Writing About Trauma

DAVIS: Today we’re talking about trauma, and more specifically, writing about trauma. For instance, Maya Angelou’s autobiography I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings grapples with her childhood experiences with sexual assault and racism. There’s also The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien which deals with the trauma of war. But writing about trauma isn’t limited to capital-L literature. It can take many different forms, like journaling, and doesn’t have to be published. Whatever we write, we can use it to try and understand our experience.

Dr. Sophie Tamas is an assistant professor at Carleton University. In 2011 she published Life After Leaving, a book about her own experience with spousal abuse. In writing Life After Leaving, Dr. Tamas interviewed survivors of spousal abuse, trying to make sense of the aftermath of trauma.

TAMAS: “I don’t think it’s the kind of work in which you ever arrive at a capital-T truth about any of it.”

“When I approached my participants I wouldn’t say, this is about you and me trying to help you, I would say, I have this dilemma, I have this thing I can’t understand. I’m hoping you can help me understand it.”

DAVIS: What makes trauma, trauma is fact that it is an experience so distressing and disturbing that we aren’t really able to understand it. Stories of trauma aren’t really built out of a memory with a narrative. Instead, they’re reconstructions of an experience which turns our world on end. When we turn to write about trauma, we’re taking up the project of building an understanding pretty much from scratch.

TAMAS: “A large part of what makes trauma stick in our unconscious and in our dreams and in the parts of ourselves that aren’t subject to rational control, is because it doesn’t fit within our conscious models of what should happen and what can happen to human beings even though it’s such an everyday occurrence, which is the kind of ironic sad thing about it.

DAVIS: Dr. Tamas said that writing about her experience with abuse, turning it into something verbal that she could work with, that often meant interacting with previous kinds of creative work she had done to process that experience.

TAMAS: “I had always had a practice of some kind of reflective work. Often journaling, and when life got a little crazier sometimes words weren’t available so I would draw or paint or try to process experience in other ways.”

DAVIS: Trauma affects us so deeply in our minds and bodies, that we’re often not able to render those experiences in a verbal or textual way, at least not one that plays into our understandings of narrative or story. And so writing about trauma can be a project of assembling those pieces, of forming our experience into something we can live alongside.

TAMAS: “Stories can do many useful things other than revealing with certainty the absolute truth of what happened. I’m much more interested in, what does this story make possible?”

Most trauma theorists maintain that we never really heal from trauma, we just continually recover and integrate that experience into our lives. Writing, or really creating anything in the aftermath of trauma, becomes a way for us to start living with our experience, and exercising some control over our history.

TAMAS: “Finding your voice and telling your story and all of those practices are experienced as really empowering by a lot of survivors.”

DAVIS: Working within the aftermath of trauma, or as Dr. Tamas writes, “writing flowers into the ruins,” that can help us deal with trauma in a much more concrete manner. Using the page to work through our understandings of our experiences can yield a lot of different possibilities for recovery.

The way we interact with the world is built through the stories our cultures tell us, and Dr. Tamas says this is a key reason why trauma can have such a profound impact—so often, traumatic experiences sidestep those traditional narratives. Reality rarely does fit into a neat beginning, middle, and end with a clear plot and characters with clear motivations. There’s no moral to the story, and there’s no happily ever after. That makes it hard for us to deal with in our heads, but if we can build our experience into something that we can make sense of, we can start to work with it. Here’s Benjamin Batzer, a Ph.D. candidate researching representations of trauma in literature at the University of Iowa.

BATZER: “My research suggests that the best way to gain control, once again, over an experience, specifically a traumatic experience, is to be able to, somehow, figure out a way to tell that story. So the moment when one is able to articulate a story about a traumatic event you automatically have got a sense of control over that event that you did not have before.”

DAVIS: You may have heard the phrase “controlling the narrative” before. Being able to have control over the story of what happened to you can give you power over that experience—power that trauma can rob us of.

BATZER: “So the moment that I’m able to first write that event into some type of story, that demonstrates that there has been a level of mastery, there is some beginning, some nascent ability to come to terms with this moment or this event in a way that other therapeutic interventions to not allow.”

DAVIS: We’ve talked before on Write Right about how writing is a very powerful tool for thinking and processing, and that fact extends beyond academic work. We can use writing to process experiences in a way that makes them easier for us to live with, but that’s not to say that writing about trauma will make it go away. It can help us cope, but it’s not a cure. Here’s Dr. Tamas again.

TAMAS: “Writing about traumatic experience particularly, has to be understood as a way of sitting beside the experience, not as a way of fixing it or making it go away, or making it okay for yourself or for anybody else.”

DAVIS: Writing about trauma lets us rationalize otherwise incomprehensible events, it makes it easier for us to live with the fact that these experiences happened, even as horrible as they may be. Using writing to process our experience can help us reclaim power, and keep moving.