POWER IN HER PAIN
ALRAUNE: An Artist’s Statement, Postmortem
Hi. Hello. Thank you.
Just about five months ago, back in early April, I set up a little laptop and a little potted flower, on an empty desk in an empty room, in an empty dorm apartment set to be demolished a month later. A few days later, that apartment would be host to an art gallery by and for survivors of abuse and sexual assault (I fall in the first category) — and the Twine you’re about to play or just played or that you’re just now hearing about, ALRAUNE — would debut in that gallery.
It wasn’t much, I thought: it was a short experience, just barely coherent from the mess of emotion dumped into it, referencing the old obscure monster and the even older, more obscure novel that shared its name. I hardly expected anyone to look at it, let alone play it, but people sat down and gave it a go and the response was, frankly, touching and shocking. People enjoyed it, found comfort in it, cried after it — which touched my heart in a way not many things can. The night after the gallery closed, I decided that I’d put it up online for others. If it could help, I had to, right?
Then a month passed. Then two. Then five.
It’s been… too long, honestly, since ALRAUNE debuted, and while I’m excited to see it finally out the door and in people’s hands, throughout this whole period I’ve found myself looking at it with an odd sort of anxiety. At some point the idea of revisions entered my mind — and my hands froze from there. Looking back now, now that I’m in a much healthier position (and my rawest wounds have healed), I think I was scared of the Twine.
It makes sense in retrospect: in the time since ALRAUNE’s debut and today we’ve seen so many marginalized artists and creators harassed and hot-take critiqued to hell for not going about things the “right” way, or not covering every permutation of experience. And given that ALRAUNE was born from rage and frustration and a desire for, well, violent retribution? I was terrified of the potential reception — frozen by the impossible task of turning a product of raw feeling into something neat and unoffensive and consumable by an audience that, realistically, can never truly be sated or satisfied.
But the world feels different, now. Maybe I’ve just come back into myself, or perhaps frustration and anger have thawed my fingers, but it seems as though today, it’s easier for me to say that I’d rather be sincere and messy than pristine and entirely disingenuous. And that’s what ALRAUNE is: it’s messy. But it’s a sincere mess — colored by feelings I can’t dam up. The version of ALRAUNE releasing today is functionally identical to the version that debuted five months ago, because this Twine was written while my blood was boiling and it’s still too hot for me to touch without getting burned.
With that said… let’s talk about monsters, eh?
Monsters have always fascinated me, often more than the heroes who fought and killed them. The way they persist though time, the way they evolve and change and take on different forms, these things tickle something in the back of my mind and keep me reading and reading. I came across an older illustration of an Alraune in its current cultural form — the sensual, alluring, blood-sucking woman rising out of a flower bloom — and, having only been familiar with it through games and such today, I did a little digging. Then a lot. And I found out that, strangely enough, this ‘monster’ was a symbolic rendition of a fairly recent creation: the flowers are derived from the titular character of Hans Heinz Ewers’ 1911 novel Alraune, part of a trilogy of German horror novels forgotten, recalled, and forgotten again over the course of two world wars. I tracked down a translation and read through it.
It struck a chord.
It was… not unlike realizing that Medusa’s only crime, the only reason for her disfigurement and banishment, was being the victim of a man in the wrong place. The novel’s titular character, Alraune ten Brinken, was just a young girl. There was nothing innately wrong with her: perhaps she was magic-touched, and that’s what caused her to bring fortune and disaster towards her in equal turn — but none of her choices led to that development. She was vilified and lusted after, groomed and primed for self-destruction by others, simply for being. And these others! Two sick, callous men of money and status, who thought her up after getting drunk and examining the mandrake they would name her after. Ewer’s novel is the story of how two men drug a sex worker, pressure her into signing a contract, kidnap her, and force her to give birth to a child in an experiment with artificial insemination — then when that child grows up to become a clever, attractive young woman who refuses the will of the men around her? When she asserted herself and defended herself with thorned words and the possession of her own sexuality? She was twisted into just another creature for a ‘hero’ — Frank Braun, who thought her up and picked out her mother in a bar — to sleep with and promptly send to her death.
The Alraune we’re familiar with today is a further twisting of that girl: beautiful and graceful, with all the features of a lovely, sexually-charged woman, but with a bestial wildness that marks her as a monster — literally a flower to be picked, enjoyed for a moment, and then left to wilt and wither away. Her thorns are there to reinforce the idea that she’s no ‘good’ woman, no: this is a vile, nasty thing that would feed on your blood or your sperm — best used and manipulated by strong men (recall that an Alraune is still a mandrake, and still a prize to be chopped up and used as consumable good). For fuck’s sake, she doesn’t even have legs to travel under her own power! It drove me mad for weeks.
Those thoughts joined my observations and experiences speaking to and working with victims of abuse and sexual assault — family, friends, lovers, peers — along with my own ongoing efforts to recover from years of emotional manipulation and abuse and… my blood began to boil as I came to a conclusion:
Here was a young woman, turned into a monster and killed at sixteen by the men who created her and then found her unwilling to be their toy. Born, ultimately, from nature (within Ewer’s novel, it’s even theorized that the mandrake itself put the idea into Braun’s head, powered his evil work to punish the house that pulled it from the earth and kept it nailed to a wall as their captive), and then killed for wielding her power for her own sake. Noble and brilliant and beautiful, who was deemed dangerous because of the choices she made for herself. Alraune was no monster — she was a hero in her own right!
ALRAUNE became an early effort to, as best I could, reclaim and redeem this girl. I found myself overcome, overwhelmed by the need to start that process, to observe her as something else — to give her nobility and power and agency in an age where victims of abuse that could see themselves in her struggle every day, surrounded by enemies and saboteurs.
According to Ewers and all the ‘classic’ depictions, we’re supposed to be wary of Alraune, lest she gobble us up with sex and leave us dry, bloodless husks. I suggest that we celebrate her instead, for the reasons they fear her: because she found power in recovering from the traumas delivered to her and her mother — and she wielded it like a sickly-sharp knife.
This is my vision of Alraune ten Brinken, of the creatures who share her name today, of what you become when you play ALRAUNE: hurt heroes who turned pain into power, and who use that power for a just cause. If the world we’ve built over nature refuses to be kind? If the law of the land is tied and tailored to the idea of protecting those who profit from the exploitation and harm of others? Why shouldn’t something from nature empower the hurt, give them a chance to rise and address the problem? Nature doesn’t discriminate. The earth and the forests and the seas don’t care about your money or your office or the privileges of your masculinity or your whiteness or whatever — but when thrown out of balance they do their best to recover and restore order.
This is why, at the end of the day, the Twine’s only ‘real’ choice is to decide how you deal with the ones who hurt you and got away — you can decline to act in the moment, because the choice is yours, but the end result of action is always the same: punish or pardon, you always assert yourself as something not to be harmed again, and you establish that there are consequences for harming others. They can’t be escaped, not forever. Like anything in nature, it can be delayed, thrown off balance, blocked for the moment… but never stopped.
ALRAUNE has deep ties to my own ideals, morals, and politics (obviously), so I’ll say this clearly: if the law refuses to protect the vulnerable, if it’s used to exploit and degrade and disenfranchise not those who are guilty of crimes but guilty of being, in a way deemed ‘wrong’ by some predatory force? I’m a firm believer that those put in harm’s way have every right to fight against it.
The stories I’ve heard from victims and survivors rattle me to the core, every single time. Every disclosure of events, every open-hearted recollection of the way someone thought it would be okay to harm, to take advantage, to abuse another person? It makes me want to scream so hard my throat bleeds — and the knowledge that so many of the perpetrators get away? Get protected by businesses, schools, peers, society at large, to the point that you can be known as a child-rapist and still become US President? It’s enough to drive a person insane.
The people hurt by this system should be able to take the justice they deserve. That’s radical, that’s inflammatory in a way that could be deemed “encouraging violence,” but let’s be real here: it’s 2017 and Nazis are getting slaps on the wrist for firing on and running over protesters who are loudly asking to live without having to fear for their lives. Vigilantism for the sake of defending our own? Violence for the sake of rooting out the fascists and the serial rapists and others who would harm us, knowing that the law would protect them but not us? I think right now, we need that. It spits in the face of the polite discourse that people in high places say we ‘should’ be having — but frankly, polite discourse of that sort can fuck right off.
…But I know damn well that saying that and making it real are two very, very different beasts. That’s part of why ALRAUNE exists: it’s a practice space, of sorts. Media, particularly interactive media, can grant us the chance to act out our feelings in a safe, closed environment. Chances to practice and refine and think about the motions, before we go out into the world and try it for real. And so you get an open field to rant and rave and ruin in ALRAUNE — to practice. To refine. To remind you that there’s a legacy of strength in whatever suffering you had to swim through to get here.
I dream of the day we get to express that strength en masse.
Regards and thanks,
~Blake Flournoy, 09/11/2017
If you haven’t already, you can play ALRAUNE via itch.io here. It’s pay-what-you-want, so if you want to just give it a spin without spending, please, feel free!
If you’d like to support my work, consider tossing in a buck or two — 50% of all ALRAUNE revenue will be donated to the National Immigration Law Center, to fund ongoing legal efforts to protect immigrants and #DefendDACA.