// Dr. Isaiah Pickens

Dr. Isaiah Pickens


Dr. Isaiah Pickens, a clinical psychologist who provides trauma-informed training for juvenile justice agencies, here frames the use of narrative and peer to peer support for the treatment of trauma. An initial goal in most treatments is for people to identify the reminders of their trauma so they can manage them. Once they are able to manage initial trigger stimuli, the second piece in overcoming trauma is exposure to the story of what happened. He speaks about facilitating means of empowerment that are actually possible, such as peer work. It can be powerful for people to understand how issues affect not only them, but others, and to understand coping skills well enough to teach others and make them feel safe.

Bio: Dr. Isaiah B. Pickens, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist in New York City who provides trauma-informed training and consultation to foster-care and juvenile justice agencies. He is also founder of iOpening Enterprises, a multi-media company providing mental health education workshops and online resources for teens and the adults in their lives.

Melanie Crean: Tell me a bit about what you do. How does the justice system relate to people’s emotional health and how have you been using narrative and storytelling to address this? How do the mechanics work?

Isaiah Pickens: I think the angle in your project on how people heal from trauma align with a lot of the evidence-based practices that we know. When we talk about treating trauma, there are a couple key components that most treatments have. One is being able to help people identify things that are reminders of trauma because those can set them off and send them back to that place ... Becoming more aware of that gives them the ability to manage it when they start feeling themselves get out of control. Sometimes when people get really emotionally dysregulated from being reminded by a trauma, it’s better for them to learn how to calm themselves down before going into the narrative piece, because the narrative can be too activating for them and can re-traumatizes them in the worst case scenario. We like to teach people self-soothing, how to calm your senses down when you are feeling stressed out.

Then once they have been able to really practice those skills, getting into the narrative is great because a big part of overcoming that trauma is exposure, exposure to that story, and to make it so that that story doesn’t become their entire story, but just a part of their life story. … It can be just as unhealthy trying to forget what happened to you as well and that being your sole focus.

As for self-perception theory and also the hero narrative, being able to distance yourself from the trauma and to observe objectively how you’re responding ... when it’s integrated with an overall goal to have greater clarity around your narrative can be very effective. But it’s also important to understand how people respond to trauma, because some people can respond with dissociation. We see that a lot of sexual abuse survivors have this kind of response, to mentally separate yourself from your body and observing what’s happening around you; it almost sounds like self-perception theory. But if this becomes a natural way for you to respond to stress, then you get stressed out and block out everything around you and you lose twenty minutes of time.

We also see this connected with self-destructive behavior, with people cutting themselves, because people want to be present, they want to feel like they’re alive. sometimes people disassociate to the point that they feel like they’re not there, they’re not present, and so they want to bring themselves back or they want to feel something and express that pain. With those types of people, mindfulness may not be the primary way. They might need to do more active things so that they can fully be present and do other kinds sensory coping strategies like where you’re playing with sand or things that are more tactile so that you’re present and you’re here and you’re using your body in a healthier way.

For your second question in terms of the hero narrative, we especially see this in children. When they’re traumatized, they usually replay it in their play, and someone comes and saves the day or someone comes and changes the situation so that it doesn’t hurt them as much. We help them understand that this actually did happen but it gives them a sense of hope that if it were to turn out that way again, then they would be able to manage the stress.

One thing we talk about when it comes to the criminal justice system is the social contract being broken particularly as it relates to trauma. When I say social contract, I just mean if I do certain things in society, then I’m supposed to be taken care of. If I do what I’m supposed to do in school, the schools should educate me. It shouldn’t be that I get arrested or or all these things that happen in traumatizing situations that can break that social contract. My boss here did a lot of work with teens in Bosnia and so many of them wanted to be doctors. They saw so much destruction around them that they wanted to feel empowered to do something about it if it happened in the future. But there was also a young, impoverished black kid he was working with in the States and he wanted to be a doctor but there just wasn’t the social capital around to even get him an internship or working in a hospital. I think that a hero narrative can be really effective.

But pairing it with practical steps, to allow people to actually engage with some of these hero behaviors so that they can have a sense of agency is important so that it won’t feel like another betrayal, breach of that social contract. We’re putting these narratives together, but are they actually realistic in some way?

It’s important to be clear about the intention because you also don’t want in the exercise people to get the sense that the victim is being blamed. You know, “You could’ve changed this but you didn’t do this.” If you couch it as being able to develop coping skills for really difficult life situations and not just in that scenario, but when things can remind you of that scenario, then that can be really empowering. I think it's really effective when people get out of their own head about how this impacts them but also how it impacts others. Because if they’re learning a skill that they are then able to teach someone else or that they can help someone else feel safe, it empowers them and it gets them beyond. “This narrative is the only narrative I can have.” You can change your narrative, but you can also change the narrative of other people. I think that adding some kind of piece of connectedness to others in the frame can help that.

MC: There’s another thing I want to ask you about disassociation. Dr. Wendy D’Andrea, who we also interviewed for this project, describes how trauma is remembered, where the cognitive part of where language is formed and stored might be different from where the emotional part is stored, and that’s the part that gets triggered by association later. You described that if something happened to someone who was sexually abused they might just feel shut out from their body. She said that sometimes people don’t necessarily have verbal language to describe what happened to them. Some people she worked with could not verbalize it. Does memory relate to language in different ways, so you might use different forms of treatment to access it?

IP: You should read a book called The Body Keeps Score. Van der Kolk is one of the trailblazers who created the diagnosis of PTSD, and he has story after story about people who couldn’t articulate what the trauma was that they’d experienced, because of the trauma itself, and also the processing of information once you’re in that state of heightened alert. You see some detail, but you only see certain details vividly, so you’re missing other details that are happening around you and it might be hard to describe all the pieces of the puzzle. That’s where his book talks about using the arts: to draw, do yoga, or use mindfulness to start to really bring some expression to the emotive process because the emotions are so intense it’s hard to process them at times and then later make sense of them. In a way, what that art does is it to help you make sense of what you’re experiencing in that moment, and then you can start to bring some words to it.

MC: Are there other ways that these events are stored in the body?

IP: Yes, another thing to look into is epigenetics. It is a relatively new form of research that’s been around for 10/15 years. We have believed historically that our genes are what they are and that’s it. But what we’ve learned is that that’s not the case. The environment can turn on and off certain genes, and epigenetics is about this process. They’ve looked at survivors of the Holocaust and their descendants and they’ve found that the traumatic experience that the grandparents had, actually lead to certain genes being turned on in them and passed down, so that their descendants had a heightened stress response. They replicated this with rats, where they made the rat very fearful of something they weren’t normally afraid of at all, and they show it being passed down multiple generations.

From a genetic standpoint, we’re starting to learn how trauma manifests in the body. A big part of my work, especially as it relates to criminal justice and looking at historical trauma, is to say that when people talk about African-Americans and the way they respond to beliefs; it doesn’t come from nowhere. It comes from a history, and the Holocaust is another kind of historical trauma. What we’re learning is those historical traumas can play a role in people’s stress responses right now. The better we’re able to recognize that, the better we’re able to support people.

There’s another book you should read by Dr. Joy DeGruy called Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome. She really goes into detail around the African-American community and how trauma has played a role in that history and impacts the way we respond to stress today. I think that’s very much tied to the criminal justice system, mass incarceration, and it’s tied to how we discipline our kids in school and how that leads to disproportionate minority contact with the justice system because of higher levels of suspension and expulsion.

I think that what all this translates to for you and the work that you’re doing is, in some of these settings, how can you integrate the arts as an outlet for young people to express their emotions in different ways that can somehow be more acceptable and lead to a more measured response, but one that’s not rooted in a punitive response. One that’s really focused on, “How do I heal the kid?” But of course, you have to be careful with that, because when the justice system hears “healing”, they go, “We’re not doctors, we’re here to penalize. “

What we’ve learned is that restorative justice practices can be very effective and part of what you may be able to do is to expand the concept of restorative justice to beyond just restoring justice for the crime you’ve done to someone else, but also to restoring yourself. I think that’s part of where the trauma work is restoring the person to their own fullness and the arts can be an amazing way to do that when words can’t be a catalyst to that process.

// Eyal Weisman

Eyal Weisman


Eyal Weisman on the use of forensic architecture with prisons, the potential of the built environment to tell stories, the concept of total incarceration; and the relation of memory to the perception of space, and the way it is communicated.

MC: Can you describe the potential for the built environment to tell stories?

EW: there are so many ways it can do it, this is the spectrum of actions and the extent of the toolbox of forensic architecture. Initially I would say it has methods that relate to but radically expands on the framework of the history of architecture. I think the history of architecture is primarily concerned, primarily interrogates the history of architects and their documents. On seeing the materiality of the building, it separates between what is an architectural action on the materiality; its design, and translation of notation to construction. But not see anything that happens to the materiality of building after that point.

Forensic architecture basically starts to tell histories as a framework, but other histories of the interaction between material organization with a building or landscape of other things, and general history that is happening around it, which can be something as instantaneous as a murder case, to something that is much longer term, like political transformations or environmental transformation.

Its basically locating architecture as a kind of sensor, a political sensor. The materiality of architecture continually registers whatever happens around it, whether it is the intentional design if an architect who would like to convert it, or a bomb that blasts near it. But what it would not do, is to make a fundamental distinction between those acts that affect and are applied on its materiality. So this is the first layer of what forensic architecture is, its a material practice that sees buildings as sensors, and buildings are very good as political sensors. For many reasons to do with that they’re grounded in a place, to do with the political rationale of a location, to do with the kind of use they’re being put to, and the kind of environment within which political processes and incidents that unfold around it.

The second level lis to ask: how do we read architecture as a sensor? We need other sensors to read architecture as a sensor. One of the best examples is to say, we are using videos coming out of conflict zones to which we have no access. In them, we see buildings, and we interrogate the materiality of the buildings as a sensor, as caught by the sensor of the camera. Or the heat sensory, or NDVi capture on a satellite.

The third level is to say we’re not using architecture as a sensor, but we’re using 3D architectural modeling to do something important, to shift from the notion and techniques of montage, that is to say the political relation to images as linear composition of juxtapositions that made political cinema possible from Eisenstein onwards. Towards another relation and composition of images that is navigation. In forensics we are not really wanting to cut the film, We want to keep all films as source material and navigate between one film and another, and the best way to navigate between space time, between images and clips, is within the deep space of an architectural model that allows us to sync up. This is what we call the architectural image complex.

Then, there is another question to do with the question of subjectivity, the question of witnesses. So far, architecture operates within the realm of evidence. A lot of our work has to do with breaking the border between evidence and testimony. And we wanted to see how architecture is located precisely between evidence and testimony. And hence work such as Sidnaya, which is not the first, we’ve done others such as the Mirror Ali investigation. In the beginning of the book I describe how we developed it in the context of the drone investigation.

MC: there are many different types of sites you work with. Is there any kind of specific goals of bearing witness that are particular to the materiality and function of prison sites and detention centers?

EW: Prison offers an interesting kind of testimony in relation to architecture. In prison, the building is not only the site of the physical torture, or condition of incarceration or the site of violation, it is the instrument of violation. Architecture here is one of the instruments of torture. People ask us, where did torture take place in this prison or that site? Its not about where it took place, its what method and the building is not merely locator of a room in which torture takes place. The building enacts it.

Prisons are one of the most radical relations between architecture and the body that exists.

Hence the relation to architecture does not separate …For example, when we’d speak to witnesses about shooting incidents that take place in an urban environment or inside a building, the building could be part of the terrain that defines the event, but it's not a participant in it. Its not as traumatic the relation to the walls, to the windows that we find that the relationship of former prisoners have to prison buildings.

Somehow everything in that relation is alive. Every relation to a window, floor tile, any kind of instrument is an instrument to that which has caused you pain. Therefore you have to have a very attuned relation between the memory of that space and the way it is communicated and articulated. Attuned to the relation to the perception of space, and the way it’s communicated.

MC: I noticed in Saydnaya, one of the triggers the detainees had for remembering were positions that they maintained for long periods of time. They described all kneeling against a wall, or not all being able to fit in a space so taking turns sitting and standing. In your work, how does sensory perception relate to memory and accessing stories from Saydnaya?

EW: In that particular prison of Saydnaya, prisoners were at the threshold conditions of different types of perception, both in terms of vision and sound. They were at the threshold of vision, in that they could hardly see, they were in the dark or lead around blindfolded. They were at the threshold of sound in the sense that they could only whisper to each other, if at all. A whisper to each other so low, that the whisper is more like the physical movement of lips and air coming out of the body rather than actual sound. You are in a space that’s between vision and sound, that is neither vision nor sound. That’s how the architecture was perceived, at the threshold of sound and vision.

MC: When detainees don’t have access to many images, when they’re usually blindfolded or in the dark, how did memory function as an imaging device to help create the reconstruction of the prison?

EW: There is never pure withdrawal of all visual information, even if you have hands against the eye. If you walk along windows, you experience the sequencing of radiation and non-radiation. Even if you have to be silent, you do hear the way that sound circulates in a non-linear way throughout the building. You’re at the threshold between seeing light and sensing it on your skin. Between hearing and feeling vibration with your hands.

But to reconstruct it, you need to enter into that threshold of sense perceptions and effectively start reconstructing it from the recollection of detainees. Then the architecture becomes useful. Building architectural models becomes both the product of memory, we build what witnesses tell us to build, and the building architecture becomes the way to memory. The model builds the form of recollection. The model functions both visually and acoustically, in the sense that the models we were building with artist Lawrence Abouhandan, were also having acoustic properties of which vibration and echo were part of the process of sizing up spaces.

And finding memories within an archive, a memory archive, a perceptual archive, in which time is no longer linear, in which you no longer know what was before or after, what happened here or there … the prison detention process of several years is just far too long and repetitive to have a normal flow of time. It’s almost like bits of recollection were floating within an indistinguishable type of matter.

MC: I’ve heard other formerly incarcerated people describe time this way, when days become so repetitive, locating some slice of memory happens if and when something breaks the cycle, which is often when things are traumatic or violent.

You mentioned the physical site where people were, and the model you are building. They’re both locations and they’re both ‘means’ to an end. Prison is a means to execute torture, and the model is a means to facilitate remembering. The little I know about memory and trauma is that cognitive thought, narrative thought, gets separated from physical memory. I guess this is what happens with PTSD, your body may react viscerally to a trigger, but its very difficult to marry it to the story of what happened. Is this why you’ve developed techniques that begin with sensory processes? I’ve read about some of your processes like echo profiling, and ear witness testimony. Could you speak about sensory strategies?

EW: Anything having to do with sound, you’d be very interested to speak to Lawrence Abohanda, both a PhD student here at the Center, and an audio investigator in his own right. Echo profiling is an attempt to understand the materiality and size of a space by the kind of reverberations that it emanates.

We would never ask about torture directly. We would ask about dimensions, about sizes, sound leakage, light levels. Understanding the memories of torture being so traumatic and so inaccessible, and sometimes so distorted in the minds of survivors, that any direct approach towards that is going to [inaudible].

MC: What kinds of stories start to emerge about the relation of the architecture to the body? You’ve described things like being at the threshold of sensory experience, about the perception of time not being linear, are there other kinds of relationships that stand out?

EW: The architectural descriptions that were requested from survivors, for example, to correct the models of the doors, sometimes straightforward questions of the dimensions of the door hatch, about its size and its distance from the floor, lead to a description of torture that was not told before by a witness that had given several cycles of interviews. When asked what was the size of the hatch? ‘Well, it was the size of my face.’ ‘How do you know?’ ‘Because I was asked to put my face through the hatch, and I was beaten when my neck was caught on the edge of the hatch.’ So this is one example of many when a request to describe a relation of the architecture and the body, is a way into recollection of traumatic things.

Another was when a witness was beaten up in a corridor that we knew to be straight. When being beaten, his hands that were covering his eyes slipped, and he remembers seeing a circular space. And the error from what we knew to be a straight corridor was a very important moment for us, because those errors relate more information than the truth.

We were keeping a catalog of errors, rather than discarding them as superfluous information, as something that needs to be corrected. We collected them, because each error demonstrated two things. One is, it has come out of the matrix of Cartesian space. But distortion is information, rather than the withdrawal of information. It adds to it, it filters Cartesian space through the mental state. In a certain sense the errors manifest the truth of torture more than a precise physical description of a space.

For example, that person who was beaten up in a corridor describes a circle of space, he’s completely surrounded by the building. Its a position of complete experience. To a certain extent that error manifests the truth of torture, that torture has taken place. The distorted recollection more important evidence than precise spatial description.

MC: I wanted to ask about a phrase that one of the narrators in your documentation used, about the idea of total incarceration. It seems incarceration would always be total, but maybe it’s a question of degree on the level of sensory deprivation. Is that a term that you use? What does it describe?

EW: It describes that after months or years in a state of complete sensory deprivation, there is nothing left but the prison. It is a complete experience in a sense that you’re cut completely from the outside. You have no prospect of your release, no information about loved ones, no contact with them. You’re dependent completely and totally, your life depends at any given moment on your wardens. Saydnaya is not a prison, it is like a death camp. It is basically a place in which torture does not happen to extract information through interrogation, it is simply a way of killing people slowly. Its a place in which Amnesty recorded 17,000 deaths. Its horrific. Its a present day death camp. People are driven every day to be hanged. There are crematoriums where they are burning the bodies. In prison you might read something or speak to fellow inmates. There, it’s total. You’re just barely alive. You are skin and bones with the people next to you. It’s one of the most horrific places on earth, currently.

MC: I wanted to ask about goals and desired impact of the work on political systems, and if and how that relates to impact on individuals. How do you hope to use this information to create political change?

EW: There are many ways. Initially, this evidence belongs to the people who produced it. The architectural model is something is something they justifiably feel that they’ve created. It is a vehicle for them to show to other people. There are refugees in Turkey now and it’s mainly circulated amongst Syrian refugees in those places.

‘Secondly, it’s a way to provide advocacy against the Syrian government's use of torture, mass execution. It’s an important piece of information about who are the people that are doing that, why and what are they up to. Only then, and very much at the end there is now a legal process that is being proposed and lead by a German group ECCHR that is using our evidence to bring an international legal claim in international criminal court.

MC: does this relate back to how you were describing the level of evidence functioning at one end of the spectrum? You mentioned the model functions as agency for the people involved. Based people’s reactions who participated, is it a means for them to …

EW: First of all they said, now we can move on. Now that we’ve built the model, we can forget it. Secondly it was a means to build communities around the project to build community. Only then can it expose the truth about the Assad regime, which is not to say his enemies are innocent and that they’re not violating human rights, but to show that the Assad regime is a massive violator of human rights. This is incredibly important.

// Walidah Imarisha

Walidah Imarisha


Walidah Imarisha on why she uses storytelling as part of her political organizing practice, how narratives frame social ideas, and how shifting narratives might bring about social change. She speaks about how narrative frames self-conception, as the stories we have access to shape our understanding of ourselves, our culture and our world. Her collaborative writing workshops involve creating space for people to change these ideas, to unlock what they think might be possible for the future.

Melanie Crean: I wanted to start out with, In terms of your own practice, why do you work with narrative? It seems like not just something that you create, but that you also use as tool.

Walidah Imarisha: I think that stories are the only thing that can create cultural shifts. I think, like the writer Jeff Chang said, cultural shifts are the shifts from which all other change happens. He talks about how political change is the last manifestation of change. It takes the longest to change systems of oppression. But first, before any of that can happen, there has to be cultural change, cultural shift. And for that, people have to change how they are understanding their world, and understanding the possibilities for that world.

For my co-editor Adrienne and I, that was the founding question for our book Octavia’s Brood, how do we create spaces that support people to begin to shift how they think about the future? Doing that necessitates also changing how people think about the present.

In my own personal work, I’ve always been engaged in different forms of storytelling. My first book and my first writing life was as a spoken word artist and a poet. To me poetry is a fundamentally important way of shifting people’s frames, because it connects emotionally.

As an educator, I also include poetry and storytelling in what the students are studying. In a class I taught a class on race and the history of prisons, we read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, Angela Davis’s Are Prisons Obsolete?, and Ruthie Gilmores The Golden Gulag. We also read The Prisoner's Wife by Asha Bendelle, and we talk about her with the same academic rigor as we talked about the more academic and scholarly pieces. What are the arguments that Asha is making though her narrative? Because she is being as thoughtful and as intellectual complex as these other pieces. So the difference is not the content or level of engagement, it’s also form.

MC: The stories that we tell ourselves, and the stories that we tell others are not just how we understand, but how we portray that understanding of the world. Do you try to shift the nature of creative forms, or do you try to come up with new ones? Or, do you work within traditional story structures to change how people think? I’m thinking about the types of heroes you might portray, and the conflicts they might encounter, like the Angel from your story in Octavia’s Brood. In some ways it’s a classical story, but in other ways it’s not at all. How are you working with traditional structure, and in other ways, how are you reconfiguring that structure?

WI: It depends on what the work is. My book Angels with Dirty Faces; Three Stories of Crime, Prison and Redemption, focuses on talking about both the prison industrial complex, and our ideas of what crime is, as well as what do we do when serious harm happens, through three people’s stories: myself, my adopted brother Kakameah, who is incarcerated in California, and James MacElroy, who was one of the leaders of the Westies, the Irish mob who ran Hell’s Kitchen from the 60’s to the 80’s.

I believe in prison abolition. I believe that prisons make use less safe as a society. I think prisons perpetuate everything that is awful about the carceral mentality. The focus on punishment and retribution, rather than focus on accountability, in a way that would promote healing of individuals as well as the collective community.

To speak to your earlier point, I realized before we can really talk about alternatives to incarceration, we have to challenge the embedded frames about who is incarcerated. And this concept that folks who are incarcerated are less than human. Like Angela Davis talks about: the idea that though prisons shape every aspect of our lives, we’re told not to think about them. That as long as we are good people and don’t do bad things, we don’t ever have to think about prison and we don’t ever have to think about people who are incarcerated there. They are people who have done bad things, and are therefore no longer worthy of consideration as human beings.

I am someone who, since I was 15 years old, has engaged in learning from people who are incarcerated. I think it’s really important to frame my process of education like that. Because I think there is a specific narrative told about people who are incarcerated by people on the outside who want to help, that often disempowers and infantilizes folks who are in prison, as being passive victims, as people who didn’t know any better. All of these very white liberal frames, that I think perpetuate this narrative of hero. In this white liberal framework, there is a hero, and it’s the white liberal, who is coming to save these disempowered incarcerated brown people who have no agency or power.

For me, it was incredibly important to disrupt that. Because I would not be the person I am, my politics would not be what they are, and I realize that the movements I am involved in for social justice would not be what they are without the leadership of people who are incarcerated. I wanted very much to show that framework, and to not come in as an expert, which was why it was important to tell stories. I included my own story. Originally that wasn’t my plan, but as I progressed, I felt like I needed to include my story to be honest about my subjectivity, because I believe objectivity is a fallacy. We can’t be objective, the best we can really hope for is to be honest and accountable.

MC: Why do you use narrative strategies in your organizing? And why do you use them in the workshops you do, like when you were creating Octavia’s Brood, editing an anthology of other people’s stories?

WI: The stories we have access to shape our understanding of ourselves, the world, and our culture, and again, what is possible for the future. I think those stories have been very tightly controlled and reined in for that reason, which I think is related to conversations happening around prisons. Some folks talk about prisons as an economic issue, that the reason we have this huge rise in prisons, is because there are private prisons and corporations that are profiting from incarceration.

Ruthie Gilmore and other brilliant people point out that for prisons, that can’t be the answer. There isn’t enough economic value being made to justify the prison industrial complex. She and Angela Davis and others say that it’s incredibly important to recognize that the primary function of prisons is social control; the control, containment and exploitation of potentially rebellious communities. That really the economic aspect is because we live in a white supremacist, hetero-patriarchal, capitalist society where anything can and will be monetized. But that’s not the primary goal of prisons. Prisons would continue to function as they are even if they made no money, because of the necessity of controlling potentially rebellious communities in an incredibly unequal, oppressive, hierarchical society.

I think that controlling the scope and style and the content of the stories that are told is a method of social control, and is a method of maintaining the current hierarchical structure. So, telling and creating stories that disrupt or subvert that mainstream narrative is revolutionary and also absolutely necessary for liberation to happen.

Ursula Le Guin had a quote in her National Book Award speech in 2014 where she said something like, we live under capitalism, it’s power seems pervasive, but so did the divine right of kings. Any system created by humans can be changed by humans. She goes on to say that that’s why artists and writers are so important, because they’re the first ones to say, but what else is possible? And to question everything we’re told is unquestionable.

That was the foundation of Octavia’s Brood. Asking the question, how do we build a more just society? And realizing first that we have to de-colonize our imagination, to recognize that a new just society is even possible. Doing prison abolition work, I talk to people about abolition and they think it’s a complete fantasy. They say, there’s no way our society could ever exist without prison. Erasing the fact that prison is a pretty new development, and that there are societies that are moving toward existing without prisons. But, the facts don’t matter if we can’t imagine and conceptualize it.

There was a great scholarly article called Loot or Find, Fact or Frame about Hurricane Katrina that was about radically coded frames. They said that frame trumps fact, which is now an even more ironic phrase. That if we don’t address the built-in frame that society has given us around an issue that says, these are the parameters, this is how you look at this issue; people will distort facts to make them fit. Or, they will completely disregard and dismiss facts. We have to get to that frame, before people can say, let me consider this. I believe that if facts are not the thing that will shift the cultural frame, that stories are the thing that will shift the frame. That and the ability to have connection and emotional vulnerability with another human being is what will shift cultural frames. It is very difficult to think of a person as a monster when you hear about and feel the experiences of their childhood, when you hear about and see them grappling with remorse about what they’ve done, and what’s been done to them.

One of the ways that connection happens is through stories, where you get to see the entire character laid bare. In the best of stories, where you see their complexities, their mistakes, you see their human fallibilities, you see their desires, their intentions and their loves. And you connect emotionally with those complexities, because that’s what a human being is, that’s what a human being does. When we are able to actually tell real stories that show the humanity of people in all of its imperfections, sometimes in all of its atrocities, but also in all of its immense beauty, to me that’s what will change the world.

// Julian Boal

Julian Boal


Melanie Crean: You do a range of political theater work. You direct plays, and you also continue develop techniques from Theater of the Oppressed that your father used in the 70’s. Why do you work with Image Theater, and other methods that use body-based narrative without language?

Julian Boal: What I think is interesting, is, there are people who say, “The body is more revealing of the truth.” This is partially true, but only partially, and can easily become an overstatement. When listening to speech, I think it’s important to also look at the speech of the body and see if there’s contradiction. I think that when you are talking, you are expressing your opinion, but your subjectivity about a certain issue is what your body is really doing. By that I mean that your body can have a certain conscience of its own that is more revealing and more true than what you mind consciously thinks about a certain issue. This is something that is often expressed in political theater, at least in Brecht. After seeing Brecht for the first time, Walter Benjamin wrote “Epic Theater, first of all, is a physical theater, a gestural theater.” And why is this so? Again, because he thinks the gestures inform more about the reality than the speech that is more ideological.

When you read a Brecht play like Mother Courage, it starts with the following scene. Mother Courage enters on stage with her three kids pushing a wagon. Mother Courage is a very contradictory character who is a mother on one side who cares for and loves her children, and on the other side, she is the courage, the courage of selling goods during war times, and so she’s a contradictory character. When she enters on stage, there are two sergeants who are desperate to find someone to recruit because if they come back without anybody, they are going to be beaten up by their commander and put in jail. They see the kids, and try to sweet talk them and try to bring them in and Mother Courage notices and puts them back into the wagon saying, “No, we should go.” As she puts one foot on the steps of the wagon, one sergeant says to the other, “Buy something from her, anything!” He shows a coin to Mother Courage and says, “I want to buy a buckle.” Mother Courage has her body facing the kids, and looks back over her shoulder to the Sergeant. She steps one foot down, and starts bargaining over her shoulder while the other sergeant is leaving with the kids. It’s a very physical thing, and you see the contradiction of this character. She bites the coin to make sure it’s real silver. The contradictory image is her taking one step in to look for her kids, but also turning around to look for the money.

Brecht Theater is filled with those images. You have to work to make those images, to create those contradictions. Many times the body reveals more than the mind would address.

Now I’ll tell you a real story. Once I was in Nepal, and I met with a man from a very high caste, who is also an activist against the caste system, which in Nepal is very strong. I was told that this man, to prove that he doesn’t support the caste system, goes to the Dalit and eats their food, but then he throws up. It’s not willingly, it’s unwillingly. His conscious will is to eat the food, but he cannot stand it. The truth of this guy was that he was against the caste system, I believe he was sincere, but at the same time, society was reading onto his body. In many ways, the body is more revealing of the society than the mind, than what the person says.

I remember another real story doing invisible theater here in the US, that was about the health system before Obama. We were doing it in a restaurant, and there was a real person who was not part of the theater, who started saying very bad things about the socialized health system. But he was speaking with his hand cupping the side of his face, out of the side of his mouth, which was very swollen, because he had a toothache. So this character exists for real, and is more real than just making a speech. For me, the body doesn’t reveal to you the entire truth, but it’s going to reveal more of the truth than just the opinion. The truth of this man was not what he was saying. The higher truth was the physical evidence, or the contradiction between the speech and the physical. The body contradicting the language and the speech; the rational contradicting the factual; those things are interesting.

There has to be layers. How do you reveal the contradiction of a character who is working in the health system or the educational system, that precisely because of their role, needed to go against their larger mission? Such as a teacher who needs to teach to standardized tests although it’s against what they believe because if they don’t do it, then the school is not funded and it’s going to be even worse. How to make an image that shows this contradiction?

MC: What do you think are the unique capabilities of this work? How do you think these methods can affect a person on an individual level?

JB: If I make a speech about something, I feel it’s really me who is speaking, whereas when I’m making a physical movement, it has a certain level of protection. Under the mask, you can say true things. Passing through the body might allow the people to express more freely because of this level of abstraction, because of this feeling that it is not as if “I” said something.

If a story is so specific to a particular individual, when there are so many of certain kinds of details, it might not be as relevant to as many people. But then again, if the story is too general, it can reinforce stereotypes. With the limitations some people feel when expressing only with the body, they might address things that are more at the core of the situation. They might not be able to address details like “Jim was fifteen when I first met him.” But they can address that when they were strip searched by the police it was a humiliation because they had to spread the cheeks of their bottoms in such and such a way. And then, I in the audience can identify with humiliation, maybe more than I can identify with the story.

Marcuse says there are two ways of telling the same story. One is, “I work in a factory, and my wife is with me but things are very expensive and so I’m not able to fulfill all the needs of my kids and this and that.” You can give a lot of details, but another way of telling this story is [adjusts posture], “I’m a factory worker, and my wage is not enough.” So the body language leads you more to the, 'I don’t get enough money as a factory worker.' The core.

MC: Do you think there are limitations in terms of re-traumatizing someone?

JB: I don’t push people to expose themselves too much. If people want to come up to act, I give them a situation and I give them the structure, and I ask them to enact the point of the scene. But which stories do they offer by themselves? For instance I might say “Look in this scene of Mother Courage, you have an image of a physical contradiction. Two things that are in the same character that will collide. So please make an image about this, about two things in some character that you know of, colliding. If the person comes up with a personal story, it’s their choice. It has to come from them. It’s not in our interest to say, “I want you to give me the most bloody dramatic thing. Tell me something you’ve never told anyone.”

MC: Why you think these methods are useful as an organizing tool for social justice movements?

JB: I think it’s going to differ from culture to culture and from time to time also. I think for instance that the Theater of the Oppressed was born in a conjuncture of the collapse of the left in Latin America and coming up with another hypothesis for rebuilding this left that didn’t entirely work out.

I was fighting against the extreme left that my father belonged to, saying, “Look, we cannot just absorb every Marxist book and then go into the street. We need to work on the level that each person is at and reveal the contradictions that they’re facing, and foster those contradictions. We are not going to implant the sense of rage. The sense of rage is already there, and we need to develop it to make it more critical. We need to work where people are at, blow on the fire, and help organize. That’s not how it works, and it will never work that way.”

Instead of having this knowledge-based hierarchy, it was the idea of validating the personal experience and the personal stories and storytelling. And it was also something against the idea of high culture. People don’t need to read well or read Brecht, because they belong already to the culture.

MC: Relating to how stories are framed, do hero myths or mythic archetypes figure in to your work?

So this idea of the hero comes in, and for me it’s one of the problems of Forum Theater. It’s the idea that we need examples, we need exemplary people. At that time, there were people saying we don’t need individual examples, we need organizations, strong organizations. And the more you have heroes, the less you have organizations. It’s both an aesthetic and political debate that my father had with many other people and to reapply it for today, I think that Forum Theater was done in order to enforce the idea of Che Guevara, that you can become a hero yourself if you want.

But today in our times, it’s that you can become an entrepreneur. If you want to fight racism by yourself, you can. You want to fight capitalism by yourself, you can. It’s like ideology; just do it. But I don’t think you can do it like this. You cannot dodge systems of oppression and you cannot fight them alone; the exemplary person by themselves is not enough.

MC: So much of this is based on the stories we tell ourselves as a culture, that frame context and shape belief systems. For Mirror/Echo/Tilt we’ve been thinking a lot about the power of narrative and myth in culture, especially how it relates to our particular culture, American Culture, and how it portrays idea of the criminal.

JB: There’s a play by Friedrich Dürrenmatt called The Visit of the Old Lady. A rich woman visits her former town. She was kicked out of the town when she was a teenager because she got pregnant with an unmarried man. Now, the city has economically collapsed and she returns extremely rich, and says “I will give 1 billion dollars to the city if the city kills the man who dishonored me.” At first, everyone said, “No, it’s absurd! We cannot kill the man because that would be unfair.” The whole play is about how they move from this position to “What would be unfair is if the man who dishonored this woman is to live.” But obviously the economic reason is the determining factor. It’s a very good play. There is comedy, but it’s a very cruel play about how crime is not an excess, but it’s a need. It’s not an accident, but a need for the city. They need the man to be a criminal. I think right now it would be a good play to perform for the US, because your society needs prisons as much as your society needs war. It’s not an accident.

// Astoria – Coffee Street

// Bellevue Shelter

// Fulton Prison Return

// Fulton Prison

Photographed in the former Fulton Correctional Facility in the Bronx, shortly after it was decommissioned.  

// Courthouse

Photographed in the Old Bronx Borough Court House, as it was undergoing renovation.  

// Workshops – Fortune

Photographed at The Fortune Society, Queens NYC.  

// Entering Court

Filmed in the Old Bronx Borough Court House, as it was undergoing renovation.

// Isolation

Filmed in the Former Fulton Correctional Facility in the Bronx, shortly after it was decommissioned.

// Judgement

Filmed in the Old Bronx Borough Court House, as it was undergoing renovation.

// Waiting

Filmed in the Former Fulton Correctional Facility in the Bronx, shortly after it was decommissioned.

// Men In Cage

Filmed in the Former Fulton Correctional Facility in the Bronx, shortly after it was decommissioned.

// Interrogation

Filmed in the Former Fulton Correctional Facility in the Bronx, shortly after it was decommissioned.

// Mirror/Echo/Tilt Manifesto

so that the mind and body may think differently so that the mind and body may feel, and move new language we begin with a word that must be removed omitted moving forward so that we may ask different questions of our work and of our seeing. To visualize complex structures of systemic bias and criminalization, we must first discern how bodies are contained. Words may prevent a proximity to these bodies, burying them underneath terms. Words are slippery and scandalous, bastards even at times We must first attempt to examine how criminal is where crime and punishment meet—the term itself a replacement for our desire to be separated from the undesirable, however deemed. How it is easier to codify a body as criminal only when we have allowed ourselves to believe that crime and punishment may only be located in someone else’s body// in some other’s body. But what of a hand, as it is gently placed over another? Does the prison waiting room still detract from that moment of tenderness? Or what of an outstretched hand as it extends toward an empty chair or rests on a slumped shoulder in need? Do we see or do we allow ourselves to see abandonment and loneliness if covered in the shell of a prison? Can we still conjure up love within these walls? The narrative of criminal has a way of slipping into the most quiet, innocent of moments, particularly when black and brown bodies are thrown sharply upon such an environment. But the body still finds a way of betraying such entrenched bias. A careful study of gesture tells us that these places, whether they be the court’s, jail’s, schools, hospitals or any other space warehousing bodies, are lying to us. The criminal justice system relies on our belief that it must be imposed in order to enact rehabilitation—another term that in and of itself is a lie when it seems evident that to imprison is to punish—to remove, not restore, what little humanity we permit ourselves to see in the marked body. But a hand will still open with grace or grip with tension no matter what closes upon its body. A bend in the neck, a light step in a direction, a short gaze, a straightened spine, an arched eyebrow, an ever so slightly opened mouth… tell us something language cannot. Within these gestures the term, criminal, dissolves so that we may see ourselves in a body, their bodies, no matter how contained, restricted, or controlled. A body in multiplicity. This project is an exercise in seeing more clearly… in moving more closely to one another to see how our bodies may convey a certain truth. That even in containment the body can express beauty. We have used performance to strip down personal stories to a language before sound, before utterance—sometimes the most essential elements reside there. At times we feel concretized in our words, our labels, our understanding of things, we are trying to understand things through the words we attach to them. And oh, how much it limits us. So we begin with a word which must be removed.

// Don Quixote and the Knight of Mirrors

Don Quixote, Book 2, Chapter XII Regarding the strange adventure that befell the valiant Don Quixote and the courageous Knight of the Mirrors Upon their chance meeting in the woods, Don Quixote and the Knight of the Mirrors share autobiographies and tales of heroism. Then, surprisingly, the Knight proclaims his victory over a Don Quixote that he has already encountered, in a battle that has already taken place. In this, he assumes title of conqueror of all knights—Don Quixote’s glory, fame, and honor having already transferred onto his person. Another Don Quixote, therefore, supposedly roams the land, claiming to be the real Man of La Mancha. But how can this be?: DQ: You should know that this Don Quixote whom you have mentioned is the dearest friend I have in the world: I could even say that I value him as I do my own person, and by the description you have given me, which is detailed and accurate, I can only think that he is indeed the one you have conquered. On the other hand, I see with my eyes and touch with my hands the impossibility of his being the one… Stunned and enraged by the tale, our hero challenges the Knight of the Mirrors to a battle – one in which vanquishing the Knight proves his proclamation false and restores the true, unblemished history of Don Quixote of La Mancha. But in facing the Knight of the Mirrors, does Don Quixote defend himself against a valiant challenger or this projection of a lie? Maybe what Don Quixote sees in his opponent’s suit of mirrors is not an image of himself, but the deception that he must reckon with—one that he must obliterate. If another knight who claims to be Don Quixote exists, then in this mirrored knight is an opportunity for Don Quixote to defeat his reflected self; to prove himself alive. Imagine your history told, but without your voice… outside your own body – your very existence questioned. I ask myself how I would confront this narrative? Must I chase this story down… defeat it? How can it be so easy for you to make me into a lie? Is this image you display for me, of me, in this mirror, there so that I may see myself as a lie? I should mirror back to you this deceit—assist in portraying this false world, but slow it down, pause it so you have to look at the lie more intently. I should echo your belief in me as deranged, but amplify it so loud it becomes distorted. I should tilt the way you see my surroundings, and refract the floor, walls, and ceiling so your own environment is thrown out of balance. In your mirrored armor, there is always, only a lie. Rather than reveal its surroundings, thus expressing some truth, its surface simply reflects your own desires and fears, ambitions and failures. It really is your own seeing, your self-image, that fills the mirror. In your mirror, the one you’ve held onto so tightly, you’ve attempted to show me an image of myself that is not quite my own. Mirrors are strange in that way… detailed, accurate, and convincing as Don Quixote explains, but deceptive in its origin. Nevertheless, I am still left with the questions: if you have constructed a false me who roams the streets, then who is it that I am meant to see in your mirrored armor. More importantly, how do I bring myself to meeting this other me? Is it my responsibility to don the armor and challenge him? Where, when, in which battle do I restore my image? DQ: “Well the same things happens in the drama and business of this world, where some play emperors, other pontiffs, in short, all the figures that can be presented in a play, but at the end, which is when life is over, death removes all the clothing that differentiated them, and all are equal in the grave.