Finding Our Composure
by Dr. Emily Bartlett and Prof. Julie Anderson
We live in a culture of sharing. Social media makes it easier to connect with loved ones and strangers, to form communities, and to understand other peoples’ lived experiences. Sharing can be a lifeline: websites like Tumblr and Twitter generate valuable support networks; social media can amplify otherwise marginalised voices, and sharing traumatic experiences either online or in person can help people to process their emotions and deal with distress. Sharing also has its downside. As Claire E. Aubin suggested in the first blog of this series on Emotionally Demanding Histories, the propensity to share (and perhaps overshare) on social media often makes trauma inescapable, triggering distressing feelings.
This culture of sharing is part of academia, too. Universities are increasingly focused on cultivating co-production and knowledge exchange between stakeholders. As academics, we have become more invested in understanding diverse voices and experiences. Since the 1960s, historians have sought to uncover the lives of ordinary men and women, delving into personal documents and everyday activities to examine so-called ‘hidden’ histories and re-centre the lived experiences of marginalised groups. In short, the personal has become central to research, and with it the emotions associated with it the messy realities of life. Historians must now open themselves to what James Robbins has called ‘the pain of the past’. (1)
This is especially the case for researchers undertaking oral histories, who come up close and personal with people’s pasts. By their very nature, oral histories involve sharing. Oral historians collect and preserve personal details of people’s lives (albeit carefully curated ones). We analyse the intricacies of narrators’ memories and life histories; deconstructing cautiously composed and deeply private stories to build a picture of historical cultures.
As researchers for the Living Assessments project, this is an especially interesting, but distressing aspect of our jobs. Our project is concerned with experiences of health and social care assessments (1989-present) — often intimate examinations of family life carried out by social workers to determine what help and support they need. For the parents/carers and social workers we interview, sharing is not just something done with friends, at work, or on social media. Assessments dig into every aspect of a family’s life. Social workers enter people’s homes and interrogate everything from kitchen cupboards and fridges to children’s bedrooms and loft spaces. They are also required to ask people about the most deeply personal parts of people’s lives; getting to know parents/carers and children is crucial for keeping families safe and ensuring they thrive (or, at the very least, survive).
For many families, assessments are common, they happen as regularly as every six months for years or even decades. Sharing their private lives with relative strangers becomes par for the course. Social workers, too, are well used to this process. Distressing stories and trauma are normalised. In interviews, these narrators casually recount painful stories of child deaths and abuse, of domestic violence, medical malpractice, and of parents making unthinkable sacrifices to keep their children safe — often in a calm matter-of fact way. This can be attributed to what historians call composure. That is, the process by which interviewees construct a narrative about their experiences, as well as the sense of personal, emotional composure they are attempting to convey. (2) For these narrators, the stories are well-formed; families who have been assessed are well versed in the interview process — indeed, assessments themselves constitute a kind of interview with a social worker. These interviewees have been probed, repeatedly, for intimate details of their lives and, whether consciously or unconsciously, have constructed carefully curated personas and identities to manage these experiences. Participating in an interview may even be therapeutic; an opportunity to process the complicated emotions elicited by invasive assessments. As Penny Summerfield has suggested, ‘looking back at distressing experiences can provide self-affirmation or even closure. (3)
But what does this mean for academic researchers? Undertaking oral histories of health and social care can be a distressing business. Listening to parents/carers recount disturbing stories is heart-breaking and frustrating — especially when resources are often restricted for families. One recent interviewee warned us that this winter will see children’s health severely affected because of the rising costs of living. As interviewers we absorb accounts of pain and continue listening. In some cases, our narrators have become inured to the emotions that their story engenders. The fresh shock is not theirs. We adopt an interviewing mode, respectfully and carefully listening and responding in a composed manner, constructing a guise of scholarly impassiveness for the benefit of our interviewees.
But at what price does this composure come? What kind of robust systems can we put in place to protect ourselves? How can Project Investigators help early career researchers to absorb the shock of distressing revelations? Perhaps it should be compulsory for universities and funders to offer therapeutic interventions for researchers undertaking these kinds of projects. We are fortunate that our project has a psychiatrist attached to it to counsel us should our work become too overwhelming, but this is not always the case. Funding does not often allow for this kind of support, and university mental health services are regularly over stretched. There is no easy answer.
Perhaps historians working on emotionally distressing subjects must all eventually adopt the same coping mechanisms as the people we study. We look to the over-worked, exhausted social workers who somehow face trauma every day, and are forced to internalise their feelings for the sake of the families they care about; or to the parent who has generously recounted challenging experiences to us and says, ‘thank you — I feel much better now.’ To some extent, we, too, must become inured to the pain of the past.
James Robbins, ‘Can Historians be Traumatised by History?’, New Republic, 16 February 2021 <https://newrepublic.com/article/161127/can-historians-traumatized-history> [accessed May 2022].
Penny Summerfield, ‘Oral history as Autobiographical Practice’, Miranda, 12 (2016) <DOI:10.4000/miranda.8714>
Living Assessments: measurement, thresholds and the health of disabled and at-risk children in England, 1989-present is a Wellcome Trust Collaborative Award (2020-2025) that aims to understand people’s lived experiences of health and social care assessments in the United Kingdom. Based at the University of Kent, Cambridge University and the National Children’s Bureau, the project works with experts-by-experience, academic experts and the All Party Parliamentary Group for Children to improve the experiences and impact of assessments on children, young people and families. For updates on the project, follow us on Twitter @Living_Assess or for more information, and details of how you can get involved, please visit the project home page.
Dr. Emily Bartlett is Postdoctoral Research Associate for the Wellcome Collaborative Award Living Assessments at the University of Kent. Her research centres on the histories of disability and care with a particular focus on charity and objects. She has published on the history of disability and employment and is currently completing a monograph on war-disability titled Objects of Pity: Material Culture, Charity and Disabled Ex-Servicemen, 1900-1930, which will be published by Manchester University Press in 2023. Follow Emily on Twitter @emcharbar
Prof. Julie Anderson is Professor of Modern History at the University of Kent. Her research encompasses the cultural and social histories of disability, the history of medicine in the 19th and 20th centuries, and most recently, the history of health and social care. She is co-Project Investigator for the Wellcome Trust Collaborative Award, Living Assessments, and has published extensively on the histories of disability, rehabilitation, and spaces of care. Her latest book, Modern Eyes: Vision, Seeing and Culture 1900-1950, will be published with Manchester University Press later this year.