Secret Survivor: An Interview with Amita Swadhin
On the morning of July 16, 2012, I received a letter from Amita Swadhin, an activist and educator who is at the forefront of the movement to end Child Sexual Abuse. Her father Vashisht “Victor” Vaid was put on probation twenty years ago for sexually assaulting her during her childhood. Amita had just discovered Vaid was touting himself as a spiritual leader in New York, New Jersey and online through publishing books on New Age astrology and Hindu spirituality. As part of the New World’s Fair, Vaid was going to be “presenting and unveiling great esoteric secrets to humanity” at the Unisphere behind the Queens Museum of Art in Flushing Meadows Park.
Over the last twenty years, Amita had learned her father had also sexually assaulted at least seven other women and young girls in her family and community – truths she came to know from the direct disclosures of these other survivors. Amita shared her own story of living through both her father’s violence and the failure of the criminal legal system to hold him accountable, as well as her healing journey, with the world through Secret Survivors, a theater project-turned-documentary she conceived for Ping Chong & Co., a New York City-based performance group.
When Amita discovered the New World’s Fair was showcasing her father as a spiritual leader, she was horrified and outraged. Most of all, she worried her father would use this new platform to shield himself from accountability for all of the violence he had committed, or worse, to gain access to new victims. To prevent her father from continuing to hurt others, Amita reached out to the organizers of the festival and her community of friends, comrades and chosen family in New York City, where she had been an organizer for 13 years.
It was important for Amita and many of us in her community that Vaid not be placed in a position of spiritual leadership. We know from highly publicized cases, such as those involving the Catholic Church that rape within a holy area is considered by many believers to be impossible. This belief gives perpetrators carte blanche and further silences survivors. In fact, the Catholic Church is one the most active lobbyists to curb the statute of limitations, making it impossible for adult survivors of Child Sexual Abuse to prosecute perpetrators who hurt them in their childhoods.
At the same time, there is evidence that those who commit rape without getting caught will go on to sexually assault multiple victims. In a 2002 study Repeat Rape and Multiple Offending Among Undetected Rapists,researchers Lisak and Miller found undetected rapists averaged close to six victims each, and were likelier to commit multiple acts of other forms of violence as well. Child Sexual Abuse has reached epidemic proportions in the United States. According to the US Centers for Disease Control, one out of every four girls and one out of every six boys will be sexually abused by the age of eighteen. If one adds to this the statistic that between 64% and 96% of all rapes are never reported to criminal justice authorities, the numbers skyrocket.
For The Feminist Wire, in follow-up to our recent forum on violence, I wanted to document the events that unfolded after Amita reached out to the New World’s Fair and to her community of supporters. The actions of the New World’s Fair were blatant reminders of how individuals in positions of power uphold the silence that makes Child Sexual Abuse the epidemic it is. At the same time, the support of Amita’s community and the Queens Museum of Art was a testament to how structures of violence can be challenged and will one day, with effort, be dismantled.
BR: How did you find out Vaid was presenting at the New World’s Fair? Could you describe your initial feelings?
AS: This may sound strange, but I periodically “Google” my father to stay abreast of his whereabouts and activities; like most survivors of sexual assault in the US, I have to live with the knowledge that the person who harmed me so deeply (and in my case, repeatedly) is roaming free in the world. For my own safety and the safety of my family, who live in the same state as my father, I keep tabs on him at least once a year (and lately, because of the public nature of Secret Survivors, at least a few times a year).
Not much has come of those Google searches in the past, but on the Sunday before the New World’s Fair, I found him listed, with a bio and photo, on the Fair’s website as a keynote speaker for their event on “human evolution.” It was the first time I learned my father has recently published a series of books online focused on new age “wisdom,” including titles such as “The Radiant Words of Love and Wisdom,” and “The Evolutionary Plan.”
So many emotions ran through me in that moment, including shock and rage at my father’s audacity to present himself to the world as a spiritual healer and leader, even after all the violence he has so unapologetically committed, and disbelief that he has managed to connect with people who support him, even after all of the publicity Secret Survivors has received in the past three years.
I decided to give the organizers of the New World’s Fair the benefit of the doubt, understanding it was unlikely they knew anything about my father’s history of violence, and emailed them right away to let them know this history, requesting to have my father removed from the speakers lineup, have the reason for his removal publicized and have him replaced with a speaker working to end child sexual assault. I sent the following email:
Dear Kevin and Renee:
I am writing to you with shock and concern about the choice you have made to invite Vashisht to be a guest speaker for next weekend’s 2012 New World Fair. I am the eldest child of Vashisht Vaid, and need to inform you that you have been duped by his self-constructed illusion of his “spiritual practice” and of his existence as a person devoted to wellness and justice in any way, shape or form.
I prosecuted my father in 1991, when I was 13 years old, for raping me repeatedly from the ages of 4 to 12. During these years, he also forced me to consume pornography, and physically and emotionally abused and controlled me. He was also sexually, verbally, physically and emotionally abusive to my mother.
Due to prosecutors threatening to also prosecute my mother (who did not sexually abuse me), I was too frightened to move forward with my testimony, and never served as a witness against my father in court. He received five years probation, but no jail time. My mother finally found the courage to divorce him, facing shame and exile imposed on her by my fathers’ friends and “cultural colleagues” in our small South Asian community in New Jersey about a year later, and within months he went on to marry a woman he had known for about three weeks, and had two more children with her. . .
He began his predatory and violent raping of little girls in our family years ago when, as a teenager and young man, he began raping female members of my family. Two of my relatives disclosed their survivorship to me when I was in high school. He also sexually assaulted other women and young girls in my community including one of my childhood friends.
I have shared my story very publicly in a project called Secret Survivors and on my own website and am prepared to take public action to let every supporter of the New World Fair know you have invited a man who rapes his own daughters, nieces, wives and other young women and girls in his community to speak at a fair that is supposedly about wellness and justice. I ask that you recant your invitation to him, and instead issue a statement from me about my father’s violence, so that members in your community, which I assume he is active in, can understand they should protect their children from him and hold him accountable for his violence. …
I attempted to prosecute my father with the whole truth when I was 16 years old, a year after I started therapy and felt safe enough to tell my story, only to learn I could not, due to double jeopardy. I would like nothing more than to see my father unable to ever harm anyone again, so I must resort to reaching out to you to let you know the truth…I await your reply eagerly, and hope you will take action to ensure this man is prevented from doing further harm and is exposed for the violent and unrepentant rapist of children and women he has been for over 40 years.
BR: After you sent your initial email to Renee and Kevin, what was their response?
AS: Kevin, one of the organizers of the New World’s Fair, was the first to respond to my email. To my surprise, he emphasized my father was doing the New World’s Fair a favor my sharing his quote-unquote esoteric knowledge with them. He also dismissed my concerns as private quote-unquote family issues, and let me know that at the last minute, my father was unable to attend the event anyway (for unstated reasons). Finally, he emphasized my concerns were a distraction from the main focus of the event – to uplift and enlighten society through culture and community.
BR: I remember when he wrote you had “nothing to be frustrated about” because Vaid was no longer speaking at the event and one of his follow up emails where he asked you not to “threaten our children’s futures” by pursuing the matter. The matter being warning others of a child rapist in their midst!
AS: I should note Kevin is the publisher and graphic designer of my father’s books, and stands to profit off the sale of these books. Even so, I was pretty shocked by Kevin’s blatant dismissal of my email (and my survivorship), and it was clear to me the New World’s Fair would not be informing their audience as to why my father was removed from the list of speakers. I responded with the following message:
I am once again shocked at the carelessness with which you dismiss my truth and the truths of all the women and children that my father has raped, sexually assaulted, psychologically abused and otherwise harmed. Vashisht has a criminal record, after all – an indictment by his own admission of sexually assaulting me when I was a child (which resulted in his probation time). In a time in which we should all be learning from the mistakes of the Penn State administration, who so egregiously colluded with Sandusky and his repeated sexual assault of young boys, it is disappointing to see such patterns continue, and particularly disturbing to see them continue under the guise of “evolution” and in the name of a better world.
To dismiss repeated acts of child sexual assault and intimate partner violence perpetrated by my father (and too many like him) as “family issues” is certainly to collude with the silence, shaming and discrediting of victims that allows this endemic violence to persist. You should know, in case you do not already, that at least 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused by the age of 18 (this is a US Centers for Disease Control statistic). My vision for an evolved world certainly requires people who rape children to be held accountable for their actions. Does yours?
I remain disappointed you are framing my father’s removal from the speaker’s list for this event as completely disconnected from the violence he has committed, and that you are refusing to publicize this history of violence. This is a missed opportunity to both let people who have learned about Vashisht through your publicizing his bio (and his books) know that he is a danger to children and women, and to call upon all people invested in a better world to work towards ending the epidemic of child sexual abuse.”
I reached out to my colleagues at the Queens Museum of Art. They backed my request to have my father removed from the speakers’ lineup (given the New World’s Fair was taking place just in front of the museum). This led Renee, who had co-organized the New World’s Fair with Kevin, to reach out to me via email as well. She informed me she and Kevin had explained the situation to my father, and that he would not be attending the event. She also emphasized her belief that addressing my requests for the audience to be informed about why my father was removed from the event, or to add a speaker focused on child sexual assault prevention would detract from the event’s platform, focused on quote-unquote health revolution and evolution.
The New World’s Fair had for months been promoting my father (through their website) as a spiritual leader with ‘esoteric’ knowledge. Moreover, Kevin and Renee refused to tell me exactly what they had said to my father, despite my requesting, for safety purposes, to know whether they had mentioned my requests to him. I feared retaliation by my father, and also feared for the safety of anyone within the New World’s Fair community who desires to know my father but does not know his history of violence. I knew something had to be done to bring all of this to light publicly.
BR: I remember being shocked, but also thinking: Big Mistake, Kevin, big mistake. He didn’t know you are a vocal activist in the growing movement to end Child Sexual Abuse and he didn’t realize the Queens Museum is a major ally, a place I consider one of the birthplaces of South Asian arts and activism. After Kevin’s email, your supporters tried to figure out what the next best step could be: a quiet sit in, flyers, writing informational documents which would highlight warning signs that a child is in danger. . . Many of us had concerns about how we would be received walking into a community of Vaid supporters. Real fears came up about being outnumbered, of the police being called. What did you think of the process and the outcome?
AS: First and foremost, it has meant so much to me to have such a supportive community of friends and comrades to call upon in the first place. I feel incredibly privileged, knowing far too many survivors feel they have to live with the impacts of child sexual assault in complete isolation, due to the shame and stigma survivors still face, even in 2012. Many survivors I know still have to interact with the people who sexually assaulted them, mainly at family and/or community events. So first of all, I felt and still feel so blessed to have a strong and widespread community of support.
That said, I found out about the New World’s Fair after I had moved away from New York City (for the first time in my adult life). I was living so far away from my friends and family, and it was hard to process everything around the event over email, phone and Skype with friends.
Seeing my friends and comrades begin to step forward even enough to discuss the potential of taking action lifted my spirits and my courage immensely. It was a message that, at the end of the day, I have support to hold my father accountable. It was a moment to reflect on how much work I have done over the past 20 years to share more and more publicly in attempts to hold my father accountable, and how successful I have been in building solidarity and friendship with people who are able to support these efforts.
I also anticipated that, without me on the ground in New York City, it would be challenging for my friends and comrades to lead any meaningful in-person action at the New World’s Fair once my father was removed from the speaker’s lineup. So many of us are trauma survivors, including survivors of child sexual assault – I am acutely conscious of how triggering my requests for support can be (having been on the other side of that feeling many times), and I knew that many people would not feel safe in a potentially confrontational environment.
Moreover, throughout this entire ordeal, I have maintained compassion for Kevin, Renee and other people who have begun to give my father a platform as a spiritual leader. I imagine that, after months of organizing the New World’s Fair, it was shocking to receive my email and learn of my story, especially for Kevin, who has worked closely with my father to create his books. My aim throughout this effort, beyond removing my father from the speaker’s list, was to let people who had learned of him only in a positive light know the larger truth of his actions over the past 40 years, in an effort to prevent him from gaining enough trust with a new community to allow him to rape or otherwise abuse new victims.
In the end, I am glad an online flyer was created publicizing the statistics of child sexual assault in the US, naming my father as someone who has committed repeated acts of rape and other forms of violence, and demanding the New World’s Fair publicly address why my father was removed from the event. It was so heartening to see this flyer be posted and reposted throughout Facebook, tumblr, and beyond. I had no idea it would go “viral” to that extent, but given the number of survivors of child sexual assault in the world, I was not surprised.
AS: I hope other survivors of Child Sexual Assault are encouraged to speak up and speak out after seeing my example. Yet I am also conscious it’s taken me 20 years (the past three of which have been spent publicly performing my survivorship) to gain the personal power, courage, and network of support to feel safe taking this kind of public step. And even now, I struggle with very real anxiety about retaliation from my father against me or other members of my family.
We live in a culture that is quick to blame survivors for speaking out and slow to hold people accountable for acts of interpersonal sexual violence. When the online Facebook flyer began to go viral and was posted multiple times on the New World’s Fair event page, event organizers took the page down rather than address the calls to publicly discuss why my father was removed from the speaker’s lineup. Given the co-organizer Kevin is also one of the leaders behind The Global Movement (a nonprofit growing out of a slice of the Occupy Wall Street movement, that has produced a number of videos documenting the movement), I have been reflecting on the parallels and connections between his attempts to silence me, and the attempts that some members of the Occupy Wall Street community made to silence/shame of women who spoke out for being sexually assaulted within the Occupy Wall Street space, calling them ‘divisive.’ In both cases, comrades committed to transformative justice (a form of justice which holds perpetrators of violence accountable for causing harm without furthering harm by engaging the criminal legal system or shaming the perpetrator of harm) stepped forward to support survivors.
On the flip side, some people within my extended community have shared with me they disapproved of my decision to name my father so publicly, pointing out my actions are veering towards these shaming tactics that are in direct opposition to a transformative justice approach. I’ve been reflecting on this a lot in the past two months, and have concluded that while I remain committed to the politic of transformative justice, and while I do not believe the prison industrial complex will ever result in justice (given it is inherently a tool of oppression), I and many other survivors are left with very real questions about how to function safely in a world in which the people who have harmed us (and often, as in my father’s case, have gone on to harm others) roam free among us.
I know my father was sexually assaulted when he was a child, because he shared that with me, my mother and sister when I first spoke out about his violence, 21 years ago. I believe he deserves to heal. However, I also know he has sexually assaulted at least 7 young women and girls within his community, and continues to have no remorse and no accountability for his actions. He is poised to continue his violence unless we can craft a creative intervention to prevent that from happening, and I feel a great responsibility to do my part in that effort. I also feel there is a collective responsibility to hold him accountable, and know such efforts will ultimately require the communities he is part of to take action.
Finally, something I’ve asked Kevin and Renee to reflect on and I hope we all will take time to think about is how endemic the violence of sexual assault is to our world. We walk among rapists each and every day; they are our colleagues, our neighbors, our spiritual leaders, our teachers, our coaches, our friends and our family members. I do not blame anyone for not knowing the truth about interpersonal acts of violence – these acts are committed in the private sphere, after all. What matters most to me is what people do when a survivor steps forward to speak their truth. I want to see a world in which all survivors can tell the truth, get support, begin to heal, and craft creative and compassionate ways to achieve accountability.
BR: I consider the Secret Survivors project to be a truly creative method to build community and healing. Could you talk a little bit about it?
AS: Secret Survivors is a project I conceived for the NYC-based performance group Ping Chong & Co. in 2009. I was in graduate school at the time, working towards my Master’s degree in public policy, and beginning to re-immerse myself in the research about sexual violence and child sexual assault for the first time in a decade. I realized in order for policymakers to be able to craft effective and viable intervention and prevention strategies to end child sexual assault, they first needed to understand the scope and reality of this violence. Given the taboos and stigma survivors face, most never tell their story to anyone, let alone publicly. When survivors do speak out, they are often celebrated as exceptional and nearly invincible (ex: Oprah, Maya Angelou, etc.). I wanted to create a platform for survivors to speak out collectively and to be honest about our resilience and our struggles.
Ping Chong & Co. and I worked together to create a live theater performance featuring me and four other survivors: Gabriella Callender, Lucia Leandro Gimeno, RJ Maccani, Diana Sands. Sara Zatz wrote and directed the show, Secret Survivors, based on our journals and recorded conversations from a creative writing workshop and from individual interviews with each of us. Secret Survivors premiered at El Museo del Barrio in March 2011, and has been seen in part or full by about 1,000 people nationwide so far. Thanks to our funders, we have been able to create a documentary version of the project that expands on the theater performance and includes other voices (advocates, survivors, and survivors who are advocates).
We’ll be performing the live show one last time from October 25-28 at La MaMa theater in Manhattan, and we have recently released the documentary on DVD (including a curriculum guide and educational toolkit) via our website. Folks who can’t make it to New York for the performance can live stream it on October 28th for free.
Ping Chong & Co. is now exploring ways to partner with other organizations and communities across the country to replicate the show with different casts of survivors, as a way to uplift more survivors’ voices and continue to break the taboo against speaking out against child sexual assault. For more background on the show, people can also access a webinar I recently presented for the Ms. Foundation and PreventConnect.
BR: I do believe Child Sexual Abuse is an epidemic that can be eliminated for coming generations if we take action today, and I have great admiration for your work. Thank you for taking the time to write your thoughts. Do you have any final resources you’d like to share?
*The opinions and facts expressed in this article are solely the responsibility of the author and interviewee.*
Amita Swadhin is an LA-based, NYC-bred educator, storyteller, activist and consultant dedicated to fighting interpersonal and institutional violence against young people. She loves spending time with her partner and her pitbull, writing and performing poetry, building interdependence with other QTPOC organizers, and enjoying all the beauty that California has to offer.