Sharing Trauma Narratives through Art

“Why I Had to Leave My Village,” from a Colombian refugee in Ecuador. The words sewn into the cloth translate to: “This is the story the cloth wants to tell.”
Courtesy Rachel A. Cohen, Washington Post

Recently I read an article from The Washington Post that provides some powerful insights into the nature of trauma as an important approach that can promote healing.

Most trauma experts describe the impact of trauma as something that typically shatters a person’s narratives. When this happens their ability to accurately remember overwhelmingly painful experiences in a way that is logically organized and makes sense is taken away. Instead the person is prone to being triggered by sensory flashbacks and/or the compulsion to reenact unresolved traumas. They may experience painful dreams. They may feel overwhelmingly anxious, fearful or dissociative, unable to connect with reality. Sometimes if they even try to share a description of their trauma, just putting words to those experiences is so overwhelming as to re-traumatize them.

The article describes how women who have been horrifically abused in countries like Bosnia, Syria, the Congo, Rwanda and Columbia, to name a few, create cloth stories, fabric tapestries with images pieced together to allow each of them to tell their story in a meaningfully nonverbal way. The women creating these cloth stories have suffered brutal forms of sexual and gender-based violence. Their need to tell their stories comes from the many repercussions resulting from this abuse and their need to find some way to promote healing. Just to give a sense of the impact of their trauma, these women are more likely to drop out of school or leave work, impacting their financial security, among other things.  Emotionally they experience depression and numbness. They are at a greater risk for suicide. There also is the social stigma and shame that their cultures often place on them, making them outcasts. They are often rejected by their families, which adds another layer of trauma to the already powerful toxic stress and pain of the original experiences.

When asked about the colors she chose, the maker of this story cloth said, “I made myself look invisible, because no one really sees me.” Reproduction by Common Threads Project.
Courtesy Rachel A. Chohen, Washington Post.

What is helping them heal and resonates with what neuroscience teaches about trauma is an ancient and widespread practice of making what are called story cloths.  “… women in many diverse cultures have gathered to support one another, and to sew that which they cannot speak into narrative textiles.” The pictures from the article are stunningly beautiful and poignant in their visual descriptions of the atrocities they experienced.

The author of the article, Rachel A. Cohen, a clinical psychologist, and the founder and executive director of Common Threads Project, describes why the creation of these story cloths is so effective: “What is intrinsically therapeutic about this simple activity? These activities provide a sense of connection and solidarity with other women, and the relief that one is not alone in this predicament. Emotional safety and personal disclosure are enhanced when the hands are busy and there is no demand for eye contact. Creating images allows for unmediated self-expression. Hand sewing is calming, rhythmic and meditative. And like the recovery process, sewing happens at a slow and intricate pace. It may also foster a sense of mastery so needed by those who have been subjected to violence.”

By gathering together and forming a community of women who can deeply appreciate each other’s pain, some of that pain can be released as the story cloths are created and then displayed.

The author concludes: There is much work to be done to achieve justice and to reduce the virulent spread of gender-based violence. But in the nightmarish meantime, what might aid those whose lives have been derailed? Can we develop compassionate, culturally responsive, effective interventions that lead to lasting recovery? The answer is yes. I have witnessed the miraculous resilience of women who prove that it is possible, not only to recover from the most hideous of atrocities but also to transform, to grow beyond the trauma and to channel their suffering toward social change.”

“After the Earthquake,” by a woman whose home and village were destroyed by the 2015 earthquakes in Nepal.
Courtesy Rachel A. Cohen, Washington Post.

Not only can we be grateful that these women have a healthy outlet to express their pain and share their narratives, this information can reinforce what we all need to understand about trauma. The shattered narratives of a person’s trauma story needs a healthy venue to allow the pain to be expressed and through that, released. Through the art of story cloths, stories that are unspeakable and shattered within the mind can turn into stories that become integrated, that have beginnings, middles and endings. The person can gain control over his or her traumatic symptoms and processes of reexperiencing the original pain.

We can celebrate that these processes are so healing and better advocate for those with unresolved trauma. We can celebrate the courage it takes to find creative outlets to share stories. We can also celebrate that learning more about the processes needed to promote healing can actually provide opportunities to promote social change.

Invitation to Reflect

  1. If you can, go to the website listed above to view some of the cloth art. Notice what you feel when you see these works of art. Think about how each person creating her artwork probably felt as she told her story.
  2. Think about ways you might share stories from your past that involve being hurt, being wounded or scared, and possibly with memories that are fragmented. Would you benefit from doing a similar project either with cloth or some other medium?
  3. Think of ways this information might be helpful to someone you know who may have his or her own shattered narratives. How might knowing this give them an avenue to integrate the pieces of their trauma narrative?