Why Everyone Should Hear About Emma Zulkowicz's Story of Mattress Performance

Emotional strength will help lift the burden of a traumatic event.

Emma Sulkowicz spoke at the University of Wisconsin-Stout about "Carry That Weight," a Mattress Performance art piece to bring attention to sexual assault on April 18. A student at Columbia University, she carrried a twin XL mattress around from fall of 2014 to spring of 2015.

While attending Columbia University, Sulkowicz was sexually assaulted by a classmate named Paul. 

"I was more than happy to not think about him, to get on with my life," said Sulkowicz. It was only after a classmate, who had spent two years in an abusive relationship with Paul, also admitted she was sexually assulted by him. They later discovered he had raped six other women at their university.

It was then that Sulkowicz decided to seek justice.

"We didn't want Paul to go to jail. We just wanted him to stop hurting our classmates," said Sulkowicz. She said that none of the women felt they needed to go to the police because their rapes had happened so long ago.

She describes the trial as playing "the big bad wolf and the one who cried wolf." She had to portray being the helpless victim and he had to defend himself against the "amassed army of women set out to lie about him." The trial "turned into a show with two scripts" and the verdict favored whoever "played their part the best." She said she felt as if she had zero agency throughout the trial.

The trial ruled in Paul's favor and he was found innocent.

"I felt more wronged, helpless and victimized," she said. She knew she had to heal herself through art.

"I became a survivor when I made my own rules," she said.

While she said the media made Mattress Performance out to be a "stoic" act, she said it was "silly." She would bounce off walls and had to maneuver the mattress through doors and hallways. She had plenty of help from friends, classmates and strangers throughout the nine months.

"Mattress performance was my way out" and her way to "rise above zero agency," said Sulkowicz. 

Sulkowicz still believes that it is possible for Paul and others who have commited crimes to change.

"Sadistic punishment won't help society grow," said Sulkowicz. She believes that "change is possible" and there is room to learn, develop and grow.

Since Mattress Performance, Sulkowicz has created other performance art pieces, one being inspired by repitive media questions.

"I was getting so many interview requests my phone would just die," said Sulkowicz during the question and answer portion of her talk. These reporters would ask her the same questions over and over, so she created a wax figure that played a recording of her answering these repetitive questions.

Sulkowicz has found a way to heal through art and continues to speak about her experience.

"Could I cradle the bad until it became good?" she asks about Mattress Performance. With the help of her friends and helpful strangers, she carried the weight.