On November 23, Lucy Dhegrae kicks off a season-long artist residency at National Sawdust with the first of four concerts that together form an ambitious new project: The Processing Series. In advance of this concert, and those that will follow between now and next summer, Dhegrae talks us through the four commissions—and also the intensely personal story at the heart of her venture, which includes a very frank discussion of sexual assault.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, it’s never too late to get help. Call 800.656.HOPE (4673) or visit online.rainn.org to chat anonymously one-on-one with a trained staff member. RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network) created and operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline, which provides free, confidential support for survivors of sexual assault and their loved ones. Los recursos están disponibles en español en rainn.org/es.
Ten years after she was raped, Lucy Dhegrae lost her voice.
It was six weeks into her freshman year at the University of Michigan that the young music major, just a few weeks shy of her 19th birthday, found herself at a house party. She spotted a guy, a tall, handsome freshman baseball player, across the room. “I decided at that moment, I’m gonna dance with him,” she recalls before approaching him.
Despite having had just one beer, Dhegrae soon began slipping in and out of consciousness. An inexperienced drinker, she wasn’t sure if this was being drunk or if something had been slipped into her can. Either way, she found herself back in the man’s dorm room.
She recalled that he repeatedly told her “It’s okay” as he struggled to get her clothes off. She recalled the disgust and the pain she felt as they had sex. Most humiliatingly, she recalled waking up on a cot, only to be shown off by the man – whose light was on and door open – to friends who stopped by to chat and eat pizza. This was the most humiliating aspect, she would later say: the feeling of being shown off “like an animal pelt or some dead trophy.”
It was 5am by the time that Dhegrae was able to slip out of the man’s dorm room and walk the mile or so distance back to hers, freezing in Michigan’s pre-dawn hours. “I remember while I was being assaulted just thinking, This does not have to be this way,” Dhegrae tells me earlier this month, sitting on her sofa and gesturing emphatically. “And that was so confusing.”
The confusion carried over into what happened next for Dhegrae, who tried to piece together, in the years before “consent” became a battle cry, what had just happened. Had this been rape? Dhegrae seemed to remember that, in order for it to be classified as such, she would have had to have said “No” three times (she did not). When she debriefed with her roommate, they agreed that it was a “rude” thing for the guy to have done. “I didn’t know how to characterize it,” she explained.
Having started school in 2003 some 600 miles away from Dhegrae’s campus – and having had a similar sexual experience during my own freshman year which generated the response “what an asshole” from supportive friends – I recognize this confusion that only gains clarity with hindsight. In the early 2000s, most campuses didn’t have discussions around consent. Orientation sessions around sex and dating on campus were more focused on “no glove, no love.”
Today, as Dhegrae concurs, the asshole would be more clearly seen as a criminal.
This early-aughts attitude, however, was not just endemic among students, but also within the university health center, where Dhegrae went a few days later to be examined. The inability to characterize the incident, by both Dhegrae and her doctor, meant that the case was never pursued while she was a student (she later followed up through several channels to at least have the incident on the record).
Years later, however, Dhegrae noted in her health file that the doctor wrote in her notes: “Had sexual encounter this weekend that went further than she intended.”
Dhegrae pieces this together: “So [she] understood that I intended it to not go that far, but [she] didn’t put it all together for me that that was rape.”
For nearly everyone else involved with this story, this is where the narrative ends. But for Dhegrae, it’s just the beginning. She would spend the next year “a full-blown alcoholic,” unconsciously trying to regain control over her own narrative. She forged ahead, graduating from Michigan in 2008 with a BM in Vocal Performance, and going on to receive her MM in Vocal Performance from Bard in 2012.
She moved to Brooklyn. She founded the Resonant Bodies Festival, which gives vocal performers 45-minutes carte-blanche sets, to do with as they please. A random sampling of the festival’s alumni includes Anthony Roth Costanzo, Caroline Shaw, Du Yun, Stephanie Blythe, and Pamela Z.
And it’s around that time that she lost her voice.
Seeing a laryngologist, Dhegrae was diagnosed with vocal fold paresis, affecting both sides of her vocal cords. If healthy, the vocal cords form a V shape, with each side meeting evenly in the middle to produce sound. For Dhegrae, her cords were sloped to one side, with one side of the cords only rising about 50 percent of the distance it was supposed to, forcing the other cord to make up the difference. Both sides had been left exhausted.
Dhegrae began to research what may have caused her paresis—which can be triggered by something as simple as a cold virus. It wasn’t long before she came across two medical journal articles that drew correlations between voice loss and victims of sexual assault who had not spoken out about it. She knew that this was her exact experience. Her means of communication was being psychosomatically obstructed by the trauma of her most significant incident of non-communication.
“I was just like, Oh, so I can’t be a singer,” Dhegrae recalls. “So I just spent the last eight years or so really gunning for this thing, and now I can’t even do anything with it.”
Her laryngologist recommended that she immediately begin rehabilitation therapy to see how much functionality of her vocal chords she could regain. Without a clear understanding of whether this was a new occurrence of paresis or not, the sooner she began to take action, the better. Six weeks of vocal therapy were followed by injections of Restylane into the muscles next to her vocal cords, in an attempt to restore a position closer to the healthy V shape.
As Dhegrae continued her own research in tandem with treatment, she came across The Body Keeps the Score, Dutch psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk’s bestselling 2014 book on trauma in both the mind and the body.
The study of trauma is by no means new, even in the vein of popular psychology: The birth of modern psychoanalysis is interwoven with Freud’s research and writings on the subject in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Freud’s own interest in the topic came out of his studies with French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, who first connected trauma to mental illness after years of studying the female condition then known as “hysteria.”
But for van der Kolk, trauma isn’t simply a cognitive memory, as was posited by Freud and Charcot, but also a somatic, body-based experience.
“What we see is that the parts of the brain that help people to see clearly and to observe things clearly really get interfered with by trauma, and the imprint of trauma is in areas to the brain that really have no access to cognition,” van der Kolk explains in a 2013 interview with On Being.
Trauma, he goes on to say, then lands in the amygdala — the “smoke detector” of the brain — rendering it either hypersensitive or totally insensitive. In his research, he also suggested that the Broca’s area of the brain, which is connected to speech function, will shut down in cases of traumatic triggers. In order to overcome trauma, therefore, he suggests that we need to find methods to bypass “the tyranny of language.”
For a musician like Dhegrae, this was a revelatory notion, especially after unsuccessful experiences with talk therapy. “There’s an idea that therapy is gonna be hard,” she says. “You’re probably gonna cry a lot, and you’re gonna feel like shit afterwards, and you need to go for years and years and years—and you’re probably not gonna fix anything.” She pauses for emphasis. “What the HELL?! Who wants to sign up for that?”
Dhegrae is careful to acknowledge that, without any concrete understanding of how the brain works in instances of shock or trauma, these are still theories versus facts. But through them, she was able to find her way towards reintegrating the trauma of her assault into the rest of her experience.
She compares the process to another form of psychotherapy known as Internal Family Systems, which is based on the idea that the human psyche is made up of multiple parts and players, much like an internalized family—or, in Dhegrae’s metaphor, a congress. Each part has a specific role to play, and in cases like trauma, the parts will come together to make a decision on how to move forward.
“I think that inner congress got together [after my assault] and said, ‘Okay, how did this happen and how can we prevent this?’
“And they put that part of me that went after that guy on trial and were like, ‘She’s to blame.’ And that really was my desire. That’s the part of me that went after stuff. That’s the part of me that made decisions on an intuitive level. And I think that at that moment I realized, that part of me is getting buried.”
If you follow the framing of IFS, this is all behind-the-scenes work that happens without the person being conscious of it. All the same, that hurt part of Dhegrae was “gagged and bound… and just pushed down into a well.” Many IFS therapists would suggest that it’s that bound part that was making itself known when Dhegrae lost her voice.
In more than half a decade since Dhegrae began to address this voice loss, she is once again performing, and also an activist on behalf of survivors of sexual assault. She joined the International Contemporary Ensemble in 2017 for Ashley Fure’s The Force of Things in its American premiere with Peak Performances in Montclair, NJ, and again a year later for its Mostly Mozart Festival run in Brooklyn. Resonant Bodies celebrated its sixth anniversary earlier this fall. And, this month, she launches The Processing Series as part of her National Sawdust artist residency, integrating her activist persona with her performer persona.
Presented over the course of several months, The Processing Series is a sequence of four concerts, each centered around one of four new pieces Dhegrae has commissioned from Osnat Netzer, Eve Beglarian, Katherine Young, and Angélica Negrón. Much like Resonant Bodies, Dhegrae approached the commission with a sense of capaciousness and free-form, but asked that each of the composers read The Body Keeps the Score as unifying thread. The quintet met to discuss the book together, creating a sort of external family system, and honed in specifically on the different methods of treatment that Dr. van der Kolk explores in the book (including Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing [EMDR], somatic experiencing, neurofeedback, and yoga).
All of these methods work towards the same end: reintegrating the parts of the psyche that become “fractured” in the wake of a traumatic event, so that the person becomes whole. While this work is usually done by one person with assistance from trained experts, there’s something poetic about Dhegrae working with four composers, and building out programs that place these new works alongside other existing pieces, as a process of communal reintegration.
For starters, it goes beyond Dhegrae’s own story—which was known to each of the composers, but does not serve a narrative function for their pieces. It also goes to the heart of the role of female characters in the first several centuries of vocal music and opera.
The traumatic events in these works – which French philosopher Catherine Clément termed “the Undoing of Women” in her synonymous 1979 book – are treated in a way almost antithetical to how such events have historically been suppressed in society: They’re canonized, at times even celebrated, and seen as both fate and force majeure. Those who don’t die from the repercussions of such trauma are doomed to the hysteria that Charcot would later recategorize as the mental effects of trauma.
The inaugural event of the series on Nov. 23, subtitled “More Beautiful Than Words Can Tell,” will feature the premiere of Osnat Netzer’s Philomelos, which speaks to the unspeakable aspects of trauma. Netzer based the work on the story of Lavinia in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus—a woman who, after being raped, has her hands cut off and her tongue cut out, so that she cannot identify her assailants.
“It’s going beyond language,” Dhegrae points out of Lavinia’s story. “The period of PTSD where you are silenced and frozen… you have to go beyond language to get to this part of you that can communicate.” The evening will feature other works that speak to the same theme, including Jason Eckardt’s Dithyramb, Bethany Younge’s Her Disappearance, and Caleb Burhans’s No.
Dhegrae points to a neat column of notecards on her wall that correspond to the elements of Netzer’s work and the program in general. They include notes on the brain’s Broca’s area, broken language, the inability to speak, and India’s charnel grounds, where bodies that had been burned on funeral pyres were left to decompose. While seemingly a place where we discard what’s broken, the charnel grounds also form a metaphor for reintegration and — if you follow Buddhist philosophy — compassion.
“For me, that’s what I’m so interested in as an artist, is just getting down to that nitty-gritty, hard-to-look-at place and finding a way to look at it,” Dhegrae says. “That’s what I’m interested in for my own life, as well as in what I do. And that’s why I was so interested in singing as a potential way of life.”
The Processing Series continues with its second concert on January 11: a program titled “A Barely Arching Bridge,” after Rilke’s axiom, “A barely arching bridge connects the terrible to the tender.” Here is where Dhegrae will explore the part of her that was bound and gagged following her assault, the part of her that desires—even after she blamed her own desire for her rape.
Eve Beglarian’s She Gets to Decide, the program’s centerpiece, explores desire in general, as well as how desire and the sexual self might re-integrate into a person undone by sexual trauma. Parts of the text come from an erotic novel by Pierre Klossowski, whose brother, Balthus, was the artist behind the contested painting Thérèse Dreaming. It also incorporates the words of Larry Nassar’s judge, Rosemarie Aquilina, who told the victims of the former gymnastics doctor, “Leave your pain here, and go out and do your magnificent things.”
Dhegrae says the piece is “not uncontroversial,” but sees the progression one that moves from a “creepy, frankly molestation energy” towards the central heroine of the piece “being able to take control of the situation and regain her own sexual power.” Accompanying She Gets to Decide are pieces from the likes of Chaya Czernowin, Guillaume de Machaut, and Francis Poulenc.
The third Processing Series program, “I Was Breathing” (March 28, 2020), will feature a world premiere by Katherine Young, How to Hold, alongside pieces by Yoko Ono, Meredith Monk, and Pauline Oliveros that also speak to the instructional nature of Young’s commission. This installment diverges from the themes of Netzer’s and Beglarian’s works, opting instead to explore the daily at-home experience of a body holding PTSD. Young’s piece makes some of the most explicit references to the modes of healing discussed in The Body Keeps the Score, including EMDR and meditation.
The series will close on July 2, 2020, with a new work by Angélica Negrón, which will integrate footage documenting the process of the work — and The Processing Series — as it comes together: a literal culmination of the series. This approach speaks to the process of processing, which is often slow to unfold, and done without a roadmap. (The presentation, whose conception and scope continue to evolve, will also involve original music by Dhegrae.)
For Dhegrae, who went through a few different ideations for The Processing Series before landing on the four-concert, multi-month approach, this seems like the right fit, and one that can be used to help audiences who follow the entire series begin to connect with their own trauma as well as the trauma of others.
“Once we can feel how trauma has affected us, we can see how it’s affected other people, and — not to erase anyone’s story — it almost doesn’t matter what happened, because we can relate to the resultant feeling,” Dhegrae explains. That said, she considers talking about goals for the series to be a slippery slope. “I am sick and tired of preachy art,” she says. “ I don’t like to be shouted at, I don’t like to be lectured, and I think we all have a lot of fatigue from that as well.”
Unlike many singers, Dhegrae is in a unique situation: singing about an act of trauma as both its performer and the subject of that trauma. It would be as though Janet Dalrymple, the real-life woman behind Lucia di Lammermoor, were to sing Donizetti’s bel canto tragedy. It can very quickly ask too much of an audience. Dhegrae – a speaker with the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) – wants to be a guide for audiences, rather than a pundit.
“I want to help the audience go through the experience,” she says. “Because I’m totally cool with talking about it, I’m totally cool with sharing it, but I realized that I’ve gotten to that place. I didn’t start there. And the audience is not starting there. So how to do that is the craft of theater.”
As Dhegrae says this, almost as if on cue, a man in the apartment next door begins to sing. The work is an aria from Tosca, an opera wrapped up in sexual assault, trauma, and totalitarian-level despair. The relevance isn’t lost on Dhegrae. Her eyes flicker with recognition and she lets out a short laugh, before moving on.
Lucy Dhegrae starts The Processing Series at National Sawdust on Nov. 23 at 7pm; nationalsawdust.org
Olivia Giovetti has written for the Washington Post, Lit Hub, Electric Literature, The Millions, NPR, and VAN. She’s formerly served on staff at Time Out New York and WNYC, and her writing has also been heard onstage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the Next Wave Festival.