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Art People: Performer, activist Donna Jenson of Leverett

  • Donna Jenson sits in her home in Leverett. She does a one-woman theater piece about her experience as an incest survivor. She was abused from ages seven to 12 by her father.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY

    Donna Jenson sits in her home in Leverett. She does a one-woman theater piece about her experience as an incest survivor. She was abused from ages seven to 12 by her father.
    AYRIKA WHITNEY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Donna Jenson sits in her home in Leverett. She does a one-woman theater piece about her experience as an incest survivor. She was abused from ages seven to 12 by her father.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY

    Donna Jenson sits in her home in Leverett. She does a one-woman theater piece about her experience as an incest survivor. She was abused from ages seven to 12 by her father.
    AYRIKA WHITNEY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Donna Jenson sits in her home in Leverett. She does a one-woman theater piece about her experience as an incest survivor. She was abused from ages seven to 12 by her father.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY

    Donna Jenson sits in her home in Leverett. She does a one-woman theater piece about her experience as an incest survivor. She was abused from ages seven to 12 by her father.
    AYRIKA WHITNEY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Donna Jenson sits in her home in Leverett. She does a one-woman theater piece about her experience as an incest survivor. She was abused from ages seven to 12 by her father.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY

    Donna Jenson sits in her home in Leverett. She does a one-woman theater piece about her experience as an incest survivor. She was abused from ages seven to 12 by her father.
    AYRIKA WHITNEY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Donna Jenson sits in her home in Leverett. She does a one-woman theater piece about her experience as an incest survivor. She was abused from ages seven to 12 by her father.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY

    Donna Jenson sits in her home in Leverett. She does a one-woman theater piece about her experience as an incest survivor. She was abused from ages seven to 12 by her father.
    AYRIKA WHITNEY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Donna Jenson sits in her home in Leverett. She does a one-woman theater piece about her experience as an incest survivor. She was abused from ages seven to 12 by her father.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY

    Donna Jenson sits in her home in Leverett. She does a one-woman theater piece about her experience as an incest survivor. She was abused from ages seven to 12 by her father.
    AYRIKA WHITNEY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Donna Jenson sits in her home in Leverett. She does a one-woman theater piece about her experience as an incest survivor. She was abused from ages seven to 12 by her father.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY
  • Donna Jenson sits in her home in Leverett. She does a one-woman theater piece about her experience as an incest survivor. She was abused from ages seven to 12 by her father.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY
  • Donna Jenson sits in her home in Leverett. She does a one-woman theater piece about her experience as an incest survivor. She was abused from ages seven to 12 by her father.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY
  • Donna Jenson sits in her home in Leverett. She does a one-woman theater piece about her experience as an incest survivor. She was abused from ages seven to 12 by her father.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY
  • Donna Jenson sits in her home in Leverett. She does a one-woman theater piece about her experience as an incest survivor. She was abused from ages seven to 12 by her father.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY
  • Donna Jenson sits in her home in Leverett. She does a one-woman theater piece about her experience as an incest survivor. She was abused from ages seven to 12 by her father.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY

When Donna Jenson was a child, she says, her father abused her. For the first seven years of her life, the abuse was physical and emotional. When Jenson was 7, he sexually assaulted her, and continued to do so until she was about 12.

That was 54 years ago. But Jenson, 66, a longtime activist and community organizer who has worked with oppressed groups, is fighting back — not against her dad — he died when she was in her mid-40s — but, against the years of physical and emotional pain that she suffered because of him.

The work she has done to “come out” as a survivor, as she calls it, began when she was 28. That’s when she knew she had a lot of work ahead of her if she wanted to heal. “I couldn’t just stuff it down anymore,” she said.

The realization led her to counseling and therapy. Eventually, she began to write her story down, working on it for 14 years as part of a writers’ group. “Writing,” she said, “is an incredibly healing process.”

Finally, a friend suggested she turn her story into a play.

“She said she could see me in front of an audience, riffing about my life,” Jenson recalled in an interview last week at her Leverett home.

The idea appealed to her. She had acted in high school and, as a community organizer, she’d done plenty of public speaking. Plus, she says, because she has “an activist’s soul,” she wanted to do something to help stop child sexual abuse.

“It’s real easy to tune out with this stuff,” she said. “People don’t want to deal with this issue.”

She figured a play would engage audiences in a way that a less dramatic presentation might not. “I wanted to offer them something that keeps them in the room,” she said.

With the help of local writers and theater professionals, Jenson spent seven years crafting her one-woman play. In the 60-minute presentation, “What She Knows: One Woman’s Way Through Incest to Joy,” Jenson depicts a full range of what it was like to grow up in a sexually abusive family — and the things she did to reclaim her life.

She commissioned local musician John Sheldon to write a score, as well as two songs, which Jenson sings. Together, they have performed the play for survivors of sexual abuse and for young abusers, as well as for state legislators and various organizations. After every performance, they open up the floor for what Jenson calls “free-wheeling discussions.”

The play serves as a way to reach out — to get people to pay attention to the issue, she says, but it also contributes to her own healing. “Every time I get up and do it, I heal a little bit more,” she said.

Whenever Jenson’s father abused her, he would say, “You tell anyone and I’ll kill you.”

That voice has been embedded in Jenson’s consciousness since she was a small child. But, now, she says, “It doesn’t stop me. Now I can hear it and go, ‘Shut up. I’ve got something to do here.’ ”

— Kathleen Mellen

For more information about Donna Jenson’s play, as well as her child sexual abuse prevention project, “Time to Tell,” visit her website at www.timetotell.org.

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