Borrowed Voices. Stolen Stories; The Commodification and Fetishism of Trauma.

For many of you, this piece will be an extension of closely followed dismay on my part, to some very unethical and immoral publications. Publications which, by and large have set out to, put simply, profit from misery, pain and in some cases even death. Much of what I have read speaks to a lack of integrity, compassion and basic kindness. The lack of these things coupled with the environments in which these traumas unfold, should evoke great ethical and probably legal concerns regarding patient confidentiality, the prison service workforce and exploitation of those imprisoned, to name but a few. 

There has been a mixture of support, shock and out-right dismissal at my concept of trauma tourism (See previous blogs: Trauma Tourism and The Metaphorical Blindfold), but on a personal level, some of the literature I have read has been so grotesque that I have gone to sleep and woken up with migraine. For me, there is trauma in reading about trauma. Aside from headaches and feelings of complete despair, there has been a small collective effort in recognising the harms of such work. Calls to begin to conceptualise Trauma Tourism within academic literature have been present but currently there are a few things which lead me to believe that my blog is currently the best place for this work to unravel

1.            I’m not actually an academic and have a full time job, a child and a master’s degree to complete, so timing to focus solely on building this work is lacking. I also am mindful of my own position tinkering on the edges of academia though undergrad and postgrad study with the knowledge of how difficult it is for the people who often appear in trauma stories to navigate into academic space. As with power to steal trauma stories, academia plays a role in excluding marginalised groups from knowledge production. Ultimately, and simultaneously working alongside trauma tourism to sustain the voicelessness and invisibly of certain groups. This blog isn’t about academia but the point needs to be addressed. 

2.            I don’t want this work and the developments in understanding the harms of Trauma Tourism to be inaccessible. In fact, I want as many people as possible to read it, digest it, reflect on it and ultimately, be a part of a collective to eradicate it. 

3.            I am really influenced and inspired by the work of Shadd Maruna, specifically his recognition of desistance as a social movement, led by people with lived experience themselves. On this note, I really believe that it is those that continue to be exploited through these Trauma Tourism publications who will really come together as a collective to envision and lead a safer and kinder way forward. This will be done through accessible resource, lived experienced leadership, collective knowledge building and resistance to the harmful practice of Trauma Tourism. 

I’m not going to use this space to give airplay to specific publications, but after reading a certain book this week, a few things of happened, which I’ll address in no particular order. My thinking and conceptualising this has been a million miles an hour this week and I’m speaking this out to mind maps and theory probably at an unhealthy rate. So bear with me. Initially, numerous comments came to me as means on endorsement that, broadly speaking “prisoners and prisoners families like/enjoy the book”. There is so much I can say about this but I’m just going to speak to the most relevant. (Just for context for any new readers, I am a former prisoner myself and the publication being discusses is a prison officers narrative of life as a prison officer). 

So, where to begin…. First I guess is the obvious and simple identification that just because something is likable and/or enjoyable, that doesn’t mean that is isn’t harmful. I think that this point is actually well evidenced by the author, who by all accounts depicts people and prison as harmful individuals but gets kicks out watching them in crisis without medical assistance. Just because something is enjoyable, it does not mean it is not harmful. 

Just to elaborate slightly on the above point about harm… when I say that Trauma Tourism is harmful, that harm really needs to be considered against a socio-political backdrop. Some of you may read this and think “how is reading a book harmful”? Interesting, a comment on twitter which endorsed this publication as ‘likeable’ also stating that if they had read a publication which depicted their own family’s trauma, they would be ‘devastated’. With this in mind, we begin to see how something that is ‘likable’, is only that, when it is not personal. When you or your family member are not the borrowed voice, or the stolen story. As soon as we begin to realise that in this instance, anybody in prison could be the selected character, our thinking tends to shift. The harm goes so much wider than personal devastation and disgust. 

I used an analogy recently to try to articulate the harms of Trauma Tourism, I don’t think I’ve quite captured the magnitude yet but this is what I am working on. Most of you will have a brief understanding of the concept of policing by consent… in honestly my knowledge around the concept is minimal but policing by consent briefly operationalises through public faith and trust that the police will protect us and keep us safe from harm. Policing by consent is reinforced and legitimised through media and news depictions of ‘violent thugs’ and sensationalist propaganda. How many times have you watched crime watch and thought you’d be safer with those people in prison? Importantly, recognition must be paid here to the defund the police position propelled by the George Floyd murder and subsequent Black Lives Matter movement. Which aligns with my previous argument that it is the lived experience collective movement which influences and leads change. 

Anyway, a very brief articulation of policing by consent brings us back to Trauma Tourism and it harms. No, reading a book isn’t harmful. Endorsing and purchasing the trauma of those in prison for entertainment is. Trauma Tourism publication is a function to perpetuate punishment. So, in the same way that policing by consent operationalises through public engagement and endorsement, Trauma Tourism acceptance and endorsement is legitimising punishment by consent. We keep reading it, and for as long as we keep reading it, we are putting a price on trauma.

It’s the good old concept of supply and demand. Trauma has been commodified, through fetishism of ‘true crime’ and voyeuristic tendencies which bring pleasure from other people’s distress. Moving away from a prison system position, more broadly we can see how Trauma Tourism is legitimised socially through films like The Greatest Showman (which I love by the way), and the ‘odd ones’ performing at the circus. We see the drastic consequences of Trauma Tourism through the suicide of Caroline Flack. Our need for trauma or ‘reality’ entertainment, is why we keep on getting it. Would Caroline’s suicide of happened if she was not hounded by the media…probably not. Would the media of hounded Caroline if we weren’t consuming the tabloid press…..probably not. To quote Cluley and Dunne (2012):

“Contemporary studies show us, though, that ethically concerned consumers rarely act on their concerns – instead they act as if they were unenlightened about the negative effects of their consumption”.

If you are ethically concerned about the exploitation of marginalised and voiceless groups, who lack power and agency, it should be a personal and social responsibility to resist trauma commodification, call out voyeurism and reduce the consumer demand of other people’s trauma. 

To the Authors’, Brene Brown talks about brave leadership and calls for the removal of armour. Whether your armour be, ignorance, arrogance or fear. Remove the armour, there is bravery in the unarmoured self, willing to accept, learn and change. There is no integrity, no authenticity and no leadership in commodifying trauma to appease voyeurism. 

Those borrowed voices, 

Those stolen stories, 

Those broken bodies, 

They are not yours. 

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