How trauma haunts and distorts journalism

The roots of much great writing comes the ghosts of war and suffering, seeping into the souls of journalists who lived through those events.
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Photo of painting of Ernest Hemingway in Havana.

The roots of much great writing comes the ghosts of war and suffering, seeping into the souls of journalists who lived through those events.

"A wounded deer leaps the highest "— Emily Dickinson

Like a red thread, themes of violence, suffering, pain and loss run through the greatest works of literature.  Many of the most admired writers of American and British literature were also journalists and, for many of them, the experience of physical and emotional trauma in their work and personal lives shaped their most honored works.

A sampling of these wounded masters reads like a who’s who of literary icons: Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Graham Greene, George Orwell, Maya Angelou, Richard Wright, Dorothy Parker, Norman Mailer, Sherwood Anderson, Ambrose Bierce, Jonathan Swift, Truman Capote, Katherine Anne Porter, Kurt Vonnegut, Mark Twain.

Hemingway may be the most well known fiction writer who also worked as a reporter and whose writing was deeply affected by traumatic events from early childhood losses (suicide of father, distant mother) to war (ambulance driver in combat in World War I, serious wounds, combat reporting) to relationship problems (failed marriages) to job losses (journalism) to substance abuse (alcoholism) and to depression and finally suicide. Hemingway was also influenced by other writers whose work grew out of trauma from Dickens and Twain to Sherwood Anderson.

Hemingway ended his story with a shotgun in Idaho at age 61. To University of Washington communications professor Doug Underwood, Hemingway may be an extreme example of a writer whose past injuries fueled his art, but he is not an exception among journalists who also wrote acclaimed literature.

In his groundbreaking new book, Chronicling Trauma: Journalists and Writers on Violence and Loss (University of Illinois Press), Underwood details the trauma suffered by 150 American and British writer-journalists from the past three centuries and offers a framework for understanding how trauma affected their work. He draws on psychological studies, history, and literary criticism to explore the role of trauma in the careers of these writers who won fame, but often at the cost of their health and tpersonal lives. 

Underwood has taught journalism at the UW since 1987. Before that, he was the chief political writer for The Seattle Times; a a reporter forthe Gannett News Service’s Washington, D.C., bureau; and a labor and government reporter for the Lansing (Mich.) State Journal.  His other books include Journalism and the Novel (2008), From Yahweh to Yahoo! (2002), and When MBAs Rule the Newsroom (1993).

Underwood’s interest in journalism and trauma didn’t grow out of exposure to extreme trauma in his own work as a reporter.“Traumatic coverage was not a major part of my experience.  I was a political reporter.  Some people would say that’s traumatic. But,” he added, “trauma was part of my environment because anyone working on a newspaper is around it.”

While teaching, Underwood became more attuned to the significance of trauma in journalism.  He found that his UW reporting students were deeply influenced by re-enactment of traumatic events in class,  which was part of his effort with his UW colleague Prof. Roger Simpson, a former director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, to include the study of trauma into the communications curriculum.

He also began to realize how trauma connected to his earlier book  Journalism and the Novel on how journalists became fiction writers. “I put together an appendix of about 300 journalist-literary figures in American and British history [and] I couldn’t help but notice how much traumatic experience showed up in their lives, (and) how they often didn’t write about it until they moved into fiction writing or had the stature to write their memoirs. That connected with my interest in literature, so I started exploring that specific topic, looking through the lens of how trauma influenced writers historically.”

He also studied the expanding research on trauma since the Vietnam War. The recognition of post traumatic stress disorder in returning soldiers also prompted increased study of trauma in other fields, such as journalism.

The research for Chronicling Trauma evolved as Underwood studied the literature. “I came across a book, The Trauma Artist, on the experience of trauma in the works of [Vietnam veteran and one-time journalist] Tim O’Brien, and how his traumatic early life issues combined with his Vietnam service led to a major break-down when he came home. When I read it, I found a whole connecting literature that had been heavily explored on the literary studies side. Literary scholars were interested in the effect of trauma on a range of literary personalities like Charles Dickens and Rudyard Kipling and Edgar Allan Poe and others who had started out their careers as journalists.”

Underwood wanted to expand his book's scope beyond the usual academic work that goes narrow and deep.  “I wanted to explore the issues of trauma as they connected to a large number of writers associated with journalism can make the point that many of these people share these experiences and attributes, it’s more powerful than if you explore one artist’s life in great depth.”

In Chronicling Trauma, Underwood focuses on writers who moved out of journalism to fiction to take readers beyond the shallow news coverage of real human pain and sorrow. “The industrialized newspaper uses trauma as its grist.  If it bleeds, it leads, but it has to be presented in a way that doesn’t disturb the audience.  It has to entertain or intrigue or be packaged so the reader can keep the traumatic experience at arm’s length.  These writers wanted to take you into the experience, and many had to move into fiction or higher literary writing or memoir if they wanted to do that.” 

“There wasn’t an avenue to express [the depth of trauma] in journalism.  You can find a lot of evidence of that in their lives,” Underwood said. “Mark Twain went to his editors at the San Francisco Morning Call and asked to write about a Chinese man who had been stoned by an Irish gang, but his editor said no, it would offend Irish readers.  Twain was really upset by that. Erskine Caldwell wasn’t allowed to write about a lynching he had witnessed at the Atlanta Journal; he ended up later using some of the material in his novel, Trouble in July.  John Steinbeck couldn’t get any major press outlets to use his reporting on the miserable conditions of Dust Bowl migrants in California during the Great Depression; he had to turn it into the themes of The Grapes of Wrath.  A Canadian researcher studied what she called “assignment stress injury” where journalists have a story to tell that has had a powerful impact upon them, and the story doesn’t get told, and they then feel traumatized themselves.”

In his study, Underwood goes back long before Freud and other scientists studied trauma. “I could see, for example, that Jonathan Swift had family issues that affected the texture and tone of Gulliver’s Travels on what it was to be lost in a world that he didn’t understand. Daniel Defoe’s experiences being thrown in prison for his journalistic writings can be connected to his novels about renegades and reprobates and people marooned on deserted islands. Bret Harte never wrote about the dark side of frontier life again after he was run out of town for reporting how the locals had massacred a band of Native Americans while he was a journalist in California.  Walt Whitman’s experiences nursing dying Union soldiers put an end to his optimistic poetry. All these folks were journalists before they became great literary figures, and all suffered lots of trauma in their lives.”

And Underwood explored some early life experiences of these writers and how the “experience of trauma for a variety of complex reasons encourages people to move into areas like reporting where they’ll deal with trauma in their adult lives.  You get personalities like Graham Greene who [personifies] the Freudian death wish.  You’re out there with Hemingway and macho heroic journalists with a death wish at work. I’m informed by my knowledge of and strong belief in Freudian patterns ... that we are often as humans motivated to do things that grow out of distorted reactions to our emotions, and I looked for those patterns.”

Underwood found that these journalist-authors were deeply influenced by one another, and attracted to writing by others who came out of journalism and wrote fiction. 

“When you read across the biographies of these people, you see these similar patterns.  You’ll discover they were inspired by [writers] from earlier generations who tended to be people with the same profile. Twain read Dickens, Hemingway read Twain. ... They share the background that they started as journalists, and many felt that they had to go into fiction writing to fully express what they wanted to say, and many had turbulent psychologies with childhood and adult traumatic experiences,” he said.

Trauma could also be cultural and sociological. Underwood noted: “Richard Wright in his autobiography Black Boy talks about living in the segregated South. I describe his as a 'traumatized worldview.'  Psychologically, he had a disposition that could not tolerate living as a second-class citizen, and it filled him with emotion. ... He moved to France because he couldn’t go anywhere in the United States and not feel that way. And he had all these traumatic experiences in his early life. As a young man he was on the edge of being what we’d call a gang member, but he goes to the library and reads H. L. Mencken and Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser and how they challenged the cultural attitudes of the time. They made sense of his experience and provided the inspiration for him to become someone who did the same thing.”

The trauma of Vietnam had a profound effect on a generation of writers who often wrote about war in an anti-heroic way. "You can read the history of how the American press covered the war in Neil Sheehan’s and David Halberstam’s accounts, and see how the shift occurred on people’s thinking about the war. That was profound. If you compare their experiences to (World War II reporter] Ernie Pyle — who probably suffered from post traumatic stress syndrome —  he probably never thought of it or his war reporting outside of the framework of the good guy model: the American soldier and reporter as good guy.  Vietnam scrambled all of that,” Underwood said.

Counterculture writers such as Michael Herr also reflected a new perspective on war in his writing about Vietnam. “He spent a year over there writing for Esquire, smoking dope most of the time I gather, and he had a terrible nervous breakdown when he returned.  He produced a book, Dispatches, that reads like the underground journalism of that era." underwood said "He wrote about the moral ambiguities and told the story of what the war was really like.” 

Vietnam even had a great impact on writers who were never there. One of Underwood’s favorite examples is Kurt Vonnegut. “In a new biography, the author raises the question of whether Vonnegut suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. The same thing is now suggested about Ambrose Bierce who was wounded in the Civil War and Hemingway in World War I. If you read them, you’d say yes, all of the symptoms associate with [PTSD] you can see in their work,” Underwood said.

Underwood recounted that Vonnegut enlisted in the Army during World War II and, when he came home on his first leave, his mother told him that she was upset about his decision to join the military and then went into the bedroom and killed herself with an overdose of pills. Then, Vonnegut “goes off, and within weeks, he is captured in the Battle of the Bulge. He ends up as a prisoner of war in Dresden where he is kept in the basement of an old slaughterhouse.  He survives [the bombing of Dresden] but the Germans bring him out and he has to help excavate liquefied bodies.”

When Vonnegut returned to the States he got married and tried to reintegrate, even working as a PR person at General Electric. “But his brain is affected by his experience, and he starts writing.” Underwood explained.

Vonnegut’s books refer repeatedly to “depression and suicide [and ] so many of his characters reflect a sense of dissociation, a sense that people with PTSD have that the patterns of their culture don’t make sense to them any more.” Vonnegut crafts this sense into a “form of writing that uses black humor and satire with his own special imaginative bent. Slaughterhouse Five doesn’t come out until 1969, many years after his World War II experience, but just in time for all these people who are protesting the Vietnam War to pick it up. It becomes a classic, like Catch-22, for a generation that’s having doubts about American warfare.” 

Similarly, Ambrose Bierce’s sardonic and dark fiction grew out of the trauma of war. “I don’t think many people who study the effect of trauma can read Bierce’s Civil War short stories or his non-fiction and not say this guy was deeply affected by his experiences. He describes what it felt like to be in battle. You find it in his alienation, his drinking, and his misanthropic writing, and even in the romantic end to his life where he visits Civil War battlefields and then goes off and disappears in the Mexican Revolution. It’s a poetic version of someone who lived out his life trying to deal with the effects of shell shock or PTSD through his literature and his journalism,” Underwood said.

Underwood admits that some journalists resist the notion that trauma affects their own lives: “Journalists don’t like to think of themselves as being dysfunctional. I said at one point that it would have served Greene and Hemingway better to go into counseling than to go off to war. They had other issues they needed to deal with. But suggest that about journalists and there tends to be a push back. They’re happy to deal with traumatic events, but they don’t want it suggested that they need to deal with other issues in their lives.”

Researchers have noticed that journalists, and especially war correspondents, often come from troubled backgrounds. Studies have revealed, “that those with inner turmoil are often attracted to professions or activities where they can project that inner turmoil outward.  If they have issues of mistrust or a severed trust relationship, they can go into a field where they’re cynical and mistrustful about everybody, and it’s professionally acceptable to be mistrustful if you’re a journalist.”

Many of the writers that Underwood discusses were also heavy drinkers or drug addicts. “A much higher proportion of these writers had serious substance abuse issues than the general public, and many became famous for their addictions like Hemingway and Parker and Ring Lardner and Sinclair Lewis," he said.  "Journalism, outside the military, may be the only profession where drinking has been romanticized.  Being a hard drinking person can be a badge of honor. That comes with the assumption that the things you do as a journalist would cause one take to drink, and journalists have accepted that.”

But the view of the hard drinking reporter is now evolving. “You get journalists talking about it in the way Pete Hamill does in A Drinking Life.  Hamill tells how he was writing the story of Hemingway’s suicide and thought, hey, wait a minute. All of a sudden, the scales fall from his eyes. Hamill realizes he hero worshipped [Hemingway] for his drinking, but then he thinks of the implications for himself.  He eventually writes what he called his recovery book.  “I am an alcoholic and here’s my book.”

Hemingway’s  suicide also deeply affected humorist James Thurber who said, “We’re all manic depressive — at least the men."

In discussing lessons of his book, Underwood compared the lives of Thurber and E.B. White. “I look at how Thurber and E. B. White, who were good friends, ended up in such different shape at the end of their lives. Thurber was in many ways pathetic —  alcoholic, angry, in conflict with his editors. White, although suffering from his own mental health issues, achieved a certain serenity in his later career. He wrote the philosophical children’s book, Charlotte’s Web, and he lived on his hobby farm and wrote thoughtful, pondering articles for Harpers and The New Yorker that helped support people in very tough times,” Underwood said.

Underwood pondered how White and Thurber arrived at such very different places in terms of the narrative loop of trauma. “A psychologist suggests that, when we’re traumatized, we get caught in a narrative loop and we can’t get out of the story of our traumatization.  For journalists, it’s a two-step process.  They have to first recognize that there’s a trauma loop and acknowledge that they’re in that loop and that trauma has affected them. Telling your story to sympathetic people and finding that there are others who understand your story is profound,” he said.

“But there’s a second step.” Underwood continued. “Once one acknowledges the story and recognizes a trauma loop is operating, the next step is introducing new narratives into one’s life.  How do you break out of the trauma narratives so they don’t hold you and control you in ways that lead you to do dysfunctional things? And that invites therapy and maybe people can think more deeply about that. This process goes beyond journalists and is the challenge of traumatic experiences for all of us. How can we acknowledge trauma and understand its emotional hold and impact, and then have some faith that something can be done about it, that we have the internal capacity to tell a different story? By coming to acknowledge and understand the traumatic experience, you can heal and change.”

The mainstream media’s shallow coverage of violence and its significance concerns Underwood.

“You can talk about the media trading in traumatic stories to get audience attention. But they won’t do stories, for example, about American military activities if it will disturb readers or military families. ... So the media are critiqued for their eagerness to traffic in crime and violence for their marketing and audience building, while on the other hand they stay away from a true picture of [the trauma of warfare] because they don’t think their audience would be comfortable with that.”

In Underwood’s view, the goal of the news media “should be to present a balanced view of the world as it really is and a picture of crime and violence in the city that’s in context and that gives people a sense of what’s happening in the whole city, but they don’t. They give the impression that crime and violence are much bigger parts of city life than they really are.  At the same time, I’d like them to give an honest assessment of what the impact of war really is. We don’t have a clue about what it’s like to live in Afghan villages [targeted by] drone missiles that are supposed to kill terrorists in their midst. I want violence covered in the context of a balanced picture of the world. If the press did that, then it would be doing its job.”

In conclusion, Underwood stressed that raising consciousness about trauma goes far beyond how to make journalism better.

“Understanding trauma is how we can understand world politics and diplomacy and everything else. As we become aware of the nature of trauma, it can make us more empathetic and more aware of the hard experiences of life, and it brings us together in ways that we share because we all experience trauma at one level or another."

“I believe that studying trauma—as hard as it’s been—has made me a better person," he said, "and I think it does make us better people even though it’s a hard process.” 


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