Each One Was Heard: A personal essay

Each One Was Heard: A personal essay

Published May 10th, 2023 by Chris Cinque

In this accompaniment to her Form + Content show, artist Chris Cinque explores a traumatic and long-suppressed family history, using drawing to search for catharsis


This essay was written by the artist in connection with her exhibition Each One Was Heard: A Visual Memoir at Form + Content Gallery.

Content warning: this essay deals with childhood sexual abuse.

E in ciascun s’udia:

“Ecco chi crescerà li nostri amori.” 

– Dante Alighieri, Paradiso Canto V 


and from each was heard:

“Oh, here is one who will increase our love.”

– Translation by Jean and Robert Hollander


For me, this is a redemptive exhibit as well as an educational one. I used materials that I wasn’t familiar with to create work that I didn’t understand while I was making it. By so doing, I have come to understand how as a child caught in a terrifying takeover of my mind, body, and spirit, I was able to survive by forgetting, until I had gathered enough strength so that I could remember again and not be destroyed by the memories.

As a queer person, as a female, many of my battles are an inextricable part of this country’s: the struggle for the right to peace and freedom. Despite everything — the oppression of coming out before Stonewall, being a woman in a misogynist world, the violence I experienced as a child — while my spirit has taken many beatings it has not been destroyed.

As an elder in the queer community and, as a Lesbian, at times so diminished by misogyny it became difficult to function, I now understand how, by refusing to give up, I helped create the ground on which so many people can now stand.  

My identity has emerged and continues to do so through my explorations of materials and gesture, style, and posture. There was no space for me, but I made space. Growing up in a small town in Florida surrounded by the stifling conformities of 1950s/60s, white, heterosexist culture, I look in wonder at how I present in the family photos I use in my drawings: a young girl not following the norms of female gentility and self-effacement but rather intuitively defiant in her appearance. The same body that was being assaulted was able to present as a young dyke in the making: the hat, the flannel shirt, the boots, the very stance one of liberation. I made myself up with no models to follow. These elements of self became some of my first creative acts. The photos preserve these early gestures and sense of style. These artistic impulses saved my life. 


Left: Ready or Not, 2023. Digital crop of charcoal on paper, 42 x 18". Middle: Missing Bicycle, 2023. Charcoal on paper, 51 x 22". Right: To The Beach, 2023. Charcoal on paper, 53 x 25".



During the process of creating this exhibit, I found myself obsessively poring over the old family photographs, trying to see behind the grainy out-of-focus images into the actions of a man — my uncle, sometimes present in the photos, sometimes not — which had not only shaped my life, but which, in their sickening repetition throughout our culture, shapes the lives of all children who are similarly harmed as he had harmed me. The crimes perpetrated against children have enormous repercussions in our society: addiction, dysfunction, homicidal rage, suicide, hatred, and outright war. If the beating of a butterfly’s wings can be felt on the other side of the world, then maybe the rape of a child can cause a war. At least, within the adult body of such a child, as it did in mine. 

When I was 46, I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS). For 15 years I followed the protocols for this disease which included yearly MRIs and injecting myself with a medication toxic to the liver. I preferred this to what the medication was supposed to prevent: brain shrinkage and cascading losses of bodily function. 

I sometimes questioned whether I actually had this disease, especially when I participated in MS support groups and saw how others were responding to their symptoms. Mine included right leg weakness and spasms so powerful I had to use a cane, as well as such sensitivity to heat and humidity that I couldn’t be outside in the summer without experiencing intense weakness that also limited my mobility. Later I became so sensitive to any kind of light flash, such as that from a camera, that my whole body would spasm in response. The MS specialists always assured me that my symptoms were in line with my diagnosis. That is, until the day I was referred to a new specialist (the sixth one) who, upon seeing me limp, said, “That’s not MS.” 

MS is a horrible disease and, while I didn’t want to have it, I was flummoxed as to what I could have that would cause such life-altering symptoms. He suggested either a seizure disorder or PTSD. We eliminated the seizure disorder easily enough with a series of tests. “So,” I asked, “I have PTSD?” He shrugged and our appointment was over. 

It was summer, very hot and humid, conditions that normally would have kept me in a dark air-conditioned room. But I wanted to challenge his assessment. After all, I had spent 15 years believing what the other five doctors had told me and acting accordingly. So I got on my bike and rode fast and hard for 13 miles. Afterwards, though sweating and tired, I didn’t limp and I wasn’t incapacitated by exhaustion. I didn’t limp then and I haven’t limped since. That was 13 years ago.


Littlest, 2023. Charcoal and pastel on paper, 43 x 22".


These charcoal self-portraits are the culmination of what I discovered during the last decade: that I was targeted and assaulted by the same predator numerous times during my childhood, starting when I was not quite two years old and ending when I was about 19. I had completely forgotten for most of my life that any of this had happened.

I based these drawings on the family photographs I mentioned above. Two of the photos include the predator, my mother’s only brother. In one, he stands behind me, smiling at the camera. In the other, he has his arm around my waist. No one else in my family, to the best of my knowledge, knew that he was attacking me. In fact, even I had “forgotten” these things had happened until after I learned that I had been misdiagnosed with MS. This remembering has been a long, painstakingly slow process over many years. I have also discovered that this “forgetting” is known as dissociative amnesia. It is a protective mechanism that sometimes occurs so that a vulnerable  person, a child, can continue living in a dangerous situation, where she is dependent on others for her survival. Some people with dissociative amnesia develop “conversion reaction”, a neurological trauma response, which explains my “MS” symptoms. 

Dissociative amnesia masks but doesn’t protect a person from the trauma that occurs as a result of being sexually assaulted. While I didn’t remember what had happened to me, I knew that something was wrong as I battled depression, anxiety, addiction, an abusive relationship, chronic insomnia, and “MS” throughout my life. 

My story is not unique. Sexual assault of children is an epidemic and a public health crisis. The CDC states that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 13 boys are victims of this kind of abuse. We survivors can recover but it takes a lifetime and many don’t make their way out of their trauma intact. My life has been deeply affected and disrupted by the trauma I endured, but I consider myself one of the lucky ones. With the support of my wife, my communities, and very talented therapists, I have found a way to live a healthy, productive life. Art saves lives.



Part of this exhibit explores my relationship with my older brother, Jim. Our adult selves lived in conflict, disappointment, and fury with each other. We hadn’t spoken in two years when I found out that he was in the hospital dying of Covid. In fact he was already dead when I managed to reach the intensive care unit to ask the nurses to tell him I loved him. 

Through these drawings, the past and present can exist together. I’m still the child who loved my brother and who was loved by him and he’s still with me in my memories of that love. 

After he died, by making these drawings the two aspects of our lives coalesced into an authentic cherished relationship of a sister and brother driven apart by homophobia, misogyny, and patriarchy but united by blood and a primal acceptance and understanding of each other. He would have protected me if he could have. 

“If I had known, I would have fucked him up,” he said to me when I first told him I thought our uncle may have harmed me. But I scoffed at him when he said that. After all, as I pieced together my story, he was only five the first time our uncle abused me. But I was wrong to laugh. He was a fierce child and might have yelled and bitten the abuser. That might have been enough to prevent future attacks. It might have alerted our distracted parents. This furious, impossible, blustering brother of mine also cried when I told him about my suspicions. He said how sorry he was that I had been harmed without asking for proof or doubting me in any way. He believed me before I believed myself.


Halfway to Florida, 2023. Charcoal on paper, 26 x 22".


We live in paradox: what happened between Jimmy and me when we were free to love each other as children was real, and what happened later when he died alone, unloved by me, too alienated and embarrassed to tell me he was sick was also real. 

We live in simultaneity: We loved and hated each other. We understood and refused to know each other. We were fiercely connected and entirely indifferent to one other.

As a sister who failed her brother and who was failed by him I can now honor him through these drawings I made with love and achieve peace and forgiveness. It’s no accident these drawings came after he died. I couldn’t tolerate him when he was alive, his racism and rage. After he died I was able to remember who he had been to me, who he had been as a child before his anger harmed him. Our society, informed by rigid gender paradigms and homophobia, helped tear us apart. Jimmy and me, we were close as kids. That is a fact. I see it in the photographs and the memories that I now have of us as children. I can now remember being four looking at him and clapping my hands in glee, saying, “He’s so funny!” I see his hands resting easily on my shoulders in one of the photos and feel the comfort of love that has been restored. 

The act of drawing has power. The deep looking that it requires, the physical movement of the hand across the page, the marks and smudges that express personality and emotion. These drawings brought my brother back to me. And they helped restore me to myself. My life has been saved by art. ◼︎


The exhibition being installed. 

Author's note: Special thanks to Bartholomew Ryan for suggesting and contributing to the ideas of this essay.

Each One Was Heard: A Visual Memoir will be on view at Form + Content Gallery May 11 – June 17, with an opening reception May 13, 7 – 9pm and an artist talk June 1 at 6:30pm.

To see more of the artist's work, visit chriscinque.com or follow her on Instagram @cinquechris.

All images courtesy of the artist.

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