Many Hands Make Light(er) Work

I am usually able to sustain a pace of approximately one essay per day here on JALC. Certainly, I have fantasies of writing lots more than that: sometimes those fantasies express themselves in the desire to write shorter or faster posts — which is probably obvious, considering the number of times I (falsely) promise at a post’s outset to write something quick. Usually, though, these fantasies take the shape of the “megamillions dream” — the notion of suddenly, magically having enough financial resource that I could stop working for other people’s companies and instead write all day.  The interesting thing, as I’ve been studying these fantasies, is that I’m not in any self-delusion about the writing being quick and effortless.

i_poop_rainbowsI can’t find it now, but I remember reading some snarky-brilliant quote once about how “everyone wants to have written a novel, but very few people actually want to do the work of writing said novel.” I get that writing take work. Between research, drafting, outlining, writing, editing, and posting, I usually spend between 2-3 hours per night here on JALC. So I’m not imagining that essays will magically spring from my typing fingers like unicorns shitting rainbows. However, the thought of having 10-12 hours a day I could devote to those tasks, and the idea of what I could produce in that sort of space? I cannot deny it’s a seductive notion.

But. Setting all those fantasies aside, I do find my office job (and my house mortgage) to be sufficiently inspiring that I give my non-profit its full and appropriate measure of dedication before sitting down late each most evenings to write on JALC. Which means, alas, that there are usually at least four interesting topics or happenings I have to set aside every damn day in order to write whatever essay I’m most strongly called to write.

All of this a lengthy prologue to the story of Emma Sulkowicz.

If you read any of the same news sources I do, you’ve already heard at least the first half of this story about a week ago. Sulkowicz is beginning her senior year at Columbia University. As reported by Feministing, she

was raped in her dorm bed at the beginning of her junior year. Now, for her senior visual arts thesis, Sulkowicz is carrying her mattress with her everywhere she goes as long as she attends the same school as her rapist.

Before devising this performance arts project, Sulkowicz did all the things you’re supposed to do — reported the crime to campus security, to the university administration, and even to the police. Links from the Feministing piece I just quoted offer pretty damning narratives about the kind of cruelty and dehumanization occurred during these processes, which is if nothing else, an obscene object-reminder of why so few women elect to put themselves through that kind of bureaucratic torture.

So, in addition to joining 22 other women in a Title IX complaint against the university for allegedly violating federal law in its (mis)handling of campus sexual assault cases, Sulkowicz has devised an “endurance performance art piece” — Mattress Performance/Carry that Weight as another way to take back and claim her voice within this experience of trauma and bureaucratic disregard/dishonor. In the video, below, Sulkowicz provides a solid summary of the piece’s symbology and some of its “rules of engagement.”

For those of you who do better with textual input, there’s good summaries/pull-quotes both in the Feministing article I’ve already linked and also in Bustle. As summarized by Bustle, one of the rules of the piece is this:

She isn’t allowing herself to ask anyone for help, but if anyone offers to help of their own volition, she can accept.

And this is what brings me to the second part of the story.

Allie Rickard, an Art History/Visual Arts major at Barnard College, has started a paired project, Carrying the Weight Together. As Rickard explains on the project’s website, once she learned about Sulkowicz’s piece,

I [this is Rickard writing] immediately noticed a tangible and meaningful way I—along with any other member of our community—could get involved on a daily basis in ending sexual violence and rape culture at our university. Let’s help Emma carry her mattress every day.

The (I think) first “collective carry” organized by Rickard & co. is documented here:

The group’s Facebook page — as well as the Blue Nation Review, Feministing, and .Mic — all make the same point. This is not intended to be a “one and done” sort of gesture, and the intention is to both help carry the literal weight of Sulkowicz’s mattress, and also to help carry an advocacy message to the university administration about the importance of treating the victims of sexual assault with respect and handling their cases appropriately. So, in addition to yesterday’s collective carry, there are plans to attend a public rally tomorrow afternoon to stand with the survivors of sexual and domestic violence. I’m curious to see what else emerges from this.


I’ve been thinking a lot about women’s competitiveness with each other in the past however-many weeks and months. That kind of woman-on-woman energetic violence seems (to me) very much a part of the “mommy wars,” so it was on my mind when I wrote about breast-feeding back in August. It’s even talked about in that article I quoted earlier in the month when I was thinking about kitchen renovations. In it, Melton talks about how:

Sometimes it seems that our entire economy is based on distracting women from their blessings. Producers of STUFF NEED to find 10,000 ways to make women feel less than about our clothes, kitchens, selves so that we will keep buying more. So maybe freeing ourselves just a little from the Tyranny of Trend is a women’s issue – because we certainly aren’t going to get much world changing done if we spend all of our time and money on wardrobe and kitchen changing. (emphasis added)

In this, Melton’s being very polite and abstract in talking about all of this through the lens of “keeping up with the Joneses.” So let me call a Thing a Thing:

We women can be fucking cruel to each other. My teachers and coaches have offered me many insights about this pattern of competition, and how the cultural programming around being in a woman’s body within the patriarchal soup leaves us often fighting with one another in order to receive the crumbs of approval/affection from (male) authority figures. This patterning of energetic violence is a rich and important topic that I’m currently doing injustice too. Something absolutely worth writing more deeply about when the call arises to do so.

For now, I am wanting instead to celebrate and to honor the women and men who are participating in Carrying the Weight Together. Because it is a potent, inspiring reminder of what can be possible if we stood together with honor, dignity, and compassion for each other. As Alexandra Brodsky says in Feministing:

The idea isn’t to make trauma palatable, each of us holding little crumbs of the problem in our pockets so that it doesn’t feel so big anymore. (For just one dollar, you can help end hunger.”) Rather, if we all helped carry the weight of injustice, we could not bear it. And so we would finally stop tolerating what we’ve been content to force others to carry alone.

So mote it be.


Image credit: “i poop rainbows” by Dollyclaire. Unaltered. Used under a Creative Commons license. (Retrieved from: )

3 thoughts on “Many Hands Make Light(er) Work

  1. Sulkowicz was on Melissa Harris Perry’s show last(?) weekend, and she talked about people helping her carry the mattress. Not in big organized groups like you have pictured here–yet–but often 3 others helping Emma, one for each corner. And she talked about the conversations that this had opened up: four people, walking together to class, talking across this mattress about the issues, possible solutions, shared experiences. The press this is now getting, the optics of large groups: I too hope something comes from it, certainly. But I suspect the most powerful impact will emerge, as it usually does, not in administrative reaction to large rallies but in conversations and allyships forged by small groups of people, finding each other over shared space of common cause.

    Most personal blogs (or at least, this is what I aspire to in my own blogging) are like Emma’s mattress–small spaces/gestures where the private is explored publicly, and tenders an invitation.


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