Family Affair (Colvard, 2010)

Family Affair

One in four.

In an age of information glut, the power of certain numbers lies not in their ability to shock us but in their ability to slide by, barely making an impression.

One in four women over the age of eighteen has experienced some form of sexual abuse.

I stared at the research forwarded to me in preparation for watching Chico Colvard’s Family Affair. This number couldn’t possibly be right, could it?

I am, I have always thought, a sympathetic, egalitarian Christian. I’ve even used “the other ‘F’ word” (feminist) to describe myself on occasion. How could I not know this?

I thought about all the women I have known in my adult life. Friends. Family. At church. At school. Students I have taught. Teachers who have taught me. How could one in four be true when….well, when I hadn’t met any?

Yes, I guess sometimes (I hope only sometimes), I can be that naïve. I knew plenty of women who have had that experience. I just didn’t know that I knew them.

Chico Colvard did not know he was going to make a documentary about his sisters, Angelika, Paula, and Chiquita, when he began asking them to talk about the abuses, including incest, they suffered from their father. (In one of the film’s many tragic ironies, the incest was revealed only when the childhood Chico, imitating his hero, The Rifleman, accidentally shot his sister—an event she now calls a blessing because it led to the secret being revealed.)

Colvard admitted to the audience at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival that he went into the project with an attitude that was “pretty judgmental.” At times, he, like the audience who questioned him at the festival, struggled to understand how his sisters could maintain a relationship with their father (who served less than a year in prison). “I started to understand the eternal longing for family,” he said about listening to them.

Ultimately, however, the need to understand and the need to explain, while closely related, are not identical. “They are the survivors,” he said of his sisters, “they get to do whatever they want.” It is this ability to subordinate his own need to pass judgment to the greater need of his sisters to survive in any way possible that paradoxically allows Colvard to confront his own anger at his father while accepting his sisters’ various (and varied) ways of coming to terms with the experiences that happened to them.

By presenting the material as a family story, the film manages to avoid one of the huge problems of personal narratives—the weight of making one experience, however moving or dramatic, stand in for that of all victims. Because families are such complex and enmeshed little communities, Family Affair doesn’t come across as advocating one right or correct way of responding to abusers or their victims. Colvard was more motivated by the hope that he could provide a context that would empower his sisters to talk openly about their experience than he was by any desire to validate or repudiate how they chose to respond to that choice.

What is rare—and in my mind, valuable—about the film, is that the eschewing of judgments towards various coping strategies is a product of the plurality of the victims’ experiences and not of an affected amorality that refuses to make moral judgments at all. The plurality of victims and the diversity of their responses nudges the viewer gently but resolutely past the primary concern for one right answer to a deeper, more probing examination of what are the right questions. The question of “how can I understand?” gives way that of, “How can I, in love, do right by another person?”

One in four.

I wonder what I could learn if I stopped trying to understand long enough to just listen?

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