Sexual trauma has been explored extensively in film and video. The filmmaker’s challenge, however, is avoiding the mawkishness and self-pity that result from putting survivors on display in the manner of daytime talk shows. The need for a feminist, filmic approach to the subject of sexual and intimate partner violence that moves beyond the Eurocentric lens is critical in the feminist classroom. Three films on the aftermath of child sexual assault and related violence against women take this feminist approach. Instructors should be cautioned, however, to prepare their students for the emotional impact of these films and its possible repercussions for survivors in their classes.
In Human Touch: Pain and Power, director Vejan Lee Smith gives voice to a group of African American men and women as they share the meaning and history of touch in their lives. All are survivors of sexual and/or physical abuse. The focus of these candid conversations and of the film in general is to reveal the significance of touch in the human experience and how critical it is to our development as adults. The participants raise a number of issues that will be familiar to those who work with survivors: using alcohol to cover up the pain or avoiding touch entirely because even gentle touch can trigger flashbacks of abuse or neglect. The conflation of abuse and love is a common theme among the group: “[A] mother’s touch to me is alien. I don’t remember my mother touching me when I was little.”
Human Touch has an unpolished quality and Smith falls into some of the traps that often snare new filmmakers. The images are static and poorly lit—the group is either sitting around talking or engaged in self-touching exercises. The film impresses one as being the recording of a thirty-minute conversation among friends in someone’s living room, shot with a home video camera.
But despite these production problems the film has significant value to students of feminist psychology and would be useful for counseling professionals who work with survivors of trauma. Few other films on gender violence address the experiences of people of color, with the exception of Aishah Shahidah Simmons’s No! The Rape Documentary1 and Rape Is2 . However, Human Touch has a very specific purpose of illuminating the profound impact of healing touch on survivors of sexual abuse, and for that reason alone this is an important work.
Celesta and Karen Davis were molested as young children by a close family friend during the 1970s, when silence was the prevailing response to such crimes. The abuser was not reported, charged, or even rejected by their parents. Rather, the Davis family continued to collude with their collective silence, and maintained contact with the perpetrator, his wife, and their two young children for years.
Twenty-five years later, with her mother’s support and Karen’s involvement, Celesta embarked on a quest to find the perpetrator and confront him. Awful Normal turns the camera’s lens on their deliberations, struggles, and planning and, ultimately, the confrontation itself. It exposes in a very intimate way how an adult can cause far more psychological damage than physical harm to a child, and how the acts of one abuser ripples through the lives of every person with whom he or she has contact.
This focused story is fascinating in that Celesta and Karen have developed distinct coping strategies. Karen is happily married and has children, and seems ready to move on, although she comes to fully support her sister’s project. Celesta’s trauma is far more obvious. Making Awful Normal was Celesta’s way of dealing with the past and finding a place for it in her life. During the course of the film, Karen and Celesta, along with their mother, also come to terms with the fact that their father engaged in abusive behavior as well (he passed away prior to the making of the film), thus exposing the myth of the seemingly perfect nuclear family.
The perpetrator, whose face is obscured, comes across as actively listening, reflecting, and expressing remorse—a scenario that is too good to be true, as Celesta, Karen, and their mother discuss afterwards. Celesta herself realizes that even as she hates what he did to her, she finds herself recalling the affection she felt for this man. This is not an uncommon reaction on the part of survivors who encounter their abusers in court or years later when they are adults. It is often the fact that many molesters are pathetic individuals—not the monsters that we think them to be—that entraps children into the lie of silence. This remarkable film takes the viewer on a journey of healing and resolution that is marked with self-doubt, fear, moments of exhilaration, and tremendous courage.
In 2000–2001, actress/screenwriter Angela Shelton searched for her name online, contacted numerous other women named Angela Shelton, and asked them to participate in a film about American women. An unexpected revelation was that most of the Angela Sheltons who responded were raped, battered, or sexually abused as children. Their stories—and that of the director—are told in Searching for Angela Shelton, a documentary that has achieved cult status.
The subtext of “Angela Shelton” as universal American woman is illustrated by the fact that these Angelas represent a cross-section of race, class, religion, careers, and life choices in the United States. They share their wisdom with director Shelton, who is a skilled interviewer, but who also shares her story with each to gauge their reactions. Most poignant is “anonymous” Angela, who refuses to appear on film but permits taping of her powerful telephone conversations with the director about the impact of childhood abuse on their lives. These calls compellingly lace together scenes with other Angelas as the director and crew travel from state to state to speak with them.
Most ironic is the fact that one of the Angela Sheltons interviewed is a pedophile hunter who lives in the same South Carolina city as the director’s father. The filmmaker’s encounter with this Angela gives her the courage to confront her father on Father’s Day. Unlike Celesta Davis’s confrontation with her abuser, Shelton’s father twists her words, and under the guise of love tries to persuade her that she only imagined the abuse. Shelton’s frustration and anger remains in check until she is back in the safety of her trailer. Unhinged, she rants and rages in a scene that is profoundly devastating and emotionally raw.
Shelton’s skill as a screenwriter (Tumbleweeds) and editor make this the most polished, and perhaps most accessibly mainstream, of these films. She has also made it available for viewing online for free3 . Since Searching for Angela Shelton’s release, Shelton has poured her energies into connecting with others through the Internet, on her websites and Facebook page, and has chronicled her post-film healing process in her memoir, Finding Angela Shelton4 . Shelton’s online media are intriguing examples of how survivors can find mutual support via the virtual world.
All three films illustrate, to varying degrees, the process of integrating traumatic events into one’s life in a way that lends meaning to the experience. As psychiatrist and author Judith Herman states, “This simple statement—‘I know I have myself’—could stand as the emblem of the…final stage of recovery. The survivor no longer feels possessed by her traumatic past, she is in possession of herself....[Drawing] upon those aspects of herself that she most values from the time before the trauma, from the experience of the trauma itself, and from the period of recovery…she creates a new self, both ideally and in actuality.”5
Claire Kaplan is the Director of Sexual and Domestic Violence Services at the University of Virginia Women’s Center. She received her doctorate in Education from the University of Virginia, and her master’s degree in Professional Writing (screenplay emphasis) from the University of Southern California. She considers herself a refugee from the film industry.
1No! The Rape Documentary, directed by Aishah Shahidah Simmons (Philadelphia: AfroLez Productions, 2006). See also Cheryl Clarke’s review of No! The Rape Documentary in Films for the Feminist Classroom 1, no.1, available at http://www.signs.rutgers.edu/rev_cc_film_1-1.html.
2Rape Is, directed by Margaret Lazarus and Renner Wunderlich (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge Documentary Films, 2002).
3Searching for Angela Shelton can be viewed online at http://www.snagfilms.com/films/title/searching_for_angela_shelton/.
4Angela Shelton, Finding Angela Shelton: The True Story of One Woman’s Triumph over Sexual Abuse (Des Moines, IA: Meredith Books, 2008).
5Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery (New York: Basic Books, 1997), p. 202.