For a long time, I have been struck by the number of recurring symbols I see in ritual abuse survivor art. I was sure somebody had written about it, but I never came across anything. Two things came to mind as being related to what I was looking for, but not quite on target.
The closest thing I have found is Barry Cohen and Carol Thayer Cox’ book, “Telling Without Talking: Art as a Window into the World of Multiple Personality” (W.W. Norton and Co, NY, NY, 1995). Cohen and Cox divide pictures into ten categories based on composition and style. These categories are: System, Chaos, Fragmentation, Barrier, Threat, Induction (going into trance) Trance, Switching, Abreaction, and Alert. For classification purposes, no attention is given to the content of the pictures or to symbols used in the pictures. However, half a dozen pictures are used to illustrate each category and the rationale for the classification and the meaning of the representation are discussed for each picture.
The other is a drawing test developed in 1948 that is used to assess children. Kids are asked to draw a picture of a person, a picture of a person of the opposite sex, and finally a family. They then are asked a series of questions about themselves and the drawings. You can get quite a bit of information about the child this way. Is the first picture a person of the child’s own gender? Are the figures up to the child’s developmental age? Do the people fill a good part of the page, or are they huddled in one corner? Do they look spontaneous or hesitant and worked over?
Let me back up and tell you how I got interested in symbols in survivor art. I was at my first sexual abuse recovery conference. The focus was on sexual abuse in churches, but there were all sorts of related workshops. One was on the importance of play in recovering from ritual abuse. I attended because the other workshops were getting very heavy and I thought this would be a nice, light break.
The presenter mentioned that doodling five-pointed stars was indicative of a ritual abuse background. “Nonsense,” I thought to myself, “I doodled stars all through grade school and I have had no exposure to ritual abuse.” Well, guess what: she was right and I was wrong.
A child who draws a five-pointed star, a moon, six bunnies and a cartoon of the teacher is probably not an RA survivor. But a child who draws hundreds of stars, over and over again, may well be. Looking back, I can see that the stars were an attempt to make the abusive experiences conscious and that they also served to reinforce programming. Push/pull: remember/don’t remember. The memories remained unconscious for forty years.
I also doodled little houses, circles, and something that looked sort of like spider webs – triangles touching each other and growing from a central point. All turned out to be programming structures. The only thing I compulsively drew that I haven’t traced back to ritual abuse experiences is an aquarium with tiny fish. I had no aquarium at home, and so I wouldn’t be surprised if that, too, was related in some way to RA. Perhaps it was a symbol of confinement.
There were also repetitive images that represented events or feelings, not my programming structures. Red rivers, rivers of blood. (I called then rivers of lava.) Naked people, especially naked men, some of them coupling. Children crying.
Survivor art often contains knives and swords, often as part of a representational picture.This can have a double meaning: a reference to actual events and a not-so-subtle threat meant to make the survivor stop talking about the groups’ activities. And disembodied eyes, some with tears or blood are common, too. There are layered meanings, including “you are always watched.”
A theme that appears quite regularly is bricks, stone walls. or other repetitive patterns, say in clothes. I believe these represent parts, alters, or fragments. I have occasionally seen them with eyes, which strengthens this hypothesis. Not everybody who draws stone or bricks is a classic “DMS-IV multiple;” some are polyfragmented, without clearly delineated personalities.
Another pattern that is often seen is the spiral. I am not sure what this represents and I would love to know more about its meaning. Some of my guesses include falling into trance, dizziness, spin programming, and the sense of utter confusion often experienced. Another idea is inevitability: everything leads to one point, No matter what you try, no matter how much you resist, all actions lead to the behavior that the cult adults desire.
People abused in Neo-Nazi groups often incorporate Nazi symbols into their artwork. A very common symbol used is the lightening bolt, which was the insignia of the SS. It can appear alone, as a doodle, in representational drawings, and as part of abstract pieces.
Then, of course, there are colors. Red (blood) and black (death, evil) have almost universal meaning. Other colors can tie into programming systems, as when colors or jewels are used to identify particular groups of alters and/or functions.
As a survivor progresses in healing, the use of symbols changes. There is less pressure to draw abusive events or programming items, as they have been processed and have become conscious. It is now a choice, rather than a compulsion. The art may lose some of its intensity, its driven quality. Themes and compositions become more varied as the content of the artwork expands to include all of life, not just cult experiences. Representation of cult events and symbols never disappears entirely, but it is no longer the only focus. There is finally room for joy and hope and connection!
Adapted from the Survivorship Journal, Vol. 14 No.4