Bearing Witness: Autoethnographic Animation and the Metabolism of Trauma

PhD by practice: Royal College of Art


This multi-disciplinary inquiry uses arts-based research and the medium of autoethnographic animation to process the sequela of psychological trauma. My motivation was to explore my own trauma experiences, ameliorate my symptoms, and understand the ethics and politics behind both interpersonal and institutional abuse.

Chronic trauma has devastating consequences. Its encoding in the brain leads to altered threat perception, increased stress hormone activity and emotional dysregulation, resulting in symptoms such as nightmares, flashbacks, rage, paralyzing fear, alexithymia and dysphoria (inability to feel feelings and profound unease), and other distressing physiological effects. Many survivors use drugs and alcohol to cope with these symptoms, and some will dissociate (split-off from their experiences) in order to psychologically survive. However, ‘the body continues to keep the score,’1 and until resolved, images and emotions imprinted at the time of trauma will regularly re-intrude in the form of fragmented memories and visceral sensations, accompanied by intense feelings of terror, shame and helplessness.

In cognitive science research, it has been found that these intrusive memories and associated symptoms may be moderated by visuospatial processes such as Tetris game play, the use of mental imagery (pictures in the mind’s eye), and imagery re-scripting (working with imagery to change its perceived meaning). My study proposes that as the medium of animation combines visuospatial attributes alongside imagery re-scripting possibilities, it might be similarly used to ameliorate trauma symptoms. Relevant research will be cited to support this proposition.

The choice of animated autoethnography arose from my decision to explore personal experiences. As a methodology, autoethnography takes such experiences and uses them to examine wider socio-cultural-political issues through a variety of media, such as the written word, poetry, film and performance. Within this inquiry I am using it to explore the epistemic injustice (harm caused when a person’s credibility is doubted due to their identity) that I have personally experienced within interpersonal and institutional relationships, including those involving domestic violence and the abuse of psychiatric power.

My theoretical frame draws on physicist and philosopher Karen Barad’s agential realist framework in order to explore how the materiality, discursive practices and performativity of animation, and relationships between researcher, tools, events, and processes, may be used to moderate trauma and identify evidence of therapeutic change.

There is currently very little published material exploring animation’s therapeutic potential and the possible cognitive processes involved, and my inquiry will contribute new knowledge in this area by connecting the disparate fields of animation, autoethnography and cognitive science research. Using the qualitative method of thematic analysis (as set out by Virginia Braun and Victoria Clarke), I am ascertaining animation’s visuospatial attributes, imagery re-scripting potential and capacity to bear witness to lived experiences of trauma. Interviews with scientists, clinicians, academics, autoethnographers, animators, therapists and trauma survivors provide me with data for analysis, and this in turn informs my animation practice.

My research output comprises my practice (a trilogy of film experiments using personal psychiatric and legal records, diaries and poetry as source material), my thesis, and a series of presentations, screenings and papers. Findings will suggest avenues for autoethnographic animation’s future use, in both arts-based and clinical research and practice.


autoethnographic animation; intrusive memories; mental imagery; imagery re-scripting; psychological trauma

1 Bessel Van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma (2014).

Expt.2: The Betrayal

A woman trusts her psychiatrist, but becomes enmeshed in his prescriptive web. At its dark heart, The Betrayal is a twisted, deadly love affair.

Year: 2015
Length: 5’ 40’
Director: Susan Young

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To read a review of The Betrayal click here

Expt. 1: It Started with a Murder

A man tries to murder his wife. Memories of the event are explored through the juxtaposition of images of light, flesh, blood and legal documents in this silent, autobiographical film.

Year: 2013
Length: 2’ 50”
Director: Susan Young

My motivation for this research was the trauma I experienced when my ex-husband attempted to murder me, which intensified when I was abused by some of the clinicians who subsequently treated me. My animation practice explores these events and triggers my memories and feelings about them through the stop-frame animation of objects including pills, flesh, blood, light and legal documents. This process metabolizes and rescripts the related traumas and uses juxtaposition and editing to alter the outcome of the events, enabling me to experience feelings of empowerment and control where previously I had none. Screenings of the films function as a further transformative tool and as a way of bearing witness to others.