RACHEL D. L. is a queer, disabled writer and artist. She writes about disability for the Rooted in Rights blog and has published poetry and nonfiction in Anomaly, Colorado Review, and Our Lives Magazine. An excerpt from her latest project, Distance and Weight, can be found in the newest issue of Nat.Brut. She is an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and occasionally tweets @wordcalculator.
I didn’t start using drawings in my work until a few years ago. I never read comics as a kid, and it never occurred to me to use drawings to tell stories until I got to high school and started reading more experimental writing, poetry, and lyric essays which taught me I could tell a story in just about any kind of shape or dimension. The impetus for turning to comics was a project I started my senior year of high school, when I was beginning to turn back to, and find words for, traumas that had occurred in my life when I was an 8th grader.
When I was thirteen years old, I was sexually abused by a staff member in a psychiatric hospital. I’d never been able to put words to what had happened that year because there was no such thing as sexual abuse education in our school district, especially in elementary and middle school; so even though I had just turned 18, I was still struggling to find the right language. All the language I did find, even if my experiences fell under the definitions, failed to communicate the magnitude of what had happened to me that year. So I turned to trying to represent that story in another form. I didn’t have words, but I had this image of trauma being a huge weight I was carrying around. What would happen if I started writing and drawing all of these different memories onto a medium that represented that weight?
I collected 30 or so rocks and painted them with white out. Then I began drawing images of the most immediate memories and words. I never intended for those rocks to turn into a larger project, but over the next few months I continued rearranging them and taking photos of the different arrangements. I realized that by doing this, and lining the photos up in certain orders, I could tell a story. The final project turned out to be a series of 33 photos that told the story of my sexual abuse as an eighth grader and its impacts on my life and relationships. I guess you could say it was my first “comic” even though the frames were the edges of photos and the drawings were images of rocks.
…I had this image of trauma being a huge weight I was carrying around. What would happen if I started writing and drawing all of these different memories onto a medium that represented that weight?
I think it was really this one project that began to shift the creative work I was doing; the project connected me with organizations like the Awakenings Foundation in Chicago, who later displayed this project in their gallery, and whose mission of making trauma survivors visible I really appreciated. The project also taught me I didn’t have to “speak” with verbal language to make trauma visible. Visibility came in many forms. And trauma didn’t have to be directly named to be acknowledged; it could be alluded to or gestured toward.
Since then, I’ve been working a lot with symbols in my work, and recently, mathematical symbols. I’ve taken an interest in how, particularly mathematical symbols can have a certain “function” when they are used in the context of math, but when taken out of the context of math they can represent more than they’re function or be translated into language. Most of my current work now deals with symbols and with creating certain patterns throughout the text with language. Telling stories in this kind of way has always felt more comfortable for me; I don’t feel like I’m trying to force stories into the coherent cause-and-effect dramatic structure that has never felt like an honest way for me to tell stories.
On that note, my work sometimes gets misread by audience members who have not experienced similar traumas, or those who don’t recognize the symbols I’m using. As a disabled, queer, woman survivor of sexual violence who has spent a lot of my time in communities of disabled, queer survivors I also know that the harm doesn’t end once the physical violence ends. The harm continues when people outside of our communities tell us repeatedly to speak more clearly, to be more direct, to form complete sentences, to stop stuttering stopping and restarting, that we need to change the way we speak to make any sense. What these people are truly asking of us is not to speak our own language, to speak to the untraumatized norm. Trying to write for that norm is the absolute end of creativity for me.
Trauma didn’t have to be directly named to be acknowledged; it could be alluded to or gestured toward.
And while there are times I deeply wish people outside the communities I am a part of would understand my work, because their misunderstanding too can be violent, I also know that I don’t want to write stories for people who I have to convince of my realities. I want to write stories for people who can say me too, who feel like their own experiences are reflected. If readers are not aware of the symbolic language I am using, they might misread the “myths”. This was not my intention but I think it can be useful when paired with discussion or collective analysis, because it serves to show the ways in which not all trauma is clearly visible; the incredibly nuanced, diverse, direct and indirect ways people speak about violence are often delegitimized.
The voiceover in “Myths?” tells a very different story than what the images depict. I grew up in a town that didn’t think it needed sexual abuse education, and never mentioned the word rape, because “that kind of stuff just doesn’t happen here.” When I wrote “Myths?,” I was thinking a lot about how I navigated my attempts to disclose my sexual abuse, growing up in a community that prided itself on its safety, health, and absence of violence. If my community was safe, disclosing that I was unsafe would have been a dangerous challenge to my community’s narrative. It was terrifying for me to think of challenging or pushing against that narrative, especially alone and as a middle schooler. When I wrote “Myths?” what I wanted to work with between the text and images was those tensions between a community that tells one narrative as truth and a speaker that lives another.
The harm doesn’t end once the physical violence ends. The harm continues when people outside of our communities tell us repeatedly to speak more clearly, to be more direct, to form complete sentences, to stop stuttering stopping and restarting, that we need to change the way we speak to make any sense.
While perhaps some of the myths like the fact that “the city” is the first of ten most successful cities in the US might be ‘true,’ they are only true according to the city’s subjective analysis of what success means and how it is defined. The city’s, or an outsider’s, definitions of success often do not consider who suffers, who gets harmed, and who gets exploited because of that success. The result was a narrative that never directly names the traumas that the speaker endures, because every time the traumas get alluded to, “the city” (which is not truly a city) crushes those allusions and transforms them into meaning something far more benign than the speaker’s reality.
So the violence is silenced, and it’s silenced through the city being anything but silent, but instead through its insistent telling of an alternative story.
Want to be considered for future installments of The New Comics? Send your work to Comics Curator Keith McCleary via the Entropy submissions page.