A Different Kind of Different
Over five years ago I interviewed eleven women who generously shared their private, traumatic experiences with me. Each of these women had mastectomy tattoos of some kind. Some of them had acquired them many years ago and others much more recently. I also interviewed tattooists, academics and scientists connected to tattooing, skin and the body. All of these conversations contributed to the script for A Different Kind of Different.
Most of the dialogue in the film, which is primarily narrated by the main character Alicia, is as close as possible to the original interview transcriptions. Although Alicia’s narration is a synthesis of many people’s experiences, the direct relationship between the script and the spoken testimonies is vital to the work.
The first person I interviewed was Inga Duncan Thornell. Inga is a pioneer, having first decided to get a mastectomy tattoo in 1992. Inga reported to me that after her prophylactic double mastectomy she felt very different; she was frustrated with her body and her post-surgical relationship with it. Before, she had always felt at ease, whereas afterwards, she had become a kind of stranger to herself. This distressing dislocation of the self was also mentioned in interviews with every other person I met.
Inga told me that her tattoo is conceptually based on the first piece of lingerie that she bought when she was a young adult. She talked about her love for this camisole that her younger self wore. She spoke about how her tattoo made her feel now, how it changed the way she thought about herself: that it made her feel like a woman. Her tattoo transformed her life, her relationship with her body, with her partner, with her present self, and her overall agency in the world. There is a joyousness in her physicality that is evident when in her presence. Inga reported that this confidence, this swagger, is due to her tattoo.
A Different Kind of Different is concerned with the impact that breast cancer has on people: physical (in the form of amputation and scarification) and psychological (in the form of trauma, bereavement and grief). In the film, there is no intention to be critical of any aspect of breast reconstruction surgery, especially of the people who opt for it. The complexities of these choices and the profound decisions that people have made are their own. Private. Not to be judged by anyone. A Different Kind of Different talks about other choices, other decisions.
In order to more deeply explore the psychological impact of breast cancer post-surgical trauma, I was fortunate enough to interview Dr Becky Coles-Gale. Dr Becky is an NHS Clinical Psychologist who works across major trauma and critical care services. The interviews with Dr Becky made a direct and significant contribution to A Different Kind of Different.
Dr Becky reported that what often underpins therapeutic conversations with patients is the existential idea that things are different after a mastectomy. Many factors inform this sense of difference: their prior relationship to their sense of self and their body and, importantly, their prior relationship to their breasts. It is the meanings attributed to these aspects that inform their sense of loss and grief, their expectations of their bodies, their self-image and the existential reality of facing their own mortality. Many women suffer from multiple losses and changes, especially following treatment: changes to their hair, skin, nails, energy levels, ability to concentrate, emotions, sleep patterns, and of course, their relationship with physical and psychological pain.
Dr Becky said that women with breast cancer often talk about losing ownership of their physical selves and their rights as they get poked and prodded by clinicians; their bodies become unbound, not their own. They describe having to share intimate areas with medical staff who are strangers in the hope of a diagnosis and a positive prognosis. Women report having an altered relationship with their bodies as the boundaries of their personal space and skin are traversed, breached, radiated and removed through the ravaging processes of treatment. Transformation is a key part of therapy. Dr Becky often bears witness as women reclaim ownership over their bodies after treatment. Time plays a big role.
Dr Becky spoke about the expectations that women feel because of family, friends, colleagues and society in general – other people’s relationship to their bodies. Some of the women share how their decision-making is informed by what other people ‘want for them’. As part of her therapeutic role, Dr Becky questions ideas of what might be right for other people, what might be okay for ourselves, and how to manage it when these two things do not converge.
I am aware that it is abundantly problematic for me conduct research on this subject – something that I have not directly experienced myself, in any capacity. The question of whether it is right or appropriate for me to make work about mastectomy tattoos, and what that might mean, has continually troubled me. I have tried to use this deep anxiety as my best guide, to help me shape the work.
These are not my stories to tell. I have been given gifts to pass on. That is how this feels to me. That is not at all to say that I am a conduit through which these things pass: A Different Kind of Different is wholly determined and made by me and my collaborators. Yet, the work only exists because of the people who gifted their experiences to me, and who want these experiences to be shared.
The choices that Inga and other women have made are inspirational to me – not just the rejection of breast reconstruction, but the repositioning of themselves, their self-perception, and their relationship with their bodies, with medicine and with the world. These people have transformed their relationship with trauma through a creative act – one that permanently and directly addresses loss. It is an act that simultaneously draws attention to and points away from the sites of their trauma, turning deep personal loss into an acknowledgement – a different kind of commemoration – of the past and the future potential of the self. I see that as a deeply profound thing.
Everyone I interviewed about their mastectomy tattoo discussed their transformative experiences – from feeling mutilated, a word I heard in every interview that I conducted, to feeling empowered, sexual and human. Wearing a mastectomy tattoo can be seen as direct body activism: a personalised, political statement that speaks of survival and loss, of reclaiming the body from the traumas of life-saving medical procedures and the physical scarring of surgical and chemical interventions. Mastectomy tattoos represent a different response to societal conventions: the demands and expectations of body shapes and of symmetrical female forms.
This ability to transform the body, to actively see yourself as evolving and in progress, alongside a state of loss, is inspirational to me. Seeing grief addressed, lived with differently and not denied, was something that drew me in. What I understood was that there can be an ongoing acceptance of change, a recognition that we can adapt to the things that happen to us; we can alter our understanding and our deﬁnitions of ourselves. These ideas, for me, are in opposition to, if not in deﬁance of, conventional ideas of emotional and psychological closure, in which we are encouraged to emotionally leave things behind, to ‘get over it’. These women taught me that accepting yourself, being okay with who you are, is a process of constant evolution and work. And that it is difﬁcult.
All of the characters in A Different Kind of Different are based on the drawings of children and adolescents. Most are self-portraits and drawings of family members, taken from a longitudinal psychiatric study about twins. The drawings are used to measure and determine childhood development, and points are accumulated for the level of detail drawn by certain age groups. For me, the drawings are beautiful expressions of the self, free of many things, yet also stunningly painful in their clarity.
These drawings have the potential to perform: to inhabit narrative in a way that is extreme and yet believable. There is also something about their authenticity that creates this other visual, emotional power. Instinctively, I felt that the shaping, pushing and reordering of bodies – bodies that have been medically traumatised in order to extend life, to create a future of living in a disease-free state, bodies that carry a different kind of narrative or history – was best expressed through these drawings. And through animation. Of course, there are obvious links between anatomy, medicine, tattoos and drawing. For me, animation held the potential to express the inexpressible, to imagine these traumas in a manner that reﬂected the extreme states of being that people had lived through.
Animation creates an openness, a directness with inﬁnite visual possibilities. My intention was to keep the animation open enough so that we are able to see ourselves or our loved ones in the character of Alicia.