<Book Review>
Troubling Violence: A Performance Project. M. Heather Carver & Elaine J. Lawless. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2009.

Troubling Violence: A Performance Project, co-written by performance studies scholar M. Heather Carver and ethnographic folklorist Elaine J. Lawless, performatively documents the journey of two academics who bring ethnographic methods and performance together to shatter silences about violence against women. While Troubling Violence charts the development of an actual troupe of the same name that performs real-life stories of abuse, this book also weaves together a richly layered story of interdisciplinary collaboration and friendship among two feminist scholars working in different fields on the same campus. Additionally, this text enacts an emergent process for using ethnographic methods to perform autobiographical stories in order to raise awareness, spark dialogue, and promote social change. In many ways, this highly readable “book performance” (44) becomes both a manifesto and a manual of sorts for new ways of researching, writing, teaching, and working in and beyond the academy.

Troubling Violence is organized around the structure of a dramatic play: sections are cleverly framed as “The Pre-Show,” “Backdrop,” “Act 1,” and “Act 2” in order to foreground an embodied, performance-centered approach to the project. The “pre-show” opens to reveal a potent image of two women writing—together. In this “scene,” which includes stage directions to evoke a strong sense of place, character, and presence, “Heather” and “Elaine” use monologue and dialogue to take the reader back to the beginnings of this work when they first met at a faculty meeting. As they grow to know each other, their scholarly passions entwine with bits and pieces from their personal lives, and the reader begins to see a moving human portrait of scholars and mothers deeply rooted in real world issues who yearn for more “rich collegial relationships” (9). The inclusion of a backstory here provides crucial context for what follows and speaks eloquently to the value of building community within universities as a bridge to promoting social change beyond the academy.

The next section, “Backdrop,” opens appropriately with a punch: “This book is about violence” (16). In the succinct, staccato statement of intent that follows, the authors speak directly to the reader/audience about the Troubling Violence performance troupe’s focus, processes, performance strategies, as well as audience responses to the work. Lawless and Carver assert the potential power of sharing women’s stories about intimate violence in public forums. The reader/audience is invited—and challenged—to “trouble” intimate violence as they participate in this book performance. “Together we can erase the shame, out the violence, and identify alternatives to women who find themselves surprised by violence” (17). This stylistic breaking of the “fourth wall” to call readers out both implicates and activates us into thinking critically about the roles we may unwittingly play in perpetuating violence against women. The effect here puts us on the edge of our seats, so to speak, before the opening of “Act 1.”

What follows in “Act I” is a collage of stories, reflections, dialogues, and performance excerpts shot through with theory and research that traces the unfolding of the Troubling Violence project. Act I’s first chapter/scene, “The Academic Stage,” distills key issues, developments, and foundational scholars in the fields of folklore and performance studies and questions why there are not more shared conversations across these related disciplines. In “Character Development,” Lawless recounts how her past fieldwork and interviews with battered women in shelters led to her book, Women Escaping Violence; however, in order to push this work into more concrete activism, Carver and Lawless decide to experiment with these narratives through performance. After recruiting graduate students willing to collaborate in this risky venture, a performance troupe emerges.

“First Run” vividly describes the troupe’s first performance and Lawless’s own shaky experiences learning “how to be a performer” (17). Her autoethnographic narrative about her organic rehearsal process intercut with memories of her work at the women’s shelter is fascinating evidence of the deeply intertextual and embodied complexity of performance work. In “Breaking the Fourth Wall,” Carver uses performative ethnographic writing to weave excerpts from the troupe’s narratives of abuse with thick description of the actual performance events, which usefully allows readers to witness the gradual development of the troupe’s ideas and approaches.

“Performing Violence,” the longest chapter in the book, features student performer perspectives on the rigors and rewards of performing others’ as well as their own emerging stories of violence. “Sadie” says, “While I cannot deny the fact that my body and my voice affect the original authors’ voices, I fervently believe that we . . . seek to honor the women who trusted us with their stories” (68). This chapter offers unique and rare documentation of students’ experiences with performance ethnography and should be required reading in relevant graduate and undergraduate courses.

Act II, which includes seven short scenes, circles back to reflect on the body’s role in the writing process and the mundane as well as extraordinary forms of violence that women’s bodies endure and overcome in order to survive every day. Lawless’s own harrowing autoethnographic stories of losing her niece to violence and escaping an abusive marriage and Carver’s account of surviving the physical assaults of breast cancer while mothering two young girls and working on the tenure-track are especially memorable and gripping. The last four scenes, moving briskly from the authors’ home spaces to a courtroom to a conference to a women’s prison, culminate into a climactic and transformative opening at the end of this book journey.

Troubling Violence creatively challenges norms of academic writing and contributes to a growing body of work that offers new ways of representing scholarship, fieldwork experience, and ethnographic writing as performance. The reader is never allowed to get too comfortably “lost” in the narrative(s) here because the book’s modes of production are constantly called into question and diverse points of view and writing styles force readers/audiences to remain agile. The back-and-forth dialogue between “Elaine” and “Heather” conveys a shared process of engagement and discovery as scholars, and the inclusion of “messy” moments in this work—when things go awry or when assumptions are challenged—self-reflexively resists objectifying claims about women as victims of violence.

At times Troubling Violence tends to celebrate the value of breaking taboos and eliciting cathartic responses to real life stories about violence too quickly “as a noble and moral act” (68). However, Carver and Lawless try to balance this by documenting and acknowledging the very real stakes and tremendous rigors of re-performing traumatic narratives in public forums. After a particularly difficult experience following what seemed to be a successful performance at a university, Carver states, “We know who we are, and we know we touch people’s lives” (87). But is this enough? Performance studies scholars have had to grapple with difficult questions of efficacy in performance for years. Troubling Violence raises some important questions that scholars must continue to consider: Are stories enough? Is it ever truly “safe” to retell traumatic stories of sexual and domestic violence? What are the potential dangers here?

As a reader, I longed for more flow and nuanced transitions in places, but I assume the authors intentionally force the reader to experience the chaotic process of discovery and struggle in this work. Just as the troupe allows their audiences to sit uncomfortably in silence at the end of performances, we as readers may experience some discomfort as our norms of reading are productively called into question here. Carver claims that performative writing “is a way of defying control on the page;” it can also place the reader in a productively precarious role that gestures toward the ways violence wreaks havoc in women’s lives.

This book bravely and generously documents a rare encounter between scholars using ethnographic methods in different fields, revealing the gaps across fields of study and concretely demonstrating the need for more truly interdisciplinary work among scholars (23). It also challenges the often unspoken politics of tenure and what counts as scholarship, especially for mothers on the tenure track (26). The sections of the book featuring student performers’ voices provide a tremendously valuable history of student ensemble work and a model for how faculty members can productively collaborate with and support sustained student group activism. Finally, the book argues for the transformative potential of performing others’ as well as one’s own unspeakable stories (27) as an urgent, ethically fraught, and deeply political act. Significantly, the book resists dramatic closure by ending with a new challenge—of interviewing women in prison who are victims of domestic violence. The performance project’s history and its ways of troubling violence are to be continued . . .

     — Deanna Shoemaker, Monmouth University

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