of Show in the prestigious Center on Contemporary Arts (COCA) Northwest Annual.
In the fall of 1991, Bumbershoot Arts Festival sponsored a show called “Silent No More,” featuring the incest art of Jessica and five other artists who are also survivors of childhood sexual abuse. This exhibit traveled on to Clark College in Vancouver, Washington, and to Marylhurst College in Portland, Oregon.
In addition to participating in panel discussions at each of these exhibits, Jessica also spoke twice each year for several years about “Art as a Vehicle for Healing” at the Women’s Studies program at the University of Washington.
Cat: As much as you can, without violating your privacy, would you describe what it was like for you living with your stepfather, the perpetrator of your abuse?
Jessica: I think control is a unifying factor in a lot of sexual abuse situations. Many times, religion is the structure through which this control is attained. In my case, my parents were communists–Maoists.
The Red Book and Chinese literature were required reading every day. My siblings and I had restricted and censored TV watching. We weren’t allowed to listen to rock ‘n roll, because it was considered bourgeois American. We had to wear our skirts below our knees, and they cut our hair very short. This was in the sixties, so we were very odd-looking.
My stepfather was quite a bit younger than my mother. He had been the student of my father, and he started coming around when I was very small. When I was four and half, my real father left and my mother married my stepfather.
Basically, I think my stepfather was unable to deal in a healthy emotional way with anybody. In public, he was a very articulate, intelligent, good-looking kind of golden boy. But at home, he was a large, violent, maybe three-to-five-year-old. He would throw tantrums, hit us, and beat us with implements. He would beat my mother and then make us look at her while she was lying helpless on the floor.
My stepfather was psychologically abusive. He would root out whatever was pleasurable to you, and then find some way of making it horrible.
Even in eating, we weren’t allowed to have preferences, because that was “personal indulgence,” which was “counter-revolutionary thought” and therefore unacceptable.
My three sisters and I became very adept at finding the politically correct argument for anything we wanted to do. We got good at lying. Living with him taught us how to live in a prison camp situation.
Underlying all this for me personally was the bizarre sexual relationship he had with me. It started when I was five, with playing around and tickling and playing “monster.” Then, as things progressed into a more intimate nature, he said it was okay with my mother, and that I shouldn’t tell her because she didn’t want to know.
By the time I was six or seven, his insanity and omnipotence totally ran our existence. There was a threat of violence all the time, so there was no possibility of my telling anyone. Certainly, I couldn’t tell my mother, because she didn’t seem to have much more power than we did. Basically, I just marked time until I was big enough to leave.
Cat: When and how did you get out?
Jessica: I was thirteen. There was a woman I babysat for, and we became good friends. She was nonjudgmental, and she had a lot of patience with me. I felt she would stand up for me, so finally I just told her.
She was immediately on my side. She had me talk to a lawyer friend of hers, who told me I wasn’t an isolated case. Of course, I thought I was. In those days, there were no public service messages about sexual abuse, and no one was talking about it.
In that moment of talking to him, I felt the hugeness of my power. Just by telling the right people, I could totally shatter my family. I was terrified! As horrible as my life was, I didn’t know what would happen if I “told” on him.
Would people protect me from him? Would they put me in a foster home? I wasn’t ready to make that decision immediately. So my friend told me that if I ever needed to come and stay, I could come to her house.
A couple of days later, my stepfather made a move on me and I said no. I told him I’d been reading an encyclopedia, and that I knew what it was, and that it was illegal. I didn’t want to implicate my friend. He freaked out and told me to go to my room. I said no, that I was hungry and wanted to go downstairs to eat something. We argued, and he hit me. Finally, though, he let me go and he went to his room.
I went downstairs and left, which is what I had in mind all along. I went to live with my friend and didn’t come back until my mother kicked him out, which took her nine months. About a week after I had left, my mother told me that my stepfather wasn’t my real father. Since my real father left when I was so young, they had always told me that my stepfather was my father.
Cat: How did you feel when your mother told you that?
Jessica: I was furious that she had kept it from me for so long. But I was relieved, because then I had no reason whatsoever to be attached to him at any level. I still had to work out the incest, but he doesn’t have to be a part of my life.
Cat: So you stayed with your friend for nine months?
Jessica: Yes, and with her husband and children. I was a very difficult person to take care of! My stepfather had been so controlling that I had no internal controls. I got into all kinds of trouble right away.
My friend was hard on me. She was loving, but she wouldn’t cut me a lot of slack. She said that everyone has a hard-luck story, and you can’t go around expecting everyone to give you breaks because you have this problem. My friend told me I had to be responsible for my own stuff.
At 13, I thought she was awfully hard on me, but I’m thankful for what she did. I could have carried around stuff a lot longer if somebody hadn’t turned me around right away, right at the beginning of my journey away from him.
Cat: What’s your stepfather’s stance toward the incest now?
Jessica: He’s pretty much in denial. He’s remarried and has a couple of other kids, a daughter and a son. My stepfather is a capitalist now, and he lives in a nice house on the East Coast. He’s told his present wife nothing about the violence, tyranny, and sexual abuse he perpetrated on us.
Cat: Since you’re going national with the publication of this article, how do you feel about the possibility that his family may someday find out what happened through this publicity and the showing of your incest art?
Jessica: Certainly all along, I’ve had intense fantasies of revenge. But the part of me that is hooked on my path truly understands that any angry energy I might throw at him now would only do my harm.
By following my path of healing, and hopefully helping others to find their own paths, the truth will out itself. And if that’s where some of his karma is going to come from, I really have no say in that.
I’m not directing it at him. I’m just throwing down my cards. If the information gets back to his family, then that’s going to be his to deal with, because he’s the one who set this whole thing in motion. You can’t set this kind of thing in motion and not have it come back to bite you.
This interview was originally published by The New Times (August 1991) and updated in May 2017.
Jessica Dodge began her fine art training at Cornish College of the Arts in 1977 and completed it at the School of Visual Concepts in 1984. Her work has been featured in numerous shows and venues throughout the Northwest (including Vancouver, B.C.) and also in Spain.
Jessica has designed and painted sets for many theater productions in the United States and abroad, and her paintings are included in private collections internationally. You can contact Jessica or learn more about her work by visiting www.jessicadodge.net.
Cat Saunders, Ph.D., is a counselor in private practice in Seattle, Washington. She is also the author of Dr. Cat’s Helping Handbook: A Compassionate Guide for Being Human (available through Amazon). Contact Cat by emailing her or by calling 206-329-0125 (24-hour voicemail).