How Trauma Shaped Renowned Writing: Interview with Doug Underwood
Robin Lindley is a Seattle writer and attorney. He contributes articles—often interviews with writers, artists and scholars—to the History News Network, Crosscut, Real Change, and other publications on history, literature, social justice, the media and the arts. A version of this interview appeared on the crosscut.com site in August 2012.
Ernest Hemingway, the poster child of a literary giant who suffered a traumatic life, on safari in Africa with his wife in 1954. Credit: JFK Library.
Like a red thread, themes of violence, suffering, pain and loss run through the greatest works of literature. Many of the most admired writers of American and British literature were also journalists and, for many of them, the experience of physical and emotional trauma in their work and personal lives shaped their most memorable works.
A sampling of these wounded masters reads like a who’s who of literary icons: Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Graham Greene, George Orwell, Maya Angelou, Richard Wright, Dorothy Parker, Norman Mailer, Sherwood Anderson, Ambrose Bierce, Jonathan Swift, Truman Capote, Katherine Anne Porter, Kurt Vonnegut, Mark Twain.
Hemingway may be the most well-known fiction writer who also worked as a reporter and whose writing was deeply affected by traumatic events from early childhood losses (suicide of father, distant mother) to war (ambulance driver in combat in World War I, serious wounds, combat reporting) to relationship problems (failed marriages) to job losses (journalism) to substance abuse (alcoholism) and to depression and finally suicide. Hemingway was also influenced by other writers whose work grew out of trauma from Dickens and Twain to Sherwood Anderson.
Hemingway ended his story with a shotgun in Idaho at age 61. For University of Washington communications professor Doug Underwood, Hemingway may be an extreme example of a writer whose art reflected past distress and injuries, but he is not an exception among journalists who also wrote acclaimed literature.
In his recent book Chronicling Trauma: Journalists and Writers on Violence and Loss, Prof. Underwood offers a framework for understanding the effect of trauma on the careers and writing of one hundred fifty important journalist-literary writers from the past three centuries. His book includes a detailed appendix that charts the traumatic experiences of each writer.
Journalism traffics in the aberrational and in violence from street crime and car wrecks to war and devastating disasters, as Prof. Underwood observes. Many of the writers he profiles experienced trauma as journalists in wars and other violence in addition to loss and injury in their personal lives and other experiences. Prof. Underwood draws on psychological studies, history and literary criticism in exploring the role of trauma in the work of these writers who won fame but often at the cost of their health and their personal lives.
Prof. Underwood began teaching with University of Washington communication faculty in 1987 after a thirteen-year career as a political journalist and investigative reporter. He was the Olympia legislative bureau chief and the chief political writer for The Seattle Times (1981-1987); a congressional correspondent and environmental specialist in the Gannett News Service’s Washington, D.C., bureau (1976-1981); and a labor and government reporter for the Lansing (Mich.) State Journal (1974-1976). Prof. Underwood teaches courses in media ethics, media and religion, journalism and literature, and media management and economics. His has written numerous articles on media issues for popular and academic publications. His other books include Journalism and the Novel (2008), From Yahweh to Yahoo! (2002), and When MBAs Rule the Newsroom (1993).
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Does your interest in trauma and journalism stem from your own experience as a reporter?
There are multiple answers to that question.
As a journalist, traumatic coverage was not a major part of my experience. I was a political reporter. Some people would say that’s traumatic. [Laughs.]
But no one who works on a major paper is going to avoid trauma entirely. I had my experience of meeting a grieving family and asking for pictures of their son who was killed in a grocery store hold-up. I was a reporter in Washington, D.C. and covered a terrorist assault on city hall. I was the first reporter on the scene after a United Airlines jet went down at the Portland Airport because I happened to hear a breaking news report about it on television while I was there visiting my parents. And I covered the aftermath of a prison breakout in Michigan.
That was what you’d describe as minimal exposure to trauma. I never experienced anything in my journalism career that I felt left me feeling traumatized. But trauma was part of my environment because anyone working on a newspaper is around it.
There were three things that connected me with trauma after I became a journalism professor. One was the Dart Center on Journalism and Trauma coming to our program [at the University of Washington Department of Communication]. My colleague, Roger Simpson (the former Dart director) with some of the folks he knew integrated trauma into our exercises in our reporting classes. I was teaching advanced reporting and we had this new idea -- others do it now -- to bring in drama students to re-enact traumatic events. I was impressed by how powerfully this influenced our students.
Two, with the Dart Center here, I saw how trauma connected to other things I was studying. I wrote a book before this one called Journalism and the Novel, and I explored how journalists became fiction writers. In writing that book, I put together an appendix of about three hundred journalist-literary figures in American and British history. In reading all these biographical works on journalists and the novel, I couldn’t help but notice how much traumatic experience showed up in their lives but how they often didn’t write about it until they moved into fiction writing or had the stature to write their memoirs. That connected with my interest in literature, so I started exploring that specific topic and did more biographical reading, looking through the lens of how trauma influenced writers historically.
The third reason was that my interest in trauma is broader than my interest in journalism. Typically, the study of trauma in journalism has been limited to the impact of really dramatic events: war and catastrophe and overt tragedies. But I’ve always been interested in philosophy and psychology. The connection for me that increasingly showed up in my study of these writers was the strong connection between early life traumatic experiences and adult traumatic experiences. Freud theorized about this in his writing.
In this respect, my interest has been based in my own experience. My mother suffered from post-partum depression and was unable to take care of me for a time when I was younger. I’ve learned from my own life exploration that this has had an emotional impact on me.
Studies have shown that experiences that break nurturing trust in early life show up and can affect a person’s resiliency in dealing with adult issues that may be traumatic. [Dr. Robert J.] Lifton found that Vietnam soldiers displayed evidence of what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder and that those issues could be connected with early life experience. Often psychological patterns showed up and they would need to address the military experience [as well as] other experiences of trauma in their lives.
Researchers began to notice that journalists, and especially war correspondents, often came from troubled backgrounds, and they began to ask what led these people to want to cover traumatic issues.
Didn’t the Vietnam War and the recognition of post-traumatic stress disorder in soldiers prompt increased interest in trauma in other fields, such as journalism?
Absolutely. The Vietnam experience for those who went to war and for those who didn’t had a profound impact on people of that generation. There were a lot of reasons for that. We didn’t win that war and there was so much moral and political and geopolitical ambiguity attached to this. There were issues related to the draft and who fought the war. Psychology was advancing to the level that people began to look at [trauma] in a number of areas. Soon we had the recovered memory movement. And remember that Vietnam was the first major war that we fought where university researchers were studying the impact of war on soldiers and civilians.
All that together made the folks coming back from Vietnam a real laboratory and a natural group for the [PTSD] diagnosis to come about.
I’m a product of that generation and, although I did not fight in Vietnam, I did what many people my age had to do: make a decision about what to do relative to that war. I graduated from college in 1970. I had friends who had to make choices about if they went in or didn’t go in. Everyone felt profoundly influenced by that experience, and for some it was traumatic. In my case, I received a medical deferment because I get migraine headaches. But that didn’t happen before I had filed as a conscientious objector -- which was a big step to take back when there was still a draft.
Vietnam also produced the first generation of writers who, with some exceptions, wrote about war in an anti-heroic way. You can read the history of how the American press covered the war in Neil Sheehan’s and David Halberstam’s accounts, and how the shift occurred on people’s thinking about the war. That was profound.
If you compare their experiences to (World War II reporter] Ernie Pyle, who probably suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome, he probably never thought of it or his war reporting outside of the framework of the good guy model: the American soldier and reporter as good guy. Vietnam scrambled all of that.
The writers who came back from Vietnam reflected the change in our whole society of how we were experiencing war, and particularly the counterculture ones like Michael Herr. He spent a year over there writing for Esquire, smoking dope most of the time I gather, and he had a terrible nervous breakdown when he returned. He produced a book, Dispatches, that reads like the underground journalism of that era. He wrote about the moral ambiguities and told the story of what the war was really like.
Vietnam had a big impact on writers –--even if they were never there. One of my favorite examples is Kurt Vonnegut. In a new biography, the author raises the question of whether Vonnegut suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. The same thing is now suggested about Ambrose Bierce, who was wounded in the Civil War, and Hemingway in World War I. If you read them, you’d say yes, all of the symptoms you associate with [PTSD] today you can see it in their work.
Vonnegut enlisted in the Army after Pearl Harbor. He comes home on his first leave and his mother, who was very neurotic, goes into the bedroom and kills herself with an overdose of pills after making it clear to him that she is upset and concerned about his decision to join the military. He goes off, and within weeks, he is captured in the Battle of the Bulge. He ends up as a prisoner of war in Dresden where he is kept in the basement of an old slaughterhouse. He survives [the bombing of Dresden] but the Germans bring him out and he has to help excavate liquefied bodies. He returns to the States and gets married and tries to reintegrate, even working as a PR person at General Electric at one time. But his brain is affected by his experience, and he starts writing.
If you go back and read his books, he constantly refers to depression and suicide. In his writing, so many of his characters reflect a sense of dissociation, a sense that people with PTSD have that the patterns of their culture don’t make sense to them any more. Vonnegut even tried to be a journalist in a Chicago news bureau -- but he just couldn’t make the adjustment. He crafts this into a form of writing that uses black humor and satire with his own special imaginative bent.
Slaughterhouse Five doesn’t come out until 1969, many years after his World War II experience, but just in time for all these people who are protesting the Vietnam War to pick it up. It becomes a classic, like Catch-22, for a generation that’s having doubts about American warfare. Most of Vonnegut’s work is talking about these themes in different Vonnegut ways.
That’s what I discovered in thinking about these writers in the context of what the biographies were telling me about their experiences with trauma.
I don’t think many people who study the effect of trauma can read Bierce’s Civil War short stories or his non-fiction and not say this guy was deeply affected by his experiences. You even find it in his journals and in his surrealistic fiction. He describes what it felt like to be in battle. You find it in his alienation, his drinking, and his misanthropic writing, and even in the romantic end to his life where he visits Civil War battlefields and then goes off and disappears in the Mexican Revolution. It’s a poetic version of someone who lived out his life trying to deal with the effects of shell shock or PTSD through his literature and his journalism.
So what I did was go back even further in time before Freud and psychology and researchers studying trauma. I could see, for example, that Jonathan Swift had family issues that affected the texture and tone of Gulliver’s Travels on what it was to be lost in a world that he didn’t understand; Daniel Defoe’s experiences being thrown in prison for his journalistic writings can be connected to his novels about renegades and reprobates and people marooned on deserted islands; Bret Harte never wrote about the dark side of frontier life again after he was run out of town for reporting how the locals had massacred a band of Native Americans while he was a journalist in California; Walt Whitman’s experiences nursing dying Union soldiers put an end to his optimistic poetry. All these folks were journalists before they became great literary figures, and all suffered lots of trauma in their lives.
Your book is almost encyclopedic and reflects wide reading of the works of dozens of major writers as well as their biographies and literary criticism. Can you talk about the plan for the book and your research process?
Actually, it evolved. The chapter on war reporting and the chapter on problems with substance abuse I had started writing for my book on journalism and the novel. However, the role of trauma jumped out at me as being so thematically powerful in the lives of these people that I wanted it to be part of this book.
As I examined the literature, I came across a book, The Trauma Artist, on the experience of trauma in the works of [Vietnam veteran and one-time journalist] Tim O’Brien, and how his traumatic early life issues combined with his Vietnam service led to a major break-down when he came home. When I read it, I found a whole connecting literature that had been heavily explored on the literary studies side. Literary scholars were interested in the effect of trauma on a range of literary personalities like Charles Dickens and Rudyard Kipling and Edgar Allan Poe and others who had started out their careers as journalists.
However, I wanted to do something more expansive [and] not quite like what academics usually do because they tend to go narrow and deep. I wanted to explore the issues of trauma as they connected to a large number of writers associated with journalism. If you can make the point that many of these people share these experiences and symptoms and attributes, it’s more powerful than if you explore one artist’s life in great depth. I tried to stay attuned to the patterns and similarities I could see in their life experiences and how they connected to the pattern that psychologists have seen increasingly in the human experience of trauma.
Did you then use psychiatric diagnostic criteria as a framework for assessing each writer’s condition?
Yes. The categories in the appendix are interpretive features growing out of the diagnoses, except I link early-life trauma with resiliency in dealing with later trauma. And I get into how the [early-life] experience of trauma for a variety of complex reasons encourages people to move into areas like reporting where they’ll deal with trauma in their adult lives. You get personalities like Graham Greene who [personifies] the Freudian death wish. You’re out there with Hemingway and macho heroic journalists with a death wish at work. I’m informed by my knowledge of and strong belief in Freudian patterns in the sense that we are often as humans motivated to do things that grow out of distorted reactions to our emotions, and I looked for those patterns.
The combination of interest in Freudian and Jungian psychology with medical research and diagnostic recognition of posttraumatic stress disorder came together for me.
It will be interesting to see how people in the journalism community respond to it because there’s some resistance in journalists to linking traumatic experiences to psychological disorders. Journalists don’t like to think of themselves as being dysfunctional. I said at one point that it would have served Greene and Hemingway better to go into counseling than to go off to war. They had other issues they needed to deal with. But suggest that about journalists and there tends to be a push back. They’re happy to deal with traumatic events, but they don’t want it suggested that they need to deal with other issues in their lives.
Journalism seems a field where you’re bound to deal with trauma from car wrecks and local crime to wars and disasters. You wrote in effect that traumatized people may be drawn to the field as a way to balance inner turmoil.
The Lichter-Rothman study is powerful study based on personality tests of journalists and journalism students. These Freudian-oriented researchers argued that there are psychological reasons why journalists do things like investigative reporting. I’m intrigued with their general sense that those with inner turmoil are often attracted to professions or activities where they can project that inner turmoil outward. If they have issues of mistrust or a severed trust relationship, they can go into a field where they’re cynical and mistrustful about everybody, and it’s professionally acceptable to be mistrustful if you’re a journalist. Or if you’re angry about how you were treated, you can go out and expose the things in society that make you angry.
Some of that is reflected in my personal experience: I had issues that I can now tell were inner concerns and journalism helped satisfy them. Typically, investigative reporters are emotionally highly fuelled people who have a high sense of outrage and are very moralistic and impatient with flaws in the world. Most of the investigative reporters I know are people whose personal psyches are at least turbulent. I don’t necessarily think they are suffering from mental malady, but they are people who find that the issues they explored in the world provided balance to their own inner lives. That to me makes intuitive sense, but I can’t say there are scientific studies to prove it.
It seems that work for social justice or against authority is healing for some of these writers like Dickens and Ida Tarbell and Richard Wright.
Absolutely. A biographer of Lincoln Steffens says that Steffens had a lot of problems with depression linked to muckraking, and the muckraking of Steffens was connected to Steffen’s efforts to figure his psychological issues. So he muckraked himself. The biographer said that, in effect, Steffens had the same success in muckraking himself as in the things he muckraked: he never changed the structural foundations of himself or the larger society.
When you read across the biographies of these people, you see these similar patterns. It is remarkable how influential these people were on each other. You’ll discover that they were inspired by [writers] from earlier generations who tended to be people with the same profile. Twain read Dickens, Hemingway read Twain. They were attracted to the people who, like themselves, opted to come out of journalism and go into fiction writing.
If you go to the biographies and run down the index of say Mailer, you see the writers who influenced him, and you tend to find the same people. They share the background that they started as journalists, and many felt that they had to go into fiction writing to fully express what they wanted to say, and many had turbulent psychologies with childhood and adult traumatic experiences. It’s not what a medical or social scientist would say proves anything, but it’s a larger pattern you can see through biographical input.
Your writers all tackle very emotional issues so doesn’t it make sense that they’d gravitate to writers who address similarly charged themes?
Yes. Richard Wright in his autobiography Black Boy talks about living in the segregated South. I describe his as a “traumatized worldview.” Psychologically, he had a disposition that could not tolerate living as a second-class citizen, and it filled him with emotion. You find that in the descriptions of Bigger Thomas in Native Son, and you get a sense of the inner agitation that Wright lived with. He moved to France because he couldn’t go anywhere in the United States and not feel that way. And he had all these traumatic experiences in his early life. As a young man he was on the edge of being what we’d call a gang member, but he goes to the library and reads H.L. Mencken and Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser and how they challenged the cultural attitudes of the time. They made sense of his experience and provided the inspiration for him to become someone who did the same thing. Every one of those people who inspired Wright is in my appendix as a journalist literary figure.
People will ask, how integral to all of this was the journalism experience? Maybe it didn’t matter that Dickens was a journalist. Could he not have written his novels without that background? I speculate that, particularly after the early 1800s when the steam-powered printing press arrives in the big urban newspapers, journalists adopted writing formulas to appeal to the mass market. They were no longer like [the eighteenth-century British journalists] Addison and Steele, who had a lot of creative latitude in their Tatler and Spectator newspapers. Writers with the industrialized press had to view the world through these fixed formulas that did not allow them to explore the impact of trauma in their own lives or in the lives of people they were writing about in any meaningful fashion.
The industrialized newspaper uses trauma as its grist. If it bleeds, it leads. But it has to be presented in a way that doesn’t disturb the audience. It has to entertain or intrigue or be packaged so the reader can keep the traumatic experience at arm’s length. These writers wanted to take you into the experience, and many had to move into fiction or higher literary writing or memoir if they wanted to do that.
There wasn’t an avenue to express [the depth of trauma] in journalism. You can find a lot of evidence of that in their lives. Mark Twain went to his editors at the San Francisco Morning Call and asked to write about a Chinese man who had been stoned by an Irish gang, but his editor said no, it would offend Irish readers. Twain was really upset by that. Erskine Caldwell wasn’t allowed to write about a lynching he had witnessed at the Atlanta Journal; he ended up later using some of the material in his novel, Trouble in July. John Steinbeck couldn’t get any major press outlets to use his reporting on the miserable conditions of Dust Bowl migrants in California during the Great Depression; he had to turn it into the themes of The Grapes of Wrath.
A Canadian researcher studied what she called “assignment stress injury” where journalists have a story to tell that has had a powerful impact upon them, and the story doesn’t get told, and they then feel traumatized themselves.
I was surprised too of the story about Robert Benchley who I think of as telling jokes at the Algonquin Round Table. But during World War I, he was a reporter and suggested juxtaposing a photo of a lynching of a Black man in the South with a photo of Black troops fighting in Europe. He wasn’t allowed to do that. I learned from your book that Benchley had a deep sense of justice and a social conscience.
That wasn’t his only experience with trauma. When his older brother was killed in the Spanish-American War, his mother said, “I wish it had been Robert.” That was pretty tough for him to hear. With Benchley you get an aggregate of traumas with his brother’s death, his family history of drinking, and his [refusal to] because he saw it as a family weakness until Dorothy Parker and Robert Sherwood talked him into taking his first drink. And he has those experiences where he wants to make a statement as a journalist, yet he can’t. He begins drinking in midlife, and pretty soon his life deteriorates.
Once these writers became addicted to something, traumatic experience is submerged under the trauma of the substance addiction. Once you’re hooked, trying to separate out what got you to that point is difficult to do, and addiction becomes your top priority. As you can see from the index, a much higher proportion of these writers had serious substance abuse issues than the general public, and many became famous for their addictions like Hemingway, Parker, Ring Lardner, and Sinclair Lewis.
Journalism, outside the military, may be the only profession where drinking has been romanticized. Being a hard-drinking person can be a badge of honor. That comes with the assumption that the things you do as a journalist would cause one take to drink, and journalists have accepted that.
These days we have a different view. You get journalists talking about it in the way Pete Hamill does in A Drinking Life. Hamill tells how he was writing the story of Hemingway’s suicide and thought hey, wait a minute. All of a sudden, the scales fall from his eyes. Hamill realizes he hero worshipped [Hemingway] for his drinking. But then he thinks of the implications for himself. He eventually writes what he called his recovery book. “I am an alcoholic and here’s my book.”
And you note how Hemingway’s suicide also resonated with James Thurber.
Yes. And Thurber said, “We’re all manic depressive -- at least the men.” It’s a rich vein once you tap into it. As with anything, you can over-interpret and a danger of scholarship is that once you have a theory, you find things that fit the theory.
With many of the writers, trauma always has been a part of their stories. Dickens’s work at a shoe black factory has always been a part of his biography, and that made him more sympathetic to the poor and young people who had been traumatized. And you find that pattern in so many of these other writers.
What lessons do you hope journalists and students will take from your book?
I’ve been thinking about this recently. In the last chapter, I look at how Thurber and E.B. White, who were good friends, ended up in such different shape at the end of their lives. Thurber was in many ways pathetic 00 alcoholic, angry, in conflict with his editors. White, although suffering from his own mental health issues, achieved a certain serenity in his later career. He wrote the philosophical children’s book Charlotte’s Web and he lived on his hobby farm and wrote thoughtful, pondering articles for Harpers and The New Yorker that helped support people in very tough times.
How did these two writers arrive at such very different places? A book I’m reading by a psychologist suggests that, when we’re traumatized, we get caught in a narrative loop and we can’t get out of the story of our traumatization. For journalists, it’s a two-step process. They have to first recognize that’s there’s a trauma loop and acknowledge that they’re in that loop and that trauma has affected them. There’s been a focus at the Dart Center and among journalism scholars to get journalists to simply recognize they can be traumatized and that it has an impact.
My book focuses on that. I want you to hear these stories so you know how much trauma affected these writers. I can say that telling a story can help to heal a person, but it’s the first step. Telling your story to sympathetic people and finding that there are others who understand your story is profound. Many journalists can’t get to that point, and they suffer.
But there’s a second step. Once one acknowledges the story and recognizes a trauma loop is operating, the next step is introducing new narratives into one’s life. How do you break out of the trauma narratives so they don’t hold you and control you in ways that lead you to do dysfunctional things? And that invites therapy and maybe people can think more deeply about that.
This process goes beyond journalists and is the challenge of traumatic experiences for all of us. How can we acknowledge trauma and understand its emotional hold and impact, and then have some faith that something can be done about it, that we have the internal capacity to tell a different story?
Historically, that’s the trick of religion. How did the crucifixion of Jesus lead to a greater story? That’s the role of mythology: out of the ashes arises a new person. That’s really Freud’s idea, too. By coming to acknowledge and understand the traumatic experience, you can heal and change.
How does one find a new story and come to believe and recognize that the trauma loop does not control you? Sometimes it is easier to find the trauma story and harder to find the text that can point to the way a particular writer came to grips with these issues.
One of the ironies is that we tend to read the earlier works of these writers and typically label their later works as not as good. There seems to be a typical arc where many writers hit a peak [when they’re younger]. But maybe in later writings we can find more clues as to how they integrated their traumatic experiences over the course of a lifetime. We can get a better sense of how it worked for them beyond just saying here’s a traumatic story that they told when they were young. You find Dreiser, for example, with his spiritual searches in his seventies and his novels about mystics and Quakers (that typically we don’t read because we’re interested in the ones he wrote in his twenties and thirties), and they tell us more about how a writer integrates trauma and can create a new story to escape the trauma loop. Maybe that’s my next book.
Yet Dickens felt hopeless toward the end of his life.
And he was still having his midlife crisis. He locked up his wife in a Victorian marriage, and he ran around with a young actress. He was doing his red sports car thing practically to the day he had his heart problems and died. The Victorians had a very tough time integrating traumatic experience because society required so much repression and so much about people’s lives was kept secret. But there were writers who did a lot of integration, like George Eliot did in her life. She overcome lots of stuff: men who initially rejected her because of her looks, a publisher who made her his lover but wouldn’t formally acknowledge her as the publication’s real editor, a social climate that required her to take a nom-de-plume because she was living with a man who couldn’t get a divorce from his wife.
It seems your book would be helpful to journalists not only in dealing with their own trauma, but also in dealing with victims of trauma.
Yes. I did a Dart fellowship last summer to learn more for the trauma, news, and narrative class that I teach. I get students who recognize they’ve been traumatized and it was a challenge to deal with that in a classroom setting. I have offered to create a model curriculum for the Dart Center on using journalistic literary texts to talk about trauma. I would like to expand the purview of trauma in my research.
There’s a call for journalists to show empathy to victims of trauma, but isn’t there a countervailing pressure, as with medical professionals, to establish emotional distance so they can do their work?
That’s the professional challenge. It’s not your job to be a counselor or a first responder. What is your job? How is empathy reflected? A lot of thought goes into where the line is. When we teach it, we say you still have to do your job and your news organization has expectations. Whether we like it or not, and especially for television journalists, trauma is the grist of our work.
I could never work as a television journalist because they typically go over a line that violates my principles. I don’t know how I’d feel about this issue if my journalism had been heavily in traumatic areas. Instinctively, I knew that I wasn’t interested in chasing trauma around, but I was interested in politics and government.
I struggle, too, because I have some resentment about the nature of the media systems that exploit trauma for commercial gain. I’ve run into some tension at Dart workshops with television journalists who have suffered trauma and they become Dart converts. I always want to ask how many people did you traumatize before this in your work? There’s a little too much of it’s about me and not enough about how trading in trauma affects the whole society.
I have a study planned on television journalism asking how much secondary trauma they believe their reporting creates in society and how they feel about it. The folks at the Dart Center walk a narrow line because, if the research goes too far into questioning the way the media work, they have more trouble getting media people to buy in. They particularly have great difficulty getting television people to do so. If media people acknowledge the impact of trauma on the audience, that may present greater moral questions about what we’re doing.
Prof. Susie Linfield at NYU wrote a book on photography and political violence called A Cruel Radiance. She believes that the media is obliged to show the reality of war and disaster and poverty, and she believes these images can be a precursor to expansion of human rights and international justice.
It’s a profound double-edged sword. You can talk about the media trading in traumatic stories to get audience attention. But they won’t do stories, for example, about American military activities if it will disturb readers or military families. You don’t see much vivid coverage of war in Afghanistan and Iraq by American media because it’s perceived that the audience would not want to see that. That’s a reason that Al Jazeera gets so much criticism because they do cover war more vividly.
So the media are critiqued for their eagerness to traffic in crime and violence for their marketing and audience building, while on the other hand they stay away from a true picture of [the trauma of warfare] because they don’t think their audience would be comfortable with that. You might say that they should do more coverage of the real trauma of war, for example, because we’re involved in war, and they should do less coverage of violence in the city because they distort what’s happening in the city.
That’s my view. Their job should be to present a balanced view of the world as it really is and a picture of crime and violence in the city that’s in context and that gives people a sense of what’s happening in the whole city, but they don’t. They give the impression that crime and violence are much bigger parts of city life than they really are. At the same time, I’d like them to give an honest assessment of what the impact of war really is. We don’t have a clue about what it’s like to live in Afghan villages [targeted by] drone missiles that are supposed to kill terrorists in their midst.
I have a student in my narrative journalism class who is an Iraq War veteran, and she’s writing about what happened to her in Iraq. She writes about how [the trauma suffered by veterans] has been kept out of our purview because we don’t want to think about that. We want to go shopping or do other things [while] our mercenary Army takes care of it. The press should make people more aware of that.
So what am I saying? Do I want more violence on television or less? I want violence covered in the context of a balanced picture of the world. If the press did that, then it would be doing its job.
So the media focuses on car wrecks or local homicides as they miss stories that deal with the hard questions about trauma, such as the medical and psychological consequences of war and disasters.
Prof. Doug Underwood: After the recent burning of Qurans in Afghanistan, there were anti-American riots across the country, and we asked why do these people dislike us? Maybe our narrative as a military and as a country occupying another country is not consistent with their narrative. Their narrative is much more traumatized.
We have a silent trauma narrative. Our service people come back and have to deal with trauma. Their narrative has to do seeing how their lives now fit in with the entire essence of our society, and we’d prefer another narrative. So trauma and coming to grips with trauma is a much larger issue than the impact on journalists.
Understanding trauma is how we can understand world politics and diplomacy and everything else. Psychiatrists now will tell you that the whole human experience is about how well we adjust to trauma. It’s traumatic to be born. It’s traumatic to be a mother giving birth. It may be overstating the term, but to some degree there’s a point to that. I have a friend who has made a business of dealing with women who felt they have experienced traumatic births and have found help in support groups. That’s something we had never thought about earlier.
As we become aware of the nature of trauma, it can make us more empathetic and more aware of the hard experiences of life, and it brings us together in ways that we share because we all experience trauma at one level or another. My wife who works in a hospital as a chaplain deals with people who are at that point in life where, no matter how much they may have tried to deny things, they have to face reality. Trauma is unavoidable in our lives and, therefore, would we not be better off if we acknowledged that? She would love to help people feel less isolated who are dealing with the traumatic issues of death. That’s part of a larger conversation.
I was talking with Rachel Herz, a psychologist, about her new book on the emotion of disgust, and she posited that people would be kinder people if they accepted mortality; that it’s not probable that we’ll die, but it’s inevitable.
Yes. I can make an argument that historically, writers handled trauma better a long time ago because it was a more vivid, ongoing part of their lives and happened at earlier stages.
I have a friend who died of cancer in 1992 while he was a young father. He said the most painful part of the experience was the recognition of how many people, including his own father, couldn’t talk with him about it. It made him feel so alone. I felt the greatest contribution I could make to him as a friend was to be there for him and say I can handle it. I knew it was hard for him, and for me, but I decided that I was going to be there with him.
The mission of raising consciousness about trauma is more than how to make journalism better. Once you start looking at this, you can see it in a broader, deeper way, and I believe that studying trauma -- as hard as it’s been and it’s not always easy to read trauma narratives -- has made me a better person. (I couldn’t deal with reading about the Vietnam War until about ten years ago.) And I think it does make us better people even though it’s a hard process.
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