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‘Stories by Strangers’ Told Through Anonymity and Animation

An essay on the creation of an online space for survivors of abuse

By Featured, Literature, Multimedia

Illustration by Nitya Mehrotra

Dr Uma Vangal said in her Ted talk that when we feel uncomfortable, we hold emotions back and fail to articulate because we believe we are the minority. This is known as the spiral of silence. We are used to consuming media where stories are stripped to statistics, and most people who go through abuse don’t speak out because of the fear of seeming trivial or not being believed.

It might be an outdated notion in a world that is overstimulated with content, but I still believe every story deserves to be told. Our society has a history of letting some poems go unread, some books remain unpublished, and some perspectives fade away. This is why I seized the first opportunity to bring one such story to light.

I am a filmmaker from Delhi, India, and when I couldn’t find an outlet for my art, I was handed one. Someone asked me to tell their story anonymously.

I had been posting short animated videos about sex education for young audiences, sparking important conversations in my hometown. The request came via email with the subject line: “Would you be willing to tell my story?” It was from a young girl who had been to the police, family, and friends, but no one believed she was unsafe at home with her father. She found safety in life and trusted me to tell her story, and I worked hard on it. Initially, I faced backlash for posting previous content, but over time, my community began to support open conversations. The support grew significantly when I animated her story.

The short animation went viral on social media, garnering a million views. This success led to the creation of the online community “Stories by Strangers,” which went beyond Instagram and has grown into a community of over 30,000 people connected via email, social media, and in real life. This platform allows people to share their stories anonymously, which I turn into collaborative animations for public viewing with the community.

A sample of the animations as part of ‘Stories by Strangers.’

I aimed to create “Stories by Strangers” as a portal for the layman to consume media that destigmatizes sexual abuse and goes against the flow of desensitizing people. I remember it was humbling for 14-year-old girls like me to read in the paper that over one-third of women worldwide will face violence in their lifetime. I already knew this fact when I read it in the paper, just like I knew that yelling “Fire!” instead of “Rape!” will get more people to come around. This is the flow of media I hope to interrupt and have tried to create an educational hub on how to start conversations, how to help your friends, and provides the option to find the good side of social media. I started collaborating remotely with animators who are now part of this expanding anonymous group and we hope to bring important stories to light without focusing on being ‘consumable.’ We tell the stories exactly how the author intends while maintaining anonymity.

Before this project, I didn’t feel the gravity of how power is maintained by prioritizing selective perspectives, a form of censorship often imposed on minorities. This community connected me with an audience that is eager to offer love and support from around the world. With submissions spanning 20 countries, the stories me and my collaborators receive are of surviving trauma, queer identity, sexual violence, and overcoming mental health trauma. I found a difference between individualistic healing, vs communal healing. When I heard the same story told many times from different parts of the world, it showed me how Individuality in terms of healing encourages separation and programs us to exist in a vacuum with our trauma.

Recently, I read an article about false memory syndrome that was published in Mad in America. They highlighted that people who have gone through trauma, including children can be convinced to create a false memory around the event, or at least a vague sense of that memory. Trauma can control so much of a person’s internal narrative, and it is muddled into statistics by the media. So how does one wade through inner and outer confusing narratives?

I think back to what a queer activist, Hannah Gatsby, said in her Netflix Special: “You have to tell your story properly.”

In June 2023, I was contacted by a stranger in Illinois who had just turned 22 and was celebrating renting their first apartment. They had been homeless for four years after fleeing a sexually abusive husband at 18. I had recently moved to Chicago, where they contacted and shared with me the support they had received from the community. We decided to collaborate on an animation because we believe “Stories by Strangers” showcases the positive side of social media as an outlet for healing.

I noticed how almost every story submission ended with a note that thanked me for reading their story regardless of whether it got made into an animation or shared. “letting people know it’s okay to tell any kind of story encourages honesty. Continuing to work in Chicago, “Stories by Strangers” aims to build an institution based on respect and honesty, expressing stories through art and creativity.

Nitya is a documentary filmmaker, animator, and social worker. https://www.nityamehrotra.com/
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