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Women, Trauma, and Healing: What Mary Marxen Can Teach Us

Creating a fearless relationship with her body through dance.

Ballerina with reflection, purchased from Deposit Photos
Source: Ballerina with reflection, purchased from Deposit Photos

According to the American Psychological Association, half of all people will experience at least one traumatic event in their lifetime. Approximately 8 percent of those affected will develop post-traumatic stress disorder at some point in their lives. Others touched by trauma find themselves living in fear, facing depression, battling shame-inducing self-deprecation, self-medicating through addiction, attempting to manage emotions through eating disordered behaviors, or feeling other forms of disconnection and alienation.

Mary Marxen is doing her part to help. As the co-writer and director of the short film Mirrors, A Dance Film, Mary courageously shares her personal journey.

In my interview with Mary, I learned that the film follows a distressed dancer who faces her past trauma through a fearless exploration of intrusive memories and self-critique. Through dance and bold self-expression, she moves closer toward clarity, autonomy, freedom, and fearless self-expression.

What do you see as the role of art in overcoming adversity?
If you can find the right way into art, meaning, if it feels good for you and someone or something isn't pressuring you to perform, art is therapeutic. It has allowed me to examine my emotional gravitas in a safe and imaginary space. Art is my way into understanding my emotions, to take out the bigness of my feelings, examine those feelings, and then decide how I want to work with them in my daily actions. That's autonomy. But without observing the bigness of myself through art, I would still be a mystery to myself. I truly believe art has saved my life.

Were you encouraged as a child to become an artist?
Yes. My dad is a painter and my mom did theater growing up and sings. We watched almost solely musicals as kids. We danced a lot as a family and always had music blasting. My sister and I were extremely imaginative, and spent most of our time creating worlds together, or putting on skits with our neighbors. I did theater as a kid. I played the piano. I wrote poems. But mostly, I was a painter. From a very young age, I would paint with my dad in his studio. I was told to be a painter the way some kids were told to go into business or become a doctor. That's what I identified myself most of my life until my mid-20s, until I recognized painting was heavily contributing to my depression. I had put myself in a very small box with painting. I was mimicking other people's work because I had no idea what my own style was. I lost myself in the medium and I was making myself sick. That's when I reconnected to the theater, and I see now expressive arts are really it for me. Acting is the direct vessel from my life force into the world. Acting feels like my honesty.

How can the person who doesn’t see themselves as talented in the arts begin to find a way to benefit from art?
I really detest this idea of being "good." Who decides whether you are good or bad? Why so dogmatic? That's so biblical. Our culture is still so biblical. Let's rephrase this idea into doing things that feel good. To not look so externally for that A+ from teachers and peers. This is not to say don't learn from those who you respect and who may be masters of the craft, but don't allow them to take away your value, ever. Reframing this idea of being good will benefit us as people and artists. It will allow the body to relax and in turn grow. Ease is the only state creativity thrives in. That's exactly what this film Mirrors is about.

Do you consider your personal work a form of healing?
Absolutely. And I have to be really disciplined about doing it on a daily basis in one form or another. I have brought creativity to everything I do otherwise all that energy turns into something negative, such as extreme anxiety, often leading to depression. That's my pattern. That pattern can't touch me if I stay active in my work.

What in your life motivated the subject matter in Mirrors?
How lost I felt growing up, and the relationship I had with my body. I became a really out of body person when I was a teenager. My parents encouraged play, they loved us being children and I had major guilt around developing into a woman. I wanted to stop growing up in order to please them, so instead of dealing with those feelings, I resented them and I rebelled. I became a heavy drinker at around 14. I considered friends houses more of my home than my parents' house. All that drinking I am sure affected my physical development, killed some key brain cells, and I began not experiencing my body. The only way I can describe this is that I literally can't feel when I touch my own hands to my skin. I am not sure if there is a term to describe this feeling. Through the years that feeling has never gone away, but I have decided to take a stab at living well with the body I have. This story behind Mirrors is about the endurance, courage, healthy living, and the strength it has taken me to go on the journey towards, I want to say, recovery.

Why does this film feel so vulnerable to make?
Because it is utterly truthful. For many years I would not have been open to sharing this story. It feels like a huge risk putting myself out there and telling such a personal story, but it's so worth the risk. The scariest things take courage.

Why is Mirrors an important film in the community at large?
I hope to encourage others who experience similar feelings to know that they aren't alone. I have never met anyone who seems to have the condition I have, and that terrifies me to this day. But perhaps Mirrors will speak to a subject that is super difficult to describe with words, and create a sense of community around enduring its frustrating effects. Better yet, I hope this film encourages others to make peace with whatever reality they are living in, and refrain from any more harsh self-critique. And even better yet, I hope this film encourages people to heal their lives through art, therapy, and self-expression. And to not try and please others with their work. As my very smart acting coach says, "What you think of me is none of my business."

Why did you choose dance as your means to express the message in Mirrors?
Because this is a film about re-entering the body, I thought who better to describe this than the bodies art form. Dance in this film speaks louder than any words ever could. Also, the female and male form has been historically objectified, and I wanted to examine the effects this reality has had on the human psyche. Perhaps inherently, the person lives outside her body because mainstream media has told her to look like that model on the magazine. Something as seemingly small as that may very well be creating distance between her and her body.

What has helped you through your personal trauma?
Years of rigorous acting training, not drinking, a regular exercise and sleep pattern, listening to myself, years of talk, breath, and drama therapy, daily meditation, yoga, good people, writing, drawing. Living close to my own moral constitution.

What inspires this film outside of your personal story? Are there other dance films which have influenced you? Yes! Most recently the dance film, MA, by Celia Rowlson Hall. The amount of emotion this film conveys through only movement and no dialogue, is profound. I love Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker's Rosas Danst Rosas. I also love the experimental films from Maya Deren. I am heavily influenced by Bjork as an artist. Persona by Ingmar Bergman, the surrealists' movement, Feminist Movement in the 1980s, Yoko Ono, underground goth clubs. I see some of the dreamy sides of Blanche DuBois from A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams in the protagonist of Mirrors. Quite the hodgepodge.

Do you have any words to share with others who may identify with your condition?
Keep going baby, you're worth it. You're not alone. Seek help. Go where its warm, you don't need to go towards the darkness.

To learn more about Mary and this film, click here.

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