Doing the right thing

Desirae Brown on creating music, activism, childhood and The 5 Browns: Digging Through The Darkness

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Desirae Brown: "I feel more authentic playing. I can express anything and I don't care as much what people think or if they approve."
Desirae Brown: "I feel more authentic playing. I can express anything and I don't care as much what people think or if they approve." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

In the second half of my conversation with Desirae Brown, we discuss her activism as the co-founder with her sister Deondra Brown of The Foundation for Survivors of Abuse, working with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, The 5 Browns: Digging Through the Darkness director Ben Niles as storyteller, and how doing the right thing has impacted her and her siblings, Melody Brown, Gregory Brown, and Ryan Brown.

Melody Brown, Gregory Brown, Deondra Brown, Desirae Brown and Ryan Brown are The 5 Browns
Melody Brown, Gregory Brown, Deondra Brown, Desirae Brown and Ryan Brown are The 5 Browns

After returning to the US from a stressful tour in Japan, one night in a shared hotel room, Desirae, the oldest, asked Deondra if she had been abused as a child by their father Keith, who had been for a while also their manager. The answer sends shockwaves through the family structure when all three daughters, including Melody, the youngest, share with each other that they were systematically abused as children. No one in the family had dared to go there before.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Let me get right to your foundation, The Foundation for Survivors of Abuse. Can you talk a bit about what you try to accomplish and how it's coming along?

Desirae Brown: Sure. Right now we're trying to find a Republican co-sponsor for the bill that we're working on with [US] Senator [Kirsten] Gillibrand [of New York]. In that respect the film is proving to be really helpful.

One of the hardest things when you meet with legislators is you have to educate them and you don't have a lot of time to do it. If they can watch the film, they can understand the issue so much better. And already we have a congressman reach out to us because he watched the film. And he's a Republican! We're still strategising and trying to get a federal bill passed.

Deondra Brown testifying to helped pass a bill in Utah to have sex abuse prevention taught in public schools
Deondra Brown testifying to helped pass a bill in Utah to have sex abuse prevention taught in public schools

Our bill would function in a way that it incentivises the states to address their statute of limitation laws for crimes of childhood sexual abuse by giving funding to their crisis centres and children's justice centres and all the abuse programs that they run in the state.

AKT: What is the statute at the moment in New York State?

DB: It's really horrendous, it's one of the worst in the country. In New York State it's 5 years after you turn 18, or age 23. It's really terrible because most survivors don't come forward until their 30s, 40s, 50s. Pretty much the law now is protecting perpetrators.

AKT: People don't really know this.

DB: So these perpetrators go unnamed, nobody knows who they are, because nobody can press charges against them. They tried to get a bill passed for the past 12 years. There's a coalition of small non-profits which we are a part of that are trying to get this bill passed and the Catholic Church is spending 1.5 million dollars fighting against the bill. We don't have 1.5 million dollars to lobby with!

AKT: One of the most infuriating scenes in the documentary is at the hearing in Utah, when this guy brings up as an argument, some teammate's father, 35 years ago, patting a girl's bottom at a sports event. Total nonsense. As if this is what you're talking about.

The 5 Browns in concert
The 5 Browns in concert

DB: You have to educate the legislators. They just don't understand at all.

AKT: It's a great edit, because Deondra, who speaks right after, doesn't even have to comment about it.

DB: Right. Because it's ridiculous.

AKT: How do you feel watching the film? It must be difficult.

DB: It is difficult. It's hard to look at the archival footage. It's hard to hear voices of my parents. I know that my siblings and I are far too close to the material in the film to look at it objectively. That's why we trust Ben [Niles] as a storyteller. But when I have watched the film, it did feel real. I don't know how he does it, because I'm not a filmmaker, I'm a pianist, but it did feel real to me.

AKT: You were the one who started the process with a question to Deondra about the abuse. Do you remember that very moment?

DB: Yes I do. It was terrible. But once I found out the truth from Deondra, it just made it seem more clear moving forward what the right thing to do was.

Melody Brown, Desirae Brown and Deondra Brown performing Clair De Lune
Melody Brown, Desirae Brown and Deondra Brown performing Clair De Lune

AKT: Before that is was mainly in your head.

DB: Yes, something that was just in my own head, whatever happened to me. But once I found out it happened to somebody else, it's much easier for me to jump in. It was clearer when I was looking at my sister and wanted to protect her, or do the right thing for her. And then it made it more clear what obviously the right thing for me was as well.

AKT: It's often the point - realizing that you can do something positive for others.

DB: Right. It's easier sometimes to help other people than yourself.

AKT: There's footage we see when the question comes up about your father managing other teenage girls. Were these some of the girls he managed? Where is this footage from?

DB: Those were some of the women he was managing. Those were not the teenage ones, but there were definitely young women he was managing at that time. The teenage ones we never met.

AKT: Your album title Little Tin Box came from actual little boxes you had as kids?

Desirae Brown on the Chanel wheat dress in The Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination: "That was my favourite.
Desirae Brown on the Chanel wheat dress in The Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination: "That was my favourite. Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

DB: Yeah, mine was like a shoebox that had like a bunch of random things in it.

AKT: The idea is interesting - what do we do with our memories? How do we sort them? How do we package them?

DB: Whether you've had a traumatic past or not, childhood is full of sorrows and happiness and ecstasy and disappointment. It's a mix and everybody's childhood is like this, I would think, to some degree. So it's how do we process our childhoods?

AKT: The question of salvaging from any kind of trauma comes up. It's something people should be reminded of. Whatever the horrors, try and pull something good out of it?

DB: Yeah right, it's true. I think because I controlled what I would allow myself to think about for so many years, it's part of the healing process. Which is a very long process, I realize. My dad went to prison in 2011. It's still like, is the work ever going to be done? You go through a good period and think this is great. And then it'll be triggered again by something and you have to go back into therapy.

Now I have my own children and I hear that when they get older and get to the age that I was, that's a very difficult period, I hear, as a parent. I don't think the work will ever be done - maintaining your emotional and psychological health.

AKT: What's coming up for you?

DB: We are wanting to publish a book that goes along with The Little Tin Box, like, a children's book that's for adults and children. And we're actually working on a holiday album. We're going to be recording that in the spring. And we're on and off tour through this concert season. 2019 is our 15th anniversary of touring.

The 5 Browns: Digging Through The Darkness - opens on January 23 at the IFC Center
The 5 Browns: Digging Through The Darkness - opens on January 23 at the IFC Center

AKT: Do you think your playing has changed a lot since you were dealing with everything else?

DB: For me, I can't speak for my siblings, but for me, I felt a lot of pressure to be, like, perfect in a way. I don't know, to present this always presentable self, right? So once all this stuff came out about my family, I felt free to be ugly, angry - which helps my playing! Like, be more authentic. I feel more authentic playing. I can express anything and I don't care as much what people think or if they approve.

AKT: You don't have that much to hide.

DB: Yeah, I don't have anything to hide. And I think for so many years, trying to please my parents, trying to please music teachers, trying to get good grades in class and then aside from all that, the secular part. You know, trying to look a certain way. Now, I have a better time creating music.

AKT: Let's go full circle - back to The Cloisters. Did you have a favourite outfit in the exhibition [Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination]?

DB: Oh yes, the entry room, where they're playing Ave Maria and then there's the big wedding dress. With the lighting, it was just so beautiful. But I really liked, was it downstairs, the dress that was all hay?

AKT: Golden hay?

Deondra Brown and Desirae Brown being recognised for their advocacy on behalf of survivors of abuse
Deondra Brown and Desirae Brown being recognised for their advocacy on behalf of survivors of abuse

DB: Wheat!

AKT: I do believe I took a photograph of it.

DB: That was my favourite.

Read what Desirae Brown had to say on Julianne Moore, Nico Muhly, an article in The New York Times, and taking control in The 5 Browns: Digging Through The Darkness

The 5 Browns: Digging Through the Darkness opens on January 23 at the IFC Center in New York.

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