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The Trauma of Writing About Trauma

Reporters on the nightmares they get from covering war, racism, and rape


Hours after submitting to my editor my draft of a long, reported magazine feature about my alma mater’s campus rape problem, I woke up screaming from a horrifying dream about being drugged and raped. I’m not a survivor of sexual assault, but I write about it often, and this article was more than six months in the making. The accounts I’d heard had lodged themselves into my subconscious. Now, they were making their presence known, and brutally so. I barely slept for the next three nights, afraid that if I did, I’d return to that terrible nightmare.

Many journalists experience similar symptoms after witnessing horrific trauma, becoming traumatized themselves. In her new book Irritable Hearts: A PTSD Love Story, human rights reporter Mac McClelland wrote about how her reporting on sexual violence in the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake left her emotionally and psychologically shattered. The trauma of finding and telling stories about the worst things that can happen to human beings was cumulative; though witnessing sexual violence in Haiti was what triggered her PTSD, she had spent months reporting on human suffering, and often, doing that work put her in harm’s way. Before Haiti, she had reported on the human impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, writing about the misery of fishermen and their families as their livelihoods evaporated; before that, she wrote about vigilante justice on an Indian reservation in Oklahoma, where a group of her sources joked openly about raping her. After a while, doing her job left her unable to do her job.

The emotional response McClelland describes flies in the face of the traditional image of the objective and impartial reporter, one to which our culture irrationally clings. To admit that your work affects you and that the facts you report keep you up at night can endanger your credibility as a journalist. For women in particular, it layers a feminine stereotype over the already difficult struggle to be taken seriously as a journalist, something that war photojournalist Lynsey Addario tackles in her new memoir It’s What I Do. Recounting an incident in which she and three other journalists drove into the Libyan city of Adjdabiya during that country’s civil war in 2011, Addario writes that she was anxious and frightened, but that she kept her feelings to herself. "I didn’t want to be the cowardly photographer or the terrified girl who prevented the men from doing their work,” she wrote. Lauren Wolfe, who covers sexual violence in conflict zones for Women Under Siege and sat on the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) for five years, says that the question of how covering trauma affects journalists was rarely brought up during her time there. "It’s a conversation that no one is willing to have," she says. The CPJ’s Journalist Security Guide now includes a short entry on "stress reactions."

Wolfe was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of her work, and though she says she isn’t ashamed to talk about it on the record, "part of my stomach clenches before I answer." Her tone part defiant, part matter-of-fact, she asks, rhetorically, "Why should I be ashamed by being affected by terrible things? It’s natural, and by recognizing it, you can deal with it and move on."

Women journalists are not the only ones whose work leaves them depressed, anxious, outraged, or traumatized. Guardian reporter Oliver Laughland has reported extensively on Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers, which the United Nations has found to be in violation of the Convention Against Torture. Laughland recalls seeing some of the first images of a riot at the Manus Island Detention Centre in Papua New Guinea early last year, when one asylum seeker was killed and about 70 were injured. "It was a complete war zone," Laughland says, with "people coming in with gunshot wounds, people who’d been clocked over the head with rocks, and it’s something you just can’t get out of your head." Those images, Laughland says, don’t go away when you shut your eyes, and sometimes, he says, they haunt him.

Still, Wolfe says, how to help journalists grapple with their feelings about their work, and the fact that they have feelings about their work at all, "has long been the quiet background of what we do. It’s not discussed, for the typical macho reasons." Wolfe tells me that for men in the media, the expectations of masculinity combine with notions of journalistic remove to keep them silent. "I’ve talked to plenty of men who cover war and are having the exact same problems I am, they just won’t say it beyond a dinner conversation with me," she says, adding that there a lot of male journalists with PTSD.

The journalists to whom I spoke told me that they had ways of dealing with the emotional cost of the work they do--none of which include smashing things, cuddling with farm animals, or retreating to the woods and growing a beard, as The Daily Show correspondent Samantha Bee appeared to do recently while reporting on custody battles between rapists and their victims. "I just have to let that be what it is, and be overwhelmed and sad and cry," said journalist Jessica Luther, who covers sexual violence in sports and is the author of the forthcoming book Unsportsmanlike Conduct. "I have one great friend who tells me, 'If you never want to write on this again, that’s okay. You don’t have to do this.' And I will, but that helps." Watching mindless television, reading novels, and writing about unrelated topics (like Muggle Quidditch, in Luther’s case) were also popular ways of mitigating the effects of work.

"I worked it out with a lot of my usual coping mechanisms, some good and some not so good," said Kate Harding, author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture - And What We Can Do About It. "Some yoga, some, 'I’m gonna eat a fistful of Cheetos now.' Sometimes a martini or two."

So, there’s the challenge of being waist-deep in disturbing subject matter all day and feeling that speaking publicly about how disturbed you are will affect your perceived impartiality. (Wolfe asks, "What is the 'impartial stance' on rape in conflict, anyway?") And added to that, there’s the issue of location. The very shift in the landscape of journalism that has made it possible for there to be more space for more people to write about these topics, the internet, has increased the likelihood that those people will be freelancers who work from home. When you don’t have an office, you can't leave your work there. Without set work hours, you can’t clock out. It's not so much a matter of taking the trauma home with you; the trauma lives at home with you.

Brittney Cooper, a Salon columnist and college professor who writes about anti-black and gender-based violence, told me she finds it helpful to talk to other people who do the kind of work she does, both in academia and in mainstream media. Acknowledgement that the work is hard helps, she says. "Sometimes we’ll get together and talk and drink and vent,” she told me “I mean, how many ways can you say 'stop killing us?'" That happens both in the flesh and on Twitter, which she uses for comedy, absurdity, and cultural creativity. A more powerful coping mechanism for Cooper, she told me, is remembering that as hard as her work is, it is easier than it was for those who came before her—women like journalist and civil rights activist Ida B. Wells. "Things could be worse," she said. "It's the easiest it's ever been, to be a black woman doing this work, and it still isn't easy at all. So I try to remember the extreme difficulty of those who paved the way."

In a recent interview about her work and her book, McClelland said that one of the risks she weighed when deciding whether or not to write about her mental illness was that people’s perceptions of her would be negatively and irrevocably altered. Complete strangers might worry about her, as if she were some kind of fragile flower. Prospective employers might decide not to assign her certain stories, or any stories at all. She’s not alone: our culture’s stigmatization of mental illness is alive and well in journalism, and it keeps a lot of us silent about our suffering; several of the journalists I spoke to refused to go on the record if it meant revealing that they had sought mental health care as a result of their work. McClelland noted that she wrote her book because it didn’t exist when she needed it, and that she might have understood the impact that the distress was having on her if she’d been able to read another journalist’s account of PTSD or of secondary trauma. 

Independent journalist Jordan Kisner agrees that more discussion of the problem would make journalists feel less isolated. Kisner says that it was helpful to hear an interview with war correspondent Scott Anderson, in which he recounted his experience of coming home after working in a war zone. "He talked about being angry, and about needing a few days cushion between being on assignment and going home again because when confronted with regular life, his life, and its privileges and comforts, he gets overwhelmingly angry and despondent and alienated," Kisner recalled.

That sounded a lot like how she felt after reporting a story from inside one of the most notoriously violent and abusive prisons in the country. "I found it incredibly powerful to hear someone else talking honestly about their experience," Kisner says, "because it forced me to identify my experience as what it was: traumatic." Kisner wondered aloud if being able to consciously grapple with that trauma earlier, she might have spared herself "several months of destructive non-coping." Still, she says, it’s so rarely talked about, and she largely lacks a frame of reference for understanding the emotional and psychological aftermath of assignments that involve trauma. "How do people deal with that healthily?" she asks. "Therapy? Meditation? Just being naturally resilient? I'd like to know."

Personally, I find that therapy helps—or at least, it beats staying up for three nights in a row because you’re too afraid of your own imagination. Cooper’s mantra, "things could be worse," is a good one. For those of us who walk in the footsteps of people who suffered more, and who cover the stories of people who suffer greatly, it's true. Things could be worse. Still, for a lot of us, things are pretty bad. There are some stories that don’t leave you once you lay them down on the page. You close the doc file and send it to your editor. You close the browser tab, and if you’re like me, you hope that the stories won’t come back to you in your sleep. But the stories don't go away, and neither does the pressure to suck it up and do your job, unfazed. As Laughland said, "you’re not human if you don’t have a response."