Category Archives: Dissertation

migraines and NSAIDS and dissertations, oh my!

Well, it has been a week of migraines. My normal med, Fioricet, wasn’t working but was still giving me the “saps all my energy for a day” side effect, so I called my neurologist. Of course it took over a day for him to get back to me and then it was to tell me to take the NSAID powder he had given me a sample of. Interestingly, my memory of the instructions were that I was only to take it before the migraine became full-blown. So, I took it and so far it seems to be working. I’m dizzy and it tasted awful, but it seems to have at least temporarily knocked out the major pain of the migraine. I’m still left with the fun fogginess and dizziness that are the lovely side effects of all of these meds. However, it is better than the mind crushing pain of the migraine. So now I’m back at my desk preparing to respond to the email interviews that I began this week. (Hence, the “dissertation” part of this title.) The migraines have slowed me down, but I’ve used the foggy moments, during which time writing is not an option, to organize my notes, collate some of the collected data, and enter sources into my Sente database. Hopefully, I can write a post soon on my digital workflow. For now, suffice it to say I have made great progress in my (finally re-approved by the IRB) research study, thanks to the help of my participants, who have been wonderfully forthcoming in answering surveys and now interview questions. To any of you who read this, thank you so much! I’m so lucky to have a set of participants who believe in the importance of this research. It really keeps me going through these times of my own personal difficulties.

It’s about power.

Okay, so I stole that line from Buffy, but it doesn’t make it any less true. I’ve realized something in reading the blogs of my research participants–it’s about the power. The people who’ve harmed us want to take our power. They see power as “power over.”  I believe in “power to.” That’s where my power lies, and it’s part of my strength. This frightens people, and they want to take our power. They want to have power over us. They want power over me. But I don’t give in easily because I’m strong. I’ve dealt with the trauma of abuse, the pain and loss of physical illness, and the alienation imposed by those who want to take my power. Reminding ourselves that it takes strength to simply live when you’re dealing with issues like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and clinical depression is essential to our survival. This doesn’t mean that we have to define ourselves based on our traumas and diagnoses. These are part of us, but we are more than just “the traumatized.” Writing about trauma demonstrates strength. Writing about it in a public forum, such as blogs, demonstrates courage. As bloggers we have the power to expose the violence that we’ve been told to keep silent about, to help others who’ve been traumatized, and to teach those who haven’t been traumatized.  Our silence does not protect us; our voices do.

dissertation writing is tough

Working on a dissertation is difficult, regardless of the topic. A dissertation about psychological trauma takes an extra toll on the psyche and ultimately, on the body. So, to deal with the stress I take breaks–and yes, sometimes those breaks involve cloves and scotch–but mostly it involves immersing myself in something different. Of course me being me, I never seem to select “distractions” that actually stop my brain from working on my dissertation in some form. After I wrote my master’s thesis (also about trauma), I rewarded myself by reading a novel. As it turned out the novel that I chose was about a woman who had been sexually abused by her grandfather. The universe has its own way of keeping me immersed in my research. :)

Lately I’ve been trying to watch television shows when I take a break. On the recommendation of my BFF, I started watching Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse, an excellent show that I highly recommend. However, as it turns out, Dollhouse is all about the intricacies of the human mind–what it’s capable of accomplishing and what our ambition is capable of destroying. As with all of Whedon’s creations, Dollhouse is thought-provoking and often disturbing for that very reason, not unlike my research. As it turns out, in some ways it’s the best kind of break. I watch it but my mind doesn’t disengage from my overall topic; it shifts. Perhaps as importantly, it’s served to remind me of my purpose and reinvigorate me.

In the television show one character–Echo–has the unique abilities and more importantly the desire to make changes for the better, to help people. Seeing that made me remember something important and realize something more important. First I remembered that I want to help people. But there are lots of ways to help others–volunteering at a shelter, working at a rape crisis center–these are things that I could do that wouldn’t involve writing a dissertation about the rhetoric of trauma blogs. But helping in those ways wouldn’t be using the unique combination of skills and desires that I possess. I’m trained as a rhetorician, researcher, and scholar; I want to help people who’ve been traumatized; and I have the opportunity to write this dissertation at a point in time where no one else has written about the rhetorical strategies of trauma bloggers. This isn’t to say that I’m the only one who is capable of doing so, rather that the confluence of events in my life–both personal experiences and academic knowledge–make me capable of accomplishing this goal and laying groundwork for others to contribute to the research. This is my kairotic moment. It turns out that what began as leisure served to propel my work. While professional success is always a motivating factor, it’s never been enough for me. To be motivated, I must believe that I what I do will help someone other than just me. I possess the ability to do something that matters, and if I don’t, there’s no guarantee that anyone else will. Thanks, Echo.

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.”

reasons for blogging

I feel the need to remind myself why I blog (or, at least, why I should blog).  I’m feeling a little listy, so I’m going to do this in bullet point format.

why I blog

“The instant publication encourages spontaneous writing rather than carefully thought out arguments.  Being allowed to write spontaneously releases us of the expectation that our writing must be perfect and polished” (266).

and

“In our blogs, we allow ourselves to write half-thought, naked ideas and show them to others rather than saving them for fully fleshed out carefully thought through papers” (267)

At the same time, unlike notes written exclusively to oneself, blog entries require us to think through our ideas and more fully form them making it more likely that they will reach fruition in the future.

  • Another aspect of blogging that is important to me as an academic is that it breaks the mold of the “ivory tower” publication process.  In a blog you write for a larger audience and thus, your writing is more accessible and available to the world rather than just a select group of individuals.
  • Along the same lines, writing in a blog allows for collaboration in a number of ways.  Not only does it provide a place for you to share your research with colleagues, the comment function allows them to respond to your work.
  • Blogs are allowed to be more personally oriented; they are, in fact, expected to be.  Thus, blogging academic work implicitly argues for the importance of personal experience as evidence.  At the very least, personal experience can share the same space as academic work.
  • A particularly important reason for my blogging is that I consider myself to be a digital ethnographer.  I am researching blogs and, significantly, arguing for their value and importance.  Blogging reinforces my argument that blogs have value beyond narcissism and linking.
  • Blogging makes me feel connected to the world.

So, there you are–a partial list of my reasons for blogging.

Rhetorical Strategies of Trauma Bloggers and What Counts as Evidence

As I struggle to find the sample set (representative trauma blogs) for my dissertation, I have been able to separate the bloggers into three categories based on their rhetorical strategies for dealing with trauma. One set of trauma bloggers discuss the intimate details of their traumas, clearly focusing on the internal struggles of PTSD.  The other set of bloggers seem to externalize their trauma by focusing on the political aspects of post traumatic stress disorder without revealing a large amount of personal information. There is a third set of bloggers that I situate between the other two.  These bloggers have situated themselves as therapeutic experts in the sense that they provide a healing plan based on their own process of healing.  Most of them are careful to note that they are not trained professionals and that their advice should not be taken in lieu of seeking professional help.  Still, their strategy is an interesting one because it positions them as expert, helper, and survivor/victim.  To some extent these are the most complex.  They implicitly argue for the value of personal experience by positioning themselves as a form of expert.  This, of course, is not unusual in the blogosphere.  Bloggers typically position themselves as authorities based on their experience.  This is necessary to establish an ethos with their audience.  Productivity blogs are particularly focused on this, because, like trauma bloggers, they are presenting a kind of self-help regimine based on the strategies that have worked for them.

The rhetorical strategies of these bloggers raise interesting questions regarding standards of evidence.  In academia, personal experience, while not entirely eschewed, is not valued as highly as other forms of research.  Experience is not considered rigorous in the ways that quantitative and other forms of qualitative data are.  Thus, while situating one’s research within a personal context is acceptable, using personal experience as theory or evidence is not.  Rather than increasing one’s ethos, the academic who focuses on personal experience will most likely have their research regarded as spurious at best.  I realize that we are talking about very different genres with distinctly different audiences and that these are not necessarily comprable.  However, I’m interested in exploring this further.  Given that there are many academic blogs that contain a mixture of experience and theoretical discussion, might there be an opportunity for a hybridization of scholarly genres?  Could this provide inroads into increasing the valuation of experiential evidence?

why I write

This may come as a surprise to some,  but I like deflecting attention away from myself.  At least, I like deflecting attention away from certain aspects of my self. [spacing deliberate] At this point in my life I am completely comfortable with putting my physical health on display.  It’s something that can’t easily be hidden, though many of my disabilities are “invisible.”  Still, when you have a tendency to jerk and twitch, convulse into seizures, have debilitating migraines, etc., it’s difficult to play normal.  It’s also marginally acceptable.  At least those who know me well aren’t usually made uncomfortable by my mention of physical illness.  It’s the mental illness that makes people squirmy.  The life experiences that don’t fall gently on the ears.

I’m thinking about this now because, as I read “trauma blogs” to select for my dissertation research sample, I cannot help but compare them to my own.  Many of the blogs that I find discuss their trauma in detail, bare their souls so-to-speak.  Not only in blog entries themselves, but in their profiles they identify themselves as survivors of a myriad of abuses.  My blog doesn’t do that.  My blog positions me as an academic and a feminist, someone interested in politics and trauma, but not the raw meat of the trauma victim.  Their blogs are personal to the point of being uncomfortable and I’m still afraid of putting some people off.  You see, I’m not sure who all reads my blog and there are people, people in my family, who, if they read some of the stories that I have to tell, would no longer speak to me.  I realize that this is a chance I am not yet willing to take.  I could, of course, start an anonymous blog, like many of the bloggers who I follow.  Yet something prevents me from doing so.  Perhaps it is that I would feel hypocritical.  In my research, I boldly proclaim the importance of breaking silences; I advocate for the removal of stigma from those traumatized by rape, sexual and child abuse.  Because they have no reason to feel shame; they didn’t do anything wrong; the shame should fall on the shoulders of the perpetrator not the victim.  But it doesn’t.  Mostly this is because perpetrators don’t tell the stories of the abuse that they have rendered.  They want silence.  And silence is what the public wants as well.

Tonight, I had dinner at the bar of a local restaurant.  I had been reading blogs all day, selecting ones for my research sample.  The bartender asked me about my dissertation work and I told her the topic.  Her response was: “yeah, that’s something that no one wants to hear about” tacking on “except in theory,” which was, I assume, her attempt to be polite given that “hearing those things” is part of my chosen line of work.  But I recognized truth in what she said.  When people ask me my dissertation topic and I tell them “trauma and narrative,” they want to hear more.  In the past when I’ve explained the work that I’d like to do with veterans, they want to hear more.  As soon as they hear the words “rape” or “sexual abuse” they no longer want to hear about my dissertation.  Ultimately, there are dining table traumas and kitchen table traumas and one doesn’t talk about kitchen table traumas in polite company.  In fact, kitchen table traumas don’t really get talked about at all.  It’s more like there are three tiers of where the food of experience is served: dining table, kitchen table, and yard scraps.  If anything, intimate traumas are yard scraps–thrown in the dirt and eaten by only the mangy and starving.  Eaten by those who’ve also had their lives turned into yard scraps. [Reminder: this is some of my exploratory writing and I've yet to really perfect the metaphors.]

Perhaps I’ve chosen the trauma blogs because they are yard scraps rather than in spite of them being yard scraps. Someone has to dust them off and show them to be, not refuse, but sustenance for readers who are desperate to find someone, anyone, who will speak and listen.

Why do I write?  Because I want them to be heard, and, someday, I’ll be ready to be heard too.

An Articulation of Trauma

The framework for understanding trauma that I am using in my dissertation defines trauma as the emotional/psychological impact to a person’s psyche as the result of an event, experience or set of experiences that overwhelm those individuals who experience it. This results in an inability to integrate the experience into their narrative memory, and it is this inability to integrate the traumatic experience(s) that results in a psychological state of being that impairs the trauma victim’s ability to live completely within the world of the present.  Instead of current actions and feelings, the trauma victim lives with both the horrific memories of the past and the fear that they engender.  Because traumatic memory is not integrated into the narrative memory, it cannot be controlled and recalled at will; rather, it is often elicited without the individual having a conscious choice and unlike memories subject to recall and control, these feel as though they are temporally present.  In addition to the ability of these memories to intrude upon the present, they are also responsible for the state of fear and hyper-vigilance that characterizes the life of the traumatized.  Thus, the memories themselves not only interfere with the ability of the traumatized to live in a current reality by intruding upon that reality; they also impair the individual’s ability to negotiate within the world around them because of the state of fear that they have engendered, both a fear of the traumatic event and a fear of the memory’s ability to surface and disrupt beyond their ability to control it.  Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is the clinical term encompassing the development of these traits “following exposure to an extreme traumatic stressor” (DSM-IV 424).

To further clarify, when we use the term “memory,” we are usually referring to either “working memory” or “narrative memory.”  Working memory “holds short term information for the purposes of performing a current process” (Field 326).  On the other hand, narrative memory is a form of long-term memory in which past experiences have been integrated and are available for conscious recall and reflection.  Since trauma occurs “[u]nder extreme conditions, existing meaning schemes may be entirely unable to accommodate frightening experiences, which causes the memory of these experiences to be stored differently and not available for retrieval under ordinary conditions” (van der Kolk 160)*. This loss of meaning schema makes trauma narratives disjointed and fragmented.

*van der Kolk, B. (1996). Trauma and memory. In B. A. van der Kolk, A. C. McFarlane,
& L. Weisuth (Eds.) Traumatic stress : the effects of overwhelming experience on mind, body, and society. New York: Guilford Press.