Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Acknowledging people's trauma stories in social research interviews

Source: http://www.globalbusinesscafe.com/wp-content/uploads/GBC-ThanksforListening-May-8-2014.jpg

My editor was crying so much when she read my thesis that her housemate came home and thought she had been dumped by her boyfriend. My editor, like many others, asked how I elicited such rich material from my research participants. And the answer is as difficult as it is simple: I listened.

I run several sessions a semester on how to do research interviews and I always wonder whether these sessions would be better titled, ‘Listening’. A good interview means asking the right questions, of course. But at the same time, the best material is often revealed unexpectedly. When profound insights are made, it is not that a question was asked so much as a revelation was made. So as a social researcher, how does one increase the probability and frequency of eliciting rich revelations? Well, you listen.

It is important (and useful) for me to elaborate on this.

Listening is more than just hearing. Listening is an active, engaged and embodied practice. I actively listen by feeding back to participants what I have heard. I ask if I have heard and interpreted their narrative correctly. I am engaged in the listening by giving participants my undivided attention. My phone is off, I don’t wear a watch and I explain to people that their story is important to me. Listening is embodied because you must demonstrate, physically, that you are not only hearing, but that you are understanding. Body language matters. As well as this, you need to make sure that your participant is physically comfortable – telling your story is an embodied practice too. You can’t expect someone to tell their most intimate secrets when you are sitting in a cold room in an uncomfortable chair.

Now this seems clear and commonsensical. But the dilemmas begin to arise when you start to wonder what body language you should demonstrate when someone tells you that they cut their own flesh to escape the pain of their life? Or how long you give your undivided attention to people’s trauma stories? Or how you feedback someone’s life story that is so traumatic you are too terrified to repeat it? It is how you respond to these predicaments that will determine how much people will reveal to you. People do not expect you to solve their problems, but they would like you to acknowledge them. In everyday life, we try and offer people solutions all of the time. Rarely is this useful.


Someone close to me was going through IVF. She received countless people telling her that ‘if it was meant to be, it will be’ along with, ‘Just stop thinking about it and then it will happen!’.

I have never tried to conceive a baby let alone tried and not been able to, but it seemed to me that these people were insanely inconsiderate – this advice was absurd. It was of no surprise to me that despite these well-intended offerings, my friend stopped speaking to them about her troubles. They had tried to put a ‘positive spin’ on it and in doing so, showed that they completely failed to understand the significance of this issue to her. They did not offer her a solution but rather, silenced her from speaking with them again.

Last week I realised the power of this first-hand.   

I was at work and in small-talk in the kitchen, a couple of colleagues offered that I was ‘lucky’ to do my PhD without a family. It freed me of the burden of care, apparently. With a sense of belligerence that has accumulated over time, I replied that I'd have rather had my family. 

My colleagues suggested that having a family and doing a PhD makes you feel guilty because you neglect your relationships. So I pointed out that I haven’t had a home to go to for a meal in four years. They said the novelty of that wears off. They appeared to view their families as a distraction from their work rather than their work as a distraction from their family. But of course, they didn’t really think this, they were just saying it. If they would really rather have no family, they could choose to sever ties with their own. Throughout all of this I was standing there and my inner voice was screaming to them ‘Stop talking! Just stop talking!’.

Eventually one of them said to me, ‘I am just trying to put a positive spin on it’. And this is exactly why I was so desperate for her to stop talking.

Some things don’t have a positive spin. Some things are awful and when we try and say they are not, we are invalidating the very real experiences of another. To try and put a positive spin on something doesn’t improve how someone feels, it diminishes their pain. To tell someone experiencing infertility that pregnancy will happen when the time is right is overlooking the reality that it might not and it is wilfully overlooking all of the cases in life where pregnancy has happened for people when the time was completely wrong.

Putting a ‘positive spin’ on someone’s story means that you are taking a creative licence with their narrative. It is offensive and it is problematic. When we ask someone to share with us their story, we must be prepared to hear it. When we interview somebody our aim is not to make them feel happy but to make them feel understood. It is okay if they are sad, and it is okay for you to be able to say nothing more than ‘I am sorry you experienced such pain’.

Acknowledging somebody’s struggle doesn’t exacerbate their pain, it honours it. When we interview people our job is not to solve their problems, our job is to listen to them. 

Sunday, July 13, 2014

PhD Acknowledgments

I submitted my PhD the week before last. I've requested that after its examination it be embargoed. Which means that the most important page won't be seen publicly for quite some time. I want these people to know how much they helped me. 


I hope as researchers you continue to wonder about those unrevealed stories. Not just because they are interesting, but because they are unjust.

At the beginning of this research, a woman who had been raised in state care anonymously left this comment on my blog. Her voice has kept me focused and I thank her.

The 73 young people who participated in both this study and its pilot were an endless source of inspiration—I hope that I do you justice. Gratitude is also extended to my former clients who gave me the insights that sparked my passion and who encouraged me to tell their story.

I extend much appreciation to the staff at the Youth Support + Advocacy Service (YSAS) and Barwon Youth Alcohol and Other Drug Service for their time, assistance and support. I would like to particularly acknowledge Andrew Bruun, Salli Hickford and Josie Taylor.

I thank Guy Johnson for much helpful intellectual discussion and support. Thanks are also extended to Madeline Hallwright who, in addition to being a dear friend, copy-edited much of this thesis.

As always, I am indebted to Shani Pearce (whom also copy-edited several chapters), Melissa, Matthew & Memphis Pace, Russell van Sanden, and Geoffrey Mead. Their contributions to my life, both tangible and intangible, were, and continue to be, immeasurable—thank you.

Chris Chamberlain – my ‘Tyrant’ – has been my ally, my harshest critic and pseudo-parent (under the guise of ‘Supervisor’). It is certain that I would not have begun a PhD without his (forceful) suggestion; but it is equally certain that I would not have been able to complete it without his unwavering support and belief in both me and this project. I have learned so much from him and I am eternally grateful—as was my mother.

Finally, my late family, whose love taught me more than I ever realised. My brother, Jared, modelled courage, curiosity and the importance of living your values. These traits were learned from our mother, Lorraine, who instilled in both Jared and I a strong sense of social justice. Mum taught us, by example, that if you can do something to help, you should. I would not be the person writing this story without the sacrifices they made for me. This thesis is for them.  

Saturday, June 7, 2014

What to say to the grieving?

The hardest thing I have ever done was give my mother’s eulogy. Planning the funeral was all a bit of a blur. First Mum died and there I was with her body. Melissa had just been there, bringing me food and coffee and cuddles with my godson. The end was nigh, but we weren’t to know those meals were not necessary – I wouldn’t be staying at the nursing home that night. That night I was to go home orphaned.

Moments after Mel left, Mum took her last gasps of air and then she was gone. After Mum’s siblings had left I waited for the undertakers. I didn’t know what to do. Mum was completely gone; there was no spirit of anything that even remotely resembled her. The corpse was so disembodied from who she was that it was obvious that the physical body is no more than but a vessel for our souls.

I phoned my supervisor to tell him she was gone. I wondered if it was sacrilegious to be on the phone. I decided I could set my own rules; I had a sense of belligerence now that I had no one to report to. It’s a bit hard for an atheist to commit an act of sacrilege anyhow.

The next day, Melissa and Shani took me to make the arrangements. Shani took notes and made lists. Melissa decided she liked the venue but the fake flowers had to be removed. The man said their concrete vases were too heavy to move. Melissa explained that the boys would come and do it: ‘Musky doesn’t go to the gym every day just to take selfies’, she said matter-of-factly. 

I went and bought a dress for the funeral. ‘A special date?’ the shop assistant asked. ‘Yes’, I replied, not exactly lying.
‘You’ll make quite an impression – your figure is amazing.’  I smiled back politely, leaving her content in the belief that she was helping to sell me a dress that would be part of some romantic cliché.
‘If only I could exchange my figure for my mother’, I thought.


The day before the funeral, Shani and I were traipsing around a shopping centre. I was hoping not to cry at the funeral, but in purchasing waterproof mascara I was hedging my bets. Looking at the cosmetics, I said to her, ‘I often think that if there was any sense of fairness in this world, then my life should at least come with free under-eye concealer’,
‘That’s the title of a blog post!’, she declared
‘Oh, the blog’. The blog was something that had fallen by the wayside.
‘Are you ever going to write about the past six months?’,
‘I don’t know’,
‘You’ve got enough material for a book’,
‘What a depressing book – I’d need to falsify a happy ending or else it would have terrible reviews!’
‘You haven’t been writing’, she observed, with the silent inference that we both knew was concern.
‘I will one day’.


The funeral came. I’d dreaded this day for a long time. My three best friends were with me early. Melissa was weeping. Shani was tending to things. Russell was trying to be useful. Not long after, the rest of the gang arrived. 

My friends' four-year-old son ran at me and hugged me so tight refusing to let me go. Kids are living proof that understanding humans’ needs requires no verbal articulation.

The boys looked sharp, so I probably told them they looked terrible. I can’t remember what they said but suspect they were hugging me and calling me fat, or ugly – probably both. 

People arrived: family, friends, my supervisor, colleagues, and some faces I didn’t know. Then the service began. My eulogy was last. 

I sat in the front row with my best friends beside me. I looked down the pew with the realisation that this day would bond me to these people forever. It didn’t matter what they said, what mattered was that on the most difficult day of my life I had them by my side and the rest of the gang filling the pews behind me. These people had been right there with me giving me shit and cushioning my falls through all of this.

They’ve had my back.


During Mum’s illness I was tired. I was so fucking tired and I couldn’t manage all of the things I was responsible for. I had to make money for the both of us. I wanted to be with her. I had to look after the house. I was meant to write a PhD, though had accepted I was probably going to have to drop out. I had health issues that weren’t getting better and medication that was making me sick. Among all of this I had the emotional weight of watching my mother die only a couple of years after my brother had died. Then my lifelong friend who I’d expected to be with me through this had been killed months earlier. I was so busy treading water that I was little more than a robot and not a good friend.

For reasons still unbeknownst to me, my friends were forgiving. Some nights I’d come home to meals on my doorstep. Having a proper meal made me cry. No matter how much I ate, I was always so hungry and in such desperate need of care. The therapeutic benefits of having someone cook you a meal cannot be understated.

Another friend would send me flowers regularly with a short note along the lines of ‘You are doing a good job’. This would make me cry too. I didn’t feel like I was doing a good job; I felt like I was falling apart. His timing was always impeccable. Andrew was wonderful and those flowers saved me many a time over.

Shani would come and help me with the garden. Her mother had died too. Shani didn’t offer advice. She’s wise enough to know advice is bullshit. She offered me tea and chocolate instead.

One night there were terrible storms and part of my fence blew down and there was a tree across my lawn and I had to get to class, I was teaching that day. By the time I got home from work the boys had been around and fixed the fence and Melissa had arranged for the council to deal with the tree. My Mum was so overwhelmed with how good these people were to us, I wondered how I could ever repay them.


During the service I whispered to Russ that we would exit from the front doors – I wasn’t doing the awful exit where I had to walk down the aisle where people looked at me with pity.
‘Is that what normally happens?’, he asked before explaining that he’d never been to a funeral before.
‘How can you be 35 and never been to a funeral?’
‘I’ve got issues with them, you should probably do some counselling with me on that’,
‘You’re too fucked-up for counselling to work’,

This guy, never been to a funeral and at his first one has the front row seat that nobody ever wants the rights to. I thought to myself how kind it was that he put his shit aside for me. I didn’t tell him that though. I probably called him a dick head.

My uncle gave a eulogy. During it, he spoke about the futility in ever entering a debate with my mother – she always won, he explained. The boys behind me were sniggering. One of the three Matts patted me on the shoulder, silently saying, ‘Oh, so that is where you get it from’.

It was my turn. I was shaking. This was the last thing I could do for my mother and she had done everything for me – I could not fuck this up.

I did it.

I walked back to my seat. People were clapping. I needed some water. I sat down, the shaking had abated. I sipped my drink.  The celebrant called for another round of applause. I wondered if this was really appropriate for a funeral. In any case, it was buying me time to compose myself. He started talking, I exhaled. Russ placed his hand on my leg and whispered, ‘That was good.’
‘That was really, really good’,
‘How difficult is it for you to say that?’
‘Very – but it is true’ said this friend who would rather stab himself in the face than say something nice to me.
Another of the Matts squeezed my arm in a silent demonstration of camaraderie.


The service finished and we were on our way to the wake. I finally felt like I could breathe again. I needed a wine.  ‘Wine?’, Carla said, ‘No, you need a tequila. I’ll have one ready for you.’

Russ observes that the service was much less eventful than he’d expected.
‘It’s a funeral! What were you expecting?’
‘I thought there may have been unwelcome guests’
‘Did you think you were going to get in a fight today?’
‘It had crossed my mind’
‘That’s a very expensive suit to be getting into fights in’
‘We both know my suit wouldn’t have been damaged’, he says.


I arrived at the wake with my crew. I am sure they were pointing out how white my legs are and that black is really not my colour. They were probably at pains to emphasise that I have no arse. These observations are the ongoing trial and tribulation of being the white girl in a group of Europeans. 

Having them berating me made me feel so safe.

The day went on. I hosted and made small talk with people I am related to but who I do not know.

Eventually, people started to leave except for one table whom I didn’t need to host. There was my crew. I sat at the table and ate a lot of food. They were ranking the men I have dated. They were then comparing these to the friend who I had been declining for a year. (You may have accurately gathered that my friends are bastards.)
One of them is laughing, ‘Hahaha!, she went out with X and she won’t hook up with you!’
Russ chimes in, ‘That’s nothing, you should see Y, I nearly spat out my drink when I met him’
‘I think she always date guys who are less than her so she never gets attached’, says the Freudian apprentice
‘Less than her? They must be bad.’
‘Kat, why won’t you give me a shot?’, says the Adonis who has no shortage of female attention
‘I think you’d be terrible in bed’ I say, trying to deflate his ego and this conversation.
The whole group erupts with laughter.
‘Let me prove you wrong!’, he replies,
‘She’s ugly anyway’, another offers to him in consolation.
‘Aren’t you meant to be nice to me today?’, I say, exasperated
‘Why?’, says my best friend’s husband
‘Because it is my mother’s funeral!’
‘Oh Jesus, how long are you going to try and milk this for?’
They’re all laughing.
‘In my next life I am not being friends with boys!’, I despair
‘You ARE a boy’, says Helen
‘Why am I even friends with any of you?!’, I retort.


A couple of weeks later Russ and I went for dinner after work. Driving there, he asks how I am coping.
‘I am going in the right direction, I guess. I get up and do stuff most days, but some days I stay home and cry all day’
‘That sounds pretty normal, doesn’t it?’
‘Yeah, that’s what I reckon’
We eat dinner and talk shit. As we’re leaving the restaurant, I pay.
‘You’re paying are you?’,
‘Yeah, you’ve been a good egg’,
‘What does “being a good egg” mean?’
‘Don’t push it’,
‘Had to try – she’s never nice to me’, he says to the waiter.
‘I just bought him dinner, you think he’d be grateful!’, I explain, trying to have the waiter side with me. 


My friends weren’t precious with me and they weren’t trying to force me into deep conversations all the time about how I am. They were the only sense of normality when my world had come undone and everyone else was treating me as though I was a fragile artefact in a museum exhibition. These dick heads just kept on highlighting how dumb universities must make people if Kat’s allowed to teach at one and they made sure I was fed and loved.

My friends are the only people I tell when I am struggling because they are the only people who accept that sometimes in life we struggle. They don’t like it, they wish it wasn’t so, but they also don’t presume that they can fix it. They offer an ear, but not advice. They don’t presume to know what it’s like to be me but instead give me a hug, a meal and say that they are proud of me. Better still, they let me not talk too. Contrary to pop-culture’s rhetoric, humans don’t have to talk about everything all of the time.


Lots of people have told me to let them know if I ever need anything, but of course I won’t. The test has come and gone, people have passed and others have failed.  Everybody tells you that tragedy teaches you who your real friends are and it is true that I will never forget who wasn’t there. But it is equally true that I will never forget who was there either. My friends were perfect because they were there; they didn’t need to say anything.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Is free speech still a right when it impinges on the rights of another?

The Australian government is currently attempting to repeal a section of the Racial Discrimination Act (1975). Since its inception, the Act has courted controversy on the grounds that it impedes free speech. The Act essentially puts a legal framework around racial discrimination. The current government wants to amend the section which criminalises what it commonly referred to as  racial vilification or ‘hate speech’. It will remain illegal to discriminate against someone in action – employment, who can sit where on the bus, etc. – but the repeal will prevent prosecution against race-based speech which is defined as discriminatory.

Not surprisingly, this is an issue that divides.

There has been a lot of discussion in the past week or so, and usually I feel little compulsion to write about topics that are being so heavily covered by others elsewhere. However, I have been struck by the stunning over-simplification of the issues. It appears that you are apparently either in favour of free-speech, or you aren’t. People seem to be wilfully ignorant of the reality that ethical principles or human rights do not always sit comfortably with one another.  

In principle, I am a vehement supporter of free speech, but in practice I am aware that freedom of speech is only attainable when we come from a neutral start point. But we don't ever come from a neutral start point - some people's speech has more power than others. So while free speech is a nice idea, so long as it's more free for some than others, then it is inequitable. Here is where I am faced with a dilemma: I am in favour of free speech but I am opposed to inequality.

If we can accept as true that some people have more freedom of expression than others, it then raises the question of what one privileges more: the right to 'free' speech, or the right to be free from oppression (because bigotry coming from Murdoch and guiding the political system does lead to oppression). I'm fine for people to have their own values on this – I certainly do. I readily declare that I won't tolerate bigotry at the expense of another's discomfort even though having to contain one's bigotry may make the bigot uncomfortable.

A few years ago, in a first year sociology course I was teaching, a student had a Swastika on her folder. She had extreme right-wing views and was opposed to migration and in favour of a white Australia. Certainly, she was entitled to these views, but I had to have a discussion with her about how we manage this in class, I did not want her to feel oppressed; however, I did not want the other 25 students to feel oppressed either. Some students had come to Australia as refugees, and it is more than probable they already felt out-of-place on a university campus without the added dimension of having a student declare that they were not entitled to their place in the room.

Likewise, I teach a course on the sociology of drug use. In the first class, I explain to students that while I encourage open discussion, words such as ‘junkie’, ‘addict’, ‘prostitute’ or ‘whore’ will not be tolerated. Certainly, this impinges free speech, but the impact of not being allowed to use the language is almost certainly less than the impact of being the recipient of such discriminatory language. 

I am not uncomfortable curtailing free speech and this is not because I am against libertarianism; rather, because I am a supporter of it.

If I were to allow discriminatory language in my classroom, I would be diminishing the liberty of some students to feel as equal in my classroom as others. In turn, I would be limiting their capacity to enact their right to free speech. Friere has pointed out that to do nothing in the face of oppression is not remaining neutral, but siding with the powerful. Inaction is action. Not intervening in language that offends is allowing it.

Those arguing that classical liberalism rejects the notion of the state interfering in individual liberties are overlooking the very significant qualification John Stuart Mill made: liberty can rightfully be intruded upon at the point at which it negatively impacts upon another.

Presumably, those in favour of repealing the current legislation in the name of free speech hold close the notion that language is power. The blanket rejection of any impingement on free speech reflects a view that curtailing freedom of expression is a form of oppression. And this is true. However, it is equally true that when those with power use language to further diminish those without power, we see another form of oppression. So the argument that free speech should not be curtailed because it is oppressive lacks nous. The actual argument is that one form of oppression is acceptable and another is not.

When you have not belonged to a group whose rights have been abrogated by other people’s words, it is easy to suggest that words should not hurt. When our mainstream media privileges the voices of the white middle-class, we see policy and social norms developed in response to this. When our mainstream media normalises bigotry and the state allows this to go without consequence, we are not sending out a message about liberty and freedom of speech, we are modelling discrimination.

So yes we all have rights to liberty, but we do not have the right to harm others and people can be harmed from language. But people shouldn’t be offended by what a bigot says, you say? Perhaps. And maybe they are not. But they are likely to be offended by the flow-on effects that come when bigotry is promoted by the most widely-read journalist in Australia. (I have written previously about the power of language)

Given that the government is not seeking to repeal the whole Act – it will remain illegal to discriminate based on ethnicity – it seems reasonable to presume that most people in favour of the repeal are in favour of it because it offends the principle of free-speech; not because they are in favour of racial discrimination.

I am perplexed at how we can agree that discrimination in action should be governed but discrimination in speech should not. I get stumped at this point in the liberty argument. If we are all free individuals, how far do we go before we accept state intervention? For instance, are those in favour of the amendments to 18c also in favour of legalising violence? If it is okay to be a bigot verbally, may I elect to be a bigot physically? Instead of getting angry and saying something mean to you based on your ethnicity, may I just use my liberty to punch you instead? No? Why not? How do we assess whether physical violence is more harmful than a culture of bigotry?

I don’t think I am being too presumptuous to presume that most of those in favour of repealing 18c on the grounds of individual liberty are going to reject my proposition that criminalising violence impedes my liberty. However, I also don’t think I am being too presumptuous to presume that many who have been oppressed by race-related language would have rather received a punch in the face than live in a country which condones inequality based on ethnicity. So what is actually at play here is an argument about which rights and liberties are of most import.

Having two liberties that do not sit comfortably together is hardly new. I’ve written before about this dilemma. In the US, we see gun owners argue that they have the ‘right’ to own a gun and many would agree. But surely many also agree that children have the right to go to school and be free from the risk of someone undertaking a(nother) massacre with a gun they had the liberty to own. Perhaps most people won’t use their guns to kill school children; but the harm that comes from a school of dead children seems far more significant than the harm which arises from abrogating one’s right to gun ownership. We cannot mask this in an argument about liberty – the actual argument comes down to whether or not you preference gun ownership over school children’s safety. Step away from the safe mask of theoretical principles and speak to the practical reality. 

Like the gun debate, the argument about repealing section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act is only about liberty at its surface. While involvement from the state may not be ideal, I suggest before repealing the Act, we ask those with the power, those whose speech is most free, those who are most offended by the government interference of language, to offer a viable alternative that does not impede one’s right to free speech while simultaneously not impeding racial minorities’ right to feel like an equal citizen. Pretending that free speech is a universal right is naïve. Ignoring the effects of hate speech is negligence. Thinking that we are all equal or that language doesn’t have catastrophic influence is downright moronic.

Free speech is much freer to a particular groups of people. Our Prime Ministerial cabinet is full of white men, and it is white men who own the mainstream media: the people who are arguing in favour of repealing the Act are those whose speech has always been free and who have not faced the daily experience of being oppressed. The structural and systemic inequality in our society means that free speech is a privilege, not a right. When this privilege is applied equally to all members of our community, I will entertain repealing 18c.