On Writing about Trauma and So-Called “Misery Porn”

December 12, 2018 § 33 Comments

detraBy 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.

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§ 33 Responses to On Writing about Trauma and So-Called “Misery Porn”

  • jerrywaxler says:

    Fascinating topic!! And especially synchronistic for me, because after reading 100s of memoirs, and loving the journey from misery to courage, I found myself almost hating Educated by Tara Westover. She did such a profoundly graphic good job of getting me inside her head while she was being abused, for the first time ever I actually wondered if it was abuse porn. That word actually floated through my mind! But I didn’t google it. I thought it was just me. But instead of giving up, I kept reading and by the end, I felt that her courage, her grit, the depth of her insight that led to a whole thought-system to help her (and me) grapple with the challenges of family abuse made me reevaluate the book to one of my all time favorites. (I’m a sucker for a good philosophical conclusion.)

    I imagine she could have achieved a similar effect without dragging me quite so graphically into the abusive moments, but dear lord, I must admit she totally had my attention. I can’t know for sure if I would have had the same gut wrenching appreciation for her journey if she had toned down the misery. But I will say that she took me to the limit of my ability to tolerate vicarious misery.

    So perhaps rather than addressing the yes-no question “are stories of abuse considered abuse porn or not” it might be instructive to approach it from a craft-oriented point of view and ask how much detailed suffering is the best amount for this particular story.

    Best wishes
    Jerry Waxler
    Author of Memoir Revolution

  • Kathleen Cassen Mickelson says:

    The ability to share stories of our experiences also offers us the opportunity to reach people who are keeping their own stories under lock and key. We never know who might be touched and perhaps validated in some way by the stories we share. So, for those who consider telling the story of a childhood that had trauma as a component to be “misery porn”, perhaps an examination of their own ability to have compassion might be in order, as you pointed out near the end of this essay.

  • If telling the story of a traumatic childhood is dismissed as “abuse porn”, what shall we label those about war and crime? Surely they deserve an equally offensive label, particularly since they rarely reach any sort of moral resolution or personal growth other than keeping score and winning.

    • Detra Damskov says:

      I was thinking the same thing. Though I imagine, some would argue that has historical relevance and hence has more merit. Of course, I don’t agree.

  • […] via On Writing about Trauma and So-Called “Misery Porn” — BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog […]

  • There are those who are inconvenienced by the realities of childhoods they’d rather not face–in others or in themselves–and who try to minimize, trivialize, or otherwise dismiss the depth of such realities by calling it insulting names. The terms are telling — less in what they say of those who write about childhood trauma, than in what they say about those who cannot tolerate it.
    Good for you for finding your voice. I’d urge you to perhaps not wear a hat that does not fit you just because someone had fashioned it and thinks you ought to. We had no choice as children of the conditions we had to endure or the words people around us had used re-frame … and all too often distort … our reality. We have a choice now, and I hope you call your writing what YOU feel best describes it, and not take on the terms of those whose perspectives seem limited by their own scope of what pain they are able/willing to contain.
    Here’s to you, and to you finding a way to write about what you could not write about — these are often the most necessary words.
    Take good care!

  • A well written piece of lit (to coin one your words). If I only read your words I could learn a lot. I found myself analysing the way you had written this piece by the second line and I don’t know why. It is very well crafted Are you heading towards teaching?

    • Detra Damskov says:

      Thank you so much!! Your comments made my day. Yes, I’m hoping to teach at the university level in a few years when I complete my MFA. Fingers crossed!

  • JeanMarie says:

    “If this isn’t an attempt to victim shame and keep survivors quiet, I don’t know what is.”
    Yes! This! Thank you for writing and sharing your story.

  • Jordyn says:

    “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.”

    Everyone deals with trauma in a different way and has their own ideas on what is right or wrong for society. I am sure in some cases trauma writing inspires familial distrust in readers. I’m sure some read trauma writing to satisfy something “depraved”. Furedi is not wrong, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t right. Continue to do what you think is best for you and everyone around you. That’s all we can do as human beings.

    ” It ceases to be the thing I battle within the dark but is a telling of how I exist in the light.”

    And I want to say that I very much identify with this statement. I’ve just begun to write about my trauma and to be open with the people in my life. This particular sentence of yours is a very elegant way of describing what this experience is to me, and what I hope to accomplish.

    • Detra says:

      Thank you for your response. I wish you the best in attempting to put your experiences on paper. For me, the best way to do this was to write as if I was writing to my best friend while being cognizant of my responsibility to not only be honest about what was done to me but also about some of the uglier reactions I had to those things, giving both no more or less attention than they deserved. This two-pronged approach allowed me to send my words out into the world minus the usual accompanying shame. I don’t know if this helps in any way, but I thought I’d throw it out there. No matter how you get there, remember you are not alone in the world. There are more of us than you might imagine.

  • Marie says:

    So interesting to think about. The majority of what I write about remains unpublished because of its nature – sappy, emotive and “real” things are often misconstrued to be whiny pieces of complaint, rather than anything that anybody else could relate to, a way to get out hurt, ect, so I keep it to myself, shamefully. Shaming people who write about what REALLY hurts is just a way of shushing those who desperately need a voice. No, sadness, abuse, pain, isn’t pretty, but it’s so important to write about. Your own sad experiences are better on paper than locked in your mind. Good on you for speaking about this, and everything else, despite the shame and putting down you receive.

  • Emily Anderson says:

    This is high literature.

  • Roianne Tappen says:

    Thank you for reminding us that each person’s life experience is unique. What is unbearably painful for one is relatively easy to set aside for another, that does not make me an expert on your pain. I know that for myself writing about my pain helps to put it into a more realistic focus and can help me from allowing anxiety and depression to rule my world. All writers of any genre put part of themselves into their writing. Treating pain as secret or pretending it is not important anymore is not healthy. Write to your truth, always.

  • I facilitate writing groups for survivors of abuse, where writing is used to restore agency and voice (stripped away by the process of abuse). Writing also gives legitimacy to the practice of un-silencing those who have the least power in our culture. To suggest that writing this genre of non-fiction could lead to some sort of breakdown in society is to reveal one’s lack of understanding of the world’s currently traumatized and broken state. We—none of us—gets very far in this life without experiencing some form of trauma. Having said this, I’d like to add that supporting writers to apply creative ways of sharing their experiences is a sure-fire way to extend the healing process to the culture that allowed the abuse to occur. Creative works gesture to the audience–inviting them into a situation for deeper appreciation. This is all about giving voice—I suspect the critic would not have a problem were this being composed about/by a privileged group of citizens (rather than women and children and others who have been historically silenced). Brava to you for wading into these waters!

    • Detra says:

      Thank you for your kind words and more importantly, thank you for the work you do. So many people’s lives will be changed because of your work!

  • This was a beautiful piece! Iyanla Vanzant said, “When you stand and share your story in an empowering way, your story will heal you, and your story will heal somebody else”. Sharing our stories is necessary and I’m so glad that you have shared yours. Thank you for helping me heal.

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