DAY FOURTEEN: Duties of care: Navigating and narrating traumatic histories

Historians often encounter traumatic and emotionally demanding stories in their research. Claire Aubin and Emily Rose Hay looks at the emotional labour that underpins such research through reflecting on the ’emotionally demanding histories group’.

Claire E. Aubin and Emily Rose Hay

Featured image: Logo of ‘Emotionally Demanding Histories Group’

We are confronted by challenges when doing any type of research.  However, there are difficult decisions to make and experiences to endure when studying certain sensitive topics.  We started the Emotionally Demanding Histories Group (EDHG) at the University of Edinburgh in early 2019 to provide a much-needed support network for researchers studying particularly difficult, upsetting or traumatic histories.  Our own work prompted us to form this network. Emily Rose researches British child/youth homicide in the late twentieth century and Claire examines Holocaust perpetrators in the post-war US immigration process.  Both topics present us with ethical and methodological dilemmas, while at the same time taking a toll on our emotional health. 

Since the inception of EDHG, historical gender-based violence has been raised repeatedly as a subject fraught with difficulties.  A key concern regards victims, and how to represent their lives and the violence enacted against them. 

Recent scholarly works have placed victims of infamous gender-based violence at the centre in a deliberate move to shed sensationalist, pejorative and marginalising representations, particularly of sex workers.

Louise Wattis’ 2018 work contextualises the lives of the victims of the Yorkshire Ripper by examining their local communities. Similarly, Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five displaces the mythologies cemented around the Jack the Ripper case with a thoroughly victim-centric history.[1] 

However, creating these kinds of histories is not straightforward.  Participants in EDHG often share that they don’t know how to approach writing about their victims to best preserve their dignity.  This is especially the case with histories that have not previously been written about.  Do we anonymise and/or provide as much contextual information about their lives as possible? How do we know what the specific victims in our research would have wanted?  We have a responsibility to our subjects, but it is not always clear how to do right by them.

It bears mentioning that we are both contemporary historians working primarily on topics related to the latter half of the twentieth century. Unfortunately, gender-based violence spans historical eras and affects researchers of all time periods.

The issue of temporal ‘distance’ from our subjects arises in several ways, most frequently in terms of practical concerns. Researchers cannot determine which historical subjects would have preferred (or abhorred) anonymity when those subjects are no longer alive to speak for themselves. Conversely, secondary victims of violence or descendants of victims may still be alive to object to a researcher’s approach to narrating the experiences of their loved ones or ancestors.

While temporal distance is not necessarily an impediment to historical understanding, it plays a particularly outsized role in our navigation of ethical anxieties as we shape the afterlives of our source material. The perceived personal safety that temporal distance offers also does not mitigate the real impacts that these sources may have on us as researchers.

Since forming EDHG, the temporary and long-lasting effects of traumatic historical research are finally being discussed. Issues such as vicarious trauma (also called secondary or indirect trauma), wherein symptoms of trauma occur in an individual who interacts with traumatic information without experiencing it directly, have historically been viewed as the province of social workers and mental health professionals. However, discussions within EDHG sessions regularly include topics such as nightmares, anxiety, depression, feelings of isolation and loneliness, irritability, difficulties in interpersonal relationships, and hypervigilance — all in direct relation to traumatic research topics, and all common trauma symptoms.

These feelings are only compounded when secondary trauma occurs at an intersection with relevant personal experiences. A historian of domestic violence who has themself survived domestic violence is at once witnessing and articulating the pain of others, while simultaneously risking the perpetuation or re-embodiment of their own trauma.

The question becomes, then, how can we engage with traumatic histories in a way that does not cause further harm to researchers, but which does justice to the stories we are telling? Emotional engagement is often inescapable, particularly when the line between the ‘historical’ and the contemporary is smudged so thoroughly as to nearly cease existing. Cases such as those of Sarah Everard, Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman remind us as historians that the violence we research and discuss also remains a threat outwith the archives. The first step, it seems, is to acknowledge that these experiences are real; the barrier between ourselves and our research is more permeable than we have previously assumed. Only once this is both acknowledged and accepted can we begin to find practicable answers to the questions raised by our work.

Authors’ Bio

Claire E. Aubin and Emily Rose Hay are the founding co-convenors of the Emotionally Demanding Histories Group, an initiative to explore new approaches to researching traumatic and distressing historical subjects.

Claire E. Aubin is a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Divinity. Her PhD dissertation, entitled ‘From Treblinka to Trenton: Holocaust Perpetrators as Immigrants to the United States,’ focuses on the comparative individual agency of Holocaust perpetrators throughout their experiences of post-war US immigration. Claire’s academic work frequently explores concepts of perpetration, collaboration, community, and justice, as well as public perceptions of these issues. She is an ECR Member of the Royal Historical Society and her research has appeared on History Hack, WW2TV,  and the AskHistorians podcast. She can be found on Twitter at @CEAubin.

Emily Rose Hay is a PhD scholar situated between the School of History, Classics and Archaeology and the School of Law at the University of Edinburgh.  Her research is interdisciplinary and examines press representations of British child and youth homicide in the late twentieth century.  She is particularly interested in local media and situating historic grief within a community context.  She is an Associate Lecturer in Criminology at the Open University, and you can tweet her @emilyrosehay.


[1] Wattis, Louise. Revisiting the Yorkshire Ripper Murders: Histories of Gender, Violence and Victimhood. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018; Rubenhold, Hallie. The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper. London: Doubleday, 2019.

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