Radical Psychology
Volume Nine, Issue 1


S/KIN: Re-Naming Adolescent Trauma Through Film

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 call '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-western, 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, p.24).  Hélène Cixous observed that “we are at the beginning of a process of becoming in which several histories intersect with one another”  (Cixous, 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” (Cashdan, 1999, 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 ‘neutral 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 lost.

Background to S/KIN

This article is based on S/KIN, a film I made in conjunction 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 Skin).

Movie Still

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 type of 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 achieve the 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 inquiry.

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 welcome by-product.

Film Still

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.

Film Commentary

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 escaped from the family house but cannot escape the riddle of enclosure. 

As Boose and Flower (1989) argue:

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 adulthood.

Film Still

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 many 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 some invisible presence. I run without memory, in a time of dirt.  I loop that space where boundaries collide. My hair becomes entangled with twigs and flowers. I lose my trainers.

Film Still

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.

Film Still


Concluding Remarks

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 self-control.


References


Boose, L. and Flower, B. (1989). Daughters and Fathers. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

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 Wheatsheaf.

Connor, S. (2004). The Book of Skin. London: Reaktion Books Ltd.

Demy, J. (dir. 1970). Peau D’Âne. (Optimum Releasing Ltd 2003)

Herman, J. L. (1992). Trauma and Recovery. London: Pandora.

Owen, J. and Chiarella, A. (2006). S/kin.
 
Woodman, M. (1993). Leaving My Father’s House: A Journey to Conscious Femininity. Boston: Shambala.


Biographical note:

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.