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  • Writing About Trauma: Catharsis or Rumination?
  • Jason Thompson (bio)

Memoir, narrative, trauma, psychotherapy, forgiveness

The first question I derive from the seven insightful commentaries on my paper concerns the extent to which my experience of inadvertently perpetuating trauma through memoir writing can or should serve as a cautionary tale for others. Does writing about a painful event heal a wound or keep it open? Gwen Adshead astutely notes that the answer is yes and no. For Holocaust survivors, remembrance is a means of honoring the dead and staying connected to the history of their people. In other cases, remembering trauma is not always the best approach: the problem for war veterans struggling with combat flashbacks is not how to remember but how to forget. I propose that one possible criterion to evaluate the efficacy of writing as a therapeutic act is whether writing and therapy act harmoniously or antagonistically. In the case of several celebrated literary authors, writing was by itself therapeutic, as Jeffrey Berman notes in regard to Woolf, Hemingway, and Plath. However, in these three cases at least, writing was necessary but sadly insufficient to treat the ultimately life-ending depressions suffered by these authors. In the case of Berman’s students, by contrast, writing and therapy serve as parallel processes of healing. Conversely in my experience, the process of obsessively writing a memoir about my adolescence, meanwhile also attempting to engage with my therapist’s question of why it might be hard for me to let go of the story I was telling, was a case of writing as an inadvertent form of self-sabotage, a means of perpetuating an isolated state of rumination upon past hurts. I do not suppose that this experience is universal or even common. To the contrary, the set of possible permutations of artistic work and therapeutic work is likely big enough to accommodate a diverse array of individual pathways through the distinct yet related narrative domains of autobiographical composition and psychotherapeutic transformation, as Bradley Lewis argues. My own experience therefore serves as a cautionary tale only to the extent that it provides a single case study of a writer–patient whose form of isolated self-defeating behavior at the computer keyboard was symptomatic of the depressive psychopathology from which I ultimately recovered not through writing but therapy.

To engage in psychotherapy means to work with another person. Some writers have editors and some writers regularly share work with peers in writing groups. Indeed it can be argued that [End Page 275] most writers generally benefit from occasionally breaking the potentially solipsistic self-enclosure of their creative worlds. However, while Solzhenitsyn continued to write secretly in the Gulag, therapy stops when the therapist goes on vacation. The intersubjective inquiry of a skilled therapist can offer a suffering person a form of emotionally attuned, mirroring engagement which can catalyze psychological healing and growth, as Adshead and Adam Brenner describe. Therapists thus play a quasi-parental role as nurturing figures in dialogue with whom an unsatisfactory life story can be revised either from the perspective of unacknowledged assets or its potential for a happier next chapter. Perhaps future research will illuminate the extent to which gifted writers possess some capacity to offer this form of attunement internally, and the neural substrate of such self-mirroring processes that do not depend on a second brain. Current evidence suggests the contrary hypothesis that the mind is more accurately conceived as an intersubjective rather than a “single skull” phenomenon. In my own case, my eventual recovery from depression was initiated by an interaction with a gifted therapist who suggested that he “had faith” in me, even though he conceded that he knew I no longer had faith in myself: in admitting the possibility that my therapist possibly saw something invisible to me (my future potential) I allowed for the possibility of change and growth. Perhaps a talented editor or literature professor offers a similar quality of faith to his or her writers, too, although the contrasting goals of therapy (psychological change) and writing (artistic production) determine contrasting priorities in each case, even if those priorities may at times overlap.

Reading the commentaries on my paper has...


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pp. 275-277
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