On Trauma Writing: A Pain So Heavy, So Needful

December 11, 2019 § 32 Comments

emma wellsBy Emmy D. Wells

My son used to beat me up. Now he beats other people up.

He’s only fifteen, but he has a severe psychological disorder paired with an intellectual disability and has been locked up in a secure residential facility in another state since he was eleven.

That is essentially the entirety of the memoir I am getting ready to query. I hope I haven’t spoiled anything for you.

Sometimes I wonder how I was able to write an entire manuscript that can be summed up in three sentences. In fact, if I tried hard enough, I could probably get it to one or two. Does that mean I’m somehow cheating?

It has been a long, almost five-year road writing the book because… well… it is hard to write about getting knocked around.

Trauma is hard to talk about. It’s hard to think about. It’s hard to write about.

I am not cheating, though. Not really. I had to start at the beginning, before the bruises and broken furniture, the fights and the flying food. I told myself that my readers needed to know where it all began. I think I needed to know more. It was profoundly important for me to understand what happened to my son, to my family.

It is not unusual to hear about boyfriends or husbands, sometimes even wives or girlfriends, hitting or kicking their “loved ones”. I do not recall many times, though, where I have heard someone admit that their kid abused them.

Truthfully, it happens more than you probably realize.

I am also writing a psychological thriller and I have often wondered why it has taken me so long to write the memoir when, in less than six months, I have been able to whip out most of the entire first draft of a novel. I know better about what happened in my real-life story, after all.

It makes sense, though, when you think about it. I had to write in small little increments, little nibbles, morsels of time each day. The words had a bitter flavor and were sharp to the touch, painful and sour.

Still, getting the words on my screen gave me a sort of relief, like slicing through a festering, pus-filled abscess. The pressure releases and the pain lessens. Over time, the angry red turns to pink, and the yellow ooze dries up and washes away. Then the scar becomes thick and bumpy and ragged, but it’s closed and it only hurts when you push on it.

Writing pushes on my scar, makes it hurt. But I have become used to it and, over time, the pain has become normal, like that gnawing pain in your lower back at the start of each day or that old knee injury that you got in high school that just won’t go away.

My pain has become my friend. I’m not sure what I would do without it. It teaches me and informs me, tells me what to write. It prods me to type and type, make me feel better, a sort of analgesic relief.

I see my son once a month now and the scar opens a little each time.

Emmy D. Wells is a writer and blogger living in Hampden, Maine. Her life as a mother to four children, two of whom have severe psychological disorders, and wife to a disabled man in a wheelchair informs much of her work. When Emmy isn’t writing, you’ll find her curled up on the couch, buried under her three dogs, with her nose in a book. Find her on Twitter:  www.twitter.com/emmydwells2 Or Instagram: www.instagram.com/emmydwells



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.

Tangled in Too Many Details: Katherine Gries on the Brevity Essay

March 15, 2010 § 4 Comments

Katherine Gries’ gripping essay “Not Like You” can be found in the most recent Brevity, Issue 32.  Here, she discusses the process of writing a short-short nonfiction essay:

Yes, he went to prison. He spent more than twenty years incarcerated for this and other crimes, his conviction based partly on more than twenty hand-written pages of details that I remembered from the three hours I spent with him.

I started writing this piece as a personal essay for a journalism class. With a much higher word count, it seemed to ramble, veering off into a lament of facts and statistics: I was 22 years old and this was the third time I had survived a stranger rape; every two minutes, an American woman is raped; more than seventy percent of rapists know their victims, so why was this happening to me? I didn’t want my decades-old emotions to clutter the story. I became tangled in too many details. I abandoned the draft and turned in something else.

When the “write an essay for Brevity” assignment came up in my memoir class, I had an “Ah-ha” moment. The short-short genre demands attention to pacing, and slashes anything extra—coincidentally, the way I felt when these scenes were taking place, or in any emergency. You breathe. You move. You do what is demanded. You survive. And the short-short genre reduced a particularly heinous situation to precisely what it has become: a few paragraphs—not a chapter—from my life.

My thanks to Laurie Lynn Drummond (University of Oregon) for her belief in and support of memoir.

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