Review: Writing About Trauma

Press Room Coordinator Madeleine Laing review’s Saturday’s panel, Writing About Trauma, with Tom Doig, Zainab Syed, Alana Schetzer and Eliza Henry-Jones

This afternoons, at times sombre, deeply moving and informative event features panellists who’ve all had experience reporting on trauma, though initially they all struggle to describe what trauma writing actually is, because trauma, by definition, is beyond words. Zainab Syed, a performance poet who’s had experience running workshops in American prisons as well as with people devastated by war in Pakistan says that ‘trauma writing involves creating a space that’s safe’, and that ‘it can often be more about silence than words’.

The panellists agree that experiencing other people’s trauma is not something you can really prepare for. Author and journalist Tom Doig has been reporting on the aftermath of the gas fire in the economically disadvantaged Victorian town of Morewell, and says although he knew rationally that it was going to be traumatic, and did have to do a lot of ethics preparation to protect the people he was interviewing, it all kind of went out the window when he got there. He found it seemed to help people to speak about what happened to them, because they’d been so neglected by the rest of Australia – and for them trauma was part of their everyday life; they’d almost become numb to it. However for him, coming from privilege, hearing their stories was incredibly traumatic.

Zainab says that her work in American prisons often confused the lines between a workshop and a therapy space, and that she had to become numb to the women’s stories because she wasn’t trained to provide therapy, so all she could do was listen and take it all in.

The work that Age journalist Alana Schetzer does in reporting on tragedy means she has to be objective and can’t let herself be affected, and she talks about feeling guilt over feeling upset over other people’s stories because it’s not your trauma to claim. Both Tom and Zainab talk about the huge moral responsibility to do something, to help these traumatised people, Zainab explaining it as a crushing weight she has to sometimes let go when there’s just nothing she can do. Tom also felt the weight, being a friend and a councillor as well as a journalist to his interviewees, it was a responsibility that almost crippled him. He felt as if he had to fix the lives of people he was talking to by writing a story that would bring then national coverage – but for a long time was too upset to write at all. He describes a feeling of ‘other people’s emotions coming out of me’, and period of raw emotional trauma and illness.

Author Eliza Henry-Jones comes from a therapy background and worked with families who had issues with substance abuse and violence, and says that when she first started working with families she says she was too invested in stopping her clients from using drugs, and any time they did she felt responsible, and also became physically ill from the trauma and stress. Alana says that news journalists can’t really prepare for the emotional impact of the story because you don’t know what it’s going to turn into, and it’s going to effect everyone in different ways. All the panellist bring up the importance of ‘debriefing’, talking to people who understand and having a community or person who can tell when you’re not ok, and stop you from running away from grief and breaking down. Tom talks about the importance of humour as well, and for people to come together and make light of horrible experiences to try and understand and move past them.

The big question of the session is how to do justice to other people’s stories, and all the writer’s have different strategies – because Eliza writes fiction she has to trust her research and her gut to know it’ll resonate with people, Tom thought of his work in Morwell as a collaborative process and would send it to the people he interviewed to edit. To finish Alana points out that, although they’d touched on a lot of dark emotional stuff, a lot of pride and reward can come from reporting on trauma and telling these stories: Alana cites helping to tell the stories of Black Saturday survivors as a point of pride, and Tom is also proud of his book and how it’s been received by the people of Morwell. Audience members’ questions focus on the cathartic effects of talking about personal traumas, and the panel give some beautiful advice about how to create a community where you can feel safe to share, and do what you need to do to move past a trauma.