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It might have been the New Orleans woman who told me she hacked off four of her abusive husband's fingers with a meat cleaver that started wearing me down. Or the Waco woman who asked me to speak more loudly because she'd lost much of the hearing in one ear from her ex-husband's beatings. I know I didn't flinch while hearing a woman's tale in Jacksonville, Florida, of being shot point-blank by a 9mm pistol. But I did finally cringe when she sent me a color jpeg of the man she shot—and killed—with her own 9mm, lying on her front lawn.
For months, I had been listening to and looking at stories of violence by and against women while researching my first book, Blown Away: American Women and Guns. The accretion of misery was starting to wear me down, and I wasn't sure how much more I could take. Even worse, when I received that picture, I knew there was much more of it yet to encounter and to process.
Feeling like a baby, I asked my fiance, a fellow mid-career journalist who is a photo editor at The New York Times, to look at the picture before I did; as a staff photographer for the paper, he had shot the nation's worst prison riot, three hurricanes, numerous traffic accidents and fires, and the war in Bosnia. He had seen plenty of dead bodies. I figured he could handle whatever she had sent and tell me if I could as well.
"It's just a dead guy in the mud," he said. "No big deal."
I looked at the dead guy in the mud and kept on working.
Our calm in the face of violent death is a professional requirement, but it disturbs me personally. I have known other journalists, like my fiance, who had witnessed violence in their work, but I'd never previously hit the wall myself. I began to wonder if their preternatural calm, their ability to keep cranking it out on deadline no matter how horrible the subject, was less a professionally admirable skill than, ultimately, a soul-destroying one. How to confront and cope with the many conflicting emotions that covering violence can evoke in us—disgust, pity, fear, revulsion, confusion, compassion, horror—is a question that hits many journalists at some point, and it's something I think we're poorly prepared for. How many journalism schools, graduate or undergraduate, discuss this stress and teach students what they may face and how to handle it, professionally and personally? How many newsroom managers do? Certainly no one ever offered me that kind of training.
Compared to the gore and misery—often in life-threatening situations—that writers, editors, photographers, and cameramen experience every day in this business, in places like Iraq and Haiti and dozens of hellholes both domestic and international, a dead criminal in the mud really wasn't much at all. Yet even those of us working far from the frontlines of war or disaster often sort through copy and images chilling in their depictions of human horror. The day photos of the charred bodies dangling from an Iraqi bridge ran everywhere—sometimes blurred, sometimes not—I knew that my fiance and his colleagues had sifted through even more graphic and disturbing images than those of us working outside newsrooms never saw. Many of them went home that day sad and exhausted from their spot on the editorial frontlines.
And that cannot not affect them—all of us—no matter how much we pretend otherwise or how inconvenient human feelings are when a deadline's approaching. We can suppress our emotions in order to get the story done, but it's what happens after deadline, maybe years or decades later, that worries me. I heard a BBC radio reporter, in a personal piece about returning to Rwanda 10 years after the massacres, admit that he often longs to simply stay home and cry.
I know some writers and photographers who have witnessed terrible atrocities—and brought them to large audiences. One, a quiet young woman I met at a writing conference whose work covering Bosnia has won lavish praise, said simply, "Thinking about genocide for five years is pretty tiring." I heard another author, interviewed on the radio about his coverage of Japanese war crimes, say that sometimes, after writing a particularly harrowing passage, he would have to lie down for a few hours.
I hadn't consciously planned to delve deeply into darkness when I began researching my book. I intended to produce a work of sociology, a neutral examination of the many ways, past and present, that women and guns intersect in the United States: cultural, recreational, professional, political, and criminal.
And I didn't expect covering violence would touch me as it did. Like many established journalists, I figured I could handle a lot. As usual, I expected, I would operate—as so many of us do, and are expected to do—in default mode, relying on intellect and analysis, focused on critical detachment. As always, I would simply ignore any difficult emotions my work provoked.
Or so I thought.
A friend who edited a book of photographs of child laborers and who found herself plunged into depression as a result had warned me. "Take care of yourself," she said. "You will be delving into some very disturbing stuff, and it's going to affect you. Be ready for it."
Three months into my research, focusing at that point primarily on men, women, and teens who had experienced gun violence and death, it hit. I was staying at a small bed and breakfast in New Orleans where even my host, a lovely, feisty social activist in her 70s, had, it turned out, been a crime victim in her own home. Nightmares and insomnia began to plague me. Professional detachment be damned. I couldn't shrug off so many other women's pain.
I sought solace where I could. I spoke to a therapist and to my minister, desperate to off-load. Trained to handle such issues, both understood what I was seeing, and the importance of continuing the project. I had also learned the hard way not to share such stories carelessly; I'd once told a former friend, a nanny, some graphic 9/11 details I had reported. She called me back an hour later, crying hysterically, furious at me for sharing horrors she couldn't handle.
Everywhere I traveled, even socially, I was finding women of all races, ages, and income levels who had been raped, mugged, stalked, shot at, or battered by their husbands or boyfriends. Some witnessed the hideous aftermath of suicide by firearms. They often found me, sharing their terrible stories when I least expected it. Turning off my computer or closing a notebook couldn't erase the pain I was witnessing. It moved into my head, into my heart.
After I had finished my manuscript, I enjoyed a summer of softball with a Manhattan team. One of my teammates has spent his career working with hardened sex offenders. He told me, with professional authority, that I had suffered "secondary trauma." I had never heard the term, but knew it made sense—after listening carefully to dozens of women describe their own primary trauma, why wouldn't it seep into my own psyche? How could it not?
The question, then, is how should we calibrate our compassion? How much can we feel, or afford to feel, when covering emotional or physical violence? When and where and how and for how long should we shutter our hearts in order to keep reporting without drowning in the filth and sadness of what we're reporting on?
For all the rah-rah glory and excitement of being an "embed," I have no doubt that many journalists returned home from covering the Iraq war emotionally shell-shocked. Those who covered the events of 9/11, like many other disasters, know all too well what they saw and heard. While some of us were debriefed, with mixed results, and others did not want to be, this was not the norm. And the challenges continue, for violence forms a steady part of our daily professional diet.
Like many of us, perhaps, I was loath to share my feelings, fearful that thicker-skinned colleagues might mock me and dismiss my concerns. I was fortunate I could talk candidly about all of it with my fiance who, nine years later, still struggles to describe his own emotional nightmare of covering the war in Bosnia. Mid-assignment, he had coped as I did—work, work, work—and then, alone in privacy, he'd collapse and cry. A week of intense yoga helped him detoxify, a desperate and necessary attempt to purge his body and his soul of the ghosts he had faced before returning to the newsroom.
Surely there's a better way.
How many of us, no matter how well-paid or how large our corporate employer, receive debriefing, grief counseling, or any other institutionally-provided or mandated relief after these emotionally draining assignments? (Let alone really consider the potentially numbing effects of covering cops or courts for years. I still vividly recall two trials I covered in Toronto 20 years ago, briefly filling in for The Globe and Mail's justice reporter. One was a teenage murder and dismemberment, the other involved unspeakable sexual abuse of their own children.)
Who is there for us when we come home, our heads full of death, to an uncomprehending wife or partner or children or our unscathed colleagues? It asks too much of us to keep silence, yet blurting unpalatable truths to the unprepared can alienate us even further.
If in the effort to stay sane and productive—as our managers rely upon us to do—we seal off our compassion, can our reporting reveal or convey any larger emotional truths? How much can we care? As a profession, we've got to figure that out.
Caitlin Kelly, a freelance journalist in New York and former reporter for The Globe and Mail and Montreal Gazette, is the author of Blown Away: American Women and Guns. The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma is a group devoted to providing resources for journalists who cover violence, and you can join Caitlin Kelly's bulletin-board discussion on the topic here. You can buy Blown Away at Amazon.com.