Introducing “Writing/Fighting to Survive: The Rhetorical Strategies of Trauma Bloggers”

As I reconstruct my dissertation–rewriting, revising, conducting a new research study–I’ve been considering many of the questions that reappear in my personal research journal. Since my research isn’t just my research, I can’t really make my research reflections fully public. Some of the things that I reflected on were concerns for specific participants (I include this here because I am conducting a new research study to complete my dissertation and have an entirely different set of research participants) or feelings that were at the time too personal to share with my blogging audience. I’m beginning to test out these boundaries now for several reasons. First, blogging is good for me. Seriously, it’s like vitamin C (and not the sunshine and vitamin C that I joke about being in clove cigarettes) and warm chamomile tea followed by a slug of peppermint oil to wake up your brain. As Father Ong (That’s Walter J. Ong, S.J. to all of you non-Purdue, non-rhet/comp geeks like me) so aptly put it “the writer’s audience is always a fiction.” So, while writing in my research journal, I am writing to a fictional audience just as you, my dear blog reader, are a fiction in your own way, writing in my blog makes the audience less fictional. Sure, I imagine you when I write and until I hit the “post” button that’s all you are–imagined readers. But the great thing about blogging is that in the moment that my post changes status from “draft” to “published,” you emerge from the ether along with my pixelated thoughts and voila–real readers who write back. And this brings me to…

Here’s a piece of my dissertation introduction for your edification. Feedback is appreciated.

When I wrote my master’s thesis, I began with a story of my own pain, relating it to the purpose and context of my subject matter. I did this because stories matter. They are how we construct ourselves within the world, how we determine self worth, how we deal with the vicissitudes of living, and most importantly for me, they provide insight into our motivations. Just as motive is important to understanding our life decisions in a broader context, it is important for the scholar in understanding what she chooses to research, to the writer in understanding what she chooses to write about and how. My research deals explicitly with these motivations that compel the trauma blogger to write about their experiences. It seems only fitting that I do the same.

I was first diagnosed with primary PTSD and chronic depression at the age of nineteen. These two diagnoses did not define me but rather put into words what I was experiencing. After a lifetime of painful medical conditions and procedures as well as emotional and physical abuse, my psyche was damaged, so much so that I feared it might never heal. Luckily, I was fortunate enough to meet an amazing therapist who guided me in understanding and working through the traumas that had so disrupted my ability to live fully in this world. In addition, I had a caring psychiatrist who carefully worked with me to find a drug regimen to balance out the neurochemical problems that contributed to my disorders. Many people with PTSD and depression are not as lucky as I have been and/or need to supplement the professional help by engaging in therapeutic techniques that they develop in response to who they are. The people discussed in my research have chosen writing as the vehicle for their therapy, more specifically they have chosen blogging.

Like the bloggers that I discuss, I needed to develop my own techniques for dealing with my trauma. Unsurprisingly these techniques were rooted in my previous experiences of dealing with problems. First, I researched; I read everything I could find on PTSD. I read clinical studies, psychological theories, research into the causes and effects of PTSD, narratives, and literary theory. I became consumed with learning about trauma, convinced that if I could only understand it, I could defeat it. Since then I have written about and researched trauma extensively; I have posed theories about trauma and language; I have analyzed works of literary fiction and nonfiction; and after I became a blogger, I began studying the writing of trauma bloggers. My academic and scholarly nature lead me to deal with my trauma in concert with my professional development. However, throughout all of this I discovered that what helped most was not the research and reading but the writing about it. Like these trauma bloggers, writing became my therapeutic outlet. Yet my writing did not fall into the traditional rubric of therapeutic writing; it was and is primarily academic in nature and doesn’t fall into the genre of therapeutic journalling. In spite of this, I have found it to be more rewarding than writing about the specific experiences and perhaps more importantly, it feels safer. Those feelings of safety are often what allow victims to write about feelings and experiences that they cannot speak of.

My own experience inspired the questions that I explore here. What has motivated these bloggers to write? More specifically, why did they choose blogging rather than private journals? Why have they chosen personal blogs as opposed to the support forums that are plentiful? And when they sit down to write a blog entry, why do they do it? What experiences motivate them to take the time to sit and write and publish their thoughts? And I don’t mean the traumas that are the origin of their PTSD; I mean the experiences that directly precede the act of writing the entry. How do they respond to the experience in content and form? Do they write about the experience, the emotions that the experience engenders, or do they externalize like me and write about what they learn through the media and reading? I want to know what the writing means to them and if it helps. I want to know the answers to all of these questions, but to answer them I need to start at the beginning—the motivation.

As Kenneth Burke has noted “motives are shorthand terms for situations” (p. 30, Permanence & Change). In making this claim, he is explaining that motives are more complex than we usually perceive them to be. Motives are situations that we recognize through a pattern of stimuli and response that have occurred with enough frequency that we have generated a word for them. For example, my motivation in writing this is what I would describe as a desire to help myself and others. My “desire to help” is actually my response to a situation in which I see a pattern. Specifically, there are people who are hurting and who deserve to have their voices heard; I want to have my voice heard; I want to do my part in helping these people; and I am best equipped to help through my training as a rhetorician and scholar. So, there is a situation that involves both stimulus and response that I have translated into the words “a desire to help.” The motivations of the bloggers that I am discussing are no less complicated. Understanding the situational context of their writing helps me to understand what interactions constitute their defined motives which then helps me understand their writing. To clarify, the writing in this context is the response, and I am trying to identify the stimuli and understand the response and by making connections between stimuli and response understand motive.

So, the reader may have a question here: why do motives matter? An excellent question deserving of an explanation. I refer back to Burke to answer this. In examining motive I am actually looking at three linked concepts: orientation, motivation, and communication. Trauma victims’ orientation has been disrupted by their response to trauma. It’s really not dissimilar to being lost. The structures or landmarks that you use to determine your position are no longer there; you are disoriented and to find your way you must find those structures. “Orientation is a bundle of judgments as to how things were, how they are, and how they may be.” (14) Orientation is a means of understanding the world, when it is lost or disrupted, so is the individual sense of self and well being. Motivation is directly related to one’s orientation. The stimuli and response to a given situation (and the naming of it) are understood through prior experience. For the traumatized their orientation, influenced by trauma, results in response to stimuli that can be harmful in a multitude of ways. Because their response doesn’t always make sense in the way that we might normally understand it, they can’t attribute a word for it. They can’t give the situation a name. Thus, they cannot communicate their experience and that is what makes traumatic experiences traumatic—the disabling effect that they have on our ability to communicate. Communication is how we make connections to others. Ultimately these three concepts are circular. Communication helps us to reestablish orientation. Being able to communicate the trauma and experiences returns the ability to situate that bundle of judgments that is our orientation. Since my argument here is that writing allows us to process information differently and in some ways more effectively than other forms of communication, I need to understand the motive for writing as opposed to talking and the efficacy of blogging as the means of communicating these experiences. I also am trying to determine how blogging may move the blogger toward more stable orientation.

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