Links from this episode
Gerry: Hello, and welcome to Bringing Design Closer. My name is Gerry Scullion and I’m a service designer and trainer based in Dublin City, Ireland. Bringing Design Closer is a podcast dedicated on shining the light on the complexities of unbedding the designer’s mindset within organisations. In this episode, I speak with Raven Kaliana, a puppeteer and human rights activist based in the UK and originally from the U.S. She studied at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, but what brings us here today is Raven’s remarkable story of how she uses puppetry to campaign for public awareness on policy change around child abuse issues. She’s written her own autobiographical play called: Hooray for Hollywood a play about Raven’s survival on escaping human trafficking as a child, which she’s since made into a film.
Raven is the founder of Outspiral, an organisation using puppetry to provide training for charities, counsellors, law enforcement, and support techniques. She also delivers puppet-based workshops and trauma recovery for survivors and child victors. She facilitates societal healing through performances of her play: Love Vs Trauma, which follows with a discussion on the personal and social effects of trauma and how we might visualise new possibilities for the future. Now, I would like to point out that this episode contains information that may be triggering for some people and covers off topics such as abuse and the effects of trauma. Let’s get straight into the episode. Raven Kaliana, a very warm welcome to Bringing Design Closer. How are you doing today?
Raven: I’m good, nice to speak with you.
Gerry: Raven, let’s start off. How do you describe what you do?
Raven: Well, I would say that I write and produce plays and films that utilize puppetry and most of them are for adults or for teens. I also create workshops also for mostly adults and teens, and I do a lot of education on trauma recovery and also on human trafficking and child sexual exploitation issues. A lot of awareness-raising.
Gerry: Excellent. It’s such an interesting topic and we’re going to get into the nuts and bolts today of understanding trauma and its complexity. So, let’s start off first and we’ll talk a little bit more around how you understand trauma. How would you describe it?
Raven: Well, trauma is something that your body perceives as an extreme violation or life-threatening. In animals, if they go through, let’s say, if a hawk comes after a rabbit or something like that, the rabbit will either run or if it’s cornered, it may fight back, and if that doesn’t work, it might go into a state call freeze, where it just shuts down and pretends to be dead. But with humans, because we are social animals and because we are so dependent on each other for everything in life. You know, our food, our shelter, and children, even more so, even have fewer choices. We will tend more to go into the freeze state than the fight or the flight. For instance, a child isn’t going to fight, physically attack its parents if it’s needs aren’t being met. It won’t necessarily run away because if it goes outside and if the child tries to live by his or herself in the streets, it will probably die. Because children are so dependent on adults for survival, most often they just go into a freeze state, but that’s also true in so many social situations, as well.
Like, if someone is being bullied in their workplace, they may feel that they don’t have any options, they can’t punch the person who’s ridiculing them or sabotaging them, they can’t run outside in the street or else they probably won’t be allowed to come back and so most often, the response is to freeze, so people just shut down emotionally. A lot of the physical, there are a lot of physical symptoms that are associated with that. In humans, the freeze response is associated with a lot of shame, with a lot of post-traumatic stress symptoms, with a lot of different sorts of physical symptoms because we aren’t expressing that big jolt of adrenaline.
It’s just sitting in our bodies. We’re not doing anything with it. So, it also leads to feelings of disempowerment and also a lack of vision for the future, a lack of hope in the future. A lack of connection with other people because people when they shut down, they start to get this feeling like they’re inside of a fish tank or something, that’s a really common description of how it feels when you’ve been through trauma and you’re experiencing post-traumatic stress. You feel like you can’t connect with other people, you feel really withdrawn.
Gerry: Yes, absolutely. Actually, in this space of trauma, it’s something that I actually experienced and something I researched whilst when I was living in Australia and it was hugely profound, but when I noticed that when I was working with the NGOs and some of the NGOs were supporting children as young as, who had been through abuse at six months, all the way up to adults and you could see that the abuse has affected their entire life. It’s something they’ve carried on their shoulders and it affects how they see the world and their ability to connect with other people and the ability to manage their own emotional states.
I remember there was one really profound story, as regards, there was a male who had been abused throughout his childhood and in his adult life, he ended up having two baby girls, he had twins at a very young age, maybe in his early 20s, but because he was abused, he had this whole belief system that you’ve been abused, you will abuse. As a result, his whole marriage broken down because he was unable to support the family and unable to be present with the family. It cascaded into eventually his two girls were then adults and it was only when he sought therapy and support for this abuse that he realised that that wasn’t true, he just wasn’t able to connect because of that fear that he was going to become the abuser, which is an absolute myth. Like, when you look at the statistics, that is a myth. It’s something that I often see being misconstrued and misportrayed online on Twitter streams and I’m like, that’s not necessarily true.
Gerry: So, the next question I want to ask you is about like now that we’ve spoken a little bit more around trauma, how have you seen governments typically address the support of the victims who are suffering from trauma?
Raven: Well, mostly the model that I see is more pathologizing trauma responses, like medicalising it – basically shaming the person who has suffered and not looking at the crimes at all. Not holding the criminals responsible in any way, but instead, focusing on the survivor’s physical responses to the effects of the abuse and trying to shame them for that. So, depression or maybe they have addictions or maybe they chronically under-earn money or things like that because of low self-esteem. Those are ways that society and governments shame people and say, “Well, here, maybe we can give you some benefits for something” but at the same time, that’s what gets cut, especially in austerity times, what gets cut is any sort of therapies.
Any kind of free counselling. Especially person-centred counselling, where the person might be able to actually just heal like literally heal from what they have been through. Instead of like, well, here’s some anti-depressants to hide the symptoms instead of, here’s some counselling so that you won’t have to deal with those symptoms anymore in your life because you can actually heal the backlog of emotions, the backlog if there’s enough feeling of witnessing and processing and sort of replacing the love and care and tenderness that was taken from the person during the situation of abuse. If that’s replaced, then they heal, and it is a relatively simple process, but people are most often given drugs and/or behavioural therapies and things like that instead of, how about if we just listen?
How about if we just make some space in our society for people to feel their feelings and how about if we accept that yes if you’ve been through something terrible, you’re not going to necessarily feel very good about it. Then on the other side of that is you know, not holding perpetrators to account. It’s a lot of what we see is that people might go through – they might have a trauma history in their childhood, or they might get into abusive relationships in adulthood because they think, “That’s all I’m worth.”
Gerry: Yes, absolutely. One of the things, again, it’s just to build on that topic was the stigma and the taboo that goes around abuse and especially child sexual abuse in society. It was one of the quickest ways for me to shut a dinner party up by talking about what I was researching at the time because it was such one of those topics that I couldn’t turn off from. It was something that I was always on. I was always listening, and I was always focusing on. There was this huge taboo around talking about abuse.
Gerry: There’s a responsibility from society there to really acknowledge its presence in the room and it was something that I really struggled with, that I’d speak to people in the pub and it would silence them. They were like, “Oh, he’s talking…”
Raven: We’re here to escape that subject matter.
Gerry: Yes. Let’s just talk about the beer. You know, I was like, no, I think this needs to be addressed. There’s stuff there. I think, how do we get around that?
Raven: Well, basically, we don’t have to escape from reality, we have to make reality better. To do that, we have to face reality and talk about it. All this silencing, we need to get past that, we need to talk with each other. You know, what happens when people start to share about past trauma is you start to get things like the #metoo movement, where people are like, “Oh, actually, I thought I was all alone, I thought I was the only person who suffered that.” Then, actually, there are thousands upon thousands of people who have suffered the same thing. Just like if you want better rights in a workplace, you might have to unionise and to get passed that, you need to talk with other people there, but it’s the same thing with people who have suffered abuse is that people need to talk, they need to find each other, they need to say, actually, this is unacceptable. There’s no effective response to child sexual abuse, there’s no effective legal response. I went to a police conference a few years ago and presented there and it was really fascinating but also really disheartening because let me see if I can remember, I think that they were out of…
Gerry: This was in the UK?
Raven: Yes, this was in Norfolk, so it was the Norfolk regional conference and so they were saying that out of the number of – I think they said that only five percent of children who reported any kind of sexual abuse to adults, only five percent of them actually get taken to a police station to make an actual police report. Out of that five percent, of course, most children aren’t going to be talking about it anyway because trauma shuts down language. So, people who suffer trauma, they don’t even store the trauma experience the same way you store other types of memory, so it’s not stored in a narrative form, where you can say, “Well, I went to the shop and then I didn’t look both ways when I crossed the street and then, here comes a bus.”
You can’t say it in a narrative way because what you actually remember is, I saw the sky, and a bird flying and then I saw red and – your brain records it as the initial sensory perceptions, like the individual senses, so smell, sight, meaning, and sound, it all gets recorded in its original form and not in a narrative form. So, that’s how it comes back, as well, that’s how children can’t – it’s very difficult for them to articulate it, yes, to put because they don’t have any words for that. They might say, “I saw a bird.” Like… you know, I saw red.
They can only talk about the individual bits and pieces and not the whole of it, so it’s hard to make sense of it as an adult. However, in their play, they will re-enact it and you can see it in their play, you can see it in their dioramas and with their toys. You can see how they behave with other children; they will repeat this and that’s how they can tell. In terms of the statistics, so five percent of children who report to adults in their life, only five percent of all the children who report manage to put into words that something’s wrong, only five percent of them actually get into police reports. Out of that five percent, only seven percent actually get to court. Yes.
Gerry: It’s a similar statistic that I heard before. It’s heart-breaking.
Raven: Yes, it’s really unfortunate. Then if a perpetrator actually gets a sentence, I think it’s only in like 24 percent of the cases they’ll actually get a custodial sentence. Most of the time, it’s just like, you really shouldn’t do that, maybe here’s a fine or something. Most of the time, they’re just released back into the community without any support, without any – nothing around them to help them change their behaviour. It’s just there’s really very few consequences for someone perpetrating against children.
Gerry: Totally. When you look at the judicial process and the prosecution process, it’s kind of framed in something that was designed 200/300 years ago in many cases.
Raven: Yes, I found a really good quote about that. That is by Judith Herman and she said that the judicial system is designed to protect men against the greater power of the state, but not to protect women and children against the greater power of men.
Raven: I thought that might fit your experience in Australia.
Gerry: I can totally see that. Yes, it was, the whole defence, the cross-examining a child on the stand and asking them stuff that fits with that model of prosecution and asking them about what did you see and what did you smell and what time is it? Like, for a child that’s six years old.
Raven: What time is it? They might not even be able to tell time.
Gerry: They don’t even know what time is. My little girl, she wakes up and she’s three and a half, she’ll wake up and she’ll go, is it dinner time? I’m like, no, you’ve just woken up, it’s breakfast. We’re going to have our breakfast now. Sometimes she gets confused with the time. Like, it’s something as basic as that to ask a child what time of day it was, when they don’t have those models is just crazy, is a crazy model to work with.
Raven: Can you give some other examples of what kinds of questions were asked of children on the witness stand?
Gerry: I remember the wallpaper was one, like, “Tell us what the wallpaper was like when this happened?” As you said, it’s very difficult for someone, even for me, but for someone who’s in that state of freezing or flight, you’re not going to remember the pattern that was on the wallpaper.
Raven: Did you feel like the lawyers were bullying the children or what was your impression?
Gerry: I think that’s definitely a shared understanding and a shared perspective from many people who work in that space, globally, that there is a sense that the defence are barraging these young children and it needs to change. It’s just not fair. That model is very old-school, which brings us into a very good, like, there are some really great examples of the new way of thinking, and a new way of approaching this, to support those children who’ve been through that awful scenario and awful time in their life. You’ve actually got a really great example of a trauma centre in Boston, so tell us a little bit about how that came about?
Raven: Yes. I was working on a documentary and unfortunately, it never was finished, sadly, but I would like to pick up and do a different documentary and just interview the same people because it was fantastic, insightful interviews and really inspiring work in terms of child advocacy. So, there’s the trauma centre in Boston has a section that’s called the child advocacy centre and they’ve got this sort of gentle playroom, fun colours on the wall, very sweet people leading the families in. Then what they’ll do is, they’ve designed a room with a two-way mirror, so that the child can sit with a big pad of paper or toys all around, crayons, paints, finger paints, whatever, too. One interviewer who is trained in child sensitivity to interview the child and the way it works is that the interview has a little headset on and on the other side of the two-way mirror are police, you know, medical professionals, lawyers, social workers, everybody who’s going to need to be involved in the case.
In that way, the child can just tell their story once, to one person in a safe feeling environment. They can stop any time; they can take a break. There isn’t any pressure or bullying, it’s just someone who’s very gentle, I think there’s even like a sand tray, so the child can make little dioramas to actually show what happened to them instead of actually using words if words are too hard. In that way, everyone who’s involved in the case can ask the questions through the interviewer. Then the interviewer interprets it in a way that’s non-threatening to the child. In that way, they videotape the whole thing and then they can use that whole session, the whole interview session, they can use that in the court in place of the child actually going to the court.
Gerry: Yes, which is amazing. They’re trying to do that in New South Wales in Australia, they were trialling it when I was leaving.
Gerry: It just saves the child and the family that whole traumatic experience of having to go to court, just going to court alone to be in the same room as the defendant or the person who committed the crime.
Raven: Yes, imagine that, imagine that as a child.
Gerry: Yes, you’re putting them back in the same space. They do remote witness rooms in Australia, I don’t know if they do that in America or the UK, I’m pretty sure they do in the UK, but too often the remote rooms are in the courthouse. I’ve seen instances where I know where the rooms were in this courthouse and was sitting behind the parent who reportedly committed the crime and whenever the judge, the magistrate called time on the sessions, the child had been given a piece of paper to look at, a photo, and at the end of the day, they said, “Okay, we just need to get the paperback” and within about 20 seconds, the paper was back in the courtroom, so now you know the time it took for the piece of paper to get from A to B is 20 seconds. You know that the child is around somewhere. You can see the parents’ head swivelling around. I’m like, oh, man, this is just like… so, the whole system is broken and it’s very difficult. I’m really enjoying this conversation, but let’s talk a little bit more around your story, Raven, you’ve got a really interesting how you managed to get to this point in your career.
Raven: Well, I’m interested both in education on trauma recovery and also, I’m interested in puppetry, as well. But the reason I do so much public education work is that I was trafficked as a child by my parents. They were involved in a paedophile ring in my neighbourhood, and so just horrible stuff happened when I was a child, loads of – I was trafficked to different studios around the U.S., you know, some of them were nearby, some of them were thousands of miles away. Some were actually across international borders. That was for the production of child sexual exploitation materials. So, you know, all of the people used to call child pornography, if you haven’t heard that term, but child sexual exploitation materials kind of tells it, makes it a little clearer what that actually is.
Raven: These are not actors, it’s actually just crime scene footage of children being sexually assaulted and sometimes tortured, sometimes murdered. It’s very serious crimes. So, I escaped when I was basically – I mean because my parents were involved, they were kind of middle-class-ish, so they wanted me to get high marks in school to cover for them, so people wouldn’t ask questions, like, “Well, she’s doing well in school, there couldn’t possibly be anything wrong at home. I guess we’ll just ignore those bruises all over her body.” People wouldn’t enquire because I was doing well academically, but fortunately, that also ended up being to my benefit, as well, because a teacher felt invested in me and cared about me and was worried about me and did as me about what was happening at home.
When I told her, she was really scared for me and she actually helped me make a plan to try and stabilize this very chaotic and life-threatening situation that I was going through at home and also, like a long-term plan just to get away from my parents and their whole crime associates. It was quite a big organised crime network that they were involved with. Basically, the plan was to negotiate with my teachers about my absences because my marks were high, but I was losing a lot of hours at school because of injuries or because I was being taken out of state by my father, taken, drugged and taken away.
Staying in school was how I managed to get onto university. At university, I created a new support system for myself. That enabled me enough. It replaced the fake support system I had, the support system that wasn’t a support system, my family. With one that was actually real and actually people who cared about me and wanted me to have a good future and wanted to treat me well. I was able to cut off contact with my abusers and after a lot of, I mean, they continued to harass me for a few years and it took a while until I was actually completely safe from them, but it definitely made a big difference in my life in terms of my safety and sense of wellbeing to actually not be in danger anymore.
Gerry: Yes, I can imagine, it’s an incredible story.
Raven: Yes. One thing that was great is that I actually found a lot of other survivors who were interested in healing and not interested in this whole pathologizing survivors, but actually interested in actually working with the trauma material, processing, letting it go, and also looking at society, what’s happening in society and how can we change it? There were friends who were interested in activism work, so that was quite inspiring and quite an early influence for me.
Gerry: It’s such an incredibly shocking story, Raven, and one where you’ve shown so much resilience. I’m sure we could speak for hours on the story of your life, but tell me, how did puppetry come into your life? How did you discover its power as support tool?
Raven: So, after quite a bit, I was at university, I earned a degree and after University, I moved to San Francisco and got hired at a company that makes hand-puppets.
Raven: I know, it was fantastic. My life changed exponentially for the better the day I walked in the door. It was really amazing. Actually, by that point, I was actually instead of – because I had gone through this healing process where I wasn’t running away from my pain, but actually, witnessing my pain and healing my pain, then actually, my baseline mood from day-to-day instead of being all extremely uncomfortable and afraid or upset, it transformed into being mostly happiness, mostly joy, mostly satisfaction, curiosity. Getting hired at Folkmanis Puppets was a great juncture for that because I was in quite a good place in my life when I was first hired by them. It was kind of like a bit of a replacement family for me, I just loved them so much. I can’t express how much I love those people. They really took very good care of their employees, like very – it was like a profit-sharing setup, and people just never wanted to leave there. The same people that were there when I was hired in the 90s are still there today.
Gerry: Wow, that’s amazing.
Raven: People just don’t want to leave; they really are a family. It is run by a family, but actually the people kind of – the people who have been hired there, they just never want to leave, so they have become family to each other, as well. It’s a remarkable place. The puppetry, I don’t know how to say it, the puppetry community globally tends to be quite an amazing thing, as well, people really look out for each other and really care about each other and, “Hey, I got offered this work, but I can’t do it because I’ll be out of town, maybe you would like to do this?” I’m like, what other industry does that happen in? People will kind of like, here’s a puppet festival, you’d like to go, but where will you stay? You can stay at this puppeteer’s studio? You can stay at this puppeteer’s home. People will open their homes to strangers who are also puppeteers. It’s just an amazing community where people really actually nurture each other and care about each other and mentor each other. It’s really wonderful.
At Folkmanis Puppets, I got the idea while I was working there because I also saw how much adults love puppets and also, Folkmanis Puppets donates a lot of puppets to charity. Like, for instance, they would donate them to refugee camps, where the kids may have lost their parents and whole families. So, the puppets really helped the kids come back into the present a bit, so it was just so inspiring to see the potential for puppetry. So, I got the idea, right, I feel like words, just words aren’t the right medium for my story.
I feel like if I created a show using puppets, then it would be easier for me to work with that material because I wanted to use my story for public education work. Then it would also be much easier for audiences, as well, to be able to engage with that subject matter because if you see an actor on a stage, there’s already this cynicism comes down, you know, you switch into this intellectual mode when you see an actor, like, oh, did they have to hire an actor who’s in their 30s to play someone who’s 16 or whatever?
Raven: There’s all of this kind of initial… like, we’ve seen it all before, but puppets we haven’t seen. It turned out to be a very good medium for doing that. In 2007, I moved to England and got my masters at Central School of Speech and Drama and that was where I put together my show: Hooray for Hollywood. It was an amazing thing. I think my poor tutors, I don’t know what they thought. At first, they were like, “Don’t do that.” I mean, some of them. I think because they didn’t realise it was my own life story, so they were just so afraid that I was… “Have you done your research on this subject?” I’m like, yes, I’ve done lots of research.
Gerry: I was going to say, what do you think the power of puppetry is as regards, like…?
Raven: Well, it is like this one step removed, it’s the same as when you’re a child, you’ve gone through something terrible in your day and then you work it out with your toys. It’s like you can use the dinosaur toy and the truck toy, the dinosaur got run over by the truck on the playground today, but now the dinosaur is going to fight back and the dinosaur is going to bite the truck. It’s like the kids can work out the dynamics that have happened to them in the day. They work it out through their play. I think adults do that mostly in their dreams, as well, like it’s something a way you work out what’s happened to you, but most of us don’t even remember our dreams, but children actually do it in three dimensions. Adults, we’re not really given very much opportunity, or if we are doing something that’s three dimensional, sometimes it’s ridiculed, you know. There’s isn’t like a play café for adults, if somebody wants to do that, I’m for it.
Gerry: Yes, there’s something in it. I’ll go, I’ll be the first one there. Looking at storytelling, by putting a puppet into the situation, you’re shifting the focus onto another thing, and it’s easier to convey the story without getting too caught up in the complexity, the emotions that are attached to the story.
Raven: Yes, it’s a way to explore it in a tentative way, where you’re like, “This is just pretend.” You can start out; this is just pretend. You can kind of work up to it, you know, it doesn’t have to be this shocking, horrible thing, you can kind of slowly ease into it because you’re playing with a thing that you know is inanimate and yet, in your own mind, is bringing it to life as you’re being invited to play. I say it’s like adults are kind of discouraged from using their imagination. Even during teenagerhood, it seems like, we’re so discouraged from playing, but that is how humans actually learn to do things differently and how they start to envision a different way forward. I think puppets are a really powerful medium.
Gerry: Yes. I know Adam Lawrenson, Markus Hormess from Work Play Experience in Germany, they run a fantastic workshop facilitation course around theatrical playout experiences for designers to take them out of that comfort zone. I think puppetry is an extension of that type of thinking. Have you seen puppetry being used potentially in the examination process for children as they go to deliver their evidence in terms of co-facilitation of the story through puppetry?
Raven: I didn’t see that specifically at the trauma centre in Boston and that was kind of my only experience directly dealing with a child advocacy centre like that, but a lot of play therapists, that kind of a standard, is to have some puppets in the room because the kids find it much easier to, for instance, even just tell something to a puppet than to an adult. Then they could also use, they cuddle with the puppet, it’s a comfort as they’re talking about something that’s scary and then also, they can work out the different dynamics, like here’s the rooster and here’s the lion. It’s like, we know one of them represents them, one of them represents whoever has hurt them. They can work out what the dynamic is and actually demonstrate it to the counsellor, but without them necessarily having – without the child being necessarily consciously aware that that’s what they’re showing to the counsellor, but anybody who’s trained in that, anybody who’s trained in play therapy can definitely see what the dynamics are in a situation that is bothering the child.
Gerry: Yes. Raven, we’re coming toward the end of the episode, it’s been really amazing to speak with you and for you to share your story, as well. If people want to reach out to you and follow you, like how might they be able to get in touch and do that?
Raven: Well, right now, I’m touring a new show that’s called Love Vs Trauma, what I do is I follow it with a post-show discussion that is on trauma. I am bringing that around to the UK. People can find me on my website and that’s just: Ravenkaliana.com. Maybe you can spell it out somewhere. I have a funny name.
Gerry: I’ll put a link in the show notes.
Raven: Yes, and basically, I’m trying to invite people to visualize a different future. In the same way that a traumatised child has trouble visualising their own future, adults have that, as well. If anybody, people don’t realise that so many things are traumatic, like, verbal abuse, if somebody called you stupid the whole time you’re growing up or was never in encouraging, anything that denies your inner self, that’s traumatic. Anything that feels like an annihilation of who you are inside is traumatic. I think that is a universal experience. I think that if we can work toward helping people visualise a future that works better, I think that making spaces for those conversations can really help us as a species, going forward.
Gerry: Again, Raven, it was fantastic to speak with you today, thank you so much.
Raven: All right, thank you.
Gerry: I hope you enjoyed this episode and if you’d like to be part of the conversation or community, hop on over to thisishcd.com, where you can join the Slack community and help shape future episodes and connect with other designers around the world, or join the HCD newsletter, where you can win books and get updates. Subscribe to our content on Apple Podcast or Spotify and listen to any of our other podcasts such as: Getting Started in Design, Bringing Design Closer with myself, Gerry Scullion, or Power of Ten with Andy Polaine, or Decoding Culture with Dr. John Curran, Prod Pod with Adrian Tan and Ethno Pod with Jay Hasbrouck. Thanks for listening and see you next time.