Thursday, January 12, 2006

Riding the Tiger

Yorkshire Lass is a fellow survivor and KCU member, who is a journalism student. She has approached me to help her with her coursework , answering questions about trauma reporting and ethics which I am happy to do. As I haven't blogged since the weekend, because I have been too busy, I will use my answers to her questions as part of my blogging. This will follow in a separate post, which I will do tonight.

The whole question of the media and my part in it since July 7th has been interesting, since I am in the wierd position of being a survivor who works in the media ( in the commercial rather than editorial sense) and therefore has some sense of how it all works, and because I have been writing (this blog, since July 7th.) So I was asked by the group to take on the media-facing role on behalf of the group. We were aware that there was huge interest in all survivor stories, we were a target, and therefore we needed a media strategy. We decided as a group that we would therefore adopt a strategy of taking as much control of the process as we could, to protect ourselves whilst seeking to reach other passengers from our train. We would work with certain media outlets that reached the demographic of fellow passengers, so we could let them know KCU existed. And in a wider sense, as someone who has had PTSD before, I also hoped that this would help more generally with anyone who had experienced trauma or who sought to understand it and to empathise with those who had been through shattering events. I knew how much information about what was happening to me had helped me when I had PTSD in 2002-2003, and how it it 'normalised' a frightening and isolating process. How it had explained a condition that was not well-understood, to me and to others.

Therefore I became on several occasions the group's 'journalist' for the purposes of achieving this 'find other survivors' objective. But - and this is a big but - I am not a journalist nor a professional writer, and have not had the training that Yorkshire Lass has in dealing with survivors and journalism ethics. I have had to learn all this on the run, whilst dealing with my own experience as a survivor - when there was time. Of course there often has not been time, and my personal needs were sometimes overtaken by the group objective and needs. I think - I know - that being the voice of the group has sometimes held back my own recovery. But it has also had many positives, which is that I was able to feel that I was doing something positive. Citizen journalism is a big discussion point. How do you manage being both a journalist and a survivor?

Maybe I should not have taken it on. What is it about me that made me do it? I am trying to understand this now. Egotism? Compassion? The challenge? Guilt? An over-developed sense of responsibility to others?

Almost all of the group willing to be interviewed said that they would prefer to be interviewed by a fellow-survivor rather than by a journalist so when we did the Evening Standard interview, for example, I interviewed my fellow survivors, took longhand notes as I don't have shorthand ( though I do have a kind of shorthand of my own) and spent the whole weekend writing up the piece after interviewing 5 survivors for over four hours, together. The group interview became part group meeting, with passengers listening into each others stories and hearing their own experience - and mine -reaffirmed as they talked; meanwhile I listened, asked questions, and also tried to care for us all as we were sharing these shattering moments with each other.

I found it gruelling and a huge responsibility; unlike a journalist who can detatch, I was, of course, deeply emotionally involved . I cared about these people who were trusting me with this task. And I was at the mercy of the paper, which I didn't work for, and so couldn't 100% trust, and I was part of the story myself. It often felt overwhelming, especially after submission and on publication. There was a lot of worrying about whether we'd be 'stitched up'. Then there was my fear of being recognised in the street. The feature in The Standard was fine and everyone liked it - the passengers and the paper - but the photo used was of us superimposed over the murder scene - smiling - which caused huge offence as we had taken care to pose in a pub - to demonstrate that was where we met, like a normal group of mates rather than a 'self-help victim group'. This bad experience was very hard to deal with. The Evening Standard did however apologise profusely in a personal letter after I and the survivors wrote a letter detailing our distress, with over 20 survivors' signatures.

The questions I will answer for Yorkshire Lass about 'how does it feel as a survivor to be interviewed' could, I realise, be asked about me - how I as a 'journalist' have been experienced by other survivors when interviewing them. It is all quite an odd situation.

It is interesting that we do have a BBC journalist in the group, yet as far as I know she has not written about the experience. Few journalists who were involved as survivors on 7th July have done so, though one, Peter Zimonjic wrote for the Telegraph and like me, set up a survivor website, Apart from him though, I know of few other writers who were blown up who have written about it, which is possibly partly why 'Rachel North' comes up so much in survivor coverage - I was writing about it from 7th July - when I got home I posted about it on urban 75 - and then I was asked to write for the media, and then I was asked to manage the media strategy by the group. So you do get a lot of stuff from me out there if you search for July 7th survivors' stories. It is just the way it turned out - I became one of the more prolific vioces associated with the event since I was covering it daily, on my blog and where asked to, in the media.

We/I - had over 350 requests from media all over the world and I/we did about a dozen pieces in all, over the 6 months, learning more and more about how it worked each time, culminating with the Sun, the last demographic we needed to reach and the paper that scared me the most. We/I achieved hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of coverage and we managed to successfully control the message exactly as we wanted it (with the exception of one picture) - a feat I am proud of. The message reached out and dozens of people from the train joined KCU which now numbers over 80 people.

So, 6 months on, how has it been? It has been a huge learning curve, and an extraordinary responsibility, terrifying, exciting to a certain extent. It has been encouraging to me that people are interested in my words - the media were at times even frantic to interview/print/reproduce them. It has been physically, and emotionally shattering, and it has definitely impacted on my recovery, revisting the bombed train again and again and again to take other people there with me.

It has made me feel very vulnerable, it has demanded I am searchingly honest with myself, in print, in public, on TV - and it has demanded an emotional viscerality I have been frequently very uncomfortable with. I am evaluating the cost of it all now, in my PTSD counselling sessions why I have allowed it all to happen, and I think much of it is driven by guilt at having survived and a desire to protect fellow passengers - and the fact that once you ride a tiger, you have to stay on for the ride, and the media would have written the story anyway. So it was better to engage and manage the process. At least, that was what I felt.

It has also had an up-side - I did become a writer after July 7th and now I cannot imagine not writing. I fit it in when I can, getting up early, staying up late. I found my voice, I could finally speak out and I needed to. Writing now feels like what I should do.

I suppose I am lucky, as a new writer, that my own life has provided such 'material'. People are interested. The rape, then the bomb, then the inspiring fellowship of strangers. But it is not just 'material'. It is my life. People say it is therapy - though it is not. In therapy you should feel safe, and protected, but when I try to work with the media and 'ride the tiger' I never feel safe. And in therapy there is a responsibilty to the patient - but talking to the media is not counselling , they have no responsibility to you at all. As a survivor talking to other survivors, I am unusual, I suppose, in that I do care passionately about these people, far more so than I care about delivering the story. The story is only being told, after all, so that other passengers may find us; the group was always my first concern. Their safety, protecting them. I don't know if I gave myself enough protection?

Because then there came Rachel's Story. And I began to ask myself serious questions: is this what I am here to do? To write? Is this why I stepped off the train? But I have a job I enjoy, that I have been good at. I worked hard for ten years to get where I am. Months after nearly being killed is not a good time to change your life.

So now what of the future? Do I keep writing? Do I say, write a book? Do I write the stories of others? What are the risks, what are the costs, and should I really be riding this wave right now, when I am finally starting to realise - after specialist traumatic counselling - the real cost I am paying after the bombs in July?

I am grateful for the opportunities to write, but people did not give me them because they were sorry for me and they thought it might do me good to write things. They wanted the story, at times to a frightening degree. They wanted me, at times to a frightening degree. And so the question of journalistic ethics, of using your own life as material, and of making yourself vulnerable - in order to paradoxically take the control away from the journalist and tell your story, yourself, in your own words - has been a lot to consider.

As I get older and I learn more about about myself, I think I knew I was always going to end up doing this, there was never a question for me of backing away. Writing the bombs, the rape, ties in with everything I believe in about speaking out, telling your truth, being a witness. About making yourself vulnerable to be strong. About not hiding, so then if they attack you are not afraid. About being in control and about being compassionate. These were words that needed to be said and stories that needed to be told. So what the hell, what else could I do but tell them? I am a survivor, now I am also a writer. The story and the telling of it is part of who I am. It is what makes me, me. And when your life explodes, twice, knowing who you are is part of how you put yourself back together again.


Blogger Holly Finch said...

Rach, i know i have said it before, but you have done SUCH a fantastic job and KCU wouldn't be KCU without you. You have helped so many people who are now in turn helping each other, and helping you when you let them.

I know you have struggled with the whys & ifs & as a group I think there has been a huge feeling of concern about you, the reponsibility that you have taken on and the effect it was having on your recovey.

I am so glad you are now getting conselling and finally getting to grips with your own trauma, you have been / are amazing, but you need to look after you too.

we couldn't have done it without you
big hugxx

January 12, 2006 11:24 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Writing feels like what I should do."

Yes, it is - and please write that book, for July 7th 2006, based around this blog and extracts from other blogs, your and others' articles; the other sites, on terrorism, rape, bombs, forgiveness - and tiger riding.

Ego ? only a small one, surfacing occasionally. Giving, healing, supporting, speaking out ? Much, much more. Personal honesty and insight into the causes and effects of traumatic incidents ? Overwhelmingly.

Please stay on for the ride. I still think it has only just started.


January 12, 2006 3:08 pm  
Blogger Ceridwen Devi said...

Hi Rachel! We have quoted your blog in this piece in connection with homelessness in Amsterdam, as an example of what interactive media can achieve.
Our friend from Kashmir is now back home in Wales and is going through very much the same process, having been literally across the road when the earthquake happened. She saw so much suffering and felt so helpless, although she is one of the most empowered women we know. In reaching out to each other we can heal. It is a collective as well as a private process, and one fraught with boundary issues.
Best wishes

January 12, 2006 6:13 pm  
Anonymous Kier said...


I hope you won't mind me leaving this comment, as I know that you and I disagree specifically about many aspects of 7/7, but I have come and had a look at your blog and understand and agree with many things that you say.

I don't think there should be any doubt in your mind about whether you have done the right thing in speaking and and telling your truth. Maybe you would find that even if you had backed away for whatever reason, there would have been something inside you that would have kept you going with it anyway. Doing what feels 'right' is all any of us can ask of ourselves. I do not think you will end up regretting the path you have taken and I genuinely wish you well with your recovery.

January 12, 2006 8:15 pm  
Blogger Kier said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

January 12, 2006 8:33 pm  
Blogger Don't Call Me Ishmael said...

Hi Rachel,

This is the first time I’ve written anything on your page, but I’ve been following your blog since I first saw your BBC online diary a week after July 7th. I live here in California but I’ve visited London several times -- I love it there, and I was devastated when the news began to come over about the bombings. I think you are a very brave and thoughtful person and, truly, your writing has moved me deeply. In regards to what you posted about your concerns with continuing writing about yours and others’ personal experiences, I agree with you on many levels, especially what you wrote about the ethics involved. I am also a writer, though I primarily write fiction, (short stories and the like) I also have struggled with the implications and consequences of the stories I tell, especially when drawing from personal experience. I even took a class at my university while earning a bachelor’s degree in creative writing called ‘Use of Personal Experience,’ which served not only an exercise in writing about my own life but also in making decisions about what is okay to write about other people’s lives. I have since come to the conclusion that obviously, from the objective of both a writer and a reader, the very best writing comes from those writers who do have their wits (and conscience) about them than those who plow ahead and write every dirty little detail they can think of about things like their grammar school best friend’s alcoholic mother, etc, etc. Because not only are writers like those running the risk of causing distress to real people, things like subtlety and metaphor and allegory are called elements of good writing for a reason. In writing workshops you always hear “show me, don’t tell me” – meaning that yes, writing is a means of revealing truth, but it takes actual skill to render meaning into your writing, regardless of whether it really happened or not. My point being that if you’re worried about what you’re doing, you’re probably on the right track. There is a wonderful, touching and humorous book on writing by Anne Lamott called Bird By Bird that I think you’d enjoy. Though some of it focuses on writing fiction, the book is an invaluable tool and source of inspiration for writers of any genre. And perhaps it would serve as motivation for you to attempt to write fiction as well; you are an excellent writer as I’m sure you’ve been told and I’m also sure you’d succeed in any genre if you wanted to. I wish you the very best of luck in all of your writing and in carrying on with life in lovely London-Town. If you ever have a chance please check out my own blog which I use to post some of my own stories….and thank you for sharing yours.

[Hug] --Marina

January 13, 2006 9:00 pm  

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