Negative Space: Close Reading Trauma Porn

April 15, 2021   •   By Maya Gurantz

Buy me a drink and I’ll break down for you my new obsession: the abuse documentary. It’s a new genre, it’s everywhere on streaming media, and I’ve watched them all.


I can describe the precise differences between Part I of Surviving R. Kelly and Part II: The Reckoning; at precisely what point the second half of the series The Keepers loses its initial unrelenting momentum; what makes Lorena, about the Bobbitt case, best of genre; what makes On the Record, about music executive Russell Simmons, peak #MeToo; how Leaving Neverland, the four-hour-long two-parter about Michael Jackson’s pedophilia is critically enhanced by the coda of the Oprah Winfrey-hosted, talk show-format After Neverland; why Seduced, about Keith Raniere and the NXIVM cult, is an abuse doc; why The Vow, about Keith Raniere and the NXIVM cult, isn’t; why the two separate Jeffrey Epstein series (Surviving Jeffrey Epstein and Jeffrey Epstein Filthy Rich) both oddly feel like we’re jumping the shark a bit; and how two Larry Nassar documentaries, At the Heart of Gold and Athlete A, can hit so many identical beats while coming to such entirely different conclusions. You might think I’ve fallen behind this past month, what with the release of the four-part Allen v Farrow and the 8-episode CBC Podcast Evil by Design (about Peter Nygard, the “Canadian Jeffrey Epstein”), but don’t you worry. I’m all caught up.


How did the unraveling of serial sexual abuse become a blockbuster genre? What constitutes its formal newness, on the one hand, and its connection to a rich lineage of American sentimental storytelling about women’s injury on the other?


I would argue that we are in a political and discursive moment where we are beginning to unwind 40 years of Reaganite right-wing rhetoric of the cult of individual responsibility. In popular discourse — most notably with #MeToo and the work begun in Ferguson, ongoing with Marches for Black Lives —we are more confidently recoupling discrete tragedies with their systemic causes. Mass media is explicitly assigning specific abuses of power to how they are allowed to thrive within larger structures of oppression. It is, fundamentally, a mass shift in perspective.


But it’s a shift that comes with emotional consequences for many of us, a brutal reassessment of our lives, memories, and the choices available to us.


Enter the abuse doc: it is the genre for this political moment. It scratches a strangely necessary itch.


¤


It would be a reasonable mistake to see abuse docs as a subset of the current avalanche of true crime programming. Both emerged from the same need to fill the maw of streaming services desperately ravenous for content, and obsessed fans, like me, whose desire for new “trauma porn” seems to have no end (more on that, and that term, later).


Both genres deploy the same montage of talking head interviews alongside historical images and footage. Breaking this up are the occasional present-day visits to the scene of the crime and more interpretive historical re-enactments, color adjusted or animated to pull us into the past. These latter sections represent “memory,” particularly the fragmented experience of dissociated, traumatized memory — in slow motion, with shifting points of view, structural gaps, key objects coming in and out of focus, faceless bodies segmented into parts by the camera.


Between radical improvements in camera technology that allow filmmakers to produce beautiful looking footage more cheaply and our increased access to a wealth of digitized archival material, both true crime and abuse docs have been transformed from earlier “low-brow” iterations (which could be dismissed as mere pulp) into glossily produced, handsomely scored, convincingly prestige material.


Nowhere can this be more clearly seen than in drone shots that have relegated all other establishing shots to the dustbin of history. Our visual imaginations have incorporated this perspective so entirely you can’t imagine true crime or abuse docs without the leisurely smoothness of the high-definition eye of God proclaiming: we can and will absorb the whole landscape of this horror.


Most directly, abuse docs are confused with true crime because both genres are concerned with the revelation of criminal wrongdoings. Both genres deploy similar narrative arcs, commencing with an “Age of Innocence” chapter. We can’t get to an after without a before. In these docs, “before” is often scored with angelic choruses of high-pitched female voices singing wordless oohs and aahs as we are taken all the way back to the very beginning, to images of the subjects — abusers and victims — as children.


For the criminal, it’s as if to ask: how and where could such evil originate? For the victims, the question posed by seeing them in their innocence is different: what might this person’s life have been if not for the terrible disaster we know to be coming? To achieve the aesthetic texture of trauma, the viewer has to really feel what potential future has been foreclosed by the soon-to-be-made-inevitable, destabilizing event.


Age of Innocence gets followed by a suspenseful Build-Up. The musical “innocence” theme gets troubled with a counterpoint that lets you know bad things are coming. We are meant to feel the tension of anticipation as we work towards the shattering moment of contact.


At which point the abuse doc hits its main event: the Recitation of Abuse. Here, true crime and abuse docs part ways.


¤


In attempting to be both an abuse and true crime doc, the 7-part miniseries The Keepers demonstrates this split most clearly. The Keepers begins as a documentary about the unsolved 1969 murder of nun Cathy Cesnick.


But Sister Cathy’s cold case quickly becomes a portal through which we get to the story underneath the story: decades of sexual abuse of high school girls by Father Joseph Maskell in Baltimore in the 1960s and 1970s. Anchoring the entire series are the episodes featuring the women and men who survived Maskell’s abuse. Now in their 60s, they speak with an emotional clarity, depth of perspective, and specificity of memory that takes all the air out of the strained attempts by the rest of the documentary to solve Sister Cathy’s whodunit. Their story becomes the story.


Jean Wehner, whose lawsuit against the Catholic Church illuminated the possible connection between Father Maskell and Cesnick’s disappearance, is particularly compelling in how she describes his abuse, the process through which she began uncovering her teenage memories, and her attempt to pursue some measure of justice in the legal system.


A lifetime of spiritual practice allows Wehner to be fully present and poetically articulate as she rides the edges of what she can and cannot remember, pulling out small clear details of the unspeakable — how Maskell never gave her a napkin or handkerchief to clean herself up after he was finished, what he would whisper in her ear, how allowing herself to remember these horrors felt like standing in front of an abyss, throwing up.


The unrehearsed visceral quality of a person in the grip of his or her memories, pushing past the humiliation and clawing a way through brutal specifics. The moments of hesitation — of clearing a throat, of eyes growing wet, of being both alert in the memory as it felt decades ago while simultaneously understanding it through the perspective of a life lived. That’s the heart of abuse docs, the gravity well at their center. It puts the procedural on pause. It stops time.


¤


You could not have abuse docs if people were not willing and able to speak, explicitly, about their experiences of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse and the impact of the trauma it instantiates. When one person speaks the unspeakable, aloud, and publicly — with hard, often taboo words like rape and anus and finger and penetrate — it provides both permission for the next victim to speak, and also a template as to how.


This witness making, the implicit contract it writes between the speakers’ honesty and how we receive them as listeners, stands in for the social good the documentary itself hopes to achieve.


And we have all been trained in these roles. Trained by Oprah Winfrey. On her groundbreaking show, which premiered during the Reagan era and ran until 2011, she returned to the scene of these kinds of crimes again and again. She opens After Neverland, an hour-long special in which she interviews Michael Jackson accusers Wade Robson and James Safechuck, by stating that in 25 years of The Oprah Show, she taped 217 episodes about child sexual abuse. 217! That doesn’t even count additional episodes about marital abuse, rape, and other traumatic crimes; nor does it include ways that further discussion of such trauma often emerged in her revealing interviews with celebrities.


But Oprah wasn’t the beginning. Winfrey often states that her show could never have existed without Donahue. When Phil Donahue began his talk show in Dayton, Ohio in 1967, his budget didn’t allow for famous people to be flown in from the Coasts. So he began using ordinary people, talking about their own lives and experiences, as guests. In so doing, he became a transformative cultural figure.


I’m reminded of Gustave Courbet’s “Stonebreakers,” painted in 1849. After the Revolutions of 1848 had swept radical political change through Europe — a year after the Communist Manifesto was published — Courbet painted two French peasants in the middle of back-breaking labor, at a size and scale usually reserved for generals and royalty. While they are painted at heroic scale, the figures themselves — a young boy with scurvy, a man Courbet described as “an old machine grown stiff with service and age” —are not heroic; they were not portrayed by models but actual laborers. His masterpiece insists that these bodies, usually invisible, entirely unrepresented, deserve to be “pressed into the foreground,” as Matthew McKelway and Gauvin Alexander Bailey put it. Just over a century later, Donahue would iterate upon this legacy, changing who was allowed to occupy the center of the televisual frame, thus, changing the very nature of the frame itself.


Oprah subsequently innovated on Donahue’s model by incorporating frank acknowledgements of her own struggles. For a generation, she modeled how to share excruciatingly painful life experiences in front of a mass audience while maintaining unshakeable authority. In so doing, Winfrey popularized — nay, dumped into the water supply! — the idea that such public vulnerability is both a healing act and a heroically powerful one.


Certainly, it allows us to meet one other in our darkest truths in a way we as a society often don’t. Without Winfrey, could we have had Surviving R. Kelly? Kelly sexually targeted mostly Black girls and women, very young, very vulnerable, from poor and working-class backgrounds. Women who rarely, if ever, get airtime — certainly not as serious or sympathetic or idealized heroic figures.


Director dream hampton makes clear the real-world consequences of such a lack of representation. She interviews John Petrean, a juror in R. Kelly’s 2008 criminal trial for child pornography, in which he was found not guilty. Petrean unabashedly says: “I just didn’t believe the women…the way they dressed, the way they act, I didn’t like them…I disregarded all what they said.”


To see these women, years later, pressed into the foreground — tears spontaneously bursting through their careful composure as they recall their memories for us — it’s what made viewers, from the ordinary fan to Kelly’s own former collaborators and defenders, finally see his accusers in their full humanity and believe them even as most of the stories they are telling have been matters of public record for decades. The legal system itself negotiated them into silence. The abuse doc allows them to speak and be heard


¤


Of course, there’s nothing terribly new about the public recitation of suffering making a speaker visible. These narratives — particularly around sexualized torment — have long determined American consciousness of how we see and value women’s lives in particular.


In The Suffering Will Not Be Televised, Rebecca Wanzo describes the long history of how women have laid claim to citizenship through sentimental narratives of their own injury.


Indian captivity narratives of white women were used to dehumanize indigenous peoples and bolster the rights of Manifest Destiny. Slave narratives (e.g. Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl) re-humanized enslaved Blacks in the fight for abolition. “City slave” stories brought attention to the exploitation of poor white working girls as cities grew during the rise of industrialization. Wanzo explores how access to these claims have often been limited by race in “hierarchies of suffering,” even to present day versions of whose women’s suffering (generally white women) get told on the news, Lifetime Original Movies and on talk shows.


On the flip side of the sentimentality — an innocence besmirched, a life that could have been — is always and enduringly sensation: the prurient erotics of horror, with its mix of titillation and disgust. The combination has always been undeniably compelling, a potent instrument in the attempt to assert one’s political power.


Back to Oprah Winfrey. In After Neverland, Winfrey announces — in front of a live audience of one hundred abuse survivors who have just watched all four hours of Leaving Neverland — that Dan Reed’s documentary successfully illustrated what she’s been struggling to process personally and communicate publicly her entire adult life: how seduction is so often part of a child’s experience of sexual abuse, how successful serial abusers engineer emotional and sexual complicity so their victims believe themselves to have been willing participants, and how that shames victims into silence.


She brings in additional guests to provide context: Dr. Howard Fradkin, a therapist who specializes in male survivors of sexual assault; actor Anthony Edwards, who was abused as a young teen and states that “that ability to tell…your story, and to own that story without shame, that’s how we heal and recover.”


When Winfrey brings the full weight of both her personal experience and her professional apparatus to legitimize Leaving Neverland, it’s because she knows the documentary devastates the legacy of one of the most beloved celebrity icons of all time. She wants to provide Robson and Safechuck’s Abuse Recitation whatever additional substantiation it may require.


Because better than anyone, Oprah knows it isn’t Michael Jackson the man at stake. It’s what he means. What’s at stake is Michael Jackson — or Woody Allen or Robert Kelly —as an institution.


¤


This is the key to the abuse doc genre and its connection to histories of sentimental and sensational recitation. Unlike true crime, which is concerned with the dirty deed and tracking down the dirty deed doer, in abuse docs, the Recitation at the center of the documentary always gets situated within a framework of social critique. Always.


Abuse docs never ask: “Who did it?” They ask instead: Why did no one stop it? How was this allowed to happen — and then continue? Why couldn’t we see? Why didn’t we speak?


We are provided a panoply of experts — psychologists, journalists, cult experts, political advocates — to guide us through this question. They serve as our Talmudic commentators, interpreting the Abuse Recitation with detailed explanations of predatory control strategies and how they operate in an ever-widening circles of human interaction: interpersonally, within a family, through a community, over a profession, and in a greater society via the legal system or the media.


The revealed root cause of such behavioral patterns — celebrity, misogyny, the Catholic church, capitalist exploitation, racism, wealth inequity — or some admixture of two or more of these — is always changing.


What’s always the same is this shift: in abuse docs, the villain is not the abuser. Instead, the villain is the apparatus that facilitated the abuser’s pursuit of his exploitive private desires.


It’s the celebrity machine and music industry which ignored R. Kelly and Michael Jackson’s rampantly obvious predilections and tacitly accepted and ignored LA Reid and Russell Simmons’ misogyny. It’s USA Gymnastics, whose thirst for huge endorsements deals meant that winning took precedence over the health and safety of the very young women upon whose bodies those deals were struck. It’s the Catholic Church, which knew of Father Maskell’s behavior but put the burden of proof of his suffering victims while sending Maskell off to hide in Ireland or in treatment clinics. It’s a cult, NXIVM, funded by outsized wealth, using various manipulations of the legal system to terrorize any ex-lovers or ex-members who brought Keith Raniere’s criminality to light.


It’s also the systems that are purportedly set up to protect people but so often don’t. It’s US Attorneys collaborating with Jeffrey Epstein’s lawyers so he could avoid the worst of his potential criminal charges, even as dogged Palm Beach detectives were nowhere near to finding the end of the pyramid of young victims drawn into his web. It’s the University of Michigan “Office of Equities” who ignored complaint after complaint about Larry Nassar.


Abuse docs also, at their best, are documents of media criticism.


This specific turn is made explicit over the four episodes of Allen v Farrow: the first half of the series focuses on the story of Allen, Farrow, their relationship, and how Allen’s abuse of his daughter(s) came to light; the second half approaches Allen’s savvy manipulations of public misogyny, how he deployed his wealth, power, and cultural status to distract the public from his repugnant actions.


Lorena similarly tells a story of how the media was so dazzled by the idea of a man getting his penis cut off that it all but ignored a story about intimate partner violence, focusing instead on what must be the inherently unstable nature of a sexually stymied “hot blooded Latina.” In one particularly damning moment, journalist Melissa Jeltsen states that the tabloid coverage of the Bobbitt case at least allowed it to get any coverage at all; otherwise, “domestic violence cases don’t get national attention because they’re so ordinary.”


On the Record’s central subject, Drew Dixon, in discussing her career-shattering experiences of abuse in the music industry, observes, brilliantly, that an accuser is always at a media disadvantage because “the words are on your mouth. You’re the one that has to disgust the world by telling them what happened to you, so you then become associated with this vile, vile, act. You are defiled again because you have to tell people and they see it on your lips.”


Abuse docs always pause to consider this question as well, of whom we do and do not tend to believe. On the Record opens with writer and advocate Shanita Hubbard stating that “who we decide to listen to is totally predicated upon who we see as valuable in America.” Those people are generally not women, or poor women, or women of color, or children, or anyone with, as Bim Adewunmi bluntly puts it, lower “earning power.” Abusers purposefully exploit the same people our society does.


Seriality is key here. Abusive behavior is serial in nature. Abuse docs are often told in multiple parts, edited to simulate the numbing rhythms of recurring trauma, where effort after effort to seek justice or acknowledgement fail. Seriality also plays a role in how abuse finally gets recognized and when we as a society decide an abuser must finally be stopped. Because do we destroy a man’s life, his ability to make money, fulfill his talent and potential, because of a single bad act? Or two? Or five? Or ten? If we’ve learned anything from abuse docs the answer is — maybe we should, but of course we don’t.


Yet, in abuse docs you also learn that if you just wait long enough, you’ll at least have more than enough material to make a documentary series that can lay it all out for the public. Abuse docs become the procedural drama of the tortured routes the truth takes to finally come to light.


¤


Ok, so that’s how these documentaries work. But then — why am I so obsessed? What is it about abuse docs? Why do I keep watching these movies?


I call it “trauma porn,” which perhaps sounds derisive or dismissive. It isn’t meant to be. The most obvious reading of this moniker would be, perhaps, the following: pornography turns an unremarkably common private act that everyone does into sensational public discourse. Am I saying that abuse docs are doing the same thing by transforming unspeakable events into spectacular narratives? No, that’s not quite it.


Porn is a narrative structure that contains the messiness of sex into a set of formulas, watched and re-watched for predictable viewing satisfaction. Abuse docs similarly hammer the chaos and horror of abuse and its undergirding structural oppressions into a repeated narrative the viewer comes to predict, thus feel is possibly within her grasp to understand and maybe even control. Is that it? Closer, but not quite.


I’m reminded of Michael Heizer’s land art piece, Double Negative. In 1969, Heizer blasted two giant rectangular trenches out of the Mormon Mesa in Nevada, 30 feet wide, 50 feet deep, and 1500 feet long. When you stand back from these gaps, they create a volume out of thin air. They create weight and texture with negative space.


By weaving back and forth between events that occur at two scales — the intimate and the social — abuse documentaries articulate a giant space of male and white supremacist control that we know to be real but so often gets treated as if it’s invisible. Because it’s in the best interest of people who benefit from these systems to insist that this space simply does not exist. It’s negative space.


We spend a lot of time caught in the efforts to prove the existence of this space. We accumulate collections of individual tragedies and micro and macro aggressions, and with them we make assemblages that trace the outlines of the larger systems. We triangulate between these two realms with examples from historical racism and sexism in an attempt to demonstrate that what we insist exists (though often as subtext), was once and pretty recently and very explicitly the text itself. And then, when explicit racism and sexism bubbles up, as it always does, we shout: LOOK! SEE! I TOLD YOU! IT’S REAL, IT’S ALWAYS BEEN REAL! Yet it never seems to matter. We are told we sound crazy. It’s fucking exhausting.


In the world of the abuse documentary, we don’t have to fight that fight. The negative space is treated as real space.


In the alternative reality of an abuse doc, survivors get to say openly and without shame what happened to them. Undeniably corroborative evidence is presented to bolster them (undeniable enough that the documentarians and their streaming networks haven’t faced any successful lawsuits). Powerful predators and the structures that served, defended, and facilitated them — both of which seemed so utterly invincible—suddenly appear potentially vulnerable. And the viewer is made to see how these things are all inextricably connected.


Really, it’s a fantasy. It’s an amazing imaginary world that feels like real justice. That’s why it’s trauma porn for me. It’s a genre that provides me these momentary bursts of blind relief that the world won’t. I watch it over and over and over again.


¤


But watching porn is not sex. And watching trauma porn, though it engages the viewer in a critique of systemic abuses, is not itself systemic change. Abuse docs reveal both the necessity and the limits of personal storytelling, even personal storytelling that is deployed to expose systemic problems. Because, like, what do we DO with this information?


It’s one of the longstanding critiques of Oprah: no individual’s therapeutic story-sharing can replace the collective action an unjust world requires for any remedy. Barbara Ehrenreich writes about it as well in her masterful essay about breast cancer: “self-help” ultimately concretizes the fantasy that we, as individuals, can control our destinies against systemic inequity that does not want to change.


Some of these documentaries contain calls to action: to change laws regarding coercive control, or overturn various statutes of limitations regarding reporting of abuse. R. Kelly was dropped from his record label and then arrested. But would the music industry have kept defending him if he was still making hit records? Now that he (and Woody Allen, etc.) are culturally irrelevant, is the only way to squeeze the last cash out of them by making docs about their horrifying abuses?


It seems that, for the most part, we have no other thing to do with this information but turn it into a capitalist commodity. At the end of the day, it’s how many episodes can you squeeze out of a particular experience of suffering.


Processing and commoditization meet at some kind of vanishing point with abuse docs. In becoming a genre, will the docs themselves merely become a stage along the way? Serial abuses continue, unjust systems continue to protect it, and accusers finally get believed when someone makes a multi-part documentary about it in 20 years?


I’m left asking — is there any way to shorten the gap between the way we see a story in its moment, and the way we will, inevitably, understand it later? Can people only see abuse in retrospect, episode after episode?


¤


Special thanks to Sauce Podcast and my co-host Rebecca Cohen, and guests Rebecca Wanzo and Ainsley LeSure, with whom I first discussed some of these ideas. Thanks also to Sarah Mesle and Liz Goodman.