Dissertation Summary

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

During the past ten years, research on blogging has grown exponentially as the number of bloggers continue to increase and as their readership similarly gains in number. Politically motivated blogs, such as those associated with recent presidential campaigns, and technology/product related blogs are the most frequently read and thus, unsurprisingly, the most often researched. Following the trend of incorporating online communication in higher education, blogging for classes has also increased and research is being conducted in that area. However, the majority of blogs do not, in fact, fall under those categories. The largest number of blogs are actually personal blogs, where individuals discuss the minutiae of daily life, their thoughts on current events, their families, their major life events, and their overall thoughts and feelings. Usually these types of blogs have limited readership, likely explaining why they are less of a research priority. Research on personal blogging has predominantly focused on micro-blogging, the communication on social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter, where there is a wealth of content and large reader populations. My dissertation, Writing/Fighting to Stay Alive: The Rhetorical Strategies of Trauma Bloggers, addresses a subgenre of blogs that connects to some of these previously researched blogs but which, as of yet, has received almost no scholarly attention. I describe these blogs as “trauma blogs,” grouping them together by the shared characteristic that they all deal with the effects of psychological trauma or, as described in the psychological community, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). My dissertation bridges the gap in scholarship on blogging to include these “trauma blogs,” by incorporating existing research on blogging with research on the therapeutic benefits of writing.

I begin by examining the existing literature on therapeutic writing as it has been researched by scholars and practitioners such as James Pennebaker. While a significant amount of the research that I discuss has been written in the field of psychology, I also review the scholarship on composition and literary research. Much of this literature explores the ways that we process information and how writing about experience is processed differently than speaking about it. Part of the argument presented in this research is that we are able to access information and emotions through writing that cannot be accessed through the act of speaking. The scholarship does not necessarily argue that one is more effective than the other; it simply points out that writing about trauma is different from articulating it verbally. Many of the scholars agree, myself included, that employing a range of strategies to deal with trauma is the most prudent treatment strategy.

I follow this with a discussion of existing research on blogging, explaining the blog as genre and its evolution as a communication and community building technology. At this point I introduce some of my previous research in trauma studies, specifically my master’s thesis, The “Wordless Universe:” Kenneth Burke and the Search for a Symbolic of Trauma and connect this research to dealing with trauma using the evolving communication tools of the 21st century. I explore current blogging research and connect blogging with writing about trauma. Making connections between the two areas of research, I articulate my definition of the “trauma blog.” Quite simply, I define trauma blogs as blogs written by those who have no official training in psychology but who have experienced trauma and whose main topic of discussion is trauma.

My research explores the nature of trauma blogs by examining the rhetorical strategies used by their authors and how these strategies fit into the current research on therapeutic writing and blogging practices. Using qualitative and quantitative research methods, I delve into the writing practices of trauma bloggers and the complicated processes that these individuals employ to deal with their traumatic experiences. I begin by examining the content of each blog and divide them into groups based on what I perceive as their rhetorical strategy. During the early stages of my research, I read an extensive number of blogs dealing with trauma and found that these blogs could be divided into three categories based on writing style and content.

The first type of blog exhibits a rhetorical strategy common to therapeutic journal writing. The authors of these personal blogs focus almost exclusively on writing about the traumatic events that they have experienced, their current emotional status, and where they are in the healing process. These blogs are intensely personal, exposing the writer’s psychological wounds to a public audience much as they might to a therapist. These bloggers are engaging their audience in what is referred to as the act of “witnessing,” a term used to describe how simply talking (or in this case writing) about the trauma and in the process having someone act as a witness to the reality of the damage caused by the trauma, can provide therapeutic benefit. The act of witnessing assists in the healing process.

The rhetorical strategy employed in the second type of blog is similarly personal but with a seemingly different rhetorical purpose. These bloggers also discuss personal experience, frequently including details regarding their trauma(s) and their emotions. However, their primary focus is on what they have done to deal with their trauma. I refer to this strategy as “experience as expertise.” Essentially, these bloggers record their stages in the healing process, usually in intricate detail. They then use that experience as evidence to recommend that other trauma victims use the same methods in their own therapeutic process. The intensity of these recommendations varies. Some bloggers are rather adamant in promoting the therapeutic practices that they have either developed or have been introduced to by psychology practitioners. Other bloggers simply record these experiences and describe how the have helped or failed to help them. For the most part, these bloggers, either implicitly or explicitly, encourage others in similar situations to follow a certain therapeutic path.

The third rhetorical strategy reflects the movement away from emotional exposure to an externalized approach to dealing with trauma. Typically, these bloggers avoid intense discussions of their personal experience. Though they may reference it in general terms or post a blog entry or two that discusses the trauma in more detail, most of their blog entries discuss PTSD in social and political contexts. Focusing on such issues as new research into PTSD treatment, the increase in PTSD among returning soldiers, and media discussions of PTSD, these bloggers deal with their trauma by providing readers with information and their interpretation on that information. I find these blogs particularly interesting because they step outside the parameters of usual therapeutic processes. They provide evidence that we all having different ways of coping with the challenges that life presents us.

My research extends beyond the content analysis that I describe above. Using surveys to assess the bloggers is essential to my research, as is my personal communication and research sharing with them. Two of the surveys that I use have been previously vetted as PTSD diagnostic instruments. These surveys do not require them to be administered by a professional trained in psychology, which I am not. They are personal assessments meant to be used by individuals to determine whether or not they have symptoms consistent with a diagnosis of PTSD. The other survey that I use gathers demographic data, attitudes towards writing and blogging, and information about the specific traumas that my participants have experienced. All of this information is used to correlate connections between participants and the rhetorical strategies that they employ. Not only are the types of traumas experienced relevant to the rhetorical strategies used, their comfort level with writing, blogging, and revealing personal information in a public forum is also relevant.

Ultimately, my dissertation serves both the scholarly community and those who have suffered trauma. By examining a type of blog that has not yet received much attention, I am contributing to existing research on blogging and hopefully encouraging others to delve more deeply into exploring personal blogs in their research. Because I approach my research from the standpoint that these blogs are a type of therapeutic writing, I also contribute to that scholarship, providing information for researchers who study the benefits of writing as therapy and for practitioners who may want to explore this avenue with their patients. Finally, and in some ways most importantly, I provide trauma victims with information on how others deal with the complicated process of dealing with trauma. While I do not recommend any strategy as being more effective than another, I do provide information that may assist them in dealing with their own trauma. If nothing else, I reveal the existence of a community comprised of individuals who have undergone similar difficulties and maybe this helps them feel as though they are not alone in their pain.

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