I was 13 the first time a girl told me she had been raped by a family member. We were riding a bus across the Great Plains during a cross-country camping trip for 45 teenagers. To this day, I don't know why she confided in me. We weren't dating; I barely even knew her. Maybe she just needed to tell someone, and I was the first guy who'd ever bothered to listen.
At that age, rape and incest were so unfathomable to me that I didn't know how to respond, so I said nothing. This infuriated her, and she didn't speak to me for the rest of the summer. I remember hoping to never hear another story as horrible as hers. By the end of the six-week trip, two other girls on the bus had told me their own stories of rape or incest.
Since then, many other people, both women and men, have confided in me about their sexual traumas. Nearly all the victims knew their perpetrators; as I recall, none ever saw them brought to justice. One woman in her late twenties still lived with the father who'd raped her repeatedly when she was a child. For years, I assumed that I'd heard so many stories because I was a good listener. Now I know that it's because so many people have these stories to tell -- one in six women, by some estimates.
Filmmaker Angela Shelton discovered the same thing in the summer of 2001. The lead actress in director Gavin O'Connor's 1995 film, Comfortably Numb, and co-writer/ producer of O'Connor's 1999 film Tumbleweeds, Shelton drove across the United States in an RV to make a movie about all the women she could find who shared her name. The filmmaker didn't set out to make a documentary about sexual violence, but she soon discovered that of the 40 Angela Sheltons who would speak to her, 24 had been raped, beaten or molested. She herself had been molested repeatedly by her father and stepbrother from the time she was 3 until she was removed from the home at age 8.
The project became a spiritual journey that not only transformed the filmmaker's life but those of dozens of other Angela Sheltons. In the process, it launched a nationwide movement to expose the hidden epidemic of sexual abuse in America.
Shelton, now 32, lives in Los Angeles but travels extensively promoting her film, speaking at schools and community groups, and raising money for rape crisis centers. Ten percent of the proceeds from the film go to sexual violence awareness groups, which also help sell or distribute the film. Shelton brings her film to the University of Vermont on April 13 as part of Sexual Violence Awareness Month. Following the free screening, audience members will have an opportunity to meet the filmmaker and discuss her project.
Despite its dark subject, Searching for Angela Shelton tells a remarkably uplifting and at times even humorous story of healing, forgiveness and the power of individuals to overcome enormous personal trauma. In it, Shelton (the filmmaker) reconciles with her estranged stepbrother, who was himself a victim of sexual abuse, and confronts her father on Father's Day.
The documentary follows Shelton's travels over more than 13,000 miles in 57 days, during which we meet a number of Angela Sheltons, as well as their spouses, friends and families, and see where they live and work. The film is told with brutal, unsparing honesty; in one scene, the filmmaker flies into a fit of rage after her father denies having molested her. In another, we see her wake up from a nightmare about visiting her father -- and then promptly break wind.
In a phone interview with Seven Days, Shelton describes the monumental impact this project has had on her life. "It's like in the cartoons when an anvil falls out of the sky and hits you in the head," she says. "That's kind of how I felt."
Shelton says she could have used any name and gotten similar results -- she wasn't even born Angela Shelton, but dropped her father's surname at age 18. Although the Angela Sheltons differ in terms of race, geography and socioeconomic background, it's astounding how much they have in common. For example, nearly all of them work as caregivers of some kind, including two who are nursery-room nurses. One Angela Shelton is even employed as an undercover investigator tracking sexual predators; ironically, she lives in the same North Carolina town as the filmmaker's abusive father.
What's remarkable is how easily Shelton got all these women to speak about their personal lives. When she first began phoning the Angela Sheltons, many suspected her of being a con artist who was trying to steal their credit-card numbers. In order to make them feel more comfortable, Shelton told them about herself, how she'd worked as an actress, screenwriter and filmmaker and had grown up in an abusive household in Asheville, North Carolina. "As soon as I told them all about my life," she says, "that's when the floodgates opened."
Not all the Angela Sheltons agreed to be interviewed on film, and several who did later asked not to be included in the movie. Two others agreed to have their stories told provided that their locations weren't disclosed. Their stories are among the film's most heart-wrenching. "Don't come by here," one Angela Shelton tells the filmmaker by phone, audibly drunk. "I'm a nobody ... I'm lower than a fucking dog." Another Angela Shelton confesses that after she told her father she'd been raped as a teenager, he took her attacker out for a beer.
Shelton spent three months traveling across the country with her five-person crew, only two of whom knew each other before the trip began. There were long hours and a grueling shooting schedule; the crew took only two days off in 57. Although Shelton "was adamant about us having fun," she says, there were times when the experience was overwhelming, such as when Shelton confronted her father. "We were all an emotional wreck," she recalls. "[We learned] there was only one of us on the RV who didn't have a past of abuse."
For Shelton, the hardest part wasn't the road trip or even confronting her father. It was editing the movie, which she did alone in her garage. "It's one thing to talk about your past and confront your perpetrator," Shelton says. "It's a whole other thing to have it on film and watch it every single day for three years."
What made it worthwhile, she says, has been the film's enormous impact. After television appearances on "Oprah" and "48 Hours," Shelton was inundated with letters, phone calls and emails from people around the world. About 50 other Angela Sheltons have since contacted her, including many teenagers. Sadly, she says, a large number of them were also beaten, molested or abused.
In fact, the response was so overwhelming that Shelton was literally made ill by all their stories. "I was told that I had compassion fatigue," she says. "I had no idea that actually existed. I'm like, 'That sounds so L.A.'"
Shelton is now writing a book about her spiritual journey entitled Piecing Myself Together. She says she's still in contact with several of the Angela Sheltons from the film, including several who join her at speaking engagements on incest and domestic violence. Since the film's release, three of the women have become police officers.
Not everyone reacts positively to the film. Often when she speaks, Shelton reports, there's an abuser in the audience. Some come forward to confess and apologize for their offenses, but others are confrontational. "The only people who've had a real problem with me are perpetrators," Shelton says. "Or else it's people who have such heinous abuse backgrounds that I bring up something so deep within them that they don't want to talk about it and instead they project their anger on me."
Asked if she thinks the problem is getting better or worse, Shelton says, "I think it's getting much better. I think there is a transformation happening, based on what I see on the streets."
Then again, this film has also revealed to her how pervasive the problem is. Wherever she goes, Shelton says, she meets abuse victims, from the cab driver who drove her on the morning of our interview -- he told her that both of his wives had been molested as children -- to the security woman in the airport who screened her luggage that day. Recently, Shelton was horrified to learn that a child in her own family had contracted a venereal disease from her biological father. She's the same age Shelton was when her molestation began.
"This is not a women's issue," Shelton says emphatically. "It drives me crazy when people say that. A man raped and molested me. It's my issue now?"
In one sense, this is Shelton's issue now -- or, more accurately, her cause. Though she plans to continue making movies that aren't about rape or molestation, she's in the process of creating the Angela Shelton Foundation for sexual abuse victims. Next year, Shelton will travel around the country, with backing from The Lifetime Channel, to lobby for tougher state and federal laws on sexual violence. Though this film is complete, Shelton says, there's much more work to be done. "It's not going to stop here, by any stretch. It's actually just begun."