The Ethical Dilemmas of Writing about Family Following a Traumatic Incident.

Author: Stephen Tanner, University of Wollongong


Journalists are generally discouraged from writing about family. But what happens when a story can be best told by a family member in a participant-observer role? Are there particular ethical considerations that need to be considered? Does the risk of harm to those most affected by the story outweigh the public benefit in hearing about the story? Does the fact that two of those most likely to be affected are children, and that they were separated by more than 17,000 kilometres from their parents at the time the story broke, influence the way in which it should be presented? This paper explores these questions in the context of the writing of a book-length analysis on the impact of trauma involving two Australian academics and their children.

To cite this article

Tanner, Stephen. “The Ethical Dilemmas of Writing about Family Following a Traumatic Incident.” Fusion Journal, no. 11, 2017.


In July 2010 my wife, Kath, was critically injured while we were in the UK on study leave. We were travelling in an airport bus that was hit from behind by a small sedan. The impact caused the bus to roll. Her leg was traumatically amputated as the bus slid along the pavement on its side, her right hand was degloved (the tendons stripped off), a tendon in her left hand was severed, and she suffered major wounds to her shoulders, hip, back and buttocks. In short, she was lucky to survive, spending one month in hospital in the UK before she was allowed to fly back to Australia, where she spent another two months in hospital undergoing more surgery and rehabilitation before being allowed home.

We were only meant to be in the country for less than 24 hours en-route to a conference in Belfast, where she was to present the findings of her recently completed PhD, ironically, in Special Education (Tanner, 2010). The purpose of the stop-off in London was to have a look at the new £10 million journalism facilities at City University, London, with a view to convincing my then vice chancellor that we could do something similar, albeit on a shoestring, at the University of Wollongong where I was Professor of Journalism.

During the month we stayed in London, while Kath built up sufficient strength to be repatriated back to hospital in Australia, I started to write a diary. For me, it was a form of therapy (perhaps not surprising for a former journalist and now journalism educator). At the time I didn’t realise that the therapeutic benefits of writing were so widely known and it was not until much later that my attention was drawn to the ever-growing body of academic literature that advocated writing in its various forms to help those who had experienced trauma or illness (see for example, Pennebaker, 1993; 1997, 2000; Pennebaker & Seagal, 1999; Esterling et al 1999; Greenhalgh, 1999; Adams, 1999; Wright & Chung, 2001; Barak & Leichtentritt, 2016). Writing the diary not only helped me to while away the hours, days and weeks until we were reunited with our children, but provided me with an opportunity to reflect on what had happened and the way tragedy can impact us. Every day, I included observations about Kath’s recovery, including both positives and negatives; I reflected on what I was going through; and I wrote about the children’s reactions which I was able to monitor through our daily telephone and later Skype conversations.

It was not until some months after we’d returned to Australia – and Kath was nearing the end of her hospital-based rehabilitation in preparation for returning home to a life that was fraught with a range of uncertainties – that I began to consider writing a book about what she had been through: interwoven with vignettes about how we as a family coped, and even how people who deal with trauma in a professional capacity on a daily basis, cope.

I didn’t want it to be one of those books that are written from the perspective of the victim, and build up a picture of “look at me; see how amazing I am”. There is a place for such books, don’t get me wrong, because people do draw inspiration from another person’s amazing feats and Kath’s journey was certainly remarkable. It’s just that I wanted this book to be more, and perhaps to do more. I wanted it to be a book that looked into the deeper issues: the various medical procedures she underwent, the process of coping with trauma, how we walk, with and without a prosthesis etc. I had in mind a book written from the perspective of a participant-observer. After-all, I’d been in the accident; although I’d escaped relatively unscathed, suffering just broken ribs and  shoulder damage. I’d also sat bedside for months, both in the UK and in Australia, while Kath went through the various stages of her recovery, both emotional and physical. And I’d acted as the conduit, particularly during the month we spent in London, for our children, family and friends, but also upon our return to Australia. So I believed I was relatively well-placed to write a book that sought to answer some of the questions that people ask when they find themselves in a similar situation to the one we found ourselves in, albeit in our case 17,000 kilometres from home.

An ethical dilemma

But very quickly I realised that in writing such a book there were a number of ethical questions I would have to wrestle with, including the extent to which I should include the children and their reactions to the accident in my writings. If I did decide to include this information should I name or try to de-identify them? These are questions that any journalist or writer of non-fiction should consider, but which were super-added in this case because I was related by marriage to the main character, and by blood to two of those who were the most directly affected by what had happened: our children Emilija and Hamish, who were aged 16 and 8, turning 9, at the time of the accident.

Some people may argue that I shouldn’t tackle such a book because my obligations to my spouse and children should far outweigh my desire to write a book about our shared experiences in coping with the accident. This dilemma is highlighted by Kramer, who argues: “An inescapable ethical problem arises from a writer’s necessarily intense ongoing relationships with subjects” (1995, p. 5).

Kramer wasn’t actually writing about my particular dilemma. He was writing about the typical relationship between literary journalists and their sources. Yet, a later comment does point to the dilemma I was confronting:

In order to write authentically at the level of ‘felt life’, literary journalists will seek from subjects the sustained candour usually accorded only spouses, business partners, and dearest friends. Strong social and legal strictures bind husbands, wives, partners and pals to only the most tactful public disclosure of private knowledge (1995, p. 5).

The candour he talks about is fine – and certainly I was in a privileged position to benefit from that, particularly in the case of my wife; but what about the children? My relationship with them is different. I didn’t want them to feel obligated to participate in ‘my book’, as it had come to be known in family discussions. Nor did I want them to feel as if I was pressuring them (subtly, or not) to contribute what may have been their deepest inner thoughts, perhaps even fears, as valuable as I felt they might be to the overall structure and feel of the book. In fact, I wanted to protect them. But at the same time, I wanted to write a book that in the years to come would help them understand what we’d been through as a family and which potentially would help other people appreciate how traumatic events can impact on, and potentially change, people’s lives, both for the good and the bad. In short, I wanted to produce a book that married both the public interest and our own individual interests.

It was a path many other journalists had trodden before me, making the transition from the shorter form writing that dominated daily journalism, to one of the many genres that sat under the umbrella term ‘longer form writing’. Over the years – and particularly during my research for this book – I’d come across many titles that captured some of the genres and even sub-genres I would be drawing from, including ‘literary journalism’, ‘life writing’, ‘biography’, ‘autobiography’, ‘illness memoir’ and the more depressing ‘misery memoir’.

One term that appeared frequently in the readings I uncovered was ‘felt life’. It was a phrase that resonated with me from the outset, because it intuitively seemed to represent what we as a family had gone through: trying to make sense of an event that threatened to turn our lives upside down. The term is widely attributed to Henry James (cited in Kramer, 1995, p. 2), and essentially involves understanding an individual or an event at:

the frank unidealized level that includes individual difference, frailty, tenderness, nastiness, vanity, generosity, pomposity, humility, all in proper proportion. It shoulders right on past official or bureaucratic explanations for things. It leaves quirks and self deceptions, hypocrisies and graces intact and exposed; in fact it uses them to deepen understanding (Kramer, 1995, p. 2).

In fact, it paves the way for the writer to produce a ‘warts and all’ account of an event, or the people involved therein. It was this I was uncomfortable with, particularly when considering my children. I’d read widely before starting the writing phase, not simply because I wanted to situate my contribution, and was looking for a genre that would accommodate the book I’d planned, a tough task in itself, but perhaps more importantly because I was seeking ethical and moral guidance. I’d decided that it could probably be classified as literary journalism, given my training and the fact that I wanted to produce an honest and truthful account of what had happened (see also Greenberg & Wheelwright, 2014, p. 511). But this led me to the ethical conundrum: I wanted to know whether there were any guidelines that could help me address one fundamental question, namely: how much could I, or should I, write about the impact of the accident on my children? (see also Couser, 2004).

This underlying ethical question had been posed by Claudia Mills in discussing life writing: “If children do indeed provide their author parents with ‘material’, is this material that parents are entitled to use?” (cited in Eakin , 2004, p. 101). This is also picked up by Freadman, again in the form of a question: “Writers have a right to write. But how far into the privacy of others does that right extend?” (2004, p. 122). Tempering my approach, perhaps even guiding it, was a warning from Harrington (2007, p. 172: cited in Greenberg & Wheelwright, 2014, p. 512): “It is impossible to go intimately into people’s lives without having to wrestle with what should be revealed.” The last thing I wanted was to misrepresent them, a warning that Lindemann (2014) has invoked in a paper appropriately entitled “When stories go wrong”. It was becoming increasingly clear that the answer to my primary question was far from straight-forward, particularly once we start looking at definitions of privacy and the degree to which we, as individuals, control what is publicly known about us.

Today, most journalistic discussions about privacy start with, or at least reference, the contributions of Bok and Westin. Bok defined privacy as: “The condition of being protected from unwanted access by others – either physical access, personal information, or attention” (1982, p. 10-11). For Westin, privacy is “the claim of individuals, groups or institutions to determine for themselves when, how and to what extent information about them is communicated to others” (1967, p. 7). Critical to Westin’s definition is the notion of self-determination and the term ‘circle of intimacy’ which was later picked up by US academic Louis Hodges. According to Hodges, the amount of privacy you have is determined by the extent to which you can control your circles of intimacy. He drew a series of concentric circles, arguing that the larger the circles become, and the more people who are allowed into the circle, the lower the individual’s capacity to control information about them. He argued:

The claim of a moral right to privacy grows ultimately out of certain observations about the very nature of the human being. Individually we are unique entities possessing our own personal identities, memories, hopes and goals. Thus, individuals need to identify the boundaries, physical and spiritual, that set them apart as separate entities (1982, p. 202).

Yet, as Hodges points out, this is not straight-forward. Just as we have a right to privacy, so others have a right to information about us. The amount, or type, of information they’re entitled to depends on our position within society. According to Hodges, our right to know about people depends on their status within society. He identified six groups of people: (1) public officials, (2) public figures, (3) temporarily newsworthy heroes, (4) criminals, (5) innocent victims of crime and tragedy and (6) adult relatives of the prominent. Interestingly, he does not include children of the prominent as a separate category. The amount – and type – of information we are entitled to learn about them depends on which of the categories they fit into.

Of Hodges’ criteria, only one – innocent victims of crime and tragedy – would apply in the current case. In relation to this category he advises: “We should report about them only that which they give permission to publish” (1982, p. 209). Thus Hodges not only recognises the vulnerability of people who are victims of crime and tragedy, but acknowledges that they have the right to determine what information is publicly revealed and what remains private. This is also reflected in various journalistic codes of conduct, which are overwhelmingly underpinned by notions of trust and accountability and the need to minimise harm to individuals.

However a number of questions arise when journalists make the transition from working in a newsroom, and producing content on a regular basis, to working on larger book-length projects that can take months or even years to produce. Firstly, do the standard journalistic codes of conduct or statements of principles apply in such situations? Some codes are industry or platform specific, others are company specific. Yet others apply only to members (For example, the Australian Press Council’s Statement of Principles (2017), and the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance Code of Ethics (2017). Codes of conduct are often advisory – even aspirational – in scope (see Preston, 1992, pp 410-15). Breaches are often difficult to police, with transgressions rarely subject to heavy penalty. Finally, the codes are often superficial in scope, relying heavily on the individual to apply fairly general clauses to specific situations about which they’re seeking guidance. In short, they rely on the journalist having a highly tuned moral compass, or at the least a willingness to seek advice when wondering how to write ethically about a particular topic.

While I feel comfortable drawing upon various journalism codes of conduct to answer ethical questions for my larger book-length project, others may not be so willing: they might decide for their own purposes that the rights of the people they are writing about do not matter or that they are less important than the so-called public interest in having the story out in the public domain. Or even they might judge that the rights of the people portrayed in their writing are less important than their own writer’s interest in having their story published (be it in book form, or in a newspaper, magazine, or even online).

Journalism codes of conduct therefore, despite their obvious weaknesses, do have an important role to play as a ready reckoner of acceptable standards. As Janet Malcolm points out, the  relationships upon which we depend as writers for the material we use as the basis of our writing, “are invariably and inescapably lopsided” (1990, p. 161). This is further highlighted by Baier:

We need a morality to guide us in our dealings with those who either cannot, or should not achieve equality of power (animals, the ill, the dying, children while still young) with those with whom they have unavoidable and often intimate relationships (1986, p. 249).

In fact Malcolm goes so far as to describe the power the writer exerts over the person they are writing about as ‘unholy’ (1990, p. 161). The extent to which this applies in the case of a parent writing about their spouse or children, however, would depend on the level of trust that underpins the relationship. While Baier argues that “parental and filial responsibility does not rest on deals, actual or virtual, between parent and child” (p. 244), the reality is that a compact should exist: that it is incumbent on the parent-writer to protect the child from harm. Freadman, distinguishing between what he describes as ‘relativized trust’ on the one hand, and ‘blanket trust’ on the other, also recommends that the writer should question their own trustworthiness: “I’m asking whether I’m a fit  and decent recipient of [this] trust, and how I would need to act in order to be such a recipient” (pp 131-33). In fact he said that this questioning should even extend to asking the question: “why do I need to publish this book?” (p. 133).

The risks of writing about loved ones is considered by a number of other writers, including Claudia Mills, who points to “serious repercussions from disclosure that cannot be dismissed lightly” (p. 109). Mills identifies some of the costs as:

…the lack of respect or sensitivity or kindness revealed in certain modes or contexts of story telling; the pain the person may experience from embarrassment at the revelation; the pain she may experience from discovering what the story-teller really thinks about her; loss of reputation or standing in another’s eyes (2004, p 114).

She differentiates these costs from the following scenario:

If the cost is simply the sheer fact of having one’s story told, however it is told, and whether or not one ever knows that it was told or incurs any adverse effects from having it told, that cost is inescapable, on my argument (2004, p. 114).

For Mills, who was writing about the dilemmas of both memoir and fiction, the writer had a relatively simple out if the conflict between truth-telling and causing harm became too great: namely, de-identify the person you’re writing about. However this was not an option for me for several reasons. Firstly, the children would be identified through association with us as their parents.  Furthermore, it would not be possible to de-identify their mother (as the central player in the book), or myself (as the narrator). Without us being named, the book would lose its authenticity and thus impact.

Secondly, I needed to be careful when writing about the children because we live in a small community (permanent population 12,000 people; two primary schools and one high school). It is likely that a number of people in the local community will buy the book and talk about it. While our daughter no longer lives in the town, she still has friends (or parents of friends) who do, and thus anything that is written about her would be subject to interpretation, and possibly broader discussion.

Our son on the other hand still does live in the local community and, as he goes to the local high school, there is a risk that he may be the subject of critical comments from his peers who have perhaps overheard their parents talking about the book. It is very easy for comments to be misconstrued or, in the case of teenagers, deliberately used in a spiteful way.

Balancing the need to protect against the public right to know.

As the writer I have a contract, not just with my sources, but also with the readers of the book. Potentially there is a conflict between the two. So which should take priority? My contract with my sources is that I act fairly and represent them appropriately. My contract with the reader is similar: it requires me to be honest and truthful. But is there a tension between the two? And, should one contract take precedence over the other? Should my obligations as a father and husband, take priority over my obligations as a writer? If you accept this view, does it mean that I can be selective when deciding what to include/not include in the book?

Remember, as a husband/father I’m in a privileged position to obtain information that otherwise would not be revealed. Should I take advantage of this position and perhaps include comments/personal moments/vignettes that potentially would not be shared with any other person who was attempting to research such a book? Or should I take the view that the issue is so important, and there is such a pronounced social good in sharing such information, that my contract with my reader should take precedence over my obligations to my wife and children?

In answering this question, you need to consider the writer’s obligation to minimise harm. When we hear this edict, we generally think about the sources of the information we’ve obtained during the research process. This can include the people we’re writing about, or third party individuals who are willing to talk about the people we’re writing about.

While researching this book I interviewed more than a dozen people, some of whom were intimately involved in Kath’s care, others who looked after the children while we were in London, and some who had no knowledge of Kath or the children but were involved in the trauma field and provided important background information. All willingly gave of their time, with one of the London-based surgeons even proof reading chapters for me as I churned them out. I didn’t believe that they would be negatively impacted by what I’d written.

Nor was I particularly concerned about Kath’s response. After all, she was an intelligent woman, who had some media experience. She had the capacity to determine what she would or wouldn’t share with me (and thus ultimately share with the readers).

But I was concerned about the children. As journalists and academics, we are cautioned about interviewing children. And rightly so, because consent to use information that is given freely as a child may be regretted later in life. During the writing process I regularly wrestled with the father/writer conundrum: Is it appropriate that I ask my children these questions? How would I feel if someone else asked these questions of them? Would I step in and say: “You can’t ask that”?

One of the questions I wrestled with while in London was when and how do I tell the children that their mum had lost the lower part of her left leg in the accident? As a father I wanted to tell them gradually after they’d had the opportunity to see and talk to their mum via Skype and see for themselves that she was OK. In part this delay was also caused by the fact that for the first few days she was unconscious and I wanted to know that she would live before telling them. When we did tell them, my daughter wrote the following in her diary:

Last night I was told that mum had her foot cut off. My initial reaction was that I knew something was wrong with her foot as every time I broached the subject with Dad he would brush it off and say something about her hands, so I started to become very suspicious. I mean it came as a shock, but it didn’t hit me until a lot later when I was crying in the arms of our friend Faye.

The following day, she wrote:

So far I’ve managed to shield any real emotion about the accident. I’m not sure why I have; I guess I’m just a lot like my Dad – I bottle up all emotion and one day it all just, … well, I don’t know what it does and I don’t know if I want to find out. Bottling emotion is dangerous. I don’t know why I do it. Maybe it’s fear of being judged if I cry. But that couldn’t be it. I don’t care if I’m judged. Maybe I have just become hardened to grief and loss over the years and don’t show the emotion because of a fear of falling in a hole too deep to dig myself out of.

It is very powerful, and I must admit I nearly cried when I read it. And, not surprisingly, I asked myself: Should I include it? It was a question I wrestled with for days before deciding, after consultation with my daughter (who is now nearly twenty-two) that I would include it.

What were my thought processes? My first question was: By including it, would I cause her harm? By harm, I didn’t mean physical harm; I was focused on the prospect of emotional harm. I concluded that it wouldn’t cause her harm because the book was being written at a significant distance from the event itself. She’d given me permission to use it. And, as a young adult, I believed she was competent to make that judgment. Had the writing been more proximate to the event, however, I don’t believe I would have included it, because it revealed a degree of vulnerability and a rawness that could potentially be detrimental to her health if published more broadly.

On the other hand, its rawness was one of its strengths. Given that the book was intended to help people who tragically were going through what we had been through, such insights into one young person’s experience may prove beneficial in the sense that it might help others understand a loved one’s reaction to a traumatic event (This could be a son or daughter or even a parent or partner). It may also help to convince them that perhaps additional – professional – support is required that cannot be provided from within the family.

We also had issues with our son, who is probably less accepting of the book than his sister. He was only a small boy at the time of the accident, but his memories of it are vivid. He struggled with the news and the distance that separated them from us. But we’d made a decision – rightly I think – that they would be better off staying in Australia than spending weeks, perhaps even months, maintaining a bedside vigil in London. Even when we returned home, he struggled with the fact that his mother had lost the lower part of her leg. It took many weeks before he would stand on her left side, or snuggle in for a cuddle from the left, fearful of touching the stump.

While he is now comfortable with her situation, the accident continues to affect him. He has a heightened level of justice/injustice, often articulated in the following terms: why was his mother injured when she was only a passenger in the bus? Why wasn’t the driver of the car injured? He (in fact both our children) suffered separation anxiety, and wouldn’t let us travel by plane together for a couple of years after the accident. And he is particularly conscious of the notion of death.

Because of this, I have been very careful when working on the book at home. I’ve had to be careful about leaving material lying around, even leaving files open on the computer, as these are  constant reminders to him of what his mother has been through (and, for that matter, us as a family). Significantly, I have also resisted interviewing him because I don’t want him to be re-traumatised. But, having said that, I am biding my time. I do want to interview him, but I’m being cautious. The decision as to whether I do ultimately interview him, or not, will be made just before I finish the manuscript. And, ultimately, he will have the final say on whether I include particular quotes or snippets of information that directly involve him.

And I’m doing that both as a father and as a writer. But equally I’m conscious of the warning Freadman provides about the need for decency: “The decent person doesn’t often probe the dark  psychological places … and tends to be shy about the inner life” (2004, p. 122). This warning could apply equally to both children and poses the additional question: Does writing about them add value to the book without compromising their relationship with us or each other? Perhaps more importantly, will it detrimentally affect their perceptions of themselves, given the views of Bok, Westin and Hodges on the individual’s right to privacy? Am I stretching Freadman’s definition of ‘decency’ too far by including these quotes and observations in the book? In fact Freadman describes decency as a virtue which “brings with it protocols about privacy: what one can reasonably reveal about others, and indeed one’s self” (2004, p. 122).

Interestingly, in defending this approach I’m raising another question which has to do with one of the core principles that underpins journalistic codes of conduct: namely, accountability. I’m accountable to my children, and my wife, as much as I’m accountable to the reader for what I write. But does that accountability mean that I can be selective in terms of what I use and what I don’t use? In making decisions not to include some information, because I believe it might harm my children, am I compromising my relationship with the reader? After all, I have an obligation to provide them with the truth. But does that obligation involve providing each and every truth as told to me? Or can I be selective? In answering this question I can draw some support from Whitt, who asks:

Does their work contain bias? Certainly. Do they write from their own point of view and ‘distort’ the news by being too close to the events and sources? Most assuredly. But literary journalists count on readers to understand their vantage point to trust their narrative precisely because they confess their preconceptions and their point of view (2007, p 89).

Certainly I’ve gone out of my way to clarify my involvement in this story, and my role as narrator, so readers should be in no doubt as to the nature of my involvement. And yet the downsides also exist, as the following comment from Jurecic suggests:

Those who write about illness, an experience that can break a life in two, face the nearly impossible task that confronts all who write about trauma: how to speak the unspeakable. If illness is beyond expression in language, translation of the experience into words misrepresents, even contaminates, the real event (2012, p. 10).

Am I trying to ‘speak the unspeakable’ as Jurecic suggests? No, to the contrary. What I’m trying to highlight is a very common occurrence, one that in different guises (accident, war, terrorist attack) changes countless lives on a daily basis, not just in Australia, but across the world. It is a story that needs to be told on a number of levels: it helps individuals and families understand what they are going through; it helps others appreciate what the victims of such traumatic events have been through; and it shines a spotlight on disability within society. Journalists (and non-fiction writers more broadly) have the capacity – and the responsibility – to tell society about itself, as the preamble to the MEAA code of conduct (2017) outlines. The only risk of event contamination is if the writer is deliberately selective in their use of the truth, or even elects to make up an event or construct a character. By so doing, they are stepping from non-fiction into the realm of fiction.

While to date I have focussed on the risk to family, there is another element to this that also needs to be explored: namely, the prospect that the harm principle could apply to readers and,  primarily among them, to those who were adversely affected by the content. While the book does contain some ‘gory’ details, it is not intended to shock. Rather, its goal is to explain the medical procedures Kath went through. It is also intended to help explain some of the other issues – medical and legal – that we as a family encountered and hopefully coped with. It is not intended to force people to re-live their own adverse experiences. Instead, it anticipates that people will be selective in their reading, according to what they are seeking. In this, I think we can draw again from the writing of Kramer, who suggests:

In literary journalism the narrator is neither the impersonal dutiful explainer and qualifier of academic writing, who presents research material carefully, but without careful consideration of readers, nor the seemingly objective and factual, judgment suspending, orthodox informant of newswriting (1995, p 7).

The book does contain some technical information, but I have tried to present it in a non-confrontational way. Citing Kramer again:

The narrator of literary journalism has a personality, is a whole person, intimate, frank, ironic, wry, puzzled, judgmental, even self-mocking – qualities academics and daily news reporters dutifully avoid as unprofessional and unobjective (1995, p. 7).

I would hope that the book reflects all of those qualities – and more. I’d like to think that it highlights the need to be caring, perhaps even protective, without compromising the story that is being told. Furthermore, that it is possible to write such a book while maintaining one’s position as a husband and father. Finally, I believe that it does encourage the use of journalistic codes of conduct that originally were drafted for the purposes of daily journalism, in longer forms of writing that embrace the term ‘felt life’ where ethical issues will regularly emerge to challenge the writer.

Equally, I would hope that this paper, which is an extended version of a presentation delivered at the Journalism Education Association of Australia (JEAA) annual conference at Bathurst in late 2015, serves to encourage people (academics, health care professionals and members of the broader community more broadly) to consider the impact that trauma can have on our lives, given that its consequences are not only physical, as Figley (1985, p. xviii-xix) reveals. Figley points out that trauma can be measured both psychologically and emotionally, elements which seemed to blend together in our case.

Finally, I believe that the book points to, if not exactly confirms, the therapeutic benefit of writing. While the project did not start off as an exercise in self therapy or even familial therapy for that matter (despite its goal of helping me/us understand what had happened), I believe that the process has been a constructive one for at least me as the author and bit player. At a personal level it has helped me to deal with the frustrations that emerged at different points in years following the accident while Kath underwent her recovery. That’s not to say that I was able to write away every hurdle that appeared in our path. I couldn’t. But in writing about them I was able to express myself in ways that I could never have conceived via a conversation.

This does raise one last, but nonetheless important question. Can the therapeutic benefits of such writing flow from the author to the key subjects of the book – in this case Kath and the children, Emilija and Hamish? It is perhaps this – in part at least – which was at the back of my mind when I posed the questions earlier about the ethics of revealing their personal experiences to a broader audience. The proof will be in the reading, if and when the book is finally published. It will only be at that stage that the true benefits of such a project will be evident.


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About the Author

Professor Stephen Tanner has worked as a journalist, political adviser and academic. After graduating from the University of Tasmania, he worked as a newspaper journalist and freelance contributor to lifestyle magazines. In the mid 1980s he was appointed as researcher, then press secretary to the Premier of Tasmania. In early 1990 he returned to journalism, editing a business newspaper, while also juggling roles as a political consultant and tutor in politics at the University of Tasmania. By 1993 he was teaching politics full time. In 1999 he was appointed to a lectureship in journalism at the University of Queensland, and in 2002 to a senior lectureship in journalism at Murdoch University in Western Australia. In June 1995 he was appointed Associate Professor and Head of the School of Journalism and Creative Writing in the Faculty of Creative Arts at the University of Wollongong. He was appointed professor in 2008, and remained as Head of School until 2011.

Professor Tanner is an active researcher, with a particular focus on the development of educational resources. Since 2002 he has co-authored and edited six textbooks. He has also authored (and co-authored) more than 30 journal articles and book chapters on a range of topics, including teaching pedagogy, disability and the media, media coverage of political corruption, and politics.

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