Symbols in Survivor Art

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


12 thoughts on “Symbols in Survivor Art

  1. And then there are those of us who did not start doing art until we started to heal. I felt woefully inadequate to do any real art prior to that, even doodling, but I did write poetry.

    Once I started to heal, I did art specifically for my healing and did not care about talent. I now have almost all of my art up on my art blog.

  2. Pingback: Poetryescape's Blog
  3. That triangles design…yes…i thought it was related to the Canadian Centennial Maple Leaf, ‘cuz I went to Expo ’67. Hmmm…

    Nice article. Thanks


  4. I can’t believe how many symbols I left out, even ones I often use. I guess that comes from being dissociated! Being so public about the symbols feels a little anxiety-provoking. Thank you all for sharing them.

    Does anybody draw, or have they seen, feathers? They seem, personally, to be connected to the spider web and to spirals. Any ideas?

    1. Sorry, I got nothing on these specific things. You may need help from your programmer on that. Without this help you can try looking at the things you were obsessed with, your local cult culture and the occult they used and you feel attracted to, it may give some hints, or, triggers. So, be careful and be well!

      1. If I could track down my programmer, he certainly would tell me nothing. I was only a project, not a colleague. Besides, by now he would be 120 years old. The only source of information I have is my own mind — and survivors that might have a similar figure.

  5. It makes a few important points. I’d say, first, art helps to identify programming as the cult uses specific symbols and they carry explicit meaning if you know how to look for it. It is not an issue for me any more, as I’m going to use the cult itself to do deprogramming. Another more important application is being able to see what’s going in programmed person’s mind, what is bothering him, or, her. It can help to work with person’s own self, to see yourself, or, see the one you help.
    As for spirals, they basically mean hypnosis, one of the basic tools of Mind Control. But of course, somebody can add another meaning to it.
    Personally, I often meet in drawings eyes, dragons, monsters, rape.
    As you stated in the end, you can yourself bring joy into your life in your drawings to replace symbolism that scared you.

    1. Hi, can you elaborate on the spin programming, or direct me to a place with more info on it? I have drawn stars and spirals my whole life and still draw spirals. I hate triangular objects, straight lines. It must have curves in it.

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