By Barbi Smyser-Fauble, Illinois State University
In the video composition “Super Speller” by Natissa Scott, the author provides the audience with a personal story, a narrative about their introduction to and experience with the term “trauma.” The video balances strong visual effects, the moving image of an MRI of a right knee that will be the focus of the story at a later time, with powerful narration from Scott about various times in their life where trauma – in word or event – was present. Throughout this video, I feel that Scott is embracing the “chaos narrative” approach to sharing stories about their psychological, emotional and physical health – their medical stories. Specifically, the “chaos narrative” is an approach that emphasizes the reality and the effects of medical experiences (emotional, physical, and psychological), like trauma, that can have lasting effects on one’s life (Wong & King, 581). In this move, I feel that Scott is working to promote more “real” stories about the effects of trauma that work to redress the expected “restitution narratives,” where individuals are expected to have a positive and courageous attitude about restoring their health; a type of overcoming (Wong & King, 581). However, some experiences leave scars that don’t heal or fully disappear, as sometimes events cause ripples that forever change how a person goes about their day-to-day life.
“Super Speller” weaves a tale of how the word “trauma” has impacted, and continues to impact Scott’s life. When the video begins, the screen depicts the black and white images of an MRI of a right knee (identified as such in the text located in the upper right-hand corner of the screen). We are then introduced to a computerized voice of the spelling bee emcee, who introduces the audience (and the author) to the term “trauma.” Initially, the audience is meant to interpret “trauma” as merely a word to be spelled during a childhood spelling bee. This meaning is further reinforced when Scott asks for the spelling bee emcee to define the term trauma, a process that is common at spelling bees. At this point in the video, we (the audience) are introduced to the three affiliated meanings of the word trauma: A) An emotional upset, B) An injury (such as a wound) to living tissue caused by an extrinsic agent, and C) A Disordered psychic or behavioral state resulting from severe mental or emotional stress or physical injury. These affiliated meanings are presented to the audience as bolded white text on the dark screen, in a way that hides (for a moment) the moving MRI image of the right knee in the background. Thus, the meanings of trauma have taken center stage in the narrative, even though Scott (upon hearing them at the spelling bee) is thinking that trauma could never happen to them, as they are “average” or what some would refer to as “normal.”
After the introduction of the definition of trauma, the Scott’s narrative begins to illustrate how a series of life events lead them to experience each facet of trauma: the emotional, the physical, and the lasting residual effects from these traumatic experiences on their life. It is important to note, that throughout the entire narrative of these life events, the screen continues to depict the various angles and images of a right knee on the MRI. As such, Scott first identifies an emotional trauma (the first affiliated meaning A of the definition), recalling how their mother had come to get them from football practice at school to tell them about the fire that had destroyed their home. Then Scott describes their emotional and physical reactions to the fire: the denial about how this could happen to someone who was “average,” how their chest hurt from trying to breathe amidst the smoke and burnt air remnants from the fire, and how there were popping noises from the “smoldering wood.” It becomes clear to the audience that this trauma leaves a type of emotional scar on the author – changing the idea of what home means, how they can never call the previous house their home again (even if it is rebuilt), and dealing with the shock of learning that trauma has impacted their life. Scott’s narrative further aligns with the “chaos approach,” by indicating that this event led them to move from a state of “naivete to maturity;” from being a “child to being an adult” – a losing of innocence, at the hands of emotional trauma.
The narrative then transports the audience to a football game, where Scott is focused on scoring a goal that will be blocked by another type of trauma: a physical trauma. This narrative becomes quite powerful as Scott describes in detail the experience of being traumatically injured on the football field; traumatic knee injuries. The audience is lead through the affective embodied experiences of the author as they approach the goal – their chest feeling the “fire” again as they breath in the cold air of a February in Michigan – then the popping noise occurs (the knee dislocation) leaving Scott on the field in shock and pain. The audience having heard the panting breaths and the agony of the pop, are also witnessing the evidence of the knee injury in the moving images of the MRI scans. The scans become further evidence of the trauma that occurred, evidence of the injury (definition B of trauma). As such, the scans also become another form of the “chaos narrative,” as they supply evidence that reinforces the idea of being forever changed by a medical event, a type of trauma, that also positions someone as being “not normal” or different – or what the author calls “not average.”
The remaining segment of the video is when Scott begins to articulate how these emotional and physical trauma experiences impact her current living situation (the final definition C of trauma). The emotional trauma and “flashbacks” that the author from their past, changes their perspective about who they are. Scott no longer perceives themselves as being “average,” they are no longer the naïve child from youth, who believed that trauma couldn’t happen to them – an “average” (normal) person. Scott is not the same person that they were before the events that left their scars on their life –they have moved from being a player of football to someone who sits on the sidelines; from a person who thought trauma was not possible for them, as they were average, to a person who doesn’t even like the smell or sounds of microwave popcorn. The popcorn smells and sounds – the popping and possible burning smell – trigger flashback to past events. During these flashbacks, which can overtake Scott at any time, emotions bubble up to the surface and reflect how they were feeling during the traumatic events: feeling the pain in their chest, the difficulty breathing, the pop noises that made them scream out loud and on the inside. Thus, Scott’s life has been ever changed, leaving emotional and physical scars. However, the physical scars would be the only ones visible to others, as these were the ones that were made visible to the audience in the images from the MRI video. Then, at the end of the video Scott reminds us that they are a “super speller” – a positive memory of the word trauma; a memory where the word was simply one to be spelled, and not part of their lived experiences. These are reminders of when Scott felt more “average” (more normal) and successful, the time before the emotional and physical traumas. A time where they were at a spelling bee, as a child who had the naivete to think that trauma couldn’t and wouldn’t happen to them. Ultimately, Scott’s choice to end the video with the reminder that they are a “super speller” works to further the “chaos narrative” approach, by serving as a reminder that they are no longer their “old” self, the self before “trauma” became more than a word to spell, as they no longer view themselves as “average.”
Wong, N. & King, T. (2008). The Cultural Construction of Risk Understandings through Illness Narratives. Journal of Consumer Research, 34, 579-594.