Heal Her is a global project – led by Lena Chen and Annique Delphine – for the healing and prevention of sexual violence. Meeting in talking circles worldwide, Heal Her creates rituals for transformative storytelling, consciousness-raising, empathetic listening, and collective healing. Working with artistic facilitators, therapists, and healers, they provide creative and holistic methods for addressing sexual trauma. All this is done using techniques inspired by expressive arts therapy and indigenous talking circles, exploring how to take back power over personal mythologies and building grassroots networks to support trauma survivors. With funding from Burning Man and Daza Filmes, we spoke to Lena and Annique all about the art of healing.
How did the idea for Heal Her come about?
Annique Delphine: Heal Her organically grew out of two things: 1, Lena‘s strong sense of connecting people and having them bond through their vulnerabilities and 2, my strong sense of visualizing a shared experience.
Lena and I became friends through our activism and when the Me Too movement started I asked her to join me in a performance piece about traumatic experiences. I was looking for a way to collect people’s stories about sexualized violence so I could show the world how many of us have had to deal with that.
It was Lena’s idea to hold talking circles so that’s how we started.
Why do you think the arts are so useful during times of healing?
AD: I think creativity is a great tool for channeling our feelings into something that helps us view things from a distance so that we may realize we don’t have to define ourselves through our feelings alone. It helps us shift our perspective and find new ways to approach obstacles.
Can you tell us about some of the work Heal Her does?
Lena Chen: Heal Her talking circles are spaces where regular people can discuss experiences of sexual/gender-based violence. Rooted in indigenous practices, talking circles have been used for a variety of purposes in healing work. For Heal Her, this format offers a platform for stories left out of the mainstream narrative, a safe space for emotional catharsis, and crucial community support through in-person connection. Circles are organized in collaboration with artists, healers, therapists, social workers, and community organizers, who are provided with a basic guide that offers tips on how to format each event. Flowers collected from these gatherings are turned into the building blocks of the installation to be assembled by Annique.
Annique and I spoke in the fall of 2017 about her idea to make a flower wall with each flower representing a story of trauma. I remember this quite vividly it was before Halloween because her son was showing me costumes he wanted to wear 🙂
Soon after, I received a grant from Daza Filmes, a women-run production company based in Brazil to develop a project about gender-based violence and I thought it was the perfect opportunity to revisit the idea discussed with Annique. I spent October 2017-January 2018 in Los Angeles developing the first talking circle for Heal Her.
AD: My part in Heal Her is building the installation that represents our shared trauma.
The installation is a structure made of bricks. These bricks are made of wax and every single one represents a person’s traumatic experience. Sometimes I build a wall out of them and together we dismantle that wall. At Artlake Festival in 2019 we did a ritual in which each of us carried a brick to the lake and into the water to wash it.
For me that was such a beautiful symbol of how we carry each other’s trauma and how it takes all of us to heal each other.
All of Heal Her is a group effort. It was Lena’s idea to carry the bricks and wash them, after that experience I was so inspired I asked everyone to help me build an altar out of them for the remainder of the festival.
What is the atmosphere like when so many women come together to heal each other?
LC: At each talking circle, participants are asked to bring a flower that represents their own story. Even if a participant does not wish to voice the specifics of their experience, they can allow their flower offering to speak for them and they are encouraged to listen and act as witnesses (a process that is healing in itself). The collected flowers are encased in resin and formed into bricks by Annique. Last year, we put together some of these bricks with public participation into an installation at the Artlake Festival in Germany. We received a grant from the Burning Man Global Arts Fund to finance the installation material expenses over the past few years.
AD: All genders are welcome but it is mostly women who come to our workshops and sessions.
For me personally it always feels very safe. I walk through life very guarded so Heal Her has helped me immensely in opening up and learning that I’m not alone with my feelings.
LC: For survivors, it is extremely cathartic to have their experiences heard and validated by others. One of our participants in Los Angeles said, “I feel 1000 times lighter than when I arrived.” #MeToo shifted the narrative on sexual violence, yet survivors need better opportunities for closure, because social media (much like the criminal justice system) carries the potential for retraumatization. Expanding beyond Western psychotherapy and criminal prosecution as go-to solutions, Heal Her enables survivors of sexual violence to access diverse healing possibilities. Many of the artists and facilitators for Heal Her personally identify as survivors and use the talking circles as an opportunity to share tools which played crucial roles in our own recovery from trauma.
What do your participants say and how do they change after they have attended one of your events?
LC: Several of our participants have gone on to lead circles themselves, demonstrating the project’s replicability and sustainability of the project. The talking circle model can also be used to address other social issues. Our primary audience is survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, mostly women but the events are typically open to all genders. As a Chinese woman and survivor myself, I am especially invested in highlighting the stories of my own community, while recognizing that many of its members face a cultural taboo in publicly acknowledging their status as survivors. I would love to emphasize having more participants who are people of color, LGBT+ individuals, and others whose stories are underrepresented in mainstream feminist dialogue.
What are your plans and hopes for the future?
LC: In the next year, we hope to expand our training program so more people can host and access the circles. I collaborated in 2019 with Suzan Lemont, our lead trainer, to put together a facilitation guide. We were receiving many emails inquiring about starting Heal Her chapters, but I am mainly an artist, not trained formally as a therapist so working with Suzan has finally made it possible for us to educate and train other people to become facilitators using expressive arts approaches. We are also moving toward a skill-sharing model as well to include input from experts of various backgrounds (art, activism, social work, therapy, education).
AD: I would love for our workshops and talking circles to be accessible for everyone and I would love for the installation to have a permanent place in an art institution along with a plan for further activism.
LC: In terms of the installation, Annique and I have discussed disassembling and reassembling the installation into different structures or transporting the bricks from each event to a final home, where a complete structure is created from the global contributions. The goal is to create a work, which is participatory, tactile, and accessible to folks beyond the art world. An installation with flowers from participants worldwide offers a visual testament to the magnitude of sexual trauma, as well as the resilience of those who have survived it.