Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Vicarious Trauma: A Danger Writers Need to Be Aware of

By Bonnie Randall

Part of the How They Do It Series (Monthly Contributor)

Acclaimed YA author Chris Crutcher said “Once a thing is known, it can’t be unknown.”

As a writer, and as a social worker, I tend to be exposed to, and research, a variety of extraordinarily dark topics. It is the nature of my job to know these things, and the genre of fiction I craft frequently dives into forbidden, life-altering places.

Very early in my career, when I was still paying my dues as a child protection investigator, I recall becoming defensive when a member of Joe Public sneered about CPS workers, calling them ‘brain-dead’ and ‘useless’. My rebuttal was fierce: “You have no idea what these workers are exposed to,” I fired back. “Most people only ever hear about kiddie porn. We’re forced to see it.”

And, ‘once a thing is known, it cannot be unknown.’ Something seen cannot be unseen, and even when one does not experience an event directly, bearing witness, or viewing related material, can create an adverse psychological impact. Back when I was an undergrad, this phenomena was called ‘The Witness Factor’. Today, though, it goes by other names, and most frequently we call it ‘Vicarious Trauma’.

For writers, vicarious trauma can arise when, in our quest to craft the most authentic story possible, we end up viewing / learning information that disturbs us, shocks us, and ultimately challenges our world view. (‘soft’ example: Pat Benatar wrote the ‘80’s rock tune Hell Is For Children after reading an article about child abuse in The New York Times. Prior to that, she claims to have had no idea that some children suffer so profoundly)

Currently, I am toying with the idea of cults and cabals as being the sinister backdrop for a new installment in my Secrets & Shadows series. As such, I’ve toppled into a rabbit hole depraved enough that a mere segment from a related film was so intensely vile and despicable, my gorge rises as I sit here recounting it. I had never even heard of something so heinous prior, and I refuse to even share its title—for if you’re remotely like me, you won’t be able to resist searching for it, and I won’t be party to that. It has been years since viewed material gave me nightmares and intrusive thoughts, but this time I was toppled over the edge and into the realm of vicarious trauma.

So what is Vicarious Trauma?

Transcending mere shock and horror, vicarious trauma / the witness factor / compassion fatigue often presents with a combination of some of the following symptoms:
  • A sense of cynicism or hopelessness with regard to certain situations, groups, or the government
  • A persistent fixation with an ideology—either positive or negative. (example: These are the people who post and re-post articles related to one particular theme over and over on their social media)
  • A tendency to avoid work (like their research), procrastinate, OR (conversely) immerse into it even more, obsessively and seemingly tirelessly. They may not be able to find an ‘off’ switch and will speak on or about the same, distressing topic endlessly.
  • Becoming atypically fearful, skittish, or paranoid. Over-generalizing is common, particularly with regard to fearsome topics—there may be a sense of irrationality within their views.
  • Electing to erect extremely rigid boundaries (isolating oneself) or having an erosion of boundaries (over-sharing personal information).
  • Abandonment of spiritual beliefs out of a sense of hopelessness, despair, or betrayal.
  • Experiencing nightmares or flashbacks of the disturbing content.
Note: Many of these symptoms cross-over and are also symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Also note that the more traumas someone has endured in their past, the more susceptible they will be to vicarious trauma.

If you (or someone you love) are experiencing a significant number of the symptoms above, please take a step back from whatever ‘rabbit hole’ you’ve immersed yourself into. Resist the urge to click on or post ‘just one more article’. Walk away and do so literally: get up, get moving, awaken some exercise-induced endorphins in your brain, and preferably do this outside in the fresh air and in an environment that looks nothing like your work area.

Talk to someone—a friend, a spouse, a partner—and if no one is available, and your symptoms don’t relent, seek professional help. You won’t sound ‘silly’, and if you are afraid that you will, bring this article with you as a reference point. Vicarious trauma is a real condition—and it can and does derail the most sensitive among us (and writers, by their very nature, are quite often ‘the most sensitive among us’).

Rediscover beauty. Vicarious trauma skews our world view, and beliefs fester that tell us everything is ugly, dangerous, depraved, and unsafe. And while, yes, this is partly valid, beauty exists too. So does joy, and silliness, and love. So watch cat videos that charm you. Create a collection of dessert recipes from the myriad chocolate or baking sites out there. Grab your camera and go on a treasure hunt in your community to capture as much beauty as possible—you will be surprised and delighted by what you find. Click on Netflix and by-pass the documentary section and head instead to the comedies. Laugh.


Make a covenant with yourself to always remember to afford yourself balance within your work, to exercise moderation, and to always seek joy after being slammed with upset. Practice self-care in all your endeavors.

Be well, and


Bonnie Randall Bonnie Randall is a Canadian writer who lives between her two favorite places—the Jasper Rocky Mountains and the City of Champions: Edmonton, Alberta. A clinical counselor who scribbles fiction in notebooks whenever her day job allows, Bonnie is fascinated by the relationships people develop—or covet—with both the known and unknown, the romantic and the arcane.

Her novel Divinity & The Python, a paranormal romantic thriller, was inspired by a cold day in Edmonton when the exhaust rising in the downtown core appeared to be the buildings, releasing their souls.

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About Divinity & The Python

Bonnie Randall Divinity and the Python
Divinity - Where deception and desire both hide in the dark...

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  1. Bonnie, thank you for your commentary. I have struggled in my writing to decide how much should be shown versus hinted at versus not included. The difficulty comes in not hiding the fact that there are evil things out there, yet not showing so much as to have the story become another vehicle to carry that evil further.

    1. I respect your conscientiousness, John. I remember when Stephen King, troubled by school shootings, yanked his novella ' Rage ' off of shelves for fear it would be used as a ' how to ' manual.

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  3. This is why I write the "frothy" Romance. I want to provide a healthy escape from the heaviness of reality for readers, even if only for a few hours.

  4. Very thoughtful article, thank you! I've never seen this warning before, so I'm glad someone is stepping up. Personally, I've always been quite good at stepping away, but as you say, the search for authenticity in your writing does pull toward dangerous grounds. And as her Grace already remarked, a reason to step away from dark into light. For me anyway.