Raised in Kansas, Chloe Burns originally didn’t see the film industry as a viable career option. While she has always appreciated the craft, she felt discouraged by the Midwestern culture and belief that considered going into the arts as straying from the norm. Burns ended up trying out a plethora of careers, like studying anthropology, before graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Film & Media Studies from the University of Kansas. Her experience at film school was the first time she felt like her film career aspirations could be made into a reality. Experimenting with various fields has made her more confident in her role as a multi-talented actress, writer, and producer today. Her latest project, Trauma Bonded, is a six-episode web series that aims to be an honest look at Burns’ experiences without losing its sense of humour.
Check out our chat with her below.
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Haley Sengsavanh: Where did the idea for Trauma Bonded come from?
Chloe Burns: It started last year when I was dealing with two major anxieties at once. On the one hand, my career completely paused. When Los Angeles shut down, I drove home to Kansas and was feeling this existential panic about my career. I had built up a bit of momentum in L.A. and felt like I completely lost that. At the same time, I was also dealing with leftover trauma symptoms. When I moved home, I started trauma therapy.
Due to a combination of these two anxieties, I started to kind of play with different plot ideas and different story ideas. Writing became a way that I escaped and a way of dealing with what I was going through. I would write a little bit, then go to therapy, understand what I was writing and then do revisions. Trauma Bonded was essentially what came out of that experience, and the product of that nervous energy.
In Trauma Bonded, you decided not to cast anyone to play an abuser and made sure there was no graphic violence. Why did you make that decision?
I didn’t purposefully try to create a new standard. What really motivated me was that I wanted to act in Trauma Bonded. When I was writing it, I was following these traditions of writing and felt like if I’m going to write about abuse, I need scenes of abuse. But who would I be helping if I was spending money on therapy, and then re-traumatizing myself by acting and reliving it? Who is that for?
I had to think about it like a creative challenge. If I still wanted this to be part of the subject matter, but I didn’t want to show it, what would my approach be? This refocused the whole point of the series and the entire story that I was telling. I also didn’t want to cast anybody as the abuser because he hasn’t been in my life in years. He doesn’t need to be the subject of anything anymore.
Did Trauma Bonded help serve as a way you used art to heal?
Trauma Bonded was a really empowering way to take on my trauma and address it while being the subject of my own story. I feel like TV shows and media sometimes fall into this trope of making the survivor perfect. I never really identified those depictions of survivors because I have made plenty of mistakes. It’s almost like they’re afraid to make those characters flawed because then the audience won’t be sympathetic towards them. That creates a problem for real survivors watching because it feels like being told that no one’s going to feel sympathy for me because I’m not perfect.
When you go through trauma, you suddenly have these new parts of yourself, like anger and shame. I took those feelings and wrote them as a character that has a redemption arc throughout the story. It was a way of putting all these vulnerabilities on the page. This is the first time I’ve ever been able to share this piece of my life with people. It’s because I’m translating it into art and making it accessible, but not personal.
The budget for Trauma Bonded was earned through crowdfunding. What was that experience like?
This is the first time I have crowdfunded a project. Crowdfunding was very intimidating for a lot of reasons. As an artist, it’s very hard to put value on your work and trust that other people will see the same value, especially when it doesn’t exist yet. It was also hard not to tie the results to the validity of my story, thinking if nobody donates to this then nobody cares that it happened to me. At the time the abuse happened and when I was going through the trauma, it felt so lonely. To be so open about it and to have people respond in this way was very healing. On top of that, we were successful with the campaign and got the budget that we needed. That gave me a new dedication to the project, because it’s not just about me anymore.
You talk a lot about how trauma survivors are currently excluded from trauma-centered media. Why is it important for trauma survivors to be driving the conversation?
Part of the reason it’s important is so that survivors can see themselves reflected authentically. If you have been through something like assault or violence or crime, it’s hard to watch a character that you identify with go through that on screen. It also makes a lot of media inaccessible because there’s no benefit to watching that and re-traumatizing yourself. We want to see ourselves on screen in a way that’s authentic, but not damaging.
On the other hand, I also think it’s important for other people to see what it’s actually like to be a survivor. We currently don’t have a shared narrative or understanding of what these kinds of things are. For example, domestic violence stories play out very one-dimensional but that’s not how it is in reality. But some people watch this one-dimensional storyline and try to apply that to people in their lives. It causes a disconnect between how it actually happens and how they think it should happen. That’s where you end up with people trying to dictate how survivors cope with abuse or trying to decide who’s a real survivor and who isn’t. I think that if we had more diversity in storytelling, we would also start to see that reflected in how we culturally understand trauma.