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Art soothes trauma in new Charlottesville police interview room

Nonprofit Project Beloved uses art and design to comfort survivors of sexual assault

Comfortable chairs and blankets are placed around a simple coffee table topped with a plant and a stress ball.
Comfortable chairs and blankets are placed around a simple coffee table topped with a plant and a stress ball.

Content warning: this article contains mentions of sexual assault. 

Amid the beige walls and cold utilitarian floors of Charlottesville’s City Hall and Police Department now lies a soft interview room. At the request of the Charlottesville Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office, Texas-based organization Project Beloved completed this recent iteration of their comfortingly decorated rooms specifically designed to create a safe space for sexual assault survivors to be interviewed by investigators.

Project Beloved was formed by Tracy Matheson after her own daughter, Molly Jane, was sexually assaulted and strangled in April 2017 — an event Matheson described as “a parent’s worst nightmare.” 

This spurred Matheson into action, prompting her to start a nonprofit aimed at helping survivors of sexual assault. When Matheson discovered that her daughter’s death was at the hands of a serial rapist whose past crimes had been poorly investigated, Matheson decided that one goal of Project Beloved should be to improve sexual assault investigations.

“The kind of buzz word is this ‘trauma-informed’ investigation, [which] is considered best practice,” Matheson said in an interview with The Cavalier Daily. “And that is receiving training and understanding what trauma is and how to speak with and interact with someone who's experienced trauma…And one of the components of a trauma-informed investigation is a ‘soft’ interview room.”

Matheson was intrigued by the potential of these rooms specifically designed to comfort survivors of sexual assault, rooms that could facilitate a more calming interview process for distressed survivors, while also having the added benefit of helping investigators obtain the information necessary to bring them justice. She also realized that there likely wouldn’t be many other organizations willing to pay for such rooms, so she decided to start a fund herself.

Patricia O’Donnell, director of the Charlottesville Victim/Witness Assistance Program at the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office, was one of the key players in requesting that Project Beloved implement a room in Charlottesville. O’Donnell’s program had been hoping to create a soft interview room since learning of them in 2018, but had prevented from doing so due to budgetary issues until O’Donnell learned of Project Beloved.

“Funding is always an issue, because the victim/witness program doesn't have any funds to cover, you know, to do a room,” O’Donnell said. “Last October, we received an email that went out from DCS, the Department of Criminal Justice, just … passing the information along that this organization helps to create soft interview rooms at no cost. So we reached out to Project Beloved.”

Unlike other rooms that fill police departments — including Charlottesville’s — which are designed very practically with hard, easy-to-clean flooring, basic beige walls and little else, Project Beloved’s soft interview rooms are filled with thoughtful, comforting touches. Every aspect of the design in these rooms was chosen for the specific purpose of comforting sexual assault survivors, starting with the paint color.

“Both [colors] are kind of a bluish-green, and can lean one direction or the other, depending on the space,” Matheson said. “I've seen a lot of beige and gray in law enforcement. And so they're  not expected because they're really pretty colors, and they're very soft and calming.”

The paint color is the first step of many in creating one of Project Beloved’s soft interview rooms. After that, Matheson and her crew select patterned rugs to mask dull flooring and add color and texture. Comfortable chairs and blankets are placed around a simple coffee table topped with a plant and a stress ball. A lavender diffuser and inviting lighting add smaller, subtle touches that create an enveloping coziness. 

Hanadi Al-Samman, Associate Professor of Arabic Language and Literature, recently taught a course on the aesthetics of trauma, and explained in an interview with The Cavalier Daily how these comforting art and design choices can aid both investigators and survivors. Al-Samman placed particular emphasis on art’s ability to add a softer feminine perspective to what is frequently an intense, male-focused investigation, which she notes can be difficult for the traumatized survivor and can even forcefully remind them of the very traumatic acts they’ve endured.

“In the past, you have this kind of sterile, harsh environment that is [for] interrogating,” Al-Samman said. “You have the officer sitting at the other end of the table. It's intimidating, it's demanding, all of that. So it's that masculine aspect of addressing and dealing with trauma. Whereas in this soft interview room, it's speaking more to the feminine aspect of how we deal with trauma. It tries to kind of explore the hidden experience of trauma.”

One of the most crucial design choices in Project Beloved’s rooms is the artwork adorning the walls. For Charlottesville’s new interview room, Matheson chose two photographs — a bright orange hibiscus blossom that adds a cheerful spot of natural color to one wall, and a cluster of soft pink blossoms sprinkled with dew that has a calming effect on the other. 

The photographs have a story behind them, too — the photographer, Megan Getrum, was murdered only five days after Molly Jane Matheson by the same person. Getrum was an amateur photographer who loved capturing nature shots. Project Beloved, with the permission of Getrum’s family, chose to display her photographs in each one of their interview rooms, thoughtfully adding her initials or signature to the bottom of each print.

“We approached Megan’s mom and asked her, ‘would that be okay?’,” Matheson said. “And she very enthusiastically, after consulting with her husband and her son, said they thought Megan would be quite honored and thrilled that her artwork was being incorporated. And so that’s the final thing that we put on the wall… once we put the art up, that’s when things [feel] complete.”   

Not only does the artwork solidify the room’s ability to soften the interaction between investigators and survivors, but it also — perhaps even more significantly — offers the potential to enhance that interaction by allowing investigators to better empathize with survivors.

“The other aspect of art when it engages with trauma, what it does is it creates what I call the ‘empathetic vision’ that can make people empathize, and people who may not have a stake initially, they can create and relate their own experience to it,” Al-Samman said. “And then hopefully, that will create more understanding and positive kinds of intersection between people.”

Patricia O’Donnell and others in both the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office and the Charlottesville Police Department are all thrilled with the final design. O’Donnell praises everything from the softer lighting to the pictures, which she said “added so much” to the room.

“It’s just beyond our expectations of what we wanted to see,” O’Donnell said. “To be able to provide a safe, supportive space for survivors to come in and meet with strangers — a detective and an advocate — and talk about one of the worst incidents of their life…[the room has] been amazing.”

Matheson echoed similar sentiments, elaborating on the positive feedback that Project Beloved has consistently received from the law enforcement agencies they’ve worked with, including Charlottesville’s.

“With the rooms, the law enforcement reports that victims are kind of almost taken aback when they walk in, you know, because who wants to come and talk to law enforcement about anything, but to come and talk about a sexual assault is the last conversation anyone wants to have,” Matheson said. “So to be able to walk into a space that at least makes it look like 'well, I could sit in there,' you know?...That's a positive.”

Project Beloved’s soft interview rooms utilize art and design to create important emotional responses, helping traumatized survivors feel safe in the present while also creating the potential for them to feel hope for the future.

“Basically through art, we can then create what we call the ‘context of hope,’” Al-Samman said. “We can transform trauma into hope.”

Survivors of sexual assault can access Charlottesville’s soft interview room in Charlottesville’s Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office, located at 605 E Main St. Students can also obtain support through Counseling and Psychological Services online or at 434-243-5150, or the Maxine Platzer Lynn Women's Center at 434-982-2252.

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