Author: Shannon Magness
Duration: 2 minutes
Published: January 2019
I wanted to provide a centrepiece for discussing intergenerational intimate partner violence without blaming and without re-traumatising survivors, while acknowledging a role for unconscious or repressed trauma on the part of both ‘victims’ and ‘perpetrators’ who witnessed IPV in early childhood. I also wanted to highlight the problem of domestic violence during pregnancy by making an artefact designed to reach beyond an exclusively academic audience. I devised the coded ‘Jingle-Doc’ form to communicate unthreateningly about these critical social issues without re-traumatising victims or presenting anyone as a confessing victim-spectacle.
Best viewed with headphones
My initial question was how to research intergenerational intimate partner violence (IGIPV)—the ‘cycle of violence’ wherein child-witnesses of IPV become victims or perpetrators of IPV in adulthood (Rodger, 2017; Roberts, et al, 2010). Various explanations for IGIPV have been suggested, such as adult perpetrators copying IPV seen in childhood (Roberts et al, 2010) and victims’ masochism (Young & Gerson, 1991). However I was interested in an approach that could consider unconscious factors. I was especially interested in preverbal witnessing of IPV, including audial-only witnessing, which could remain unconscious unless addressed by parents later when the child would be able to understand. Exploring the issue led me to evidence showing IPV often occurs for the first time or worsens when a woman is pregnant or has recently given birth (Refuge, 2016). Therefore, I decided to explore IGIPV in the context of intimate partner violence during and just after pregnancy.
The problem of children witnessing IPV is widespread (Bulman, 2017)—as is intimate partner violence against pregnant and postpartum women—but evidence suggests many children receive no therapeutic support or acknowledgement of their trauma in childhood, especially if it occurs pre-verbally (Levendosky and Henion, 2014). Parents may think very young children, because they cannot speak yet, cannot be affected: however recent scientific and social scientific research shows they are likely to suffer at some point because of the effects of witnessing IPV (Dana Forum, 2000; Alok, 2012; Gray, 2013). There is significant evidence that children’s exposure to this violence is increasing and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) has called on the Government for a UK wide study of the problem (Bulman, 2017)—a call which I echo not only to ameliorate present suffering but also as a check on the insidious effects stretching into the future. Preverbal exposure to IPV highlights audial witnessing, such as hearing from another room or otherwise out of eye-shot; and such indirect witnessing is now being highlighted by the NSPCC (04/09/2018). Moreover there is evidence that late term foetuses can hear melodies played to them in the womb and recognise them months after birth (NHS, 2014; Austin, 1994). Partanen, et alI have shown that music can have long lasting positive effects on the developing brain starting in the final trimester: and they point to the implication that prenatal development could be affected detrimentally by the audial environment of the mother (Partanen, et al: 2013).
My second research question was what form could be employed to accommodate such an exploration, involving these multiple disciplines. Moreover, as preverbal trauma is not visible and revelations about such trauma are socially taboo and ‘unspeakable’, I needed a form capable of handling speculation and the abstract. I wanted to avoid video ethnography and the possibility that interviewees would be reified as confessors or objects of voyeuristic fascination. Furthermore, my preliminary exploration made me realise that buried childhood trauma is in an area of contested knowledge, as indicated by the ‘False Memory Society’ (BFMS, 2018): and I did not want to expose survivors to naysayers. Though preverbal trauma may be invisible, there is evidence that overwhelming childhood experiences can turn the ‘fight-or-flight’ response ‘state’ into a permanent ‘trait’ of hyper-arousal (Perry, et. al, 1995)— which could stem from a fearful mother sharing stress hormones with her foetus (Eamon, et al, 2011; Gray, 2013). Such hyper-vigilance could exacerbate intimate partner violence in later life.
From an early stage in my research, I found support and further inspiration from Hungarian psychoanalyst Sandor Ferenczi’s (1873-1933) writing on child trauma. Several of his patients who had revelations of childhood trauma reported dreaming about a ‘talking baby’, and also had in common that they served as protectors in their families and had even advised and comforted elders (Ferenczi, 1949). He came to understand childhood trauma as causing precocity or early maturity (ibid), and his perspective helped validate my exploration of possible links between violence around pregnancy, buried childhood trauma and adult IPV. His work also helped inspire me to instantiate preverbal trauma and represent integration turning precocity into ‘wisdom’.
Womb-wise is one of three animated musical shorts or ‘Jingle-Docs’ created in the process of considering how intimate partner violence may be transmitted through generations. Womb-Wise acknowledges and considers a private and unspeakable trauma and instantiates its resolution. ‘Jingle-Docs’ serve as a performative surface representing my research, and are named after the propaganda films in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (BBC, 1980 Teleplay).
The films of the Leeds Animation Workshop (LAW), a women’s collective begun in 1978 in Yorkshire, have also been referred to as “propaganda” (BFI, 2014). LAW made short, animated films addressing violence against women and child sexual abuse among other problems—taking advantage of animation’s affordance for being entertaining while addressing unpleasant realities (BFI, 2014). A “deliberately do-it-yourself aesthetic” (Cohen, 2016) has been seen as a trademark of LAW’s politics (Pilling: 1992: 36). LAW’s animated shorts such as Who Needs Nurseries? We Do! (1978, 11 min) are still screened in educational contexts, but one former LAW member has said the “socialist/feminist imagery” could be critiqued for leaving some audiences feeling “patronised by films that fail to acknowledge their ability to ‘read’ meaning” (Pilling: 1992: 36). Womb-wise diverges from LAW’s animated shorts in this regard, as meaning is suggested using musical songscape and abstract imagery, rather than given through words and realist representations. Furthermore, while Leeds Animation Workshop provided discussion notes to frame their films for education and social improvement, I created loose narratives to accommodate various levels of engagement.
Also contributing to my choice of a more open narrative is the impossibility of ‘perfect’ victimhood, which requires a perfect balance of “power, influence or sympathy to successfully elicit victim status without threatening (and thus risking opposition from) strong countervailing vested interests” (Christie in Dignan: 2005: 18). I designed the ‘Jingle-Doc’ form to validate survivors without courting opposition. At the start of the research process I turned to making ‘songscapes’ as the only opaque-enough mode for my intentions (though the lullaby does set a suggestive scene). I also sought a form that would not alienate would-be perpetrators—a form that would do no harm. Ideally, I also wanted to reach an audience beyond academia. I tried to provide for viewers to engage at any depth, providing no words to heed, but offering a surface to ‘read’. For these reasons I have elsewhere referred to the ‘Jingle-Doc’ as a “multi-coded” form (Magness, 2018). LAW’s animations, like mine, also incorporated social scientific research (Pilling: 1992: 38): Womb-wise is based on social science, neuroscience, psychoanalysis and restorative justice literature—presented using a performative approach for “addressing the social issues that neither science nor reason can resolve” (Nichols 2001, 134).
My approach might be useful for practitioners and scholars interested in exploring taboo subjects. Moreover, a performative approach using instantiation allows symbolic representation and is capacious enough to accommodate interdisciplinary evidence. My approach might also be useful for arts practitioners and scholars who want to represent their research abstractly and incorporate psychoanalytic literature. Here as with my non-fiction video, U Know Them By Their Fruit (2013, 60 min), I sought to avoid reifying people on whose socially-significant experiences my work reflects. For U Know Them By Their Fruit, I devised creative and theory-led methods for sharing the burden of representation with a ‘Christian Patriot’, by framing both of us as ‘doppelgängers’ of each other. To motivate Womb-Wise and as a perspective from which to assemble relevant evidence, I have also drawn on my experience of witnessing IPV in childhood and then suffering it in adulthood: therefore Womb-Wise may also be considered as auto-ethnographic.
—Leeds Animation Workshop (1978) Who Needs Nurseries? We Do! (11 min) <https://www.leedsanimation.org.uk/films/39/>
—Magness, Shannon (2013) U Know Them By Their Fruit (60 min) Screenworks Vol. 4 <http://screenworks.org.uk/archive/volume-4/u-know-them-by-their-fruit>
—Magness, Shannon ’(2018) Seedid (2 min) Cultivate Issue #1 May 2018 ‘Feminist Protests’. <https://cultivatefeminism.com/prostests-seedis/>
—Magness, Shannon (2017) Guidense (3 min) Dovetail Issue #3 ‘Language, Form and Emotion’ <http://www.the-dovetail-journal-bangor-university.co.uk/issue-3>
I began by working with sound to create an atmospheric, acoustic ‘space’ for imagining and considering IGIPV—a polysemic form without words to anchor meaning. Within this capacious, affective mode I explored a cluster of variables such as preverbal audial witnessing and traumatic disassociation. Partly inspired by William Burroughs’ theory of language as a ‘virus’ composed of sounds and images (2005: 24), I named this musical practice ‘Re-dirg-a-ta-tion’—an inevitable excretion. I re-made Brahms’ iconic lullaby, also known as ‘the Cradle Song’ using sounds of a kick-drum, cymbals and synthesisers to suggest violence and disassociation. A narrative of childhood innocence is suggested by the recognisable lullaby, making the impact more powerfully felt when expectations set up by this melody are violated—a particular affordance of music (Ball, 2013). Layered sounds create an echo effect; a dramatic and sustained organ strike narrates the realisation of trauma; and a moment of harmonics from overlapping melodies signals integration and resolution.
Thinking a visual track would provide greater accessibility and impact I incorporated simple animations on the themes of preverbal trauma and dissociation, followed by knowledge, integration and recovery. The introductory soundscape is intended to evoke ‘generations’ by suggesting the world outside the home, passing time, and history. For this, I combined wind, a ticking clock, thunder, radio static and church bells—then a siren and heartbeat to foreshadow coming danger. A ‘radar ear’ animation in three primary colours signals the importance of audial perception in the narrative. When the soundscape fades out and the cartoon house in the animated title ‘shuts’, the seclusion of the domestic space is emphasised by contrast. As the rounded cartoon protagonist comes into view inside a circular cartoon ‘womb’ I hope there is a sense that one is born into a larger history as well as into a household.
The prenatal character floats placidly within the ‘womb’ but then jerks roughly—after which eyeglasses appear on the figure, signifying dissociation and precocity. Neurons are seen becoming corrupted and damaged to suggest deep internal trauma. The circular ‘womb’ vanishes and a second baby-figure appears, symbolising respite from isolation: then a lightening bolt signals this as a breakthrough, and a bell announces its resonance and persistence. The ear surrounded by musical notes celebrates healing, a dancing snake and a bouncing musical note celebrate joy in self-knowledge, and the nervous system is calmed and restored. The pair of dancers are meant to exude self-security and lightness: the trauma has been integrated, and alienated precocity has ripened into wisdom and optimism.
The animation speed of one frame per second creates a staccato rhythm and set against the rearranged lullaby brings an imperfect and unpredictable synchrony in image-sound interaction—imbuing points of synchrony with an “added value” (Chion: 1994: 189) of narrative power. I resisted fully synchronising image movement and sound, or ‘Mickey Mousing’ (Cook: 1998: 179), thinking unpredictable synchrony would better encourage subjective participation while expressing themes of trauma. The uneasy dissonance seems to become a buoyant syncopation as the dancers leap around and then pose triumphantly. As the coda fades out, an animated ‘cartoon playing card’ represents an unconscious trigger, inspired by the film The Manchurian Candidate (1962).
Womb-wise represents research into the issue of IGIPV and could be used in a related creative-practice workshop or group exhibition context. Outside of a defined context, Womb-wise would probably need to be accompanied by a label or otherwise introduced to ensure the focus on IGIPV is communicated clearly. However the ‘Jingle-Doc’ and/or ‘Re-dirg-a-ta-tion’ branding is partially intended to emphasise a gentle playfulness, as is my use of naive visual forms: I am inviting people to engage at any depth, even passively.
My approach could be of interest to researchers, teachers and artists aiming to address sensitive issues creatively, while also accommodating input from various disciplines, and aiming for public dissemination of their research. Secondly, researchers and therapists concerned with IPV may glean some insight from it. Thirdly, it might be interesting to researchers and practitioners studying intergenerational trauma both inside and outside of intimate partner relationships.
This work was self-funded.
Womb-wise has not yet been shown publicly in its current form.
The first ‘Jingle-Doc’ in the series, Guidense (3 min), was published in The Dovetail 2017: ‘Language Form and Emotion’. The second ‘Jingle-Doc’, Seedid (2 min), was published in Cultivate 2018: ‘Feminist Protests’. (Guidense evokes a consumerist-advertising milieu profiting from representations of the ‘idyllic domestic’ and obscuring experiences that contradict this ideal; Seedid highlights the vulnerability of pregnancy and validates the choice not to become a mother).
I presented initial ideas for this project at three University of Brighton events: including two songscapes (or ‘Re-dirg-a-ta-tions’) at an ‘Auto-Ethnography’ conference in 2016; a draft of my first ‘Jingle-Doc’, Guidense, at the ‘Storying the Self’ conference in 2017; and a draft version of Womb-Wise at the ‘Screening Sound’ symposium in 2018.
My project, using evidence from various disciplines and acknowledging a societal issue whose effects into the future are significant, might contribute to public health, cultural cohesion and quality of life in the following ways: a) by validating and bringing to cultural awareness experiences in the domestic milieu which much of our mediated culture serves to obscure, thereby opening up opportunities for healing, b) by acknowledging that healing is needed by both ‘victims’ and ‘perpetrators’, c) by acknowledging that traumatic damage from witnessing domestic violence may occur when witnessing is only audial and the child is preverbal, d) by bringing attention to domestic violence perpetrated and suffered during and just after pregnancy and while children are very young and e) by adding to literature on intergenerational violence.
Austin, Diana 16/01/1994 “Neighbours’ theme learned in the womb” The Independent <https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/neighbours-theme-learned-in-the-womb-1407223.html>
Ball, Phillip 2013. ‘How The Light Gets In’ Music’s Mystery”’ . The Institute of Art and Ideas. In association with The SHM Foundation.
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Dignan, James (2005) Understanding Victims And Restorative Justice. McGraw-Hill Education. United Kingdom.
McCrory, Eamon J.; De Brito, Stéphane A.; Sebastian, Catherine L.; Mechelli, Andrea; Bird, Geoffrey; Kelly, Phillip A. and Viding, Essi (2011) ‘Heightened neural reactivity to threat in child victims of family violence’ Current Biology, 21 (23)
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Gray, Richard (14/07/2013) ‘Sharing mother’s stress in the womb leaves children prone to depression’ The Telegraph Science News <https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/science-news/10177858/Sharing-mothers-stress-in-the-womb-leaves-children-prone-to-depression.html>
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Leeds Animation Workshop (1978) Who Needs Nurseries? We Do! (11 min) <https://www.leedsanimation.org.uk/films/39/>
Levendosky, Alytia and Henion, Andy ‘Domestic Abuse May Affect Children in Womb’ Michigan State University Today (16/12/2014) <http://msutoday.msu.edu/news/2014/domestic-abuse-may-affect- children-in-womb/>
Magness, Shannon (2017) Guidense (3 min) The Dovetail Issue 3: ‘Language Form and Emotion’ <https://www.the-dovetail-journal-bangor-university.co.uk/shannon-magness>
Magness, Shannon (2018) Seedid (2 min) Cultivate Issue 1: ‘Feminist Protests’ <https://cultivatefeminism.com/prostests-seedid/>
NHS Choices (2014) ‘Babies may remember music heard in the womb’ <https://www.nhs.uk/news/pregnancy-and-child/babies-may-remember-music-heard-in-the-womb/>
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Partanen, E.; Kujala, T.; Tervaniemi, M.; and Huotilainen, M., (2013) ‘Prenatal Music Exposure Induces Long-Term Neural Effects’ PLOS ONE 8(10): e78946. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0078946
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Review 1: Invite resubmission with re-edit of work and statement
The author seeks to explore the relationship between intergenerational violence, lifelong effects of witnessing domestic violence, repressed memories and the power of melody in subverting expectations.
Although the research statement clearly articulates the aims and objectives of the research, making reference to a wide range of reports, data and research related to these issues, the artifact itself does not communicate these effectively.
The project feels underdeveloped, and although the author sought to create an artefact that “could communicate research to an audience outside of academia…that would not blame and would not seem threatening”, the naive style of the animation means that there is very little meaning communicated through the visuals. The use of the lullaby melody to “evoke sonic environments” was under developed and would benefit from a more layered approach to creating a sonic environment. It was difficult to connect emotionally with the artifact, and it did not effectively meet the expectations laid out in the writing.
The author compares her work to that of Shoemaker and Tupicoff, but it is comparatively under developed and does not share the characteristics of “performative social science” that the author may have intended. Although the intentions of the project have originality and the aim to raise awareness of the impact of intergenerational violence is commendable and relevant, this work does not yet communicate clearly.
As the work and the statement are relatively unconnected, this project may need a reworking of both before being accepted.
Review 2: Accept work subject to minor revisions of statement
Viewing: I watched the film multiple times over a period of about a week, each time in a darkened room, with stereo headphones, and also scrolled though the timeline to look at each image sequence and visual transition separately.
This short animation is an unusual and original piece of practice research. Magness draws on recent research into the potential pre-birth impacts of hearing violent acts that occur in close proximity or are experienced directly by the foetus’ mother to address the problem of intimate partner abuse and its legacies of trauma.
Womb-Wise, in addition to being a research outcome, also reveals the process of its making. Its lo-fi production values are reminiscent of the feminist animations of the 1980s created by Leeds Animation Workshop, the women’s collective set up in 1978 to produce and distribute animated films on social issues. By adopting a resolutely ‘unprofessional’ animated visual style, the piece undermines the misgivings a viewer may have about engaging with such a serious and distressing subject matter. The accompanying sound design, or ‘songscape’, is very well constructed and provides aural cues that gently prompt the audience towards the author’s intended meaning for the piece. Together, the animated imagery and audio track create the effect of a dystopian nursery rhyme that is accessible and very watchable.
The author indicates that she devised the ‘Jingle Doc’ name “as a coded form to communicate unthreateningly about a critical social issue”. For me, the branding of the piece on screen at the outset as a ‘Jingle Doc’ evoked both Christmas and advertising jingles, which distracted my attention from the opening titles, ‘Womb-Wise’. However, on reflection, my response to the ‘Jingle Doc’ brand did deflect any slight misgivings of I may have had about watching an animated piece about domestic violence.
Similarly, the ‘Re-dirg-a-ta-tions’ graphic at the end of Womb-Wise jarred somewhat, and this took my attention away from the subject matter I had been immersed in through watching the film.
It is worth noting that potential ‘miscues’ such as the ‘Jingle Doc’ can result in a viewer incorrectly ‘reading’ Magness’s coded visual messages. For example, I interpreted the broken pair of spectacles as commenting on the ‘meeting’ between the foetus-baby bubble character and its mirror twin, as this connected firstly for me with Lacan’s mirror phase. As I watched the film several times, I don’t think this ruptured my engagement with the unfolding of the animation onscreen, however, Magness does need to acknowledge that her primary context of “intergenerational violence in the context of intimate partner violence during and just after pregnancy” may be undermined somewhat by an audience’s construction of a meaning different to what she has intended.
Bearing in mind the definition of research by the Research Assessment Framework as “a process of investigation leading to new insights, effectively shared” (REF 2021), I put forward the following suggestions for improving and strengthening Womb-Wise as a piece of practice research.
- Extend the research and test its effectiveness
I am not proposing that Magness changes her film, Womb-Wise, but in order for the practice research to fulfil its potential, I would suggest that the author arranges some test screenings in order to gather feedback from different audiences. This would require the production of a framework for discussion, and appropriate data collection methods, followed by evaluation and analysis of audience responses.
Womb-Wise does fulfil the author’s stated aim, “to create a centrepiece for discussing intergenerational violence without blaming and without re-traumatising survivors, while acknowledging a role for repressed trauma on the part of both ‘victims’ and ‘perpetrators’.” However, the film needs to be tested through a series of presentations to different audiences, such as:
- Peer response within the academy from other practitioner-researchers
- Healthcare professionals
- Those affected by intergenerational violence, survivors and perpetrators
These could be informal and small-scale. Evaluative material can be included as part of the practice research submission in the form of a short, written report.
- Strengthen the writing
The research statement is interesting and wide ranging, although the writing style is fairly descriptive and over-wordy as a result. In my opinion, the statement should be re-written and honed to refine and make explicit the research elements – these include, for example, the crafting of a research question or problem statement that the practice research then seeks to ‘answer’.
Further, I suggest that the research statement could perhaps concentrate on a more focused enquiry. At present, the author is attempting to cover a constellation of inter-related areas – this can be clarified in the re-write, and the most important topic foregrounded for the reader.
Also, there are typos throughout – the research statement should be rigorously proofread so that minor errors can be eliminated.
- Improve the research base
Strengthen the evidence base for foetal auditory learning by including original sources, such as Partanan et al’s study, ‘Prenatal Music Exposure Induces Long-Term Neural Effects’ (2013).
Also, the author needs to establish a more coherent practice context. Women animators, in particular, have drawn on personal experience to create works that explore gender-related impacts and trauma. Also, the community-based film and video workshops established in the 1980s may provide useful material for contextualisation. The examples of work cited by Magness are adequate, but the author needs to demonstrate a more comprehensive knowledge of animation culture in relation to the work she has produced.