Lynn Schirmer, Activist Artist

The fall equinox is on September 22 this year. There is an article on the equinox at https://ritualabuse.wordpress.com/2012/09/16/the-fall-equinox/

Warning: the images in this essay are very graphic. They are used with permission, but Lynn asks that you not copy or reproduce them without contacting her at art@lynnschirmer.com.

Coming of age in the ’60’s, my initial idea of activism consisted of sit-ins, marches, demonstrations, and handing bouquets of roses to bemused policemen. It has broadened considerably since then.

Now it has expanded to include art, fiction, and poetry. I find that art is exceptionally well adapted to activism. It speaks to us through the eyes, the mind, and the heart simultaneously. And, unlike roses, most art is lasting and can reach out to future generations.

From time to time I’d like to introduce you to some amazing artists who are survivors of ritual abuse; some are survivors of military/government mind control as well. It takes a tremendous amount of courage to draw or paint or sculpt our experiences and a thousand times more courage to show our work publicly. If we make this choice, we expose ourselves to skepticism, ridicule, and rejection of our very souls, not just the particular piece of work we have offered as a gift to all who may see it.

Today I’m going to talk about Lynn Schirmer, who draws and paints her abuse and its effects, exhibits her work, and opens her studio to the general public. She also curates shows of others’ works, encouraging dozens of other artists to speak out in their own voices.

Lynn is completely open about her background. “I was born into a family active in organized group ritualistic and sadistic pedophilia. Along with profiting from child pornography and prostitution, the group was also networked to people involved with government medical and behavioral experimentation programs. . . . From earliest memory I was subjected to unspeakable acts of torture. It occurred within private settings, such as family/group gatherings, and at research facilities during experimentation sessions.” (http://lynnsart.net/index.php/about/)

She gets even more explicit in the pages from her journal at http://lynnsart.net/index.php/about/go-ahead-and-tell-me/. Here you will find methods of torture, details of her system, even names of perpetrators. Images of a journal drawing and a painting were presented by Linda MacDonald and Jeanne Sarson to the 2004 United Nations Commission on the Status of Women panel.

Madonna of The Electro-Shock Belt - Oil, 2008
Madonna of The Electro-Shock Belt – Oil, 2008

The over-riding theme in Lynn’s artwork is dissociation. Body parts are disconnected and reassembled, multiple figures are merged into one. Colors swirl, uniting and then separating the forms. A sense of dread and terror permeates her work.

Dr. Schirmer's Playpen - Steel parts, copper wire, paper, underwear, 2010
Dr. Schirmer’s Playpen – Steel parts, copper wire, paper, underwear, 2010

Recently she has started experimenting with more geometric compositions, where soft, pretty colors and balanced composition contrast with horrific content. It is every bit as disturbing as the more fragmented pieces.

Lynn is totally prolific. This summer she exhibited in three shows — one solo — and curated a large exhibit and street art project last year. Among her major efforts are “Franklin and Madeline,” a two-person (James Cicatko and Lynn Schirmer) show about the Franklin Scandal in 2007. http://schirmerstudio.com/fm. “After Dinner Party is a website, exhibit, performance, and street art project she created to help educate the public about newly rediscovered knowledge of female anatomy.” http://afterdinnerparty.com/. Guess what it’s about!

Designing websites helps pay the rent in slow months. She created two of the best known RA/MC sites; S.M.A.R.T.S.’ ritual abuse pages at http://ritualabuse.us/‎ and “Ritual Abuse, Ritual Crime, and Healing” at http://www.ra-info.org, as well as http://nonstatetorture.org). They are visually elegant, easy to find your way around, non-triggering, and technically simple for the site owner to modify. See http://likelyarts.com/ for demos and be sure and check out the portfolio section.

I would love to have her talent, courage, and energy. Her background — no — I’ll stick with my own, thanks, not that I have a choice. But comparisons are pointless. Each of us does what we can to mend our broken self and heal the wounded world, and that is more than enough.

If I Could Paint with Blood . . .

I thought this would be a nice follow-up to the last article, although the painting is more metaphor than symbolism.

After I remembered the sexual abuse, but before I remembered ritual abuse, I worked a lot with self-hypnosis. It  told me nothing new about my past but it helped me deal with the feelings about the abuse that had been buried so long. That was okay; I wasn’t looking for more information. I was trying to absorb what I already had learned, which was far more than I ever wanted to know.

An early phrase that came up was “If I could write with blood…” which meant, or I thought it meant, was that the intensity of writing in blood would drive home the meaning of what I wanted to communicate. Like taking somebody by the shoulders, shaking them, and yelling, “Listen to me!!!” At the time, I had no idea what I wanted to say, I just knew I wanted a really powerful way of expressing myself.

A few days later I took out pencil and watercolors and started sketching my hand. It was as if the painting painted itself — it was like one of those coloring books from my childhood where you went over the page with a wet brush and a picture magically appeared. (I loved those coloring books — wonder if they are still available.) My mind was blank as I did this. The image flowed from my unconscious and my chatty little inner critic was silent for once.

I have never cut my wrists, and so there are no scars. But I was painting a scar — saying that my pain was so great that I wanted to, or could have, or might just as well have tried to kill myself. And the red? Is it blood, or flames, or both? I didn’t know then and I don’t know now. But it surely signifies injury and pain, and surely is intense.

Painting on my wrist is telling, and the real scars, from real self-injury, that many of us carry are an even more intense, compelling way of telling. It is so sad that people cannot understand what we are saying, or even that we are trying to communicate something deep and awful. Even at times we ourselves cannot understand that we are trying to talk about what happened to us. We have to find a way to translate our actions into words, and then we can make sense of why we hurt ourselves and forgive ourselves for trying to speak in the only way we had at the time.

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