by Emily Rose Hay
My twitter is full of silly stories from the past. I have tweeted about the Scottish aristocrats who issued wedding invitations to their castle ghosts in 1968; the fifteen babies baptised in a ceremony on a Royal Navy ship in 1976 (termed a ‘megabap’ if you’re interested); and Belgian nuns misusing government funds to build a convent swimming pool and bar in 1984. Lamentably, absolutely none of this is useful or relevant to my research.
I study child homicide cases in the British news press between 1960 and 1985, and being cautious about the way I talk and write about this work is both a moral duty and practical necessity. This affects the way I discuss it with everyone – from my close family and friends to my hairdresser or a first date. Choosing my words carefully and limiting the level of detail I go into has become reflexive over the past three years, and nowhere is this more important than online.
There are many reasons for this. I don’t think Twitter is an appropriate platform for these stories: these are events that need to be handled carefully, gently and with a great deal of context and consideration. Even though all my sources are in the public domain – accessible on the Google News Archive or to anyone with a public library card – most of the stories I cover received very little attention in the local or national news at the time. I am wary of sending them out into the indiscriminate ether, potential prey for journalists or pseudo-journalists hungry for grizzly new tales of true crime. Close family members are likely still alive and in pain, and I have no desire to disturb the dust. There are ethical quandaries enough regarding making a career through studying these most horrific and miserable events of many people’s lives, that racking up Likes at their expense seems to me verging on the grotesque. Of course, there are certainly those who use Twitter etc to great effect and are bettering the world through their useful discussions of difficult topics – but it’s simply not for me.
I also limit my public discussion of these stories for my own wellbeing. I think about these cases every day, and at times this takes a serious toll on my mental health. I already struggle with sleep, and I don’t need another outlet for anxiety to keep me up at night. When I was doing the research, I scanned through every single page of my source newspapers to find all the relevant cases of homicide, and in doing so I came across some of the silliest local news stories that had me breaching the sacred silence of the library with stifled cackling. These were moments of pure joy in the archives – a relief and release from honing in on pain. I took pictures of these stories as I went, and I now have an immense collection of whimsy which I have revisited often during the writing-up process.
Recognising the light and shade within my source material has helped to ground me – to remind me of the rich variety of human experience rather than focusing solely on the rare, devastating events which regularly threaten to overwhelm. These are the stories that I publish on my Twitter, and I recognise now that this has been part of a coping mechanism I have cobbled together throughout the PhD. When I’m having a bad day, I will post a funny story and enjoy the interactions that follow. When various lockdowns reduced our ability to socialise, these were small acts of comfort that cut through the isolation. This activity has also helped act as a regular reminder of the parts of me that I like best. You may not suspect this from the macabre nature of my chosen topic but I promise that I am, in fact, a laugh. I am determined not to lose myself totally by thinking about child death day in, day out.
So that is why I mainly tweet historical gems/nonsense. I will talk about my research at conferences, with my supervisors and members of EDHG, and – hopefully – in some publications. Maybe one day I will find a way to communicate these important stories in an ethically sound manner that does the children and their family members justice. Until then, I am pleased to have found an outlet that helps me do this difficult work. Now, would you like to see a bunny rabbit wearing contact lenses in 1960?
Emily Rose Hay is a founding co-convenor of the Emotionally Demanding Histories Group and PhD candidate in History and Criminology at the University of Edinburgh Emily Rose's research examines changing press narratives of child/youth homicide in the UK in the latter half of the twentieth century. She is particularly interested in local media and situating historic grief within a community context. In addition to teaching at the University of Edinburgh, Emily Rose is an Associate Lecturer in Criminology at the Open University. Follow her on Twitter at @emilyrosehay.