In Bodies of Wood, artist Rowan Renee presents a series of self-portraits exploring the long-term physical and psychological effects of incest by using photography to reclaim their own agency within a legacy of violence. The series of self-portraits explore the artist’s relationship to their father, a convicted pedophile, after he died in prison. The images were exhibited as part of a weekend-long collaboration between Aperture, the Ackerman Institute for the Family, and The Voices and Faces Project. The program presented an intersectional approach to art making and storytelling as vehicles to address gender-based violence and trauma, and to create social change. The following is an edited transcript from the panel discussion on Tuesday, May 23, among Lois Braverman, a therapist and president of the Ackerman Institute for the Family; Mila Zuo, a film-maker and feminist scholar; and artist Rowan Renee. The panel explores cultural narratives of gender-based violence and victimhood, the complexities of reclaiming pleasures that are intrinsically connected to pain, and the repositioning of incest and other forms of childhood abuse as a structural problem that occurs within the family institution.
Rowan Renee: I’ll start with a big question. Mila, do you think cultural narratives about gender influence us when dealing with trauma? Our culture narrates that women who are abused become victims and men that are abused become perpetrators. How is that damaging or flattening to our experience?
Mila Zuo: That’s a great question. Despite the quantitative research about gender-based violence, which we should take into account, the narratives that get told about women being victims and men being perpetrators pass on a reductive story and a certain performativity of gender roles. It doesn’t allow for complications to arise when anecdotal evidence or other events disprove gender expectations.
One idea that feminist and queer theory brings to the conversation is how to think beyond the binary. Not only the male-female binary, but the pleasure-pain binary and the victim-perpetrator binary. To collapse those positions engages us in a more nuanced understanding of what it means to claim agency and power from the “victim” position. When we open up the ways we think about trauma and victimhood, for instance, we can let in something like pleasure as a possibility for healing and belonging. What do we gain when we think beyond pathos as the sole affective position from which someone can listen to another’s experience with violence? Pathos can have diminishing or othering effects that shut down curiosity and conversation. Related to this, the cultural scholar Sara Ahmed writes about wonder as a feminist affect that enables us to see and validate another’s pain, not because we know what it’s like to be that person, but precisely because we cannot know. In a way, this idea unsettles the concept of empathy, which has largely been couched in a kind of narcissistic or self-possessed understanding. So, this concept helps us rethink not only the “victim’s” position, but also that of the listener or receiver.
Although statistical evidence points to more perpetration of violence by men than women, we also need think about the ways in which we narrativize, and in turn unwittingly justify, a certain inevitability between maleness and violence. This kind of story not only flattens our experience; it also prescribes gender “normative” behavior.
Rowan Renee: I’m attracted to the idea of claiming power from the position of victim because it’s so stigmatized. The narrative says that once you become a victim you are damaged. That’s not fair. Many of us are victims of many different kinds of violence. We all have to function in society, and most of us manage on an everyday basis. It’s a small percentage of victims that have gone into a deeper state of distress. I think it’s important to resist the shame attached to victimhood. Mila, I remember you had some interesting things to say about queerness and shame.
Mila Zuo: I’m thinking of the work of Ann Cvetkovich, Sara Ahmed, and Leo Bersani, for example. These queer theorists take a position of anti-normativity. They call into question the normative as socially constructed, because the “normative” lacks a stable or universal set of values. To depathologize victimhood or trauma in a way where we can start talking about it would mean to regard trauma as an institutional phenomenon. There are individual instances of it, but thinking laterally about trauma, it is enacted as a social institution in various ways in global capitalism. What you’ve been saying is to think more openly about trauma as a modality that’s not just personal, but also personal.
What you just said about resisting shame is also important. The shame that becomes attached to individuals is a stigma that manifests as silence. That silence fixes those individuals in place. It’s immobilizing. Just like other urgent and pressing issues that become perceived as blemishes to our society, our immediate impulse is to ignore them and cover them up. Then it becomes a wound that isn’t allowed to heal, a Freudian repression that continues to reconstitute in various ways. That’s why we see a fascination with trauma and spectacles of violence in cultural production and within fictional realms, but rarely do we have honest and complicated conversations about violence as a society. But what if it’s the people who have actually experienced trauma who can offer us new and important ways of knowing the world? Likewise, how might we rethink violent perpetrators and the ways in which they re-produce larger systems of oppressive power and authority within the domestic domain—not to diminish the domestic realm, but to elevate the everyday as the space wherein larger structural violence and trauma are echoed and recreated between individuals.
Rowan Renee: Typically, incest is too taboo to even mention. I read somewhere that back in the 1950s it was believed that one in one million people had experienced it. The psychotherapist writing this book went on to postulate: “Well, then why are 50 of the 100 supposed victims in the United States in my practice?” Even though I’ve had trouble finding accurate statistics for incest—RAINN and CDC conflict—the actual numbers are shockingly high. There’s a special discrepancy about male victims, which merits further thought. Incest is often positioned as a women’s issue and that leaves out the existence of male victims, especially straight male victims, who are even more stigmatized than women in seeking resources. So, where do these men learn to deal with their pain? The narrative of normative masculinity expects men to act out their trauma through perpetuating violence. It is not helpful for us to leave out men when discussing how to break the cycle of violence.
Lois Braverman: At the Ackerman Institute, we work from the idea that you are more than your bad act and you are more than what was acted upon you. We probably wouldn’t use the word victim, because people are complex. Even in your photos, you represent a complicated experience of pain and pleasure, and beauty and ugliness. You don’t want your experience to be limited by any dominant narrative. I’m wondering about the photo that’s on the screen now. Do you think it represents your intent to push the narrative about victimhood and perpetration?
I produced this work in about four weeks when I was on a residency in Sausalito. I would go on long walks through the Marin Headlands. The flags were something I found one day while walking in the woods.
In this image, and others, I would first set up my camera and then take off my clothes. Because I was working in public spaces, the threat of being discovered lent these images a precarious language that wouldn’t have been there if I had permission to work in these locations. I used exhibitionism as a tool to implicate the potential for violence in the scene. That’s one reason why I consider these images solitary performances. The actions to make them were ritualized. I would undress over and over again, trying to capture on film the emotions that were recorded in my body. It was a way to tell a story that couldn’t be told because there were no words for it. Instead I simulated the feelings of danger and vulnerability, which ultimately meant taking real risks. The camera was my witness. My photographic process mirrored the detachment and fragmentation of memory that develops as a coping mechanism for trauma. Since I have a Yashica twin-lens camera, and I wasn’t using any digital assist, I couldn’t see myself in the frame or preview the scene with my body in it. I stepped into the frame, took the photo with a remote release, and sent away the film. A week later I’d find out how the shots came out. At such a distance, it’s easier to find meaning within the incoherence of violence.
Mila Zuo: In many of the pictures it looks like you’re either holding on to something or being held by something. Was that an intentional gesture representative of holding onto the past?
Rowan Renee: I reflect on my childhood as being bound. Children don’t have the freedom to leave if something is wrong. They’re stuck. I went through a period of being angsty because I wasn’t conscious of what was wrong. The dysfunction in my family was so normalized it was difficult to recognize. As a child, you cannot see other possibilities so you don’t know your experience is not normal.
Mila Zuo: I noticed most of the photos were taken during the daytime. There’s an effervescence coming from the brilliance of the light, even though there’s an undertone of being bound that alludes to you dealing with trauma. Was it a conscious decision to not shoot in the dark?
Rowan Renee: There are some technological limitations that played a role. For example, my camera didn’t have a flash, but that’s an easy answer. Conceptually speaking, familial violence happens so obviously. Imagery that is moody and noir is what people probably expect. But, trauma happens in the light. People see it and are indifferent to it. There’s an elaborate process of self-deception within families to be complicit to violence. It’s a normal faculty of the human mind. And it’s something we all need to resist. Lois, I have a question for you: What is considered healing in the therapeutic context? What are the steps to healing, and do you think there’s any relationship between art or creative expression and the healing process?
Lois Braverman: So, there are three questions there. At the Institute, part of healing is to feel deeply understood by other family members so you can better deal with whatever challenges or constraints you face, whether it’s mental health issues or certain symptoms. Part of telling your story is feeling compassionately and deeply heard. Not just by the therapist, but by other family members, so that there can be, in some circumstances, amends or an apology. Also, so that the child can be made to feel safe and protected. The extent of the family’s complicity changes once the story is out. There are real things families can do to help the healing process, both for the child and so individual family members can deal with their own not-knowing and realizing, Oh-my-gosh that’s what was happening, and I just didn’t want to see it. The parent who is non-offending and the child who has been abused both have to undergo the healing process. There is a way to heal, and being able to do that in the context of family members is strengthening. That was the first part of your question.
There are many ways to move through a healing process. Art is certainly one. We see people do it through writing plays, comedy acts and drawing. There are all kinds of ways to metabolize and make sense of our experience. We illuminate it and that allows other people to see us. For me, your photographs are a way for your experience to be heard, although it’s being seen. Witnessing is part of the process of healing.
Rowan Renee: This has me thinking about silence and speaking. The shame around incest and sexual violence delays the healing process. If trauma can’t be addressed when it occurs, living with it in silence amplifies the effects. It sounds like you think of communication and healing as related. Communication is the base of building intimate bonds.
Lois Braverman: Exactly. When you feel that your experience is being heard and understood by your mother, or your sister, or your brother, or another family member, you are actually held in a new way. It’s different than going through years of holding onto a secret.
Mila Zuo: I was just thinking about that question in terms of invisibility and visibility. From the perspective of your pictures, you play with being seen and unseen throughout the work. For instance, in the frames where there’s fabric obscuring the foreground, there’s something being said about invisibility. You also do this with showing your face and not showing your face. It creates a real desire for the viewer to see the face. And we are deprived of it. The absence generates jouissance, a pleasurable pain or a painful pleasure, within the frame.
Rowan Renee: There’s a relationship between silence and invisibility that has wider implications culturally. It reminds me of a position I read in Conflict is Not Abuse, Sarah Schulman’s latest book, which asserts that any kind of sustained violence has the goal of controlling behavior. All of the systems of oppression within capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy are implementing violence in different ways, but to the same end of dominance. The way it happens within a family works similarly—the acts elevate a particular person to a position of power over someone else. The family mirrors society at large. That’s where I went with it.
Mila Zuo: I think that’s really generative. There are scholars working with the idea of trauma as an abstract concept that structures more relationships than just those within the family. Perhaps, the family formation is just reproducing something systemic.