- Troubling Violence: A Performance Project by M. Heather Carver and Elaine J. Lawless
This ambitious book sets out to challenge, or trouble, the social arrangements that enable male-on-female violence to persist, and it aims to establish a cross-disciplinary feminist ethnography that uses performance to empower women. It succeeds on both fronts. Violence is a social problem that touches many lives, yet female survivors are typically silenced by the lack of dialogue on these offenses. The authors therefore developed a traveling troupe to deliver live performances of accounts collected from survivors of male-perpetrated violence. The inspiring story of how the authors' Troubling Violence Performance Project came about and continues to be carried out is presented in this book, and readers will be left with an appreciation for performance as a catalyst for social justice.
Authors M. Heather Carver, an associate professor of Performance Studies, and Elaine J. Lawless, an English professor and folklorist, met in a writing course for faculty at the University of Missouri. They immediately bonded, and shortly thereafter they came to the shared recognition that neither of their respective fields had actualized the potential of cross-disciplinary collaboration. One of this book's greatest strengths is its emphasis on the authors' relationship. Organized and written as though it were a conversation between Carver and Lawless, this book is personal, reflective, and engaging. Author biographies, critiques of the academy, emotions, dilemmas, and other forces that shaped both the authors' collaboration and the development of the Troubling Violence Performance Project are all accessible. The authors creatively write themselves into their work, and it is clear that through academic collaboration, they became confidants and friends. Recurring themes include Carver's ongoing fight with breast cancer and Lawless's past experiences as a young woman in an abusive marriage and as a teenage field worker who did hard labor. These personal stories of survival and physical harm are interwoven with the book's organizing theme of violence to female bodies.
The sociologist C. Wright Mills (The Sociological Imagination, Oxford University Press, 1959) is renowned for arguing that personal problems can only be accurately understood when they are critically examined within their broader social and historical contexts. Mills's insight is instructive when looking at violence, which unfortunately touches the lives of many girls and women. Though violence is pervasive on a societal level, women typically regard it as a private matter when they experience it firsthand. The Troubling Violence Performance Project was conceived to bring attention to the social structures that give rise to men's violence against women, thus correctly rooting the private experience of women's [End Page 225] victimization within its broader social and historical frameworks.
The Troubling Violence Performance Project initially featured performers reading monologues that had been collected from violence survivors in a battered women's shelter. These real accounts were the basis of a previous book by Lawless (Women Escaping Violence: Empowerment through Narrative, University of Missouri Press, 2001). The performances were intended to be educational, with the explicit focus being on each performer and her story. Props, costumes, and other components of entertainment-driven productions were therefore deliberately avoided. After performing a series of narratives, the troupe would regroup with the audience for discussion. Sometimes these interactive sessions with the audience began with long periods of silence. Other times they led to debate. Typically, they resulted in audience members being moved to share their own stories about surviving violence.
By creating a public space to give voice to women's experiences, the Troubling Violence Performance Project countered the isolation that comes with victimization, brought survivors together through the mutual sharing of stories, and ultimately challenged male entitlement and other social forces that all-too-often manifest themselves as violence against women. As the Project evolved, troupe members became empowered to perform stories about their own experiences with violence, including a male performer whose account focused on witnessing violence between his parents when he was a little boy. While classes and other...