Miss Kim's Defiance: One woman's story of healing through the arts
Have you truly forgiven your uncle?
Do you think you will ever fall in love?
Did you ever think when you were a little girl, you'd be standing here now, as you are?
Do you know you are more healed than broken?
The final lines of the play leave the crowd still. The theater is silent. As the lights fade to black, she stands on stage, closes her eyes, and exhales.
It was opening night and the applause that filled the 180 seats inside Players Theater in the West Village at the sold-out performance of Miss Kim fell silent in her ears. The lead actress, Gina Kim was taking in this moment for herself.
Putting pain on paper
Kim, 35, started writing the script five years ago. Her initial objective was simple. She just wanted to act.
Ever since she demanded to sing a Whitney Houston hit in her fifth grade talent show, which occurred soon after the first time she was sexually abused, the arts have been her release and performance her "truest passion."
Miss Kim, hailed by theEasy.com as “an ambitious and moving piece” that was “made even more powerful when you pause and realize that the story you are seeing is autobiographical” was, in a sense, the fulfillment of Kim’s healing process.
Throughout her childhood, Gina craved opportunities to perform. She clamored to take voice lessons and enter beauty pageants, and eventually got her way, but only before being scoffed at by her mother and told she'd never be good enough.
So when Kim had the chance to pursue opportunities on her own, she couldn't pass up acting classes. Since 2005, Kim has been taking acting classes regularly and they have become a forum where she can freely exercise her passion and release her personal burdens. Acting became her refuge.
"She was validated for things that people in her life told she was crazy for," said Matthew Corozine, Kim's acting instructor. "She was finally being truthful and people were loving her for it."
When Kim was just eight years old, she was sexually molested by an uncle her family was living with at the time. Even though she told her mother about the things her uncle did to her, the abuse continued for six months until her family moved out. Since that young age, Kim dealt with her pain by escaping it the best way she knew how – by being on stage and in character.
Acting classes were where Kim felt most at home. On days when she felt especially depressed, she would go to an acting class. Eventually, Kim sought out opportunities to perform, but found that even in the diverse city of New York, roles were limited. Frustrated, Kim talked to her acting instructor, but wasn't quite prepared for his response.
"She told me that there were no roles for Asian girls, so I told her to go create her own role and make life happen," said Corozine.
The idea was unexpected, but inviting. Kim, then 29, had hit a turning point in her life. Years of therapy and counseling, and the newfound voice she found through acting had finally begun to forge a new sense of identity within her. She felt emboldened enough to write a story she knew all too well: her own.
What began as an endeavor to create a one-woman show resulted in a 56-page script requiring six cast members that would depict her life from her early childhood to her 20s.
The 12-month process of digging into a past stained with the indelible scars of abuse and trauma was raw, painful, and risky. Kim was still seeing her therapist and taking medications to treat her depression. Some days, her depressive state kept her from making any progress at all.
Retracing the past
Ever since she was sexually abused by her uncle when she was eight years old, adversity seemed to follow Kim wherever she went.
Kim was silenced throughout her childhood. Ruled by the fear of shame, Kim says her mother silenced her cry of sexual abuse. She said her uncle claimed she asked for it and her aunt viciously accused her of seducing her husband. The rest of her family turned a blind eye. Misguided and confused, without any one to hear her out, Kim said she lived her childhood feeling like a prostitute because her uncle left a dollar in her piggy bank after he abused her.
When she was 20 years old, she filed for her first passport and fled to Korea.
"I loved it there, the sites, the smells, and everyone looked like me," as Kim describes in her play.
For once, Kim felt like she belonged -- no more taunts in the school yard, no more mistaking her as Chinese, and no more looking into the mirror and hating what she saw...until she was raped by a stranger at knifepoint.
Broken and terrified, Kim thought her mother might finally come to her rescue. But when her mother arrived in Seoul, Korea to meet her in the hospital, she believed Kim's rape claim, but refused to acknowledge it verbally, Kim says. Rather, she insisted that Kim tell people she had merely been robbed, or no man would ever marry her. It was the Korean way. Her mother was so insistent that even the doctor played along.
Kim returned to the United States with her mother, shaken by her experience and altered by the plastic surgery her mother forced her to get to improve her marital prospects. Three months later, she had a date rape incident that left her pregnant. She then decided to have an abortion.
Fear of HIV crippled her ever since her first rape occurred. Kim had been tested in Korea, but got tested periodically for fear that the negative test results might be a mistake.
Then, on the morning of September 11, 2001, Kim was working for Lehman Brothers in Three World Financial Center, a building directly behind the World Trade Center. The first plane hit. The building was told to evacuate and for a brief moment, Kim froze, and thought: “I have never fallen in love.”
Then the second plane hit. She evaded death, but it would take years for her to relinquish the will to die.
In 2004, she attempted suicide.
Putting words into action
"You are inspirational. Don’t let your talent rot with you. You need to be braver now. It doesn’t get easier as your life becomes bigger. You’re expanding. So, that means you have to step it up a notch. Stop fighting and resisting who you were put on this earth to be; a creative and passionate inspiration. I have faith in you."
- Excerpted from a personal monologue Kim wrote for her acting class, 2006
Kim completed her script in 2006, but it sat untouched until 2009.
"It needed to. The raw version was over 100 pages long," said Kim.
But it wasn't just the length of the script. During that period, Kim, disillusioned with her current path of treatment, decided to stop therapy and medication against the counsel of her therapists. It was a risky move, but Kim wanted to overcome her pain and depression on her own terms.
She also invested in courses like Team Management and Leadership Program through Landmark Education, a private educational enterprise that Kim says stretched her sense of identity. She went to acting classes regularly, both to improve her skill and to aid her through bouts of depression.
Meanwhile, Kim was also running ARIA (Awareness of Rape and Incest through Art), a non-profit organization she founded in 2004 that worked with survivors of sexual abuse to tell their story through dance, singing, or words.
She was constantly fixated on self-improvement.
"She really challenged herself and went through a lot emotionally to get there," said Christine Suh, a childhood friend. "I've never seen someone so proactive about bettering herself."
By 2009, the combination of all these experiences had finally strengthened her enough to give life to her script on stage.
"I was at the peak of my new self," Kim said. "It was the strongest I had ever been."
She dug up her script, polished it, and ultimately produced and starred as herself in the play. The play was funded through the donations of financiers in Kim’s work community and several successful fundraisers. Kim managed all this while juggling full-time job as an assistant at a hedge fund.
It helped that Kim, then and now, only sleeps an average of five hours a night.
Every hour of her day was busy and every night on her schedule was booked, but the logistics and the to-dos that flooded her schedule rarely got her down.
"She was upbeat most of the time," recalled Jeanine Debar, a close friend of Kim. "She never wallowed in how she was going to get everything done."
But when they started rehearsing, the demands of the play began to take a toll. Confronting her deepest pains, even when in role, was a test of courage Kim had to battle every step of the way.
"She was emotionally drained and sometimes really upset," Debar said. "There would be days when it would be really hard for her to relive her past."
At other times, she second-guessed the play and its purpose entirely. Did she want to expose her whole life story? Did anyone even want to hear about this? Was she just going to depress people? Or as some suggested, would she just bring shame upon herself?
"She battled a lot of voices, real or other," Corozine said.
Healing through the arts
Miss Kim, Kim's autobiographical play, was viewed by approximately 720 people over five shows that ran in August as part of the New York International Fringe Festival 2010. It was produced and performed as a way to impact a community and support survivors of domestic violence and sexual abuse.
"I wanted to reach out to survivors, to all the people who are silent and feel like they cannot talk," Kim said. "I want people to know that no matter how much suffering you endure, there's still always a possibility of a future."
People in the audience cried, laughed, and sometimes, they were simply silent. But as Kim had hoped, everyone was engaged.
"That's the thing about Kim," Suh said. "She's this funny, quirky character who has this light humor about her. The play was very similar to how she was in her life. Even in really tough times, she managed to find humor."
Kim donated a portion of the proceeds to Safe Horizon, an organization that helps victims of child abuse, domestic violence, rape, sexual assault and other violent crimes and sought to advocate on behalf of victims through the play. But the force of her play still surprise her.
"When I wrote my play, I had no idea what kind of impact it would have," Kim said. "I was amazed when some people told me they spoke about their own abuse for the first time after watching the play."
In fact, Kim's friend, Annette Beatrice, told her just a few nights ago that it was the play that gave her the courage to get tested for HIV.
"I figured if she could go through all that and still be strong enough to get tested that I would be just fine doing the same," said Beatrice, who is writing the screenplay for Kim's next project.
That sense of empowerment and possibility, against the bleakest odds, is what many in the audience seemed to take away from the play.
"There was a message of hope and courage and bravery, and trying to work through the process," Suh recalled. "No matter what happens, if Kim could get through it anyone can get through."
The process of writing the script and bringing it to life has been transformational for Kim.
"I don't even identify with that person in the script anymore," said Kim. "When I read it recently, I was almost like, 'Who is that person?'"
Even the most unlikely of reconciliations are beginning to take place. Journal entries from Kim's past show that she wished her mother dead. But Kim is gradually repairing her relationships with her mother.
"Our relationship is improving, believe it or not," Kim said. "It's all possible."
Given the caustic, yet honest, portrayal of her mother in the script, Kim wasn't sure she should invite her mother. In fact, many of her friends advised against it. But Kim, no stranger to following her instinct, invited her anyway. Her decision to invite her further mended their relationship, she says. To this day, Kim says her mother has never apologized to her daughter. But Kim doesn't need her to.
"I know she is sorry," said Kim. "Just her coming out and supporting me is her being sorry."
Kim is cordial with the rest of her family and attends family functions, unless her uncle is expected to be in attendance.
Looking ahead and the big screen
It's 8:00 P.M. Kim has completed a nine hour day at work and a private yoga session, but her evening isn't over yet. She's just arrived at her friend's apartment to put the finishing touches on a screenplay they've been working on since September.
It's been just three months since the performance of Miss Kim ended, but Kim's already immersed in her next project.
Inspired by comments from people who attended Miss Kim and said they could see it as a film, Kim immediately pursued the idea.
The short eight to ten minute film will depict a young Korean-American girl on her wedding day preparing to go through a marriage hastily arranged by her mother to a man whose best man has raped her.
In addition to co-writing the screenplay, Kim has singlehandedly been overseeing the hiring and casting of about 60 to 70 people and developing ways to finance this $10,000 to $12,000 production.
Kim will play the part of the rape victim in this piece. As the mid-January shooting dates approach, she thinks about preparing for her role with a pensive gaze. Even though she's portrayed this character before, the process never becomes easy.
"I feel nervous," says Kim, "but I know I can get to that emotional place."
She overcomes her fear and insecurity, and pushes herself into the role in the hopes that others who have suffered might find healing of their own through her story.
"There's a connection between healing and expressing what's happening inside of you," said Kim. "The arts saved my life."
The entire film will be completed by the end of January, in time for Kim to submit it to film festivals.
But for Kim, there's no break in sight.
When the film short is completed, Kim's next step is to produce a 90-minute feature film with an expected $1.5 million budget. The project has yet to begin, but Kim's already networking with funders and film producers and her mind is moving faster than her body or her myriad projects will allow her to work.
"I see it already," Kim said. "It's going to be great. There's no stopping now."
Watch video Interview with Gina Kim: