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Jun 28 2011

Empathic Trauma

There is a post being passed around on Twitter titled. “I’m Gonna Need You to Fight Me On This: How Violent Sex Helped Ease My PTSD.” If you have rape trauma, I can’t say I’d recommend reading it, although it’s fascinating and the journalist author was not raped. Mac McClelland’s PTSD was triggered by the constant threat of rape and by the trauma of a rape victim she was working with.

The piece is exactly what its title says it is. It is getting mostly two responses that I’ve seen. The predominant one (and more male, come to think of it) is a silence that says the piece is complete in itself. The less common, and more female, is that something more should be said, although what isn’t quite clear. Sometimes just “Thank you.”

At first, my reaction was the predominant one. I felt the story should speak for itself, not because McClelland’s response to her PTSD would have been the same as mine, but because it is a story that doesn’t need to be second-guessed.

Then I got into a brief discussion about whether the trauma and the behavior that followed from it in the field was an indication that McClelland wasn’t cut out for crisis reporting. My argument was that good, high-empathy reporting was often high-cost. Given that I discovered later that McClelland is an award-winning human rights journalist with a well-received book, I think I’m on the right track on this one.

There are a couple of ways to tell a story about dehumanizing violence. One is the “just the facts” approach. It’s misnamed, because what it generally tells are the facts of the violent incident(s) in a way that obscures the facts of the people involved. The causes of violence and the way violence changes people’s lives are facts too. Without them, the facts of the violent incident are presented out of context.

That’s where empathy comes in. It makes the violence something that happens to real people, with real consequences. Frequently, it makes it an act committed by real people, many of whom are also victims.

It’s a hell of a way to write a story when it’s fiction. That anyone can do it well when the story is real is hard to imagine. Doing it well over and over again makes it inevitable that something will come along to bite you and almost inevitable that something will bite you damned hard.

You can’t be fearless and do that job. If you can’t empathize with someone else’s fear, you can’t make your reader empathize with it either. Even if you have the unlikely luxury of reporting from somewhere safe, feeling protected will separate you from your subjects. You have to find other ways to work that close to the bone.

The same goes for pain. To some extent, it must be yours, not theirs.

McClelland’s story is remarkable not so much because she used an unorthodox means of dealing with her trauma as it is because of the glimpse it gives into the larger unorthodoxy of making those accommodations to living in pain and without safety. Her abandonment of ill-fitting “civilized” mores becomes obvious as it stops providing any benefits. Her controlled assertion of a lack of control, and a lack of need for control, would be ironic if it didn’t work so well.

The title of the article promises sex, and the article delivers, but it’s worth so much more as a portrait of a life and a vocation that most of us would never be able to adapt to. Go read the whole thing, if you can.

1 comment

  1. 1
    Jodi

    I read this article this morning and have been digesting for a while. While I think that her method certainly wouldn't work for everyone I also think the point of the article wasn't to suggest 'Hey this could work for you.' which I liked. I also like how she talks about feeling like she didn't deserve to feel so miserable about something that /almost/ happened. I get that, and I think a lot of rape victims and victims of other traumatic events feel the same way, like their story isn't 'bad enough'. It's a hard read but worth it.

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