NEWARK, NJ - Delicate glass books etched with powerful underlying messages and emotions behind them were the focal point of a celebration on Thursday, January 28th for an inaugural project spearheaded at Rutgers University in Newark, the GlassBook Project. The Project seeks to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness and raise awareness about mental health issues including the healing processes that take place after traumatic experiences.
Rutgers University students were guided by their professor, Nick Kline of the Arts, Culture and Media Department, to reach into their hearts and create with their hands exquisitely made glass books transcending the experience of trauma survivors. Kline's students in his elective Book Arts Class were challenged through the project over a period of four weeks to increase understanding, raise awareness and lessen the stigma involved with the act of self-injury, also known as self-inflicted violence (SIV). The initial project focused on this topic and subsequent topics will be introduced for upcoming classes and GlassBook Projects.
At Thursday's event, the next group of students was given a challenge: to design books depicting how relationships change because of acts of domestic violence. The project was the brainchild of Kline and childhood friend, Helga Luest, both New Jersey natives. Kline and Luest reconnected at a high school class reunion and found they had much in common, with each having started a non profit group despite their varied backgrounds (Kline graduated high school and headed to art school, earning his M.F.A., while Luest became an elected public official then completed her B.S. and M.A degrees. Kline is a recognized photographer and Luest has worked in public relations and is also a private investigator).
Luest herself is a trauma survivor. In 1993, while traveling with her mother in Florida, she was forced off the road in her rental car by two assailants near Miami International Airport. The duo approached her car and began beating Luest nearly to death while they forced her mother to watch. Other onlookers watched but did not call police. When one of the perpetrators ripped into Luest's arm with his teeth, she was able to free her other hand, allowing the opportunity for she and her mother to flee in their vehicle.
Following the attack, and despite the repercussions from her severe injuries (she was what doctors described as "millimeters away from paralysis", suffering permanent nerve damage on the right side of her face, and contending with excruciating back, neck and migraine pains), Luest became hypervigilant in response and as a coping mechanism. While Luest's mother drew herself inward to manage her grief following the attack, Luest worked diligently to curtail this type of crime through legislative measures (removal of identifying signs of the car rental company names on cars and license plates and improved safety measures and signage on Florida's highways). She also worked to ensure her assailants would not harm another victim.
A technicality overturned the life sentence of the attacker who bit her and a retrial was set. Luest persisted, researching Florida appellate cases and teamed up with America's Most Wanted Host and crime fighter, John Walsh. Not only was Luest's attacker resentenced but he received a harsher life sentence without the chance of parole.
Her perspective as a trauma survivor was the catalyst for her to start Witness Justice in 2001 and became the founder, CEO and President of the not-for-profit group. Witness Justice empowers trauma survivors with the tools necessary to walk through each step of their individual recovery processes. Luest points out how victims are frequently and insensitively asked, "When are you going to get over this?" or "What's wrong with you?" Instead, they find safety and empathy with Witness Justice and are asked "What happened to you?" and receive help through direct assistance, advocacy, education and outreach from the group. Luest explained the common coping responses of a trauma survivor are often stigmatized as weaknesses, but are instead signs of underlying strength and attempts by the victim to work through their grief from their numbing experiences.
The GlassBook Project embraces the strengths of those who self-injure, depicting the reasons behind SIV, rather than passing judgment on the victims. Through their project, Kline's students explored the pain and shame which self-injurers carry and exhibit by harming themselves. Many self-injurers were victims of childhood sexual abuse and use SIV as a tool to deal with the aftereffects caused by the unspeakable injustices they have suffered.
The students' sensitive art pieces provide a metaphor for the dichotomy between the act of self-injury and those who self-injure. The students worked closely with self-injury expert Ruta Mazelis, and read her publication The Cutting Edge, an informational resource about SIV. From the depths of their understanding, they created their pieces. They discovered the duality of emotions and reactions involved with SIV. The students learned the victims had outward injuries and scars based on hidden and deep feelings. They were gripped by the diversity of the methods by which people self-injure to trigger pain to experience relief and release.
The New Jersey Governor's Council on Mental Health Stigma has united with Rutgers University, Witness Justice and many other groups to support this project. Celina Gray, the Council's Executive Director, remarked about glass's role in the project. "Glass is traditionally broken at Jewish Weddings and can be at once symbolic of joy and sorrow," said Gray. "It represents the human spirit which is fragile yet strong."
Gray celebrated the anticipated growth of the project, and how it is intended to foster understanding, teach others and redefine trauma. She identified the differences between of each book crafted by the students. "Every single journey is meaningful yet unique," Gray reflected.
New Jersey has the only council in the nation that addresses the stigma often attached to mental illnesses and attempts to reduce it. "The turning point in stigma reduction is to break down the label and become one community," said Bonita M. Veysey, Ph.D., Acting Dean of Rutgers School of Criminal Justice. "Stigma is the biggest barrier and I'm excited by what the students have learned. These students are ambassadors."
At the event, Veysey revealed herself to be a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and adult domestic violence.
"Glass is invisible, opaque and fragile. People are whole units but these are the same characteristics of trauma survivors," remarked Sandra Estepa, Region II Coordinator for the Office of Women's Health/DHHS. Estepa described the books as healing tools for resiliency, recovery and hope.
Adrienne Sneed Byers, Chief of Staff for Congressman Donald Payne (NJ 10th Congressional District) read remarks on the Congressman's behalf. "I applaud all of the local and state partners in New Jersey that are participating in what I am confident will be a very compelling exhibit that achieves real social change. It is a wonderful demonstration of community engagement and cross-discipline public education."
Samantha Glovin, a student and documentary filmmaker chronicling the journey of the GlassBook Project (which was a featured exhibit at Hollywood's Voice Awards), explained the concept behind her book entitled "Release". Glovin sandblasted one of every letter of her book's title on each page. The first page is the shortest, with each subsequent page increasing in length. Glovin depicted the methods that self-injurers use to release their inner pain to the outside world. Soda can tops, thumb tacks, safety pins, cigarette butts, candle wax, earring backs, and scissors are affixed to her pages. They are bound together with wire and rubber bands to further depict the release sufferers feel through self-injury.
How has this project affected Glovin, a TV Media major with a minor in Womens' Studies at Rutgers-Newark? "It opened my eyes completely and how we hold stereotypical views and stigmas," summarized Glovin. "It's not their fault. It's trauma and not getting the proper care. Coping happens and stigmas attach. It's important to understand a person's history and experience before judging."
Kline's and Luest's vision is a model for other nationwide university programs that are in the works. Gray reiterated the importance of uniting the talents behind various groups and individuals to learn and educate more people about mental illnesses to eliminate associated stigmas. "Each person will have a connection to mental illness. We are all in this together. At one time there was a stigma associated with cancer [with it being viewed] as a death sentence because it was thought to be contagious. It wasn't always the cancer which was fatal but the stigma."
The students' books are currently on display at the John Cotton Dana Library at Rutgers University in Newark through March 1, 2010.
For more information about the GlassBook Project, see the website: http://www.glassbookproject.org/