For better or worse there is almost never a picture of the trauma you experienced. If trauma is unspeakable, it is also certainly, often ‘unshowable’ or invisible. It is hard to get the words out, the descriptions out even to describe an image—let alone find a tangible image. Soldiers do not come home from war with photos of battles. They send photos home, like my great uncle did, of young faces in uniforms too big, standing in front of recognizable landmarks in Europe. Some of these black and white photos are in pastures, or in front of village fountains. All of them are mundane. Men smiling. In this case, only the photos returned home. My great uncle did not.
So too is it for families who have experienced domestic violence. There are photos of holidays, children sitting on Santa’s lap, photos of people sitting around a table, but not of the plates broken, thrown against the wall. You cannot take a photo of fear, or a sleepless night. Barbara Kingsolver’s haunting opening line, “Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened” captures perfectly this dilemma of experiencing trauma and knowing that you can never fully share it—that there may always be a gap between knowing and showing. Of experiencing a world so different, that you wonder where you would stat to describe it. Rithy Panh’s new film, The Missing Picture also explores this territory of knowing and not knowing—searching for a way to turn thoughts and memories of his survival of the Khmer Rouge into an experience that can be shared, acknowledged, honored. In the opening of the film he states, “For many years I have been searching for a photograph taken between 1975 and 1979..I search vainly for it across archive and in old papers…so I created it. What I give you today is neither the picture nor the search for a unique picture, but the picture of a quest.”
His movie is called The Missing Picture and it reminded me of my Cambodian colleage who posted a family picture on Facebook — a big family— and then later commented that only 2 of the large family survived the war. The missing in the picture tells the story. Rithy Panh found a way to both share a picture and create a workable distance so that he could share his story and this is no mean feat. So many protocols of healing trauma require words and narrative —but how do you re-create the pictures? How do you find your working distance? We need to take our wisdom from the artists like Kingsolver and Panh, from the poets like Adrienne Rich whose Poem Diving into the Wreck also explores ways of moving from knowing to showing: “I came to explore the wreck…I came to see the damage that was done and the treasures that will prevail…the wreck and not the story of the wreck…”
While I am grateful for the science of healing from trauma, I am indebted to the artists who have mapped most of the territory. They have been the courageous explorers, the journalists of the heart, and the photographers of the invisible. They can be your translators of the unspeakable and your able guide to healing.