On Writing about Trauma and So-Called “Misery Porn”
December 12, 2018 § 33 Comments
By Detra Damskov
I’ve kept journals since my 9th birthday when I was gifted my first blue sequined journal and matching pen. My academic writing assignments had always received high marks. I did quite well in my undergrad poetry class, though afterwards,I never wrote another poem. Mostly, I wrote in secret and only enough to keep the urge at bay. My secret depended upon my silence, even on paper.
After recently entering a graduate creative writing program, however, the professor in my first workshop asked us to spend 40 minutes writing without lifting our pen. She said we could write about anything we wanted, but if we needed a prompt, we could write about what we could not write about.
Write about what you can’t write about.
I couldn’t write about my abuse at the hands of a mother with sociopathy. Because of this, I hadn’t been able to write about anything. My story needed to breathe so I could do the same. So that night, I exhaled and began. What came from that 40 minutes of writing, would eventually evolve into my first piece of authentic writing.
I’ve been writing ever since, some of it expounding upon early traumatic experiences, but much of it completely unrelated, on topics ranging from Japanese Mamasans to Hoodoo priests. Still, my most meaningful writing to date is that first piece that allowed me to breathe, to begin the path to writing with veracious honesty.
But as is the case when the oppressed speak out, there are those who want to quiet them.
Until recently, I had only heard these writings of abuse referred to as “trauma writing.” Apparently, they’ve been given other “names” as well: misery lit, misery memoirs, and my least favorite, misery porn.
Sociologist Frank Furedi speaks about trauma writing as the “pornography of emotional hurt” in his article, insensitively titled, “An Emotional Striptease.” Furedi spent his childhood living in a refugee camp, working to help his family and feeling frustrated his parents were unable to help him with homework due to a language barrier. He considers this experience commensurate to that of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, suggesting because he does not dwell on his childhood experiences, neither should anyone else. Through his critique of misery porn, Furedi claims, the world morphs into a place of unfounded familial mistrust which bleeds into communal distrust serving to break down society as a whole.
If this isn’t an attempt to victim shame and keep survivors quiet, I don’t know what is.
While I do not pretend to understand the struggles Furedi experienced living through such a difficult time, and while I’m sure his time in a refugee camp had a profound effect on his life, I do not see how the events of his life, negate the experiences of mine.
Other critics of “misery lit” or “misery porn” invariably site, as evidence of its perversion, literary scandals regarding debunked accounts of childhood trauma. While there have been a few who have exploited the suffering of victims of abuse in an attempt to gain literary success, (hence further victimizing them) this does not negate the genre as a whole, nor the legitimate experiences of actual survivors of abuse.
Another common attack on trauma writers lies in accusations of the commercialization of voyeurism. Commentators argue that those who read trauma writing aren’t doing it out of appreciation for triumphs of the human spirit but are sadists who read misery lit from a place of depravity. Readers are seeking a cheap thrill and writers are merely capitalizing on this. Which leaves survivors with two options if they have the audacity to tell their story: either they are liars, or they are merely attempting to exploit their trauma for the sole purpose of financial gain.
As a so-called misery porn writer, I’m motivated neither by voyeurism nor capitalism. Writing about my childhood affords me the opportunity to give my experiences some semblance of order and meaning. My child-self and adult-self are able to merge into the unified human being I am meant to be, having been damaged but becoming whole in my refusal to carry the burden in isolation and shame. In writing my story, it becomes a part of who I am both publicly and privately, losing its potency and power to rip me apart from within. It ceases to be the thing I battle within the dark but is a telling of how I exist in the light.
Well-crafted trauma writing has a long history through such literary greats as Eli Wiesel, Maya Angelou, and Joan Didion, to name a few. Writing, such as theirs, speaks a universal truth which helps survivors feel less alone and less freakish, while encouraging those fortunate enough to have grown up in loving environments to gain a much-needed empathy.
If this isn’t the purpose of high literature, I’m not sure what is.
Detra Damskov, a Canadian living in America, is pursuing a Masters of Arts in Creative Nonfiction Writing at the University of Omaha. She was also a finalist for a graduate fellowship in creative nonfiction. She spends much of her time searching for the perfect cardigan and has an irrational hatred for bananas.