June 12, 2011

Second Thoughts on Victimization

Reading and images presented by Nancy Agabian at the "Second Thoughts on the Memory Industry" Symposium, New York Institute for the Humanities, New York University. May 7, 2011.

The song “Victim” was composed around 1997, when I was the lead singer for the punk-folk duo Guitar Boy, active in the performance art scene in Los Angeles. At the time, I had been reading The Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller and was struck by her use of the term “victim” to define a mindset brought on by hurtful experiences from childhood, later affecting relationships with others. Through this lens, my life suddenly looked like nothing more than an endless series of victimized roles. I didn't know if Miller was onto something or I was taking her theory too far, so I made a song out of an absurd situation: feeling victimized by being diagnosed as a victim.

Around ten years later, I found myself in Armenia on a Fulbright, working among a community of artists who connected to the more defiant Guitar Boy songs during a time of stunted social change. The songs eventually found their way to Yeva Khachatryan, then a curator at the Armenian Center for Contemporary and Experimental Art (NPAK), who asked me to revive them for an upcoming exhibition of feminist art. This was problematic; I had come to feel uncomfortable performing in front of an audience, and I didn't know how to present the songs without Ann Perich, my musical partner and accompanist on the dulcimer.

But the idea of singing “Victim” for an Armenian audience was compelling. I wondered what kind of response the Victim song would elicit from Armenians, who feel exploited by their own government, who have historically been persecuted by the genocide of 1915, Stalinist purges, and now by the closed borders of their neighbors.

The film Borat had just come out and the image of Pamela Anderson getting stuffed into an ornately-decorated, old-world body-bag was stuck in my mind. I thought it might be easier for me to sing “Victim” while inside of a sack, which also represented my feelings, as a woman, of being enclosed and compressed; people, strangers even, often asked me why I didn't dye my grey hair, wear makeup, or, as they termed it, “take care of myself” since appearance was of dire importance, the means by which a woman could attract a husband and start a family, women’s primary role in Armenian society; consequently, the desire for a woman to work outside of the home was seen as a threat to the social fabric of the nation. I didn't know how to battle such sexist notions, which I had always taken for granted as vanquished by the second wave of feminism.

With these thoughts in mind, I began working on a performance that I hoped would serve as a collective ritual to help transcend a victimized mindset. From the second hand store I found a homely curtain that was long enough to fit my body and sewed it into a sack. I cut out a V for Victim from red fabric and sewed it onto the bag, trimming it with black sequins.

I often felt victimized in Yerevan in my day to day interactions, encountering shop clerks, cab drivers and postal workers who seemed too impatient to listen to my broken Armenian, glaring at me uncomprehendingly. Ironically, I had spent many years as a teacher helping students new to speaking English. “Don’t I deserve some patience from the universe?” I thought. So across the top of the bag, I embroidered in Armenian, “Please listen to me for a few minutes.” Then I inserted a hole at the nexus of the V, at crotch level. On the other side I attached an upside down red V, and inserted a hole at eye level, and embroidered the words, “Talk to me. I will listen.”

The idea was to wander up to people at the opening of the exhibition, alternately complaining in a victimized way about living in Armenia, and trying to quell my victimized feelings through active listening. I would pass out chocolates through the hole at my crotch, a victimized or empowered area, depending on how you looked at it.

Unfortunately, I was unable to find someone at the gallery opening to carry out the terms of the experiment. There was one girl who approached me immediately after I put on the bag who came the closest. She looked around eighteen, her hair cut in a bob and not a ton of makeup on her face, at least from what I could discern from my peephole. “Talk to me and I will listen,” I told her in Armenian. She asked me where I was from, what I was doing here, why I was in a bag. It became clear that she would only question the sudden anonymous novelty presented to her, rather than unload her own concerns onto me, so I turned the bag around and told her my frustrations of trying to speak Armenian to people seemingly unable to listen. She was kind and attentive and smiled when I gave her a piece of candy.

I made my way towards the growing crowd and was immediately surrounded by a gang of teens from a local high school for the arts. They bombarded me with questions: Who are you? What’s your name? Can I see your eyes? The attention was exciting, and I sensed my presence had energized the low-key event. Where are you from? they asked. When I told them I was from New York they wanted to know why I was in Yerevan; I told them I was here to teach and to write. Why are you doing this? they asked. Because I find it difficult to speak here. Why don’t you go back to America, then? they asked.

This had me stumped. As I tried to formulate a response, someone poked me in the side.

No touching, I said. I felt a hand on my head and someone pulled my ponytail. I had not anticipated being manhandled, nor that the bag would render me a weak creature. Don’t touch! I said louder. It seemed the kids needed more information and one way to get it was to feel the contents of the bag with their bare hands.

One boy asked me why I was doing the performance, and I told him I thought it would help me get over my fear of speaking Armenian.

Suddenly he became irritated, spitting words and storming off. Interesting reaction, I noted. Victims make people angry. I sensed he said, “I’m afraid too, but I don’t put myself inside of a bag.”

There were a few tender moments, though. A chubby, dark-haired girl told me, “We are your friends; you don’t have to be afraid.” Someone reached for my hand, and I grasped hers. Another girl, with ponytail and freckles, looked at me through the hole with an interesting mix of recognition and curiosity that it seemed she was looking for herself. But then another girl said, “Give me chocolate.”

I refused. She wasn’t getting chocolate if she didn’t participate in the anti-victimization ritual. Unfortunately, her request prompted an influx of insistent demands for candy. The kids were bored with my experiment: Just give us the goods already, they seemed to say. Fleeing the angry masses, I spotted my friend Lara in the crowd and ambled towards her. “I thought people would be kinder to me if I wore this bag, but they’re not!” I cried, not recognizing what a victimized statement this was. A middle-aged man approached me next, asking if I was Iranian. I guessed he assumed I must be more comfortable inside of a chador, so I felt a certain glee in reversing stereotypes when I told him I was American. He was about to touch me when I heard my boyfriend’s voice reproaching the man. Arman had urged me not to do the performance, insisting it was a bad idea. When I had first fashioned the sack at home, I got inside to test it out and Arman couldn’t resist tickling me till I was on the floor in hysterics. Apparently, this had been his way of warning me.

As I was telling my friend Arpi about the performance a few days later, she said I should have known what would happen. It’s unclear why it was obvious to everyone but me that if you put yourself in a vulnerable position, people will have no compunction about taking advantage of you. Would a victim anticipate such a response? Or would a victim subconsciously put herself in a victimized role while convincing herself it was actually one that would bring empowerment for everyone involved?

When I announced that I would perform a song, one girl joked “Are you going to sing 50 Cent?” Launching into the “Victim” song, I took out my frustrations of the failed experiment by screaming at the crowd. “I’m a person, just like you!” I wailed accusatively, and threw off my bag.

To my surprise, the audience cheered and clapped. I had no idea why they liked it so much.

In the days that followed, I found myself better able to speak Armenian; acknowledging my fear and asserting the request for people to listen must have helped. I also felt guilty; with all the privilege I have as an American, I should have been the last person inside of that bag.

When Arpi called, she said she wanted to talk about my performance and the theme of victimization, especially concerning women, a subject of her diploma work for art school. When we met a few days later, I told her that I hadn’t seen her at my performance. “You should remember me because I came up to you afterwards. I had long hair back then.” She was referring to another performance I had done in Yerevan a year and a half before: while wearing priest’s vestments made of newspaper, I had told stories about religion, patriarchy, and my genocide survivor grandmother. Arpi hadn’t come to my “Victim” performance a few days before; in fact, she knew nothing about it. Apparently, I didn’t even have to put on a sack to look like a victim.

During our conversation, I told Arpi what I wanted people to get from the performance: that there is a fine line between being a victim and a perpetrator, that you must feel like a victim in order to justify hurting others, and that we can reverse the pattern by listening to each other.

But this therapeutic model was inspired by being a faux victim. The young people in the audience most likely had little prospects to find their true calling, never mind make a living at it, when mostly corruption and nepotism fuel professional advancement. How would teenagers in an art school find their way into a decent, stable livelihood? I confessed to Arpi my worry that in trying to comment on being a victim, I had succeeded only in turning myself into one. She reassured me that nothing I did was harmful to others. But I’m not sure anyone learned anything except me. Perhaps I should have asked individuals to get inside of the bag, but I doubt that anyone would have willingly victimized themselves. I am hoping they cheered when I threw off the bag and screamed at them angrily because I had enacted something that they would like to do: confront their fears, free themselves from their own troubles, and be heard.


  1. Very interesting post. Have you ever watched the movie Dogville? It will explain a lot about your experience.

  2. Nancy,
    This is really great and I can imagine this scenario! You are very brave and these situations where we put ourselves out there unknowingly are often eye-opening and life-changing, no?