Beneficial but triggering: using survivors’ stories of abuse

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On the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, Dr Emily Underwood Lee, Associate Professor at the George Ewart Evans Centre for Storytelling at the University of South Wales, and Tina Reece, Head of Services and Survivor Engagement at Welsh Women's Aid, talk about the role of storytelling in their award-winning collaborative project Forty Voices Forty Years which gathered the memories of survivors of abuse, as well as activists and refuge workers.

In this conversation they respond to a new report by Victim Focus called Beneficial but Triggering which reveals that survivors are often asked to retell their traumas repeatedly, with little or no support with the re-traumatising impact of reliving their stories of abuse and violence over, and over again.

Emily: For Forty Voices Forty Years we used a digital storytelling method to support survivors of domestic abuse to tell their stories in a supportive and validating environment and to create a digital resource that lasts in perpetuity and can be used ad infinitum.  

A digital story allows survivor stories to be used in training and education and to inform service provision and policy, without survivors being forced to return repeatedly to their memories of abuse or having to use their time and energy to repeatedly retell their story. The story stays fixed in a moment in time and as a permanent resource, but the survivor themselves is able to move on with their life.  Is that your experience of digital storytelling, Tina?

Tina: Yes. The digital stories that formed the heart of the Forty Voices, Forty Years project were a new way for us to share survivor’s voices, something both powerful for the movement and for the women individually. Welsh Women’s Aid’s starting point for survivor engagement work, developed over many years, is always to centre the survivor and their experience. We currently do this through a survivor network, a dedicated post, paying expenses, training and more.

Survivors told us they enjoyed the creative process of setting down their stories in Forty Voices Forty Years, and that telling the story was also cathartic for many. In terms of policy use, we found that digital stories could represent some of the more nuanced complexities of experiences such as coercive control in a relatable and engaging way, without requiring the constant retelling and the intimidating environments and audiences that can come along with this process.

However, although we continue to widely use the digital stories and they have many benefits, there will always be a need and a desire for survivor’s to personally speak out about their experiences alongside this.

Emily: Ethics is always nuanced when working with stories but, working with survivors adds a few more levels of complexity, so there were certain key things I had to think about. The ethical practices that we developed on the Forty Years Forty Voices project are central for me in any future research work that enables survivors to tell their own stories in their own voices and to retain control of their representation are, for me, central as we go forward.  The first principle I believe we ought to consider when working with survivor’s stories is that the storyteller must always remain the author of their own work and maintain control; control of what they say, control of how they say it, and control over how it is shared.  And, of course, the four Women’s Aid federations have launched the Research Integrity Framework.

We know that sharing a story can be both cathartic and empowering, but it can also be problematic. The Beneficial but Triggering report from Victim Focus highlights that storytelling can give a voice to survivors who have previously been voiceless. On the flip side, there is a danger that some organisations take the story from the survivor without respect or without giving due credit and acknowledgement. This appropriation of story is something we wanted to ensure that we guarded against on the Forty Voices Forty Years project and why it is so important to work alongside a specialist organisation such as Welsh Women’s Aid and its members and to co-construct stories with participants.

When working with stories with survivors of domestic abuse, who may feel that their voice has been stolen or silenced by their perpetrators, ensuring good practice around representation and ethics is critical; for example, we had to carefully consider the balance between acknowledging the survivors who shared stories and protecting anonymity.

Where next for storytelling?

Tina: We know that women and girls suffer disproportionately from certain types of abuse, including domestic abuse. A large part of Welsh Women’s Aid’s work is about challenging systemic issues that allow violence against women, with the inequality of women at its core, to continue unchallenged. Our Change that Lasts work takes a needs-led and trauma informed approach to preventing abuse and intervening earlier and smarter, rather than the traditional risk-based model we often see across responses by the police, governments, the criminal justice system and others. This is a massive and daunting change to the status quo, and difficult to communicate to commissioners and decision makers who may not immediately see the value in changing the way they do things.

We have found that one of the ways to explain these theories and the reasons behind them, is to use storytelling in the form of profiling survivor journeys – highlighting both positive and negative experiences and points of intervention along the way. Other tools, such as statistics and information presented in the form of evidence, will always have their place alongside this, but often lack the ‘hook’ or emotional investment of a personal story people can identify with.

Another area where we plan to use more storytelling is in our campaigning and communications work, to help the public and decision makers understand and care about the people and issues we are working on.

I know from experience the impact that lived experience can have to change policy and services, but I am also aware of the impacts on the survivors themselves, and we are working hard to learn from both the positive and the negative side of this, using our knowledge to develop best practice and advise others on how to meaningfully and supportively involve survivors.

We want survivors to feel empowered about sharing their story, and positive about the changes that can happen as a result. I see this as giving back some part of the control that the abuse may have taken from them and making something positive and constructive out of what has often been the most traumatic experience of someone’s life.

Along with a wide representation of organisations in Wales, including Welsh Women’s Aid, Dr Emily Underwood Lee is working with Dr Sarah Wallace to establish the Violence Against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence Research Network Wales. The aim of the group is to share research expertise across sectors in Wales in order to work towards the elimination of Violence against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence.