The Catastrophe of Childhood Rape: Traversing the Landscape between Private Memory and Public Performance




sexual trauma, somatic inquiry, embodiment, writing, performance

How to Cite

Downing, B., & Cummins, A. (2013). The Catastrophe of Childhood Rape: Traversing the Landscape between Private Memory and Public Performance. M/C Journal, 16(1).
Vol. 16 No. 1 (2013): catastrophe
Published 2013-03-19

She lies helpless and fragmented, limbs leaden with story, forced ever further into herself by the viscous shame that suffocates and disables her. Fleshed lips cling to each other, tongue recoils from the sharp taste of the narrative of her body. Within the impotent portal of her mouth, her story sits, an impenetrable oral hymen.
Brenda Downing

Rape is, without doubt, a catastrophic experience.

When rape is experienced in childhood and is also silenced, it can have devastating consequences that carry through to adulthood.

In what ways then can the catastrophic memory of silenced childhood rape be coaxed from its hiding place in the female body? How is it possible to make the transition from silenced experience to public articulation? Can creativity fill the body with courage in the face of helplessness and create breath in the suffocating and silencing space of the aftermath? Can creativity help facilitate the personal expression of muted experience?

In this paper we will each reflect on the complexities and enabling capacities of the creative and collaborative processes present when negotiating the landscape between the private memory of silenced childhood rape and public articulation and performance.

Brenda will retrace the steps of her academic research. She will identify two paths that have taken her from personal and social silence to public voice, and the articulation of her embodied trauma experience through differing modes of creative expression. Alice will reflect on the ways in which preparing Brenda for the journey from articulation and expression to public performance sometimes required moments of freefall full of risk yet also full of creative forces.  Images from Brenda’s solo performance aperture will accompany these reflections. aperture is a companion piece to Brenda’s doctoral research and is the creative result of our collaboration.


In 2008, I completed my feminist and autoethnographic Honours research. This work explored the multiple and significant ramifications of my silenced and silencing experience of childhood rape. 

Commencing this research as a mature aged woman inevitably involved a movement back through time to revisit 1971, the year of my rape experience, gathering recollections of the aftermath along the way. My memories of the events of that year, folded tight within me since I was eleven years old and enveloped in a shroud of secrecy for decades, had nonetheless been held with full consciousness and silenced in an act of pragmatism that allowed me to function. These were not uncovered or recovered memories; rather they were suppressed and revisited. I didn’t experience a sudden cracking open of lost memory, instead I stepped easily, though not without discomfort, into the archives of my body and reached with outstretched hand. In the gesture, I offered my memories the opportunity to speak, and speak they did.

From within my body, stored memories were unleashed and hurled themselves at me. I caught these memories and held them close. I turned them over, set them down, reached again. I reflected, I explored, paused, considered. I sat alongside them. I got angry. I wept. It was as though these embodied memories, these lived subjective experiences, had been crouching impatiently just beneath the surface awaiting release from the repressive silence that had contained them for so many years.

But what had helped facilitate this release? Was it simply the opportunity to be immersed in self-reflective and reflexive research?

Following the conventionally written academic-style opening chapters of my Honours thesis, sits my autoethnographic chapter. It was no accident of method that I explored my personal experience through creative writing. I didn’t stumble into this medium; I had a compelling and irresistible urge to express my experience creatively.  It seemed the only way. When I sat down to write, the sentences were expelled from my body like a series of long-held but desperate exhalations. They emerged as my memories had sat since childhood, blunt, raw and panting, filled with barely-contained energy. They revealed the chaos and disconnection of the body and mind in the aftermath of silenced childhood rape. They disrupted chronology and mirrored shattered identity. Temporally and spatially they were restless birds, unable to perch for too long, nor in one place. Slipping in and out of the first and third person, they struggled to sustain a fixed identity, or perhaps, refused one. Relational threads appeared transparent but were as strong as lines that support the weight of thrashing fish.

In the laying down of the multiple layers of my story, I soon realised the writing was serving an additional purpose. It had evolved to become a critical factor in not only the actualisation of my story but also a means of making sense of my experience by locating it within wider familial, social and cultural contexts. The grounding of my experience through reflexivity and the piecing together of my tenuous sense of self became intimately entwined in the creative process. I recorded each evocative exhalation with frantic diligence, as though I mustn’t lose a word. I felt my visibility, my credibility reliant on each syllable and every nuance. I intuitively sensed that the creative re-capturing of my story would liberate my memories from the smothering folds of corporeal darkness in which they had reluctantly huddled and in that liberation, I would also find freedom from the dragging and stultifying weight of their heavy presence.

Helene Cixous talks of moments when we are “unwoven weft” (38), when writings or “songs of an unheard-of purity flow through you [...] well up […] surge forth” (39). I’m certain the liberation of story and self I experienced through the creative writing medium, at a point when I too was unwoven weft, gave me the courage to walk in the night shadows of my embodied childhood memories, the light of creativity guiding my way.

In making the transition in 2009 from Honours to doctoral research, I carried with me the knowledge that to ignore or pay cursory attention to the materiality of the raped body is to deny its cellular intelligence and its abundant creative reserves. While the researching and writing of my Honours project was deeply satisfying, what emerged for me during that process was an intense desire for a more three-dimensional aesthetic and embodied engagement with my PhD project. I felt the poetics of embodied language and my moving body would satisfy this desire.

With the addition of a performance modality I was convinced I could lift the words off the thesis page in order to, literally, bring the information to life. Through performance I knew I could give the bones of the written language of sexual trauma a heartbeat, a pulse, give them breath. I believed a performance held the potential to drape flesh on the words and pump blood through their sentences. I wanted the narrative of sexual trauma to move and sweat, collapse and stand rather than remain in stasis. I wanted the unresolved nature of silenced sexual trauma to permeate the flesh and speak with more than written language. I wanted my raped female body to be fully present. A performance seemed the only way to convey the three-dimensionality of my muted experience.

“Performance is a promissory act,” Della Pollock tells us, “not because it can promise possible change but because it catches its participants—often by surprise—in a contract with possibility: with imagining what might be, could be, should be” (2). When I came across these words, I felt certain that I could create for an audience Pollock’s contract with possibility.

Through a performance modality a portal would open to the reality of how it is to live with silenced and unresolved sexual trauma. Beyond that portal an invitation would await for others to engage with the difficulties and compromises of this reality through embodied imagination and somatic empathy. A performance, I felt, could act as a physical, emotional and intellectual bridge of communication between those who have experienced sexual violence and those who have not.

In the actualisation of this PhD project my role would be multiple.  I would take up the position not only of the researcher but also the researched. Through an engagement with the somatic work of Body-Mind Centering® (BMC®), my still traumatised body would become the primary focus of the research. Additionally, I would present this work in the solo performance aperture. My body then, would become the site of somatic inquiry, providing the embodied text for the research, scribing the work in symbolic language and articulating the emotional landscape of the aftermath of my trauma through performance.  As Tami Spry notes, “words can construct, but cannot hold the weight of the body” (170).  The words of my thesis then would construct my story from the findings of my somatic inquiry as well as shape my research but the performance would hold the weight of my flesh in the embodied articulation of my story.

But I couldn’t do this alone.

Help arrived in mid-2010, when I was introduced to and entered the world of BMC® and the work of Alice Cummins. At times the BMC® work and the creative development phase of aperture felt a little like attempting a base jump with a parachute that might, or might not open. However, with Alice’s depth of knowledge and experience guiding me, I have taken what has been an extraordinarily profound journey of somatic exploration resulting in personal healing, revelation, illumination and embodied performance.


As a dance artist and somatic movement educator, my teaching and choreography are influenced by post-modern dance practices and feminist philosophy. My interests have engaged me with socio-political concerns and how the poetics of the moving body articulates our humanity. In my somatic movement practice I draw on BMC®, the work of Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, with whom I studied in Massachusetts, 1995-98. BMC® evolved in the post-modern dance scene of New York City in the early 1970s and belongs to the lineage of moving research pioneered by Rudolph Laban, F.M. Alexander, and Mabel Todd.

Bainbridge Cohen writes:

Body-Mind Centering® (BMC®) is an ongoing, experiential journey into the alive and changing territory of the body. The explorer is the mind – our thoughts, feelings, energy, soul, and spirit. Through this journey we are led to an understanding of how the mind is expressed through the body in movement. (1)

In June 2010 Brenda participated in a three-day BMC® workshop. During an integrative practice of Authentic Movement she experienced pleasure in moving for the first time. This experience was profound for Brenda after a lifetime of repressing sensation and feeling as a way to contain the memory of her rape.

To unravel a torment you must begin somewhere. — Louise Bourgeois

So we began.

Before embarking on the creative development of performance making it was critical that Brenda did private work with me. Her history was too traumatic to venture into making work from the body without prior therapeutic hands-on work. When trauma has occurred, the tissue holds this frozen as a way to contain the terror. But it lies in wait and erupts unexpectedly when the circumstances stimulate or provoke memory. As BMC® teacher Phoebe Neville (1996) says: “Memory remains in the tissue until we are ready to feel it”. During her two years of private sessions this hands-on work gave Brenda the capacity to feel and helped her develop somatic and personal insight. This provided the leverage for her understanding, and eventually the making involved in the collaborative process.

A BMC® hands-on technique I used during the therapeutic process was cellular touch. This dialogue through touch invites the cells to breathe—to receive and process new information. This exchange supported and stabilized Brenda’s nervous system and perceptual response cycles and helped cultivate endurance. Through the BMC® work we created a visceral bond of attachment and trust that allowed risk as provocation towards realization not as re-stimulus and withdrawal. This allowed Brenda to go from a withdrawn physicality to a dynamic performance presence. Without this capacity to be present, we could not have found a vocabulary that might unearth and express her story through embodied performance making. Brenda’s capacity to be “100% available to be seen” (Hay), would allow meaning to touch her audience.

I make work with and through the bodymind and for Brenda’s “voice” to be heard I knew she needed to be able to access the intelligence and imaginary life of her body ... to make, to grasp, to reveal her experience. As artistic director of aperture it was my role to discern how the creative met the psychodynamic and became new realisation and transformation. The BMC® philosophy “support precedes change” (Cohen) infused the collaborative process. Our collaboration also involved a constant flow and exchange of ideas, feelings, intuitive responses and imaginings in both verbal and somatic conversation. This process enabled Brenda’s experience of childhood rape to become a way of exposing the silence and silencing that surrounds rape in our culture.

One of the specific research skills we practiced in the creative process was Authentic Movement. Developed in the 1950s by Jungian analyst, Mary Starks Whitehouse, it is a practice that relies on moving and being witnessed. As Brenda moved I, as witness, provided the space of containment and safety, both physical and psychological for the moving exploration to occur. It was in the intersubjective space between us that material arose that might otherwise remain held in the tissue. As Starks Whitehouse says: “Movement, to be experienced, has to be ‘found’ in the body, not put on like a dress or a coat […] it is that which can liberate us” (53). This practice gave Brenda the creative and therapeutic space to explore her experience. In crafting the work I guided Brenda’s movement and emotional states through improvisation and experimentation. In paying close attention to the emergent language and meaning of the nuanced moving, I identified moments of creative potential. Risk and provocation, critical to the transformative act of contemporary performance making, was now possible.

As Brenda and I moved to performance making, I was unable to maintain the relationship of client/practitioner. Shifting from the clear perimeters of client and practitioner to an arts practice entails risk. I felt I had to choose at specific moments in our work together to step across the line and transgress, though what it is I transgressed I’m now unsure of. I’ve allowed Brenda into my private realm; she’s shared meals with me, met my friends and partner and slept at my studio home. We’ve spent many hours together and the intimacy of the creative process and the material itself forged our friendship as well as the work. I don’t know if this intimacy was necessary to make this work with Brenda. It is what happened. Brenda’s story touched me deeply and I was participating in its evolution. The work is the result of our private work and our creative relationship, coloured by all its variables.

Brenda’s experience of being raped as a child is the catastrophe that we mined to make aperture. The ordeal of this experience shaped her life and her relationships. Its aftermath destroyed her capacity to interact in the world with any agency. When someone has lost their voice and their agency how do we help them find it? During a private session in 2010, Brenda experienced re-stimulation of the trauma. This experience became the “aperture” through which Brenda’s healing has come about. She entered the wound and slowly found her voice and her agency. Both literally and metaphorically, Brenda found her self and her story gathered fleshed substance.

The making and performing of aperture was a collaborative process made possible through Brenda’s deep desire for healing and understanding. She led and I followed. Sometimes the path felt perilous and yet it was in these moments that I also felt most certain. These were the risks critical for her realization and empowerment.  In both the private and the performance work I practiced a state of love that was self-reflexive and dispassionate. In the moments of greatest distress and disturbance I felt a certainty that was irreducible. The dance we were in was one of survival and I felt the certainty of her innate capacity to survive, and my own capacity to follow her. This was not a certainty constructed of ideas but a felt experience based on every skill and nuance I embodied at that moment.

I employed my whole life to work with Brenda and the work also moved my life. What I know and don’t yet know is present in aperture. I am privileged to have witnessed Brenda finding her way to “step into the light”, as Antonio Damasio would put it, and move “through a threshold that separates a protected but limiting shelter from the possibility and risk of a world beyond and ahead” (3).


The work of traversing the landscape between private memory and public performance has taken us across some difficult terrain. The adoption of a creative approach has been intrinsic to the navigation of this terrain and central to the storying of this catastrophic experience. The creative process has coaxed, shaped and articulated the complexities and sensitivities of this experience in multiple ways, encouraging voice where once there was silence. This story now speaks and moves. 


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Cohen, Bainbridge. Personal Communication. 28 Jun. 1995.

Damasio, Antonio. The Feeling of What Happens. London: Heinemann & Vintage, 2000.

Hay, Deborah. Personal Communication. 20 Jul. 1985.

Neville, Phoebe. Personal Communication. 4 Jul. 1996.

Pollock, Della. "Introduction: Remembering." Remembering: Oral History Performance. Ed. Pollock, Della. Gordonsville: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. 1-17.

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Starks Whitehouse, Mary. "Physical Movement and Personality (1963)." Authentic Movement: A Collection of Essays by Mary Starks Whitehouse, Janet Adler & Joan Chodrow. Ed. Pallaro, Patrizia. London: J. Kingsley, 1999. 51-57.