I’m Not Here Just to Witness Your Pain; I’m Here to See You

The Heartland Collective’s Little Bird Shows How to Make #MeToo Art

The bayou. A dead girl in torn and muddied tulle. Two living girls, best friends forever. And, lurking between twisted swamp trees, the Hunter.

The Heartland Collective’s Little Bird is perfect, full and beautiful, and it arrives in the #MeToo movement like a heaven-sent rain.

#MeToo stories are everywhere. Good. #Progress. But sometimes reading these stories is a dreary duty: stiffen your spine, show respect for others’ pain, listen. Don’t flinch. Don’t look away. I tell myself that maybe someday we as a society will have earned the right to some escapist fantasy, but right now we must witness these revelations.

And it is so hard because none of this is new. We knew all along. What’s different is talking about it, and so we gamely agree to talk: endlessly ripping open our wounds to prove to others that yes, the problem is real, or letting others pour their wounded hearts in to ours. And we promise each other that by listening something is changing. Listening to #MeToo stories is a gift we give each other.

But sometimes we get a gift in return, and that’s what Little Bird is: proof that art can shine a light and also heal.

We witness each other’s pain because we care. It is the highest form of love and, I think, one of the most difficult: to sit in silence and accept another’s pain, to let it wash over you, without rushing to fix it. But sometimes I wonder if we’ve mistaken “I will witness your pain,” for the true goal, which is, “I will see you.”

As a person, as a whole.

Little Bird is a reminder of how to see; this is its gift to us.

I am normally skeptical of catharsis; sometimes it seems like emotional torture porn for people who enjoy crying far more than I ever will. And I have been burned by stories that used rape and suicide as mere plot devices. Even some #MeToo stories, in their rush to showcase retribution, sometimes handle these themes too bluntly, and the weapon they hoped to make only ends up hurting those they claim to protect.

But Little Bird is a complete story, and in doing so reminds me of the purpose of all this witnessing. When the story is complete, the aesthetic whole insulates from the numbing effects of mass horror, while also deepening the original rich source of the whole movement: that we care for one another, that we deserve better, that there is beauty in every life and together we can defeat the wolves.

Little Bird proves that themes are heavy only when handled ineptly; handled well, they are healing.

To be clear, Little Bird does not shy away from the societal implications. In a brilliant bit of casting, one male actor plays all the male characters — the men giving inappropriate gifts, asking for a smile, for a little twirl. But the sharp societal commentary doesn’t efface the male characters, who remain frighteningly real, even as the point is made about the similar beliefs that enable them.

A recurring theme is the feeling of predatory eyes. Willa, only thirteen, feels unceasingly watched as she becomes a woman in the eyes of the men around her (too soon! She’s only thirteen!). She is learning an ugly truth: Becoming a woman is being seen too much. As soon as we leave childhood, the male gaze begins pressing against us, turning our body into an impenetrable prison. We disappear, alienated from the world and from ourselves. All that remains is the body as vehicle for predation.

And in response, we who care try frantically to turn our own eyes on the predators, to let them know they are seen. We will be the spotlight that drives out the roaches!

But sometimes, in our haste to use our eyes as tools of revenge, we forget another type of seeing that we must do: with softer light and sustained focus, seeing women fully and with love, not as statistics. We must restore the personhood that was taken.

There is a moment in Little Bird when the two best friends are talking after a period of grievous separation. They are saying the same things word-for-word that they said in an earlier scene, but the knowledge of what has happened since lies between them. They finish the recitation, and for a heartbreaking moment you worry that their suffering will drive them apart. Then the lights change ever so slightly and you know that, whatever terrible things have happened, you can relax into the love that these two women have for each other. When the violin starts and you are transported by the grief and the release.

Because you know that they have seen each other, and that is beautiful. And you got to see them as well.

In a swamp, by a tree that holds a little bird in its branches.