Volume Nine, Issue 1
S/KIN: Re-Naming Adolescent Trauma
Jean Owen *
In the 1970s feminist writers focused attention on fairy tales and
finally broke the spell that has cursed women for centuries. By
exposing the role of fairy tales in the cultural struggle over gender
both through revisionary writings and critiques of traditional stories,
feminism helped transform the way western society thinks about what I
'stories of the anon', because they have a dubious relation to the
literary canon in spite of their inclusion as a literary form that
dates back some 300 years. Many boundaries
have been stretched and blurred over the centuries to introduce
non-white contexts to fairy-tale stories and studies. Moreover,
technical advances in film and the internet have changed the way fairy
tales are received.
Yet the Hollywood machine has ensured that “happily ever after” is
still the reigning metaphor of fairy tales to the extent that many
women continue to identify with patriarchal, collective values, of
which fairy tales form a part, so that they remain “buried inside the
dead skins of their father’s kingdom” (Woodman, 1993,
Hélène Cixous observed that “we are at the beginning of a
process of becoming in which several histories intersect with one
1981, p.252). Thirty years later it would seem that women
need to question the assumptions of their own becoming; can it ever
translate into something more amenable to women, or is becoming itself
by definition only ever a liminal condition, a threshold between two
other states, the before - past; and the after - future?
According to Sheldon Cashdan the world of childhood “is full of
absolutes. Black is black and white is white. There are no in-betweens”
p.251). I suspect this is why we have to wait until adulthood to deal
with the in-between, or the middle of the tale. The fairy tales I am
referring to are those that deal with rites of passage. The
beginning of such tales is all too well-known, ‘Once upon a time
there lived....’ a pantheon of elites and subordinates: king, queen,
princess, prince, and their servants. And the end is certain,
‘and they lived happily ever after.’ The middle is the point of
transition which holds
the possibility of change. It is in the middle that we can ask a
number of unsettling questions. "Within a
world where daughters belong to either their fathers or their husbands,
there is no neutral space” (Boose and Flowers, 1989,
p.23). Because such a view is
restricting, I am intent on finding some
ground’, the liminal, defined as a state of being on the threshold of
two different existential planes, a transitional place such as the
woods. This woodland is a place of symbolic change and transformations.
It is a magical place. It is also a place where you can get hopelessly
Background to S/KIN
This article is based on S/KIN,
with accomplished camera-man Adrian Chiarella in early April 2006 at
Hampstead Heath, London. This film is one of the many ways I confront
the trauma of my adolescence, that liminal state par excellence. The
idea behind the film emerged from Jacques Demy’s 1976 film adaptation
of Charles Perrault’s seventeenth-century fairy tale Peau D’Âne (hereafter
referred to in the english translation as Donkey
It is not unusual to find in literature what is unspeakable in life.
Not surprisingly though, I was never told any version of the Donkey
Skin tale as a child. Indeed, it was only when I entered another
closed-off world, that of therapy, that it became accessible to me.
Demy’s Donkey Skin opens in
an idyllic world. In this musical fairy
tale, the king, played by Jean Marais, and queen, played by Catherine
Deneuve, of a powerful kingdom share a perfect marriage and are blessed
with a beautiful daughter who is also played by Catherine Deneuve.
Unique among the royal couple’s possessions is a magic donkey who
rather than excreting dung, drops gold coins every morning, thereby
ensuring the economic wealth of the kingdom. One day the queen is
struck by a mysterious illness but before dying makes her
grief-stricken husband promise that he will remarry only on condition
that he finds someone more beautiful than she. After a period of
mourning, and after pressure by his council to remarry, the king
embarks on an entertaining though suspiciously sexist quest to find
such a beauty, only to discover that the potential bride is none other
than his own daughter. Horrified and confused, the princess consults
her fairy godmother, the Lilac Fairy, played by Delphine Seyrig.
Together they devise some impossible tasks for the king in order to
delay the marriage. However, the king is so powerful he can
impossible and thus satisfies all his daughter’s requests. At her wits’
end, the princess finally asks for the skin of his magic donkey,
thinking that he will never succumb to such a wish. But though
surprised and distressed, the indulgent and desperate father does so,
and the princess has no option but to flee the family home dressed in
the skin of the gold-depositing donkey. In her new persona as Donkey
Skin, this erstwhile princess lives as a fugitive in a hut in the
forest of the next kingdom and works as a scullion in the village.
Eventually a handsome prince discovers her true identity and they marry
in grand style.
Demy brackets the story with the opening and closing of a book
accompanied by a narrator. This reiterates the act of storytelling and
marks the film’s reality off as timeless, remote and unreal. As with
all fairy tales, Donkey Skin
relates to nothing other than itself. Demy
creates a pristine world steeped in surrealist terms that serve to
weaken the incestuous underbelly of the plot. The narrative does not
dwell in possibilities in that the heroine journeys straight from the
family home to what will become her marital home. Though she lives in a
den in the
forest, Donkey Skin is
offered the job of scullion as soon as she
reaches the next village. This journey is filmed in slow motion to
suggest a pause for the spectator to take in the transformation of a
princess into something else, something other than or momentarily less
than human. This is
further enhanced by a lovely ‘Sleeping Beauty’ moment when she reaches
the village and all the villagers fall asleep on the spot as though
struck by a sleeping spell. And it is this filmic pause that
stops me in my tracks: Hang on a minute, what’s going on here? Why has
the middle stage between family and marital home not been narrated?
In this article my emphasis falls on a much-neglected liminal space in
the narrative: I want to suggest that S/KIN
is a psychological space
for adolescent daughters to negotiate a troubled rite-of-passage.
Identity is always unstable and subject to transformation. However, it
becomes even shakier when a real life character rubs shoulders with
fictive figures, whether they happen to be mythical or self-invented.
There is of course a huge difference between writing about real people
and making use of the cultural cache of made-up names, all those
fictive daughters that timelessly share my own personal history. My
interest lies in how myths and legends get reconstituted in the
reconstruction of a ‘self’ that may contain only traces of the
autobiographer. In Greek mythology, a muse is a feminine figure who
inspires creativity of some kind. It has been a feminist writing
strategy to use the self as muse by using our own lives as fields of
Everything I do is an extension of what happened to me, and an
exchange. I transform into someone at once removed from me, someone
almost outside of me. It is not uncommon in autobiographical and
self-referential works to set up a subject/object relation between your
present self and your past self. Creating this synthetic split allows a
distancing within the process that makes negotiating the self/other a
little easier. Thus, in writing this I have used the italicised I (and
other first person pronouns) to refer to my ‘other’ self. From this
vantage point I am able to keep some kind of attachment to this other,
younger self. This is very important to me. Transforming the
traumatic memory into a therapeutic story involves a process of
articulation and revision, carried out in a collaboration of the past I
and the present I. The transformative power of the film is such
that I, the viewer, experience myself
(I, the actor) in two
contradictory ways: concurrently looping it and being enveloped by it.
While I am well aware of the therapeutic excesses lurking behind the
camera, it needs to be said that personal catharsis is not the prime
intention motivating my work; even so, the therapeutic benefits are a
Making the Film
Adrian and I headed for the Vale of Heath along with our assistants
Duane and Jenny. I wore a grey fake fur coat which I had bought a few
days earlier from a Retro shop in Portobello Market for ₤15. This coat
engendered ‘Rabbit Skin’, my totemic self, of whom I shall say more in
a while. I also wore a pair of Nike trainers as an autobiographical
signature. The plan was that I run around the Heath for an hour,
improvising any action I wanted to include and Adrian would keep
alongside me filming on a simple digital mini DV video camera (model
JVC grid 260). It took just one week to edit the film.
S/KIN is set in a mythic
space, a space for fairy tales; a wooded area
that is part of a game-keeping estate. The wood itself is not a static
site, but one of constant and surprising movement, hence my
hyper-vigilance. This (e)state is an enclosure, a type of labyrinth
from which there appears to be no way out. This represents the stasis
of traumatic experience. I have
cannot escape the riddle of enclosure.
As Boose and Flower (1989)
The daughter’s struggle with her father
is one of separation, not
displacement. Its psychological dynamics thus locate conflict inside
inner family space. Father-daughter stories are full of literal houses,
castles, or gardens in which fathers […] lock up their daughters in the
futile attempt to prevent some rival from stealing them (p. 33).
What is provided is a neutral space -- a type of clearing -- for the
traumatised daughter, a space that is usually unavailable to her.
Staying in the wood is staying in between two states: the past and the
present. It is the place where I
begin to turn into something else,
something other than that inflicted on me by my past. This film is part
of my own quest for autonomy. It is a matter of reconciling my fugitive
state with the stunned condition in which I grew up, which is the
condition of trauma. It is about coming to terms with what was done and
who I became in the aftermath.
S/KIN is a silent film that
loops the unreadable and the unspeakable
events which surrounded my life for so long. It is trauma as moving
image, an interpretative site that seeks to represent that which
purportedly cannot be represented. This neutral in-between space is not
a bridge to link beginning and end; it is a clearing that enables some
kind of negotiation of my past in the present. This is the story of a
fugitive daughter in process, never arriving. I am in a space of utter
abandonment, of not knowing who I
am or who I will become.
Significantly, on a more quotidian level it mirrors the state of
adolescence itself, that long stretch of time between childhood and
The title S/KIN draws
attention to the proximity between skin and kin
that is the undercurrent of family trauma. Traumatised skin is an
amputated skin “cut off from a knowledge of its past” (Herman,1992,
p.2). Trauma cut me off from my own skin to the point where I am
continuously compelled to create another, alternative skin which can be
read as a plea for a new identity. The ‘rabbit’ skin is a type of
prosthetic covering my traumatised skin. Ironically, it is a skin that
is in constant opposition to my present self.
The rabbit skin contains the trauma in two ways: the paradox of bearing
father’s skin over my own
skin is foregrounded. I wear
this skin to
make me untouchable. As an
untouchable site, this second skin is contagious. If skin
is about tactility, this particular skin is in fact anti-skin; it
refers to what cannot be touched upon precisely because it expresses
how I really feel about my past. The spectator can only see it on the
screen, and imagine its smell and its feel.
Yet this rabbit skin is also a disguise, a way of making the skin work
for me. It hides who I really am, and yet it is who I am in the film. A
change of name can lead to new possibilities. This other I in the
context of this film (and in other autobiographical works) is called
Rabbitskin. Of course, Rabbitskin is a ridiculous name for a woman of
middling years, just as Donkey Skin is no name for a princess. Yet it
seems an appropriate name for an adolescent on the run. Rabbitskin is
never named in the film, yet this does not detract from my authenticity
in the film. The point is not whether the film is autobiographically
authentic, or that the memory of it is real, since it doesn’t have to
be real to be true. Rabbitskin is brought to filmic life on a
particular day on Hampstead Heath, but the need to become this other
self has been lurking somewhere within me, under one of my
layers of skin, since I was 14 years old.
Needless to say, wearing a fake fur as a rabbit-skin is just a game of
Let’s pretend; mere child’s play. But if fictional selves are protean
in a way that the limited and singular self is not, this re-naming is
exactly where skin and kin coalesce, where the entire family seems to
gather on the skin of the traumatised daughter. In donning the rabbit
skin I become Rabbitskin, the name that speaks directly of and for the
trauma I experienced as an adolescent daughter. Of course, all this
assumes that there is such a thing as an adolescent self which can be
denoted by a name and a skin.
S/KIN: The Film
The film is on a seven minute loop. There is no dialogue. There is no
music. There is only bird song, the crackle of leaves and brambles
underfoot, and the sounds of running and breathing. I have bypassed
words in a most extreme case of self-negation as I circle the endless
loop that is matched by the circulatory nature of the film loop. I
wander through the dense realm of the wordless, a lost girl. There is
no plan, nothing to hold me
together. I am running from
presence. I run without
memory, in a time of dirt. I
space where boundaries collide. My
hair becomes entangled with twigs
and flowers. I lose my trainers.
I rest as the sky thickens. I rest when and where I can, not because
the stars come out, because there are no stars in dunlight, the kind of
light that hides a traumatised daughter, the kind of light that cuts me
off from normal time. I rest
in the undergrowth as a woodland animal.
My skin was supposed to
protect me. Now I have a horror of being
touched. I have been struck
by a kin disease much as rabbits are struck
by myxomatosis. Both diseases are man-made. I can’t escape my
skin. I can’t escape my kin.
S/KIN shows the complex
interior of the fugitive adolescent daughter
wanting to take destiny into my
own hands but having nowhere to turn.
On many levels it suggests that I was
destined to live forever in the
clearing, to become permanently liminal. Yet to stay in the middle is
to resist current endings; it is to refuse to come to any conclusions
or ideas but rather is a place of negotiation and ultimately
Boose, L. and Flower, B.
(1989). Daughters and Fathers.
Cashdan, S. (1999). The Witch Must Die: The Hidden Meaning of
Fairy Tales. New York: Basic Books.
Cixous, H. (1981).
‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ In E. Marks and I. de Courtivron (Eds.). New
French Feminisms: An Anthology. UK: Harvester
Connor, S. (2004). The Book of Skin. London: Reaktion
Demy, J. (dir. 1970). Peau D’Âne. (Optimum
Herman, J. L. (1992). Trauma and Recovery. London:
Owen, J. and Chiarella,
A. (2006). S/kin.
Woodman, M. (1993). Leaving My Father’s House: A Journey to
Conscious Femininity. Boston: Shambala.
Jane Owen is a PhD
candidate at the London Consortium, Birkbeck College London. Jean
thanks Adrian for making this film possible and Jenny Danielsson and
Duane Spencer for their assistance.