Bearing Witness to Trauma: Co-ownership, Envy and the Self-indulgent Need to Narrate.

I began the day reading a journal article “A qualitative study exploring vicarious trauma in prison officers” (King and Oliver, 2020). While reading the article, it became apparently that this work provides an interesting lens to begin a comparative analysis of depictions of trauma.

First and foremost I think it’s important to note that a critical analysis of Trauma Tourism does not negate acceptance of the on-set and experiences of trauma for the ‘authors’ of such publications. Simply, my critiques of Trauma Tourism and its harms, is not mutually exclusive to a lack of acceptance or identification of their lived experiences of trauma. I can, and I do, stand firm in my belief that Trauma Tourism publications are harmful, ethically problematic and serve a self-indulgent need to narrate other people’s pain, in the pursuit of increased human capital. Often deriving from a place of trauma commodification and fetishism whereby, accounts of extreme situations sell books. Books which offer the reader a trauma hit, from positions of borrowed emotion. Simultaneously, I can, and I do recognise a range of lived experiences result in different traumas. Again, a critique of Trauma Tourism isn’t to negate the trauma of others, it’s to prevent trauma perpetuation.

Quite frankly, I find it fascinating that people can call us to bear witness to their own traumatic experiences whilst producing literature within the field which propels and sustains the trauma of others. You become complicit in your own demise when you example acute unawareness in the limitations of your narrative. When your work sets out to provoke crises and you do nothing to resolve it, calls to empathy for personal trauma become somewhat redundant. When you create literature which forever suspends unknowing characters in positions of pain and despair, but you have the chance and the power and the voice, to ensure your own story gets to progress. That you get to heal and you get to be heard, that is not fair. There is no final account of our lives, my life, your life, anybody’s life. But when you steal trauma in a self-serving pursuit of human capital, you forever create a character…a character who is a real person, with a real family, who really feels that pain, and you put them in a story that never changes.

Riley was his name, self-harming was his game, which brought him more grief than anyone else. He’d had a hard life and it showed. A serial arsonist who would never be free, he was destined for a high security hospital, this creature and a half” (Samworth, 2019).

The above quote illustrates a depiction of person, whose personal trauma has been stolen for a story, which serves a purpose to build human capital for the “author”. The lack of consent and the lack of knowledge from ‘Riley’ means he’ll forever be “this creature and a half” because his power to change his character in a story he doesn’t know about is non-existent. As such, the “author” of this publication becomes the co-owner of Riley’s trauma and evidences the “author’s” authority as the interpreter over people who can no longer speak for themselves. Simply, there is nothing here to be gained from sharing the story of Riley, it is not by playing words, form a position of pitying spectatorship, that’s Riley’s trauma will be felt and understood. In reality, this quote highlights the essence of Trauma Tourism in which the “author” speaks for Riley, from a position of by-proxy, with arrogance and incomprehension.

For readers who have not read either publication, I’ll now provide an analysis of “A qualitative study exploring vicarious trauma in prison officers” (King and Oliver, 2020) and “Strangeways – A Prison Officer’s Story: Life behind bars with Britain’s most notorious criminals” (Samworth, 2019).

Aims of publication:

“The aim of the present study, therefore, was to add to the above limited existing literature on how prison officers in England and Wales experience Vicarious Trauma” (King and Oliver, 2020).

“By being so open and honest about what went on, I hope to help it do better, that’s all” (Samworth, 2019).

Notably, King and Oliver (2020) provide data capture methods, analysis of data methodology and evidence how participant consent was obtained and participants right to withdraw. Comparatively, Samworth (2019) notes: “Where necessary, names have been changed to protect the innocent- and on occasion the guilty”.  The juxtaposition of ‘open and honest’ with no participant consent or knowledge, obtaining data in a position of power and providing harmful traumatic depictions of real life, dressed as characters and ‘creatures’, exemplifies ethical and moral delusion.

 Implications from publication:

King and Oliver (2020) provide a harrowing account of the trauma experienced by prison officers. They do so in a way which distances the prison officers trauma from the prisoners traumas, although noting that the trauma experiences of prisoners can lead to personal and direct experiences of trauma for the officers. Notably, King and Oliver (2020) avoid depictions of specific and individualised prisoner trauma and still manage to explain how prison officers are harmed as a by-product of their duty. Further, King and Oliver (2020) offer solution focused narrative on how the prison service may proceed in protecting the health of their staff.

Comparatively, Samworth (2019) fails through-out the publication to address any limitations of his own narrative or perspective although notably he does attempt to offer a solutions focused agenda: “My grandad, though, always used to say, ‘Don’t bring me problems Sam – bring me solutions”. One of Samworth’s first solutions (although it isn’t clear what exactly he is aiming to solve) is ‘education in jail’ which he asserts ‘should be practical or else it’s useless’. Leading on to an assertion that current courses in prison are ‘aimed too high for most inmates who don’t give a shit about identity politics’.  

In the interest of clarify, and correction, I would firmly argue that “authors” who steal stories of trauma in self-serving pursuits for recognition and to appease trauma fetishism, are in fact the ones who ‘don’t give a shit about identity politics’. Further, the strongest critiques of this publication are coming from people who have first-hand experience of imprisonment, evidencing that we do give a shit about identity politics, especially when “authors” are suspending characters in states damage and despair in stories, without any awareness of their own identity politics. Upon review, the publication is dominated by stigmatizing and dominant political discourse, with personal identities being distorted and sensationalised in a narrative depicting a thirst to harm and punish.

A further solution offered by Samworth (2019) (again, there is no clarity on what these solutions aim to resolve) is to reduce or stop methadone in exchange for life management:

Addicts get disability living allowance, DLA, and it can equate to between £1,500 and £2,000 a month – as much as a prison officer earns! All you are doing is setting them up to fail. What addicts need more is life management”.

I hope the absolute ridiculousness of the above quote doesn’t even need addressing….. but I am happy to if its warranted…..

Limitations of publication:

King and Oliver (2020) provide a detailed section articulating the limitations of their study. Including, “the low sample size, which makes it difficult to generalise”. In contrast Samworth (2019) fails to address any limitations to his observation and analysis. I’ll address a few:

  • Ethically problematic as characters were denied the opportunity to consent, subsequently, denied the opportunity to challenge and/or withdraw
  • Neglects variety of experience – depicts politically sensitive narratives which drive political consequences from crime and justice
  • Inferiorizes the victims of trauma from an outside perspective
  • Exerts power in ability, rights and knowledge to define what does or does not compromise individual boundaries
  • Only representative of personal experience, not recognition of bias
  • Lack of awareness in the socio-political harms of producing trauma and the coercive element in transforming the reader in to sites of vicarious trauma – despite a personal recognition of how vicarious trauma has impacted the “author”.

In sum, what is clear is that the traumas experienced by prison officers as a by-product of their environments can be depicted and shared without the exploitation and theft of other people’s trauma. The use of quotation marks around the word author, is to identify that although the “author” of a publication, the traumas and experiences depicted within the publication do not belong to him, and he had no consent to “author” them.

I’ll end on a quote which demands consideration:

I want to warn against the allure of trauma envy, that is, the temptation that those of us who witness the testimony of others appropriate to ourselves an unmerited, unearned part in the story of suffering. It has been argued that vicarious trauma may have socially and ethically useful effects; but it may also be self-indulgent and ethically delusional” (Davis, 2011).

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