The Ragdoll Project by Ebony Williams

Published: 18 November 2014

I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and have struggled with PTSD for many years and have not only been in therapy but also prescribed medication to manage symptoms such as severe anxiety, nightmares, and intrusive thoughts. While earning an MFA in writing, I began writing, How to Build A Ragdoll, a work of creative non-fiction that tells the story of sexual violence in the lives of generations of women in my family across the African diaspora including my own. I tell our stories through the body of a ragdoll that is built, broken, mended time and time again. In order to write this manuscript I developed exercises to connect with my feelings and my body, pull out memories, and connect with ancestors who may not have had the ability or opportunity to speak out. While this process was extremely difficult, for the first time in my life, I could seperate who I am from what happened to me and my doll became my container, my safe place, and her body as an extension of my own allowed me to reclaim my own.It wasn’t long before I developed the Ragdoll Project. I took the exercises that helped me and shaped them into a unique and flexible healing arts workshop experience that empowers trauma survivors, especially victims of gender based violence. Through doll making, writing, visual arts, music, and movement, participants tell, explore, and transform their stories of trauma. In The Limits of Talk, Van der Kolk’s work is deeply explored as he speaks to the brain as an organ that, as it matures, becomes geared to promote action. “ People are physically organized to respond to things that happen to them with actions that change the situation.” The article goes onto say that when someone has been through a traumatizing event and cannot do anything about it or reverse it or correct it, “They freeze, explode, or engage in irrelevant actions” and in order to regulate their systems, they may engage in unhealthy coping strategies like substance abuse and engaging in violence towards themselves or others. As a biological organism, according to Van der Kolk, it is essential survivors can reestablish a sense of physical safety and if not, PTSD can develop.”

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Through the act of building a body, of making a ragdoll, survivors separate who they are from what happened to them. These dolls act as containers, safe places, helping participants create new meaning around their bodies and reclaim their sense of self. In addition, this process works to help participants develop and/or strengthen the social emotional skills often impacted by the witnessing or experiencing of a traumatic event. Such skills include decision making, communication, building self-esteem and positive self-image, recognizing and labeling feelings, coping skills, and future oriented thinking, all important in navigating life and interpersonal relationships in a healthy way.

It’s been almost four years since I have been doing Ragdoll workshops some of which have been conducted at The Riverside Art Museum, Riverside Community Arts Association, CalState Los Angeles, Scripps College, and most recently at A Window Between Worlds, a Los Angeles healing arts non-profit. Participants share experiencing the following:

“I’m so empowered and feel joy for today’s journey into making a ragdoll. It was profound to allow my inner child to come out and non-verbally speak to me. She was happier to be acknowledged and validated for her inner courage to keep going toward her inner healing.”

“My ragdoll will hold all my pain so I can let go of it. She’s brave enough to hold it and strong enough not to let it eat her.”

“I am learning to really take to heart my journey, my healing. I want to be healthy of heart, soul, and body.”

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It’s no wonder that my revolution includes a sea of ragdolls. I hope empowered, courageous, brave, embodied  survivors will one day create dolls upon dolls and line them upon the steps of police stations, courthouses, college campus administration buildings in protest, demanding their stories be heard. One doll for each girl or woman raped or sexually abused. A doll for each of the one in seven men assaulted. A doll for each LGBTQIA person raped. A doll for each physically disabled or elderly person sexually violated. Dolls for the 60% of unreported sexual assaults. My revolution is about creating containers to hold the pain of the past to allow the physical, emotionally, and spiritual room for survivors to create empowered futures on their own terms.

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Ebony Williams
Founder, The Ragdoll Project
MFT Trainee, YWCA Sexual Assault Crisis Center- Long Beach
 M.A. Marriage & Family Therapy, Pacific Oaks College 2016
M.F.A. Writing/Critical Studies, The California Institute of the Arts 2012