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The Music of Friendship

(Courtesy of The Angel Band project)

Trigger Warning: This piece discusses a sexual assault, which may be triggering for survivors. If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, please seek help. You can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 for assistance or visit RAINN.org for additional support.

Sometimes friendships are fleeting; a moment in time where two people connect, but through the natural ebb and flow of life, they drift apart. Then there are those friendships that make you who you are; that stand the test of time no matter where you may travel and what life throws at you. This is the kind of friendship I have been lucky enough to have in my life.

It all began in kindergarten when I met my two best friends, Rachel and Teresa. As anyone who grew up female can attest to, a triumvirate of girls is not always an easy thing to navigate. Jealousy, pettiness, and your garden variety middle school problems usually get in the way. But this was not so with Teresa, Rachel, and me. We were a disparate group, but somehow it was always harmonious.

Pictured from left to right: Rachel, Teresa and me (the one in the nerdy glasses.)

Rachel and I were both equal parts goofball and starry-eyed dreamers. We spent endless hours putting on plays for our families and were obsessed with the Muppets. When our resource-strapped school didn’t make an effort to hold a school play, Rachel and I approached our fifth-grade teacher and informed her we were going to stage the Wizard of Oz. We held our own auditions, painted scenery and planned rehearsals. Rachel played Dorothy and I was the wicked witch. (Because, I didn’t have to sing, and I got to die on stage.)

Teresa was the natural athlete; whip-smart; articulate; and the kind of person who pondered life’s deep questions even in second grade. Teresa laughed louder, harder and more often than anyone I have ever known and had zero decorum when it came to being in a public place. (But in a good way.)

Teresa was tough as nails on the outside, giving off an air of invincibility, and when we were together, that feeling was infectious. We believed we could do anything and that nothing could touch us. Teresa had a certain swagger, a tremendous booty that practically had its own zip code and a bravery that astounds me to this day. On the inside, however, Teresa was deeply sentimental, nostalgic and most of all, kind. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who genuinely cared about people the way she did. Teresa had no pretension. She met people where they were, and she always saw the good in others—even when it was not easy to do so.

These may sound like cliches, but in Teresa’s case they were entirely true. She had an innate trust in the inherent goodness of others that I found baffling at times. It was what allowed her to connect to other people no matter how little they had in common. I am quite confident that if Teresa found herself in the middle of a remote jungle and encountered a group of indigenous people who had never made contact with the outside world, within a few days, not only would Teresa have been accepted into their society, she would have been given a place of distinction and honor.

The three of us became more like sisters than friends, and I knew, even at the age of 12, that I would go through life with these two by my side. We had many firsts together—good ones and some not so good ones. As we grew into women, we moved to different cities and countries and saw each other through marriages, motherhood, divorce, loss of loved ones and coming out of the closet. Celebrating and commiserating with each triumph and disaster. But no matter how far we were apart physically, the moment we were back together, it was as if not a moment had passed. We had a common language that we slipped back into effortlessly. Laughter always flowed. Being together always felt easy. It was like coming home.

(Courtesy of Heidi Peters)

In July of 2009, all that ended. Teresa was living in Seattle with her fiancée, Jennifer, during an unusually hot summer for that city. They were asleep when a young man crept threw the open bedroom window and awakened them holding a butcher knife. He told them that if they did what he asked, he would leave without hurting them.

He then proceeded to rape both women repeatedly while Teresa begged for their lives. Even in that moment, Teresa still saw the potential for good inside the person who was threatening her very existence. At one point, she placed her hand on her attacker’s heart and said to him, “I know there’s some good in here.”

As the violence escalated, Teresa decided to fight back allowing Jennifer to flee to safety. Sadly, Teresa died of a stab wound to her heart.

What followed was a loss that defied words. Rachel and I had no language for what we were feeling and no roadmap for how to go forward. How could we handle this kind of unspeakable pain? This unfathomable violence? How could we begin to lessen the heaviness we felt in our hearts? Then, we found an answer unexpectedly at her funeral in Saint Louis. A service that was held in the same church and school where we had met all those years ago.

Teresa came from a large, musical family and her fiancée, Jennifer, was a classically trained vocalist. They sang with such emotion and passion that it literally lifted the entire room out of their seats. Moving and swaying to the rhythm of the song, all those in attendance were united in body and in spirit. Instead of falling apart, the music held us together. When the song finished, we felt lighter. As if a small portion of the burden had been lifted.

Teresa’s partner, Jennifer, performs at an Angel Band Project concert in New York City in 2018. Courtesy of Heidi Peters.

After experiencing the difference music made in that moment, Rachel and I were inspired to record a benefit album featuring Teresa’s fiancée and family. During times of grief, people often perform acts of kindness to those in pain by bringing food, offering to babysit or just sitting and listening.

For Rachel and me, providing a safe space for Jennifer and Teresa’s family to be able to express their feelings through music just made sense. We did not know how we would achieve it, but we felt the drive to do this in our bones. So began our yearlong project of making a benefit album. Joining Jennifer and Teresa’s family were dozens of professional musicians and Broadway singers who donated their talent and time during live recordings in Saint Louis, Chicago, New York City, and Seattle.

Teresa’s brother, Norbert Leo Butz, at the Angel Band Project’s recording session in New York City in 2010. Courtesy of Heidi Peters.

Rachel and I hoped it would provide a positive outlet for Teresa’s fiancée and family, and perhaps, others who were affected by sexual violence, could find some measure of peace by hearing it. As it turned out, making the album healed Rachel and me too.

(Courtesy of Nicole Mohler)

That was over ten years ago. Today, the Angel Band Project is a national non-profit that provides music therapy to survivors of sexual and intimate partner violence. In conjunction with NYU’s Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy Center, and multiple partner agencies including domestic violence shelters in Saint Louis and Seattle, the Angel Band Project brings trauma-informed music therapy to hundreds of survivors each year. These sessions are offered at no cost to participants.

Music therapy is the specialized use of music by a credentialed professional with a therapeutic goal in mind. Music therapy can help address social, communicative, emotional, physical, cognitive, sensory and spiritual needs, while alleviating symptoms of PTSD.

What began as an act of kindness for those affected by one particular tragedy has become a source of healing for hundreds of people affected by this type of trauma. Through music therapy, we are able to make a difference in the lives of sexual and domestic violence survivors we will never even meet.

(Courtesy of Jason Tang)

This experience has led me to believe that there is no such thing as an isolated act of kindness. When you choose to channel kindness, you ignite a spark. Something that continues to grow and take on a life of its own as its warmth touches other people. They then pick up the torch and carry it forward.

In many ways, it’s as if the kindness that Teresa embodied is still alive in this world. Her heart still beats within the rhythm of every song and in the hearts of all survivors the Angel Band Project has the honor of helping.

(The Angel Band Project’s cover of Rachel Platten’s Stand by You. Performers include survivors, music therapists, allies, and professional musicians and vocalists.)

 

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Jean M Purcell

Jean is co-founder of the Angel Band Project, a writer and creative director. She lives in Chicago with her two daughters and her trusty dog, Stan.

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