Writing about trauma can be healing for the writer and helpful to her audience, writes Anna Spargo-Ryan. Photo: Melanie Riccardi/Stocksy
There's one bit of advice every therapist gives to their trauma patient: give yourself permission to react.
In recent months, op-ed writers have chosen to become concerned with the number of stories women are writing about the events that have shaped their experience. They suggest rather than writing because it's helpful, women (especially young women) are exploiting their own distressing memories in order to gain notoriety and fortune. In a piece for the Sydney Morning Herald this week, Kath Kenny called this the "first person traumatic complex" -- an easy way to have our voices heard.
Her concern is that we are writing about our trauma for the sake of building a personal brand, for making a living, for getting a book deal. That we are not people who have vast experiences but actually calculated trauma memoirists who pick and choose the story that will make the biggest splash and give us the most visibility.
Cue the skeptics: "But why do they have to write it down publicly? Why do they want to get paid to write about their trauma?" As though this somehow diminishes the realness of it, creates a commercial asset from a traumatic event. History has embraced the romance of trauma. That it's only really tragic if we throw ourselves into it fully, allow it to destroy us. The issue with being paid to write our stories is not that we might make a living but that we've not embraced the expectation of sadness and grief. Critics are appalled that women could choose the catharsis of writing and share that with others. It contradicts the meek and sinful woman history has given us. It goes against our idea that trauma should be squashed down, be kept private. This is our emotional toil. This is the price we have to pay.
There are a few things to know about treating trauma: behavioural therapy is founded in the right to experience an emotion, and that no one emotion is "good" or "bad". The important thing is to feel it fully. Being angry is just a feeling, being sad is just a feeling, being distressed is just a feeling. These are all emotions that can be noticed, acknowledged, and set aside if they need to be. Psychologists tell us that the way we are affected by trauma relates to this kind of emotional linking and realisation. Therapies specific to trauma, like CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) and EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing), use reflection and journalling to help patients better understand their emotional response, so it can be changed.
Writing about trauma can be healing. Clinically speaking.
The attention economy is not about the appetite for sob stories but for the better understanding and reflection of ourselves. Not in the same experiences but in the very nature of shared humanity. Critics accuse us of being self-focused and overly dramatic, but it is in relating these stories that we find our commonality. We are not isolated. We are not one person climbing a mountain on her own. We are women who, for the first time in all of history, can hear and be heard. Around these stories, we create communities of people with their burdens of shared, systemic trauma that finally has a voice. Not just any voice, but a legitimised, commercially viable voice. What we have to say is important enough that people will pay to ensure it's heard.
An economic market can't exist without demand. Though they might see the benefits of it, the desire for these stories is not driven by men at the board tables or content integration teams. These stories are read because they are our stories. They are voices and ideas we've never had ready access to, stories that used to be secret and private and shameful. Stories men have always written, in song and poetry and journalism and scrawled across their Neanderthal living room walls, but that we have been forced to lock within us, barricaded for the sake of femininity and grace.
Consider this: what if the epidemic of trauma storytelling is not caused by the appetite for the stories, but by the frequency with which we have always experienced these events? One in five women will be sexually assaulted. One in four are affected by mental illness. We feel the impact of loss, of conflict, of fear, of illness. The scope of experiences with long-term psychological impact is infinite. Our understanding of what might constitute a traumatic event is limited only by the breadth of stories we tell.
In throwing a tantrum about the volume of first-person essays, the magnitude of the problem is dismissed. The problem is not too many essays but too many women affected by violence and inequality and silence. We have millennia of storytelling to catch up on. We have thousands of years of shared trauma with its many nuanced individualities and its hidden, secret scandal.
Take a seat, perpetuators of the "first person traumatic complex". You might learn something.
Anna Spargo-Ryan is a Melbourne-based writer and mental health advocate. Her debut novel The Paper House is out in June.