finding the right/write words

A challenge when writing is always finding the right words to express oneself. When writing about the experiences of others, this becomes even more of a challenge. Add to those challenges the word choices made when writing scholarship that anlayzes the thoughts, experiences, and behavior of others, you find yourself in a quandary of diction that necessarily leaves out important information. As Kenneth Burke has famously noted: “Even if any given terminology is a reflection of reality, by its very nature as a terminology it must be a selection of reality; and to this extent it must function also as a deflection of reality” (Language as Symbolic Action, 1966, p. 45). Extending this point Burke argues that it can be useful for us to develop new terms that might reflect a different aspect of reality. Ultimately this alters our point of view and allows us to view situations differently and perhaps make observations that would otherwise go unnoticed.

My specific problem is how to talk about those who have been traumatized. The words typically used to describe those who’ve been traumatized are “survivor” or “victim.” A recent interview with a woman who had breast cancer described herself as a “fighter” rather than a survivor. But “fighter” doesn’t seem like the right word either. I guess it comes down to how we define ourselves. Yet for the life of me, I can come up with a word that shakes the preconceived labels already in use. Even as a someone who has been traumatized, I’ve been unable to find a word that works. I would call myself both a victim and a survivor. For me I’ll always be both. A victim of violence that left me traumatized and could have left me dead. I’m not being melodramatic. Situations involving domestic violence (not just the spouse battering kind) frequently result in death, either by the hands of the perpetrator or by their own hand. Sometimes death seems like the only way out of the horrific memories or the current reality. Fortunately, I now look at myself as a survivor but a part of me will still always be a victim, as disempowering as that feels, it’s a reality that I’ve yet to escape. Still, in spite of my own experience, I have yet to come up with a word that hasn’t already been used and that still reflects my experience adequately. Words are tricky things.

I’ve been considering this issue for some time given that  it’s an essential part of my dissertation. My temporary solution–to refer to them as the traumatized. Long term solution is that I’ll ask my participants how they define themselves. It seems only appropriate given that I advocate participatory research. In future research, I’ll add it to my questionnaire. At this point in my research I’ll need to work the email angle. For now, this is what I’ve come up with for my dissertation. So, here’s a little portion of my draft:

One of the challenges in writing about trauma (and in fact in all writing) is the selection of terminology that best reflects the writer’s perception and coincides with how the reader will understand the term. In this circumstance it is important that I define my choice of terminology and the tensions that exist in selecting them.  As Kenneth Burke notes: “Even if any given terminology is a reflection of reality, by its very nature as a terminology it must be a selection of reality; and to this extent it must function also as a deflection of reality” (1966, p. 45). I am conscious of the fact that the terminology I choose to use here will reflect my selection of reality and will thus deflect from other points of view. The best thing we can do, then, is be conscious of the choices that we make and remember (and supply our reader with the transparency) that these terms are our interpretation of reality.

My conflict here is multi-layered. Not only do I need to recognize that my choices are an interpretation, I find it difficult to actually interpret the reality with the terms available to me. I am uncomfortable using the word “victim” because I feel as though it is a further violation of the person who has been traumatized by placing them in the position of a passive object who has been acted upon. A victim is someone that something happened to, who has been acted upon. The traumatized have already been stripped of their agency by the victimizer and resulting trauma; how can I further strip them of that power? But there is a certain reality to the term victim; it does reflect an important fact—someone hurt them So, why not call them survivors? This is a further difficulty. True, the traumatized have survived their traumatic experiences in the sense that they have not died. However, survival is more than not being dead; it’s about living. As I’ve explained, the traumatized are unable to live fully in the present. They are possessed by their traumatic memory; the trauma is still acting upon them. Surviving means healing. By referring to people who have been traumatized as survivors by virtue of the fact that they did not die is a deflection of the reality of trauma’s effects. The term “survivor” deflects attention from the harm done by the traumatic experiences. So, if I choose to use the term “victim” for some of those who have been traumatized at what point do they become survivors and do I have the right to make that determination?

My interpretation of this reality is that speaking is survival. By not remaining silent, trauma victims reclaim their agency; they live. While this certainly doesn’t ensure that they heal, it does mean that they are surviving. The trauma isn’t controlling them entirely; they are beginning to process the memories, to loosen their hold. The trauma bloggers that I discuss are survivors, even more so they are activists. By giving voice to the existence and experience of trauma, they are creating an awareness of traumatic experiences and the damage of trauma to the psyche.

Ultimately victim and survivor, as terms, form an either/or binary that obfuscates the complexity of trauma. Not only does it force the individual to be identified as either the acted upon or the actor, it also neglects the spectrum that might exist between these two states of experience. Healing is a process and thus “becoming” a survivor is a process. Using one term or the other deflects the attention away from the lived experience of coping and living with trauma—attention that I am not willing to lose. So, unable to develop a term reflective of how I view those who have experienced trauma, I will simply refer to them as “the traumatized.” While this term still places them in an object position, it lacks the negative connotation of “victim.” Happily, when speaking specifically about people who have both experienced and blog about trauma, I can use the term “trauma blogger.”

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