Individual Work

“Tailspin,” by Christine Wilks, tells the poignant story of a father struggling to connect with his family while haunted by his traumatizing experience as an aircraft fitter during WWII. The father suffers from an ear condition called tinnitus, caused by the hearing loss from being near airplanes and explosions during the war. His tinnitus makes it difficult for him to understand conversation and renders everyday sounds, especially loud noises and high pitches, unbearable. The work explores the father’s struggle with his condition and the way it affects his relationship with his daughter, Karen, and her two young daughters.

“Tailspin” is a fictional Flash narrative presented as a gray patterned background with many slowly rotating spirals, like the lines of a travelling sound wave. Mousing over each spiral displays a small amount of text, usually describing a scene, and plays an associated audio clip. The scenes alternate between Karen’s point of view and her father’s, providing a small amount of insight into their inner thoughts and motivations. When all spirals on a page have been read, a new blue spiral appears which advances to the next section. There are eight sections in total, including the ending screen.

The story relies on the use of animation, sound, and the text itself to convey the mood. The text fades in slowly, almost reluctantly, and fades away as soon as the cursor is moved away. Some spirals also contain semi-hidden light grey words which reveal a character’s most private thoughts. In one scene, Karen vents her frustration at her father’s stubborn refusal of a hearing aid, saying “it makes her so mad,” followed by the faded words “it hurts.” The faded texts show the internal struggles of the characters as they try to hide their innermost feelings.

Most scenes are also enhanced by animated drawings, such as a diagram of the human ear or an airplane flying across the screen. At times the pictures flash persistently or dance distractingly around the text, emphasizing the unstable atmosphere present in the scenes. Occasionally, when the father reminisces about his childhood dream of becoming a pilot, the entire background changes to a tranquil blue sky with flying birds. However, once the cursor moves away, the background reverts to the regular grey screen as the father is pulled from his dream back into reality.

In addition to the visuals, sound plays an essential role in “Tailspin.” A constant unpleasant high pitch- the phantom ringing often heard by those with tinnitus- plays nonstop in the background. Each story segment is accompanied by a particular sound, from the upbeat notes of the video games the grandchildren play to the angry shouts from the grandfather to keep quiet. Everyday sounds from the present, such as the clinking of plates at the family dinner table, clash with the sounds of burning and screams of dying fighters from the father’s memories of WWII. The chaotic and often unpleasant sounds reflect the father’s confusing emotions as he struggles to overcome the memories of his past.

The father’s deafness represents the larger problem of lack of communication within the family. The entire family has been shouted into silence by the father. He is aware of the pain he causes but cannot stop his anger. He shouts in order to drown out the guilt and shame he feels from his past. He is embarrassed that he did not make the grade to become a fighter pilot, instead becoming a mere aircraft fitter, and he feels cowardly for having survived while watching pilots die. But because of the oppressive silence in the household, he is unable to open up about his feelings and deal with them. In a rare moment, Karen senses his vulnerability and hesitantly begins to reach out to him, but there is a “red hot burning block” in the way. However, Karen makes no effort to dispel this block of anger and shame which keeps her father from communicating, remarking bitterly that “after all, it is her legacy.” Having suffered under her father’s wrath every day for so many years, Karen perhaps feels that it is too late for words now and takes comfort in solitude.

The work ends with a single phrase, “holding onto deafness for dear life.” For the father, his deafness is his shield. It provides him an excuse for his lack of communication to his family as well as an excuse to vent his pain and frustration on others. Unable to cope with his past and frustrated at his failed dream to become a fighter pilot, the father can only deal with the present by hiding behind a wall of silence.