5 Ways Art Transforms Trauma

My second batch of illustrations is up at The Rumpus, this time for an essay called “Bring It” by an author named Marcia Aldrich I feel really fortunate I got to meet in this way. This was a really intense experience for me because the essay was about, at the core, rape. That the essay went live the week after the news about the recent Stanford rape case added a whole new dimension to what was already an intense artistic process for both Marcia and I, I think (I haven’t talked to her directly about it but I gather this from her Facebook posts about it).

There were a lot of levels of processing going on in this illustration experience; it gets meta fast. Firstly, in the essay alone, you have Marcia processing others’ rape experiences, and Marcia processing her own rape, both in the act of writing and reflecting. Then in my reading of the essay, you have me processing both those experiences, plus processing my own experiences of rape. Then in my illustrating it, I’m processing all those things again — not just thinking about them, but creating another thing, another product. It’s like a mother-effing emotion factory, for real. We are manufacturing and marketing trauma. That sounds bad at first unless you’re on what I call the good team, the team that wants to heal and ease and make better ourselves and the world.

It was weird working on this piece because it was during the middle of my normal 20-something yuppie life and I just felt so torn up and weighed down in a world that was otherwise kind of fine. How do you explain to your coworker or your soccer team or some guy you’re going on a second date with that the reason you’re all worked up is because you’ve been stewing in ideas about rape on purpose all week? Most normal people, if/when I tell them what I’m dealing with, would be like, “Well, just don’t think about it.” Or: “If it bothers you so much, why do it?” Well, friends, here is why: an artist’s job is to be bothered. Our job is to feel the feelings other people aren’t feeling, to give life and fullness to feelings people are only a tiny bit in touch with. Because feelings are an important step in growing and healing as individuals, communities, and societies — and a step we often jump over or pass by too quickly. And we shouldn’t be quick to move past that step, because a lot of complex things occur in us and around us in that step. Here are the things I think art helps us do with our experiences and feelings:

  1. Dilutes it. In the periodic table of experiences, trauma is more of a platinum/iridium than a helium/hydrogen. For those of you too lazy to Google that and remember your Chemistry 101 class, what I mean is that trauma is a really dense, intense, heavy thing. You don’t talk about trauma like you talk about what you ate for dinner last night; you don’t throw trauma at somebody like you pitch a wiffle ball. You know that plop-sunk-thunk noise that happens when you drop a big rock off a pier when you’re camping at the lake and kind of bored? That’s what happens when you drop something into conversation like, “Oh yeah, I got touched inappropriately by my uncle when I was 17.” Expressing trauma through other mediums — writings, images, music — does something to the chemical structure of our experiences, sort of heats them up or cools them down and gives them enough air and space to dilute a little bit and be handled in different ways. We can breath them in in a way that doesn’t suffocate us; we can hand them over to someone else without breaking our arm or theirs. Ice is too cold to lick without getting your tongue stuck sometimes; steam can burn you — but water usually you can drink and let it become a part of you and help you function better. An artist’s job is to make something palatable: when Marcia writes about these things, she’s trying to hold your attention and get you to consume them. She’s cooking vegetables as best as she can. When I illustrate them, I’m trying to do the same.
  2. Changes it. That trauma can change form alone brings hope. Trauma involves such a feeling of stuck-ness that it’s overwhelming: things will always be like this, I will always have this experience with me, I will always feel like this, this will always be awful, I will always be broken. Maybe this is why kids like playing with Play-Do & Silly Putty: the very nature of pliability offers the possibility of newness, difference. Trauma in another form — especially one that is easier and prettier to see and understand — is the first hint of real hope.
  3. Beautifies it. Simply put, art takes what it ugly and incomplete and makes it beautiful and whole. The person I think did this best — or at least the person who did it in a way I liked best — was Picasso. His pieces Massacre in Korea and Guernica, among others, take awful global events and show them in a way you can look at, that you want to look at more to learn more about. When a thing is beautiful, we are more likely to spend time with it, and therefore more likely to learn more about it and process and feel and heal.
  4. Shares it safely. Hard things are hard to talk about — it’s hard to admit and know that difficult things exist. But it’s important because it’s real! We all have these dark thoughts and it needs to be okay because we need to be a kind of people who are prepared to deal with real terror, and art is a good place to do that all safely, with low risk. In relation to terrible experiences, people say things like “I cant even imagine,” but I don’t think that’s okay, because you need to be able to imagine! If you can’t imagine hard things, then you’re caught off guard and ill-prepared when you run into something hard. Art not only helps you feel more comfortable in your community (i.e., it doesn’t shock or surprise you when someone is doing or going through or feeling something bad, and you can move more quickly to empathy and understanding and decision-making), and also prepares you for future challenges. Art is like a controlled burn: you light this little patch of grass on fire and learn to put it out, and nobody gets hurt.
  5. Preserves it. I’m going to stick with the chemical metaphor because it’s working here: in the way that water comes in gas, liquid, and a solid all while remaining technically H2O, so does our trauma. Art enables us to preserve the integrity of the experience while still, again, making it palatable. You don’t want someone to have to go through what you went through, but you also want them to understand. You know how someone has been through something awful, like losing their father or going through chemo, and people say things like, “You’ll never know unless you go through it”? I don’t think that’s completely true: I think we can start to know what each other is going through, if we’re willing to really share and really listen. That said, I also think that each of our experiences is unique, and while no one will every fully experience a thing in the exact same ways that we have, the differences in our stories both add to and give insight to and shine light on our experiences so we can see them in new ways we might not have thought about before. I think we worry that if someone understands, it means a thing is easy — and it’s not, it’s hard. I wonder if the idea that other people will never understand is a wall we put up to keep people from trying, to keep ourselves from getting hurt more when we’re already hurting. Because, shit, sharing pain does hurt. Illustrating this essay broke my heart a million times over again for a million different reasons, Marcia’s and others’ and my own. If it stops hurting, though, it means it’s not worth working to try and make the world better. We need to remember the pain of things in order to remember why we’re working to build a place that has less of it.

Anyways, I feel lucky to get to do something I believe in, for fun even if it’s tough sometimes. Check out Marcia’s essay & my illustrations here!

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