UW Today

November 2, 2011

'Chronicling Trauma': New book explores intersection of journalism, fiction, traumatic violence

Some items about some British and American authors: Poet and essayist Charles Lamb had a sister who stabbed their mother to death. Lamb had to pull the knife from his sister‘s hand. Novelist and essayist Mary McCarthy lost her parents in the flu epidemic of 1918. She and her siblings were dispatched to relatives who treated them with Dickensian cruelty. Holocaust writer Elie Wiesel survived Nazi concentration camps but lost his mother, father and sister in the process.

In various ways, some subtle, some direct and highly focused, these experiences found their way into each writers work, says a new book by UW Communications Professor Doug Underwood. As a researcher and former reporter for The Seattle Times, Underwood noticed how often trauma, emotional instability and substance abuse played into the careers and personal lives of writers who have been journalists.

Hes written a book about it: Chronicling Trauma: Journalists and Writers on Violence and Loss. Published this month by the University of Illinois Press, the book focuses on 150 British and American authors who have been both journalists and literary writers.

From its beginning with the rise of commercial publications in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, journalism has often focused on unusual and sometimes violent events because they interest readers: fires, battles, murders, executions, monsters and madness. Underwood finds, among a number of things, that writers turn from journalism to fiction when news stories, graphic though they may be, cant drill deep enough, cant convey complex psychology. Charles Dickens tired of political reporting, eventually writing fiction, Underwood says, “as a way to personalize and humanize issues of human suffering” and explore pain in his own life, including his troubled childhood.

Historically too, says Underwood, fiction has been a way for authors to deal with the tough-it-out culture of newsrooms and get at the story beyond the fact, beyond the gore. Some journalists have covered serious crimes for years, spent long periods in war zones, had their writings censored or suppressed, or suffered emotional breakdowns related to their work. Sometimes, Underwood says, they have used journalism “as ballast against their own inner turmoil.” At the same time, Underwood adds, many writers have used psychological stress to fire their ambition. And sometimes, the extent of trauma is clear only when journalists write in more intimate and subjective terms.

Doug Underwood

Doug Underwood

But there are also writers such as Henry Adams, who in his autobiography wrote nothing about the suicide of his wife, and Ernest Hemingway, whose World War I experiences became the foundation for his macho, emotionally distant characters. Underwood notes how many sources of trauma in Hemingways life he turned to advantage as a journalist and a novelist. Examples include Jake Barnes, the protagonist in The Sun Also Rises who learns about journalism and war service as places where stoic attitudes are taught as means of physical and emotional survival. The four chapters of Chronicling Trauma detail traumatic experiences in the lives of journalist-literary figures and ways journalism may have contributed to their stress.

Underwood notes, however, that trauma may be different for contemporary journalists. More is known about treatment of mental illness than in the past. At the same time, because of downsizing in the industry and growth of social media, more journalists are working on their own, without the day-to-day support of peers who understand the stresses.

In the end, however, Underwood comes back to storytelling as a way to cope, to survive the pain: “The hold of trauma in our minds and our emotions can be eased somewhat if a story can be ‘written out and shared with others.”

Underwood has written three other books: From Yahweh to Yahoo: The Religious Roots of the Secular Press, Journalism and the Novel: Truth and Fiction, 1700-2000, and When MBAs Rule the Newsroom: How the Marketers and Managers Are Reshaping Todays Media.