Lessons from All of the Above: your story matters too

Under pressure. Lovingly intimidated. Still struggling. Unheard.

I was all of above in Spring 2021. 

Surprise! The pandemic took a toll on my mental health. I mean, duh. It did for all of us, whether you found the time and space and self awareness to acknowledge that yet or not. This should be a given at this point–that prolonged isolation is not beneficial for our well-being; the uncertainty especially not conducive to the already agonizing expectations endured as college students. But it never hurts to reiterate.

Nevertheless, I didn’t have the courage last spring to share my story. I could barely articulate what I was going through, let alone find the words to describe what it meant to me. Even if I could find the words, why would anyone care? My story didn’t matter. Yet somewhere in the thick of this, I auditioned on a whim for the cast of All of the Above.

All of the Above (AOTA) is an annual showcase that presents monologues written anonymously by female-identifying students at Duke. AOTA stemmed from the Duke Women’s Initiative in 2003 as a way to encourage an open dialogue around the otherwise silent triumphs and hardships experienced by women at Duke. 

I joined not as an experienced actress or confident storyteller or believer in my own worth, but quite the opposite. It was a selflessly selfish endeavor: I wanted to bring life to someone else’s words in hopes that it would help me find my own. Just for fun, I reasoned, not recognizing at the time how much this show would come to mean to me, and what it can mean to you.

Our showcase presents stories. In each story there is something that makes us nod our heads yes and brings our bodies to chills or butterflies or daggers. Some of the stories are uniquely female. Some are uniquely Duke. Some talk about effortless perfection. Others racial identity. Greek life. Eating disorders. Suicide. Political orientation. Sexual orientation. Sexual assault. Sexual empowerment. Sex.

Maybe you don’t identify with all of the above, but if you are a person–especially one who goes to Duke–there is something in that list that resonates deeply with you. Maybe it’s because you experienced something similar yourself, and you have therefore felt something similar yourself. Or maybe it was someone close to you whose voice you hear embodied so strongly that it ought to have been them who wrote the piece, even if you know it wasn’t.

Senior Megan Rabe reflects on her experiences as a former cast member and one of this year’s directors for the show.

“So many of the lines resonated with me, but some lines didn’t,” Rabe said. “Even though some lines were so removed from my own life, it made me feel more connected to those people and see them more clearly.”

We all have a story. Our stories highlight the different aspects and themes of our lives as they ebb and flow and shape the people we are endlessly becoming. We can’t help but see and hear ourselves in the monologues presented because each of these voices are just like us: uniquely human.

It is important to share experiences we are inclined to keep quiet about. It is humbling, illuminating, empowering and so much more. It builds compassionate comradery–something that is necessary to rise above adversity and lift others in the process. It requires vulnerability, and being vulnerable isn’t comfortable. It’s not supposed to be, but it nevertheless discourages the kind of openness that breeds intimacy; the kind of advocacy that makes us feel known. Which is exactly the purpose of anonymity in AOTA: to make this discomfort more comfortable.

With all of that said, it still takes balls to put yourself out there, albeit anonymously. It’s even harder to put your experience into words when you are living it. These thoughts and fears were true for my own experience with AOTA.

There is a blurred line between performing and sharing in AOTA. It didn’t feel like I was acting. Though our experiences differed greatly, I began to identify with the author’s words; her words became mine, ingrained in the inner dialogue I still engage in. It’s a strange feeling, to sit on the cusp between advocacy and empathy but not fully ascribing to either end. It’s a discomfort that doesn’t require a stage to feel. And it’s one we can use a little more of on this campus.

A lot more.

Things are shifting. I am so grateful to be at Duke during an age that isn’t afraid to speak up on issues pertinent to its students. Scrolling through the Chronicle, there are several columns written out of transparency and a desire to be heard. It is inspiring, it is encouraging and it has taken a damn long time. But we still have a long way to go.

Continuing this dialogue across platforms like AOTA demonstrates how there is so much more we can learn from one another about ourselves. Writing a monologue isn’t about closure; I’m not sure if that even exists. It’s about being known without being known. The willingness of our authors to do just that is what makes this show possible. The empowerment these women obtain from impact without recognition is incomparable. I know because I wrote a piece for this year’s show.

Of course I want you to come to the show (which, by the way, is February 24th & 25th at 7pm in Reynold’s Theater, no tickets required). But that isn’t why I’m writing this.

I am writing this because listening to the words of others can help you find and believe in those of your own. Maybe you’re not ready to let them be known, and that’s okay. Writing and reflecting and reliving the past is hard. Pace yourself. Your story matters too.

And if it means something to you, it will mean something to others too.


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