Before I began this audio project, I knew I wanted to somehow incorporate my story of sexual abuse, trauma, and the impact that it had on my relationship with my mother. With that in mind, I began looking for PostSecret postcards. I found this image through a Google search, and I immediately remembered seeing this postcard when it was first published on the PostSecret website. I was almost 22 years old at the time, and when I saw this postcard, I had a moment of absolute shock that somehow my story had emerged on a postcard without my ever having written it. Of course, logic took over quickly, and I realized that this was not my secret, but a circumstance that I could relate to too well. Through this secret, I felt a sense of community that I wanted to (re)create in my audio project. By telling my personal experience, I hope that my audience will feel connected to me and my story, and understand that if they have had similar experiences, they are not alone.
When I first imagined the script for my audio project, I imagined anger and distance between my mother and me. The original script, which was abandoned due to recording constraints, included therapy sessions between us. The anger and pain that I felt toward my mother permeated all the sessions. After realizing I could not execute that idea, I wanted to create a project that focused on my younger and present self. I imagined this dialogue could narrate the process of claiming my experience, which has been a long, difficult process. What emerged as I created this dialogue was the inclusion of a part of the postcard that I originally tried to ignore: “Love You Mom.” Because my present self recognizes that love is not a part of that relationship, I left it out of the original idea, yet as I began thinking of my younger self, I realized she not only loved my mother but desperately desired her love. After this realization, my story and the postcard began to interact in an incredible and unpredictable way, and it completely changed my audio drama, adding an important emotional layer that otherwise would have been ignored.
Samuel Beckett’s (1958) drama, Krapp’s Last Tape, impacted and informed the creation of this audio drama. In Beckett’s drama, the protagonist, Mr. Krapp, plays a recording of himself as a younger man, an audio journal of sorts, and responds to his younger self with the knowledge he has gained over the years. While Beckett could literally engage two people in dialogue on the stage, I was unable to do so because of audio constraints. I determined the best way to create an authentic dialogue was through the use of a journal. In order to prevent confusion about who was speaking, I had my younger self read each journal entry in its entirety before my present self responded. While Beckett’s drama informed my project, my audio drama is different in that it is based on real life events (though they were not recorded in a journal) and has elements of an oral history. Therefore my project can be best described as a non-fiction audio drama.
My decision to use myself as both actors emerged from the original therapy session idea. After a failed attempt to get three different actors together at the same time to perform the piece, I decided to tape myself playing all three parts, hoping changes in pitch would make enough of a difference to realistically portray three different people. Unfortunately my voice sounded too similar for all three parts. I later realized that I could use this same method to successfully execute my new idea. My young and present self needed to sound similar with minor pitch changes. As my young self gets closer and closer to my present self, the pitch gets slightly closer to my natural pitch.
When I began recording this new idea, I wasn’t sure how I would indicate each “person” was living in a different period of time. Thinking of this problem through visual means, I originally thought I would signal a flashback to my younger self. Yet I soon realized this idea was not transferable to audio. When workshopping this project with colleagues, one of them asked if I could imagine this as my present self responding to journal entries, as the recitation of dates in the entries could function in the same way as a visual flashback. I also had to determine how I could demonstrate that my younger self was writing in a journal while my present self was reading and responding to journal entries. I decided to use a sound effect, as they, according to Heidi McKee (2006), “provide information about a scene...[and] serve as a cue reference” (p. 346). More specifically, I decided to use the sound of a pencil writing on paper to denote my younger self writing. I also added the sound of a page flipping to invoke my present self sitting alone, reading troubling entries. The flipping pages also cued the change from my present self’s response to a journal entry to the beginning of a new journal entry. While my colleagues suggested I change the order of the chronological entries and add the voices of my current support system, I decided not to do so. The chronology of the entries was important to the idea of claiming my experience, as they demonstrated the steps I took to understand and accept my experience. I also chose not to include other people’s voices because I didn’t want them to overshadow or overpower my own. This is a story of how a young girl’s life had been overpowered by her sexual assault and abusive mother, so it was important that my voice stand alone: it demonstrates that one can find and assert her voice even after such terrible experiences.
Although the sound effects provide significant scene and cue details, the most important part of this audio project is the voice. A colleague suggested it may be easier for the listener to recognize that one voice is a younger version of me if I had a younger actress play the character. Yet it was important that these voices very clearly be the same person. Considering the motivation behind this audio project is claiming my experience, I felt it would have been a disservice to the concept to have someone else speaking my words. My younger self had her voice and experience silenced her entire life, so it was important that in this project, my voice, not someone else’s, be heard. In order for this project to genuinely claim my experience, I had to be the voice of both the characters; otherwise, someone else would be yet again claiming my words.
The sound of the voice of my younger self (at each age) and my present self was carefully created and manipulated in order to produce specific effects. Theo van Leeuwen (1999) has argued that sound is higher when said through a tense voice, and “vocal tension [expresses] emotions such as ‘fright’, ‘anguish’, [and] ‘scorn’” (p. 131). The voice of my younger self (and at times my present self when responding in an especially emotional way) has a higher pitch just from acting as if I were crying, and digital manipulations enabled me to make it even higher at times. This rhetorical move creates both the illusion of a younger speaker as well as the emotional struggle behind the voice and the words the voice is speaking. Furthermore, the voice of my younger self has a great deal of vibrato and trembling in order to show “emotion” (p. 134). And yet, just as Erin Anderson (2014) suggested, voice as used in my audio project produces both sound meaning and language. That is, my voice cannot be reduced to language alone, nor can it be reduced to the sounds it creates; the sounds and the language of my voice work together to create the meaning of the audio project. They work in conjunction to create and reveal the traumatic yet hopeful meaning behind the words and sounds.
An important, yet small, part of the audio project is the silence that occurs after the last journal entry when my younger self says that she either doesn’t live with her mother or she “[doesn’t] live.” This is an important silence, and the only significant silence throughout the entire drama. Just when my younger self declares that without a major change, she will die (i.e., commit suicide), I inserted silence. My intended effect was for the audience to wonder, to fear, that this was in fact the end for her, that she did kill herself because things didn’t change, as in reality, this very well could have occurred. My present self speaks again to assure the audience that it was not the end, that her assault and her mother’s abuse did not claim her, but that she was able to claim herself.
Although the visual that inspired this audio project tells the story of a child/adult who has been bullied by his or her mother, the audio reaches the audience in a different way. Whereas the visual only explains that the mother was a bully, it doesn’t tell an entire story. Audio, however, allows the audience to gain a deeper understanding of the emotional impact of abuse and tells a more in-depth story about an abusive experience. Inspired by the visual, my audio drama focuses largely on the consequences that my sexual assault had on my relationship with my mother, but it also adds the significant (and almost ignored) aspect that love played in this experience. Both modes present their own unique affordances and constraints, and each mode can create an incredible story. But for me the use of one mode to create a story in another mode created an entirely different and important one.
Beckett, Samuel. (1958). Krapp's last tape. New York, NY: Evergreen Review.
Anonymous. (n.d.). [Postcard submitted to PostSecret]. PostSecret. Retrieved from http://www.postsecret.com