Music Legend Tori Amos on the Moment that Changed Her Life and Career

Each month, RAINN highlights a member of the National Leadership Council (NLC). The NLC is a group of dedicated individuals who have shown their commitment to RAINN’s mission of supporting survivors and ending sexual violence.

This month RAINN’s Christy Rozek checked in with Tori Amos, survivor, singer-songwriter, and the first national spokesperson for RAINN.

How did you become RAINN’s first national spokesperson?

 

In 1994, I was touring and playing songs that had been released on an album called Little Earthquakes and there was a song on it called “Me and a Gun” about my own experience as a survivor. People would come to the live shows and request that I sing it. Usually, I would leave shows with letters and stories from fans disclosing, feeling like they could open up and talk with me about their experience with the song.

It happened on this summer evening in America in the midwest, I was singing this song, and a young woman fainted and collapsed near the front of the stage. She was carried out by security to the backstage area.

Once I finished the show, the young woman had recovered and we were watching over her backstage. She said to me, “Can I come with you? I will do anything. My stepfather raped me last night and he’ll rape me when I get home tonight. And again tomorrow night.”

I thought—there’s only one answer to this, to help. But I couldn’t find any help. I was in the middle of the midwest, I was going to another show for the next night in another town. My legal advisor got on the line with me and said I would be arrested if I crossed state lines with her that night because she wasn’t 18 yet. She and I were both devastated. I didn’t know what to do to help. This is a different time, the internet and the things we know now, we didn’t know then. I watched her walk out that door, watched her turn back and look at me, shattered. And I never saw her again.

I’ve heard hundreds of stories and received thousands of letters from survivors. But what happened that night with that young woman was a life-changing moment. I had been called to action and was unable to do anything, I was forced to send her back. I know we needed a better way. I still think about her.

I got on the phone and told the story to some of the women at my record label. They were so motivated that they got me in touch with Scott Berkowitz. He was trying at that point to get the National Sexual Assault Hotline interconnected in the country so survivors could call for free and get help. I finally had a resource to share, I could take action.

Especially as a survivor yourself, is it hard to receive letters and hear stories from survivors who disclose to you?

I feel really humbled and grateful that somebody trusts me enough to speak about it. Sometimes people need to tell what happened to them in a space where they won’t have someone shake their head at them and say “you’re making this up.”

I feel so much responsibility to each person who tells me what happened to them. They need help and guidance, they need to be heard. A lot of the time, I direct them to RAINN.

What has COVID meant for survivors?

One of the tragedies of this pandemic is that kids can’t go to school and teachers can’t pick up on these signs of abuse happening. They’re missing that safety net, whether it’s a teacher or somebody at the school. There’s that set of eyes that’s objective and concerned.

We’ve been hearing so many stories of people being isolated at home with an abuser, and far too many of them are children. I know that at RAINN, they’ve been getting more calls and chats during this time, and it’s now up to 30,000 a month, and for the first time ever, more than half of those reaching out online are children.

People need to feel safe when they close their door at night. I think about all those minors who are not safe, who are trapped behind a locked door.

How have you seen RAINN change since you got involved in 1994?

You all are on the front line, doing it every day. I have so much admiration for all of you. RAINN has grown so much and has come so far since 1994. When we visited [the RAINN office in Washington, D.C.] last year, my daughter and I walked out and said to each other, “This gave us hope that people dedicate their lives to this.”

When it occurred to me that [because of COVID] RAINN’s hotline had to go completely remote with no interruption in service, I was blown away. I also think about the amount of training and mental health support of those working on the hotlines. This doesn’t just happen without a tremendous time investment to get the skills and set up a network.

There are a lot of people who don’t really know how much it takes to run an organization like RAINN. People want and need it to be there, but don’t realize how it happens. Until I went and saw it with my own eyes, I didn’t realize how involved and dedicated it was. It gives me so much hope knowing that you guys are there.

How has your passion for ending sexual violence influenced your music?

It took awhile for me to realize that I wasn’t going to be a top 40 writer. I didn’t know what type of writer I would be until I had experiences of my own and had to face some dark things in my life. In order to deal with that, I wrote my way out of my own private hell. Writing songs was the only way I was going to heal. The music, for whatever reason—I’ve had it in my life since I was two and a half—it became more than music, it became oxygen. It became transformational. It was the thing that began to help me recover.

You don’t always know what your calling is until it’s upon you. I stopped trying to write music to be popular, and instead wrote stories that moved me. It took me on a different artistic journey for the rest of my life.

How have you seen awareness and response to sexual violence change over the last 26 years?

Because people can interact on the internet and share their stories, because RAINN has become such a force, people can find out where to go and get help now much better than they could before.

At the same time though, what has been disturbing is that there is almost a hall pass for very powerful people, and not just in the entertainment industry. I write about this in my book Resistance. I’ve got letters and messages from survivors who have been abused by powerful people in Washington. These “leaders” turn a blind eye to the needs of survivors. Powerful people are changing their behavior only because their job is threatened. It’s not because they have a conscious awareness that assaulting somebody is life changing for that person.

A special little song is coming for those powerful people in Washington.

But I see this new generation coming up and showing they want to address this and are choosing to be advocates to end sexual violence. That gives me hope.

I was working with a woman recently who spoke to me about having to hide in the office while working in finance in the early 1980s. She would have to go and hide during lunch hours so she wouldn’t get fondled and pinched. It was part of the culture, they would turn a blind eye. I think of people of that generation who suffered, who went through trauma, and had nowhere to turn. I hope the younger generation realizes, enough is enough.

And I think RAINN is really helping to do that. You’re all out there, putting out information that is clear. I think it’s really needed because education is so important.

How can families help?

What’s been brought to my attention over the years is that, when the assault happens within a family, or extended family, and there’s denial with other members of the family, the survivor becomes isolated and has to choose between their truth and what happened, or to back down on the truth in order to stay accepted in that family.

So there is another side to this educational process; how can families learn how to deal with this when it’s been revealed that there has been an assault within the family unit. There’s a lot of blame and shame that we all work through. That’s why counseling is so important. That’s why calling someone at RAINN and being able to talk about it in a safe place is so important.

Final thoughts?

Working with you all—I’ll tell you—it really grounds a person. Some people don’t think about this issue unless they’re directly touched by it. They’re not thinking about the effects this is having on minors who are trapped with abusers. Big hugs from across the Atlantic Ocean to all of you.

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