Processing Trauma Through Art

By Julia Machtenberg 

Elaine Risley, the protagonist of Margaret Atwood’s novel Cat’s Eye(1988), is a professional painter whose childhood and young adult life the novel intermittently portrays. Through the description of past events we learn that when Elaine was nine, a group of girls bullied her, at one point almost letting her freeze to death. The traumatic impact of these events is hinted at when the maturing Elaine claims to not recall just how damaging her relationship to the other girls was; yet, at the same time she alludes to them in her paintings. By analyzing Elaine’s approach to art, the objects she chooses to draw, as well as her interpretations of her own artworks, I will argue that painting is Elaine’s method of processing the mental pain that her childhood associates have caused her.         
            As a painter, Elaine has a curious view of the reception and function of art. For example, when visiting a gallery in preparation for an exhibition of her own paintings, she comments on galleries in general, saying that she does not “like it that this is where paintings end up, on these neutral-toned walls with the track lighting, sterilized, rendered safe and acceptable. It’s as if somebody’s been around spraying the paintings with air freshener, to kill the smell. The smell of blood on the wall” (Atwood, 100). Evidently, Elaine views paintings as expressions of strong emotions that result in the metaphorical shedding of blood. Arguably, the blood might be of the painter, i.e. a reference to the hard work it took him or her to paint the picture. But then again, the allusion to blood on the wall might also be a reference to the subjects portrayed. For example, Elaine uses her paintings of Mrs. Smeath as a means to get even with the strongly disliked mother of her childhood friend. Therefore, the metaphorical blood she alludes to might be Mrs. Smeath’s who Elaine repeatedly portrays in an unfavorable manner, one example being an image of Mrs. Smeath as “sit[ting] in front of the mirror with half her face peeling off, like the villain in a horror comic” (412). Paintings like these serve to demean Mrs. Smeath and to express Elaine’s self-proclaimed hatred of the woman in question (cf. 412). By repeatedly debasing Mrs. Smeath in this manner, Elaine metaphorically sheds the former’s blood. Thus, it is evident that for Elaine, paintings are not mere decorations, but bear a strong emotional component.     
            Another interesting comment of Elaine regarding the reception of art is voiced during her Life Drawing class. When reflecting on the development of art, she concludes that “[a]ll that remains to be done with it [i.e. art] is the memory-work” (325). On first sight, this comment seems to reflect the idea that all that art could possibly achieve has already been achieved, hence there is nothing new she or her fellow students could create. Consequently, they can only go back in time and copy what other artists have done before. However, considering Elaine’s personal history, it is possible to argue that the sole function of art for her is the subconscious expression and processing of her childhood. The fact that Elaine’s professional career as an artist only begins when she paints images from her childhood seems to validate the point that she was not able to effectively create original paintings devoid of her past life. In other words, all that remains for her to express artistically are her memories. Thus, Elaine’s attitude to art is characterized by her personal involvement with her artwork’s subject and the accompanying emotional connection.       
            The subjects she chooses to paint most directly express the personal and emotional components in Elaine’s art. For instance, she “paint[s] a wringer machine […] The wringer itself is a disturbing fleshtone pink” (394). This painting clearly recalls the thoughts of nine year-old Elaine for when she was wringing the wash, she imagines     

what would happen to her hand if it did get caught: the blood and flesh squeezing up [her] arm like a travelling bulge, the hand coming out the other side flat as a glove, white as paper. This would hurt a lot at first […] But there’s something compelling about it (145).         

Bearing this incident in mind, it seems likely that the fleshy color of the wringer that Elaine painted later was inspired by her nine year-old self’s imaginings on what a wringer would do to human flesh. Additionally, the fact that the adult Elaine describes the painted wringer’s color as “disturbing” further reflects the distressing thoughts of her nine year-old self. By depicting her childhood fears on her own terms, Elaine is able to gain control over these fears. Elaine herself comments on this process when she explains that the objects she paints           

 must be memories, but they do not have the quality of memories. They are not hazy around the edges, but sharp and clear. They arrive detached from any context; they are simply there, in isolation, […] I have no image of myself in relation to them. They are suffused with anxiety, but it’s not my own anxiety. The anxiety is the things themselves (394f.).   

In other words, Elaine knows that her paintings are inspired by her childhood, but she does not recall the distressing circumstances that surrounded the objects. She does, however, remember the distress she felt. This distress is ascribed to the objects in questions and thus externalized. As a result, Elaine is able to express the troubling emotions she had felt as a child, but the process of coping with the distressing context surrounding these images remains suppressed. Accordingly, Elaine’s subconscious works through her traumatic past by protecting Elaine’s consciousness from remembering the psychological terror her childhood friends have caused her while at the same time allowing her to express and thus cope with the disturbing emotions she felt during that time. Hence, her paintings allow Elaine to work through disquieting emotions while protecting her from contextualized memories that might be too disturbing for her to handle at the present time. In this manner, Elaine produces paintings that might appear simplistic on the surface, but are characterized by their emotional link to Elaine’s past.           
            Lastly, as Elaine grows older, her understanding of her own paintings evolves. This development serves to illustrate Elaine’s ongoing process of coming to terms with her painful childhood experiences. This process is most clearly illustrated when she reexamines her paintings of Mrs. Smeath for Elaine realizes that           

these pictures are not only mockery, not only desecration. I put light into them too. Each pallid leg, each steel-rimmed eye, is there as it was, as plain as bread. I have said, Look. I have said, I see. It’s the eyes I look at now, I used to think they were self-righteous eyes, piggy and smug inside their wire-frames: and they are. But they are also defeated eyes, uncertain and melancholy, heavy with unloved duty. The eyes of someone for whom God was a sadistic old man; the eyes of a small-town threadbare decency. Mrs. Smeath was a transplant to the city, from somewhere a lot smaller. A displaced person; as I was (477).

This quotation demonstrates that the older Elaine remains repelled by Mrs. Smeath’s appearance and character. Nevertheless, she is finally able to see beyond the hated surface and in this manner recognizes Mrs. Smeath’s own suffering and humanity. Even more, by likening Mrs. Smeath’s position to her own, Elaine is able to regard Mrs. Smeath as an equal human being, and thus needs not be haunted by Mrs. Smeath’s judgment of her childhood self anymore (cf. 359). Consequently, Elaine’s paintings serve not only as a coping method for her traumatic childhood experiences, but eventually enable her to overcome them, too.     
            In conclusion it can be said that Elaine’s understanding of art as closely linked to human emotions and memory foregrounds her choices of her subjects. In turn, by actually drawing the thus selected subjects Elaine is able to face traumatic memories that her consciousness suppresses. In this manner, she is able to cope with the troubling memories in a way that does not further upset her but that enables her to revise and work through said memories in a bearable way. Therefore, instead of letting her oppressed memories overshadow her life, Elaine is able to process and even come to terms with them by means of her art.          

Work Cited:

Atwood, Margaret. Cat’s Eye. Virago Press, 2009.