When Writing is Your Job, Researching Trauma Can Be a Workplace Hazard
Finding Time For Violence Throughout Your Work Day
I rove supermarket aisles with my earphones in, listening to a podcast about abuse in out-of-home care beneath the hard white lights. Wind chimes in a neighbor’s yard make me think, inexorably, of an anecdote from a state “care” leaver* who, as a teenager, hung her own chimes in her bedroom doorway as a kind of warning system to announce the arrival of a predatory staff member. I read a 110-page coronial inquest report on a six-week-old baby suffocated by her mother over breakfast, shoveling in forkfuls of omelette as I attempt to decode the clinical significance of frank blood versus frothy pink fluid in an infant’s endotracheal tube.
I’m working on a new project, a novel. It has involved extensive research into perinatal mental health, parental infanticide, and the history of residential and out-of-home care in Victoria, Australia. Like a bowerbird or a magpie, I collect things. I’m building my own ugly digital nest on a flash drive, in a OneNote document, in the notes section of my phone.
There are academic articles, dozens of Supreme Court judgments, care leaver testimony, police interview transcripts. There’s a 438-page PDF version of the 2004 Forgotten Australians Senate Inquiry—“A report on Australians who experienced institutional or out-of-home care as children,” which I’ve read four or five times. There are grainy images from annual reports published by children’s homes in the 1970s and 80s.
Before I started work on this manuscript, I was sufficiently familiar with these subjects that nothing I’ve read, so far, has truly shocked me. I keep thinking I’ve become habituated; that, like a vaccination containing a measure of attenuated bacteria, the hundreds of thousands of words have immunized me against the horror of it over time.
But it has turned out be more like a dose of a something that lies dormant before metastasizing. Neither of my previous books involved reading of this magnitude. Never before have I shrouded myself in material of this nature for so long, and so intensely. I want to make something that feels real, to capture the emotional temperature of the era and places I’m writing about. Research is critical for verisimilitude. But there is something demented in making yourself read this stuff. And I’ve always been hyper-cognizant of becoming a trauma tourist.
I want to write about insidious, cumulative weight. I’m trying to write about writing about trauma, and the ways it changes your brain.
I’m acutely aware that all of this is, in many respects, a non-problem. I am not a “care” leaver, or an abuse survivor with complex PTSD. And while secondary trauma is very real, it primarily affects people in caregiving professions—nurses, social workers, therapists, paramedics and so on. Most of my friends and family work in these roles. They’re on the front line.“Where I used to put on a record while I cooked dinner, I now slice vegetables listening to audio recordings of 911 calls through my earbuds.”
I have a strange but stubborn chip on my shoulder about working in a creative profession. Intellectually, of course I believe that the arts have an inherent worth; that there’s value in learning foreign languages; that philosophy and reading and critical thinking are more vital than ever in the present political moment. But the pragmatic—and, yes, working-class—part of me has always considered caring vocational roles to be the noblest work, because they’re jobs that involve actively doing.
I don’t mean this to sound anti-intellectual. That is a different—peculiarly Australian—foible of which I’m only too conscious. What I mean is: I’ve spent almost two years researching trauma, when others deal with it in their day-to-day. I could be doing something instead of reading and writing about it. No one is forcing me to do this. I could stop anytime.
And yet this, again, is twisted reasoning. I’ve always hated the mythologization of art. Writing is labor. It is an unending apprenticeship. There is nothing magical about it except the desire, or the compulsion, to keep going. By this logic I should be able to accept that if this is my job, then secondary trauma is an occupational hazard.
In our family group message, I enquire after everyone’s morning. My 22-year-old sister, a psych nurse, responds: lol we’ve had five code grays already. A code gray involves security personnel. Her ward is, notionally, a youth ward, but the patients are frequently older, and sometimes “overflow” from other psychiatric inpatient facilities, such as Victoria’s Thomas Embling Hospital, a high-security forensic mental health facility. At her workplace induction, she was shown where the break room was, instructed on how to perform basic self-defense maneuvers, and told not to wear her identification on a lanyard around her neck.
For a while, I worked as a closed captioner for the hearing impaired. I was a “speechie” in the live department, meaning I sat in front of a live television broadcast—mostly news and sports programming—listening to the audio, and respeaking it into voice-recognition software, adding punctuation as needed. Respeaking live coverage typically means 15- or 30-minute stints, swapping back and forth with another captioner, as the intense focus required leads to fatigue, and, in turn, errors.
I remember being called into work ahead of my scheduled shift start time on a warm December day in 2014. A man named Man Haron Monis had taken 18 people hostage inside a Lindt chocolate café in downtown Sydney. He had requested a black flag with Arabic text to be displayed in the building’s window; this was initially misreported as being an ISIL flag, and the event was being treated as a terrorist act by the media.
Rolling live coverage means all hands on deck. I went into the office, put on my headphones, and, for over ten hours, sat in front of glowing screens, dully repeating the platitudes of reporters and aching for a happy ending.
I arrived home irritated and edgy. I lay in bed drained but too wired to sleep, refreshing Twitter again and again until after 2 am, when tactical police officers stormed the café after a series of shots was heard inside. Monis and two hostages were killed. Then I went to sleep.
It happened again and again. I can’t explain why certain things were more upsetting than others. I sat and blithely parroted news of the missing Malaysian Airlines jet for weeks. But the testimony of a child sex abuse survivor speaking out against the Catholic Church in the Royal Commission; the schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram; the fate of two convicted drug smugglers, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, executed by firing squad in Indonesia, left me feeling carsick and dazed. In the months leading up to their deaths, through the final appeals process, I hoped for clemency against all reason. It did not come.
Changes in your voice affect the quality of the captions produced: even a headcold can drastically alter one’s accuracy. When I saw one of Chan’s family members weeping in a television interview, my body wanted to mirror hers: some part of my brain was flooded with grief so powerful that it cracked my voice. On the screen, the words appeared all wrong. I hurried to fix my mistake, to repeat the phrase cleanly.
The day when I sat in front of the rolling coverage of the Lindt café siege, as the media dubbed it, a colleague quietly offered me two pieces of advice: firstly, that I should cover up the backfeed screen—where footage from a camera trained on the café window, not destined for public broadcast, rolled on—because she’d once seen someone get shot as she idly watched a similar stream. And secondly, that the company had counsellors we could arrange to speak to if needed.
I noted her first recommendation and ignored the second. The people inside the café, the family members, the hostage negotiators? They needed counselling. I was a stranger, hundreds of miles away, sitting in a grid of glowing screens. I needed nothing.
These days I work in an office as a copywriter. I enjoy this position. I’m fortunate. The things I write about often overlap with my own interests—books, art, cinema, poetry, architecture. Sometimes I teach or undertake freelance editing work to supplement my income. But I also have a deadline for my manuscript, and so I shoehorn in that book-work where I can. Once or twice a week, I set my alarm for 4 am and get up to work. I’m good at scheduling the various parts of my life with Tetris-like precision. I’ve always had a sturdy—obsessive, even—work ethic. What this means in the context of my present project is that I sandwich in violence wherever I can.
Where I used to put on a record while I cooked dinner, I now slice vegetables listening to audio recordings of 911 calls through my earbuds. I commute to work scrolling through a report on the prevalence of peer-to-peer child sex abuse in institutional care, scrutinizing my iPhone with the same intensity as the man watching a football replay beside me. There are days when almost all my downtime—where my brain used to be quiet, or at least permitted to wander—is thus occupied.
Jumpiness, tension, pessimism, noise sensitivity, sleep disturbances, anxiety, headaches, exhaustion, teeth grinding. Individually, they’re barely troublesome enough to comment on. Viewed as a litany, though, they add up to something of heft; of substance.
My boyfriend tells me I was crying in my sleep. Sorry, I say, embarrassed. Don’t apologize, he says. And then, as I tuck my head under his chin: I think it’s good you don’t remember your dreams.
In Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts, she writes about the fog that falls over her as she researches the 1969 murder of her aunt, Jane Mixer, in Michigan:
I could work all day on my project with a certain distance, blithely looking up “bullet” or “skull” in my rhyming dictionary. But in bed at night I found a smattering of sickening images of violent acts ready and waiting for me. Reprisals of the violence done unto Jane, unto the other Michigan Murder girls, unto my loved ones, unto myself, and sometimes, most horribly, done by me. These images coursed through my mind at random intervals, but always with the slapping, prehensile force of the return of the repressed.
Nelson calls it “murder mind.” I recognize it. I’m grateful to her for naming it: the doublethink that occurs when we fill ourselves to the brim with unspeakable brutality, and absorb it in the course of research.
I’m trying to write about writing about trauma, but it feels absurd and esoteric and precious.
I suspect many writers are highly sensitive, and a good deal of them obsessive by nature. This is less to do with the myth of the artist than the personality type suited to the vocation. What I mean is: I don’t consider any of this to be exceptional, or even new. But I do want to understand it better. I want a better vocabulary to describe the ugly cynicism, the fatigue, and the dread that has settled like silt in my blood.
When I started writing this book, there was no Venn diagrammatic overlap between desensitization and trauma in my mind. I thought acclimatizing to atrocity meant I was metabolizing it appropriately.
In thinking about what my next project will be, once this manuscript is done, I’ve considered some kind of long-form non-fiction work on “care” leavers. My primary concern lies with potentially re-traumatizing abuse survivors. But lately, it’s dawned on me that I will need to formalize the research process for myself if I am to keep working in this space.
I’m trying to be less simplistic in the ways I think about trauma and its reverberations. I’m not at the front line. This horror is not my horror. But it’s not nothing, either. I’m trying to think of this as a continuum. I’m trying to better balance this weight.
*A “care” leaver is someone who was formerly a ward of the state—either as a foster child or, in this example, a residential/group home.