You Lived Through It; Do We Have to Read About It?

IMG_6495It took me a while to write up my summary of a panel I attended about trauma narratives, at the NonfictioNOW 2015 Conference. The blog post, for Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, took some time to write in part because of something that happened in my own life (which I will write about in another post)—and in part because of the density of the topic and the thoroughness of the panelists’ exploration of trauma.


Two of the panelists, Elizabeth Kadetsky and Janice Gary, both referred to Judith Herman’s important book on trauma. Elizabeth and Sandi Wisenberg also cited Joan Didion’s writing about trauma and grief– specifically, “Goodbye to All That” and The Year of Magical Thinking.

The panel, entitled “You Lived Through It; Do We Have to Read About It?” was smart and thoughtful. I asked the speakers for their papers in order to directly quote from their remarks.  Elizabeth Kadetsky, Thomas Larson, Janice Gary, and Sandi Wisenberg all spoke about their own memoirs or personal essays as examples, but also about trauma narratives more generally.

The panel’s description explains more: “Much has been written about the therapeutic benefits of writing for survivors of traumas such as war, disasters, slavery, disease, rape, incest. Writing is generally agreed to be good for the mental health of the amateurs. When does nonfiction writing about trauma rise to the level of art? What makes some artful, and others, self-serving? The answers are subjective, but we will explore the questions and hazard some answers. Speaking as writers, readers, and editors, we will examine successful and unsuccessful creative nonfictions and tease out our reasons for making those judgments.”

Elizabeth Kadetsky uses the example of Eli Wiesel in Night  who asks the question ‘How does one describe the indescribable?’ According to Kadetsky, “This question—how to describe the indescribable—is the task set forth for the writer who seeks to rise above the misery memoir.”

Read to the end of the blog post in order to find Janice Gary’s smart and succinct answer to the panel’s title question.