Writing About Trauma Can Help You Heal
"Two days after the murder, I told a friend in my playwriting program that I would never write about it. Here's why I changed my mind."
Miguel Marin / Getty
At 2 am on April 10, 2011, Bailey Williams and two friends were hanging out in her apartment on the Lower East Side of New York City. She'd had people over earlier, but the crowd left to go to a second party. The small two-bedroom was quiet as the three 21-year-olds sipped drinks on the couch and chatted about going to the movies the following weekend.
That’s when they heard the screaming. The first scream tore through the stale after-party air, so loud that Bailey and her friends just stared at each other, as if to ensure the noise wasn’t coming from them. It intensified, and became more incoherent. The words, “help me,” could almost be made out, but the only thing that could clearly be heard was terror.
I would know. I was one of Bailey’s friends there that night. The screaming marked the beginning of one of the scariest events of my life. We heard a 23-year-old woman get stabbed to death by her boyfriend in the apartment right below us.
The aftermath is a blur. In my memory it moves almost in fast-forward: how we called 911, how we tried to find her, to help her. How I saw the woman’s blood and insides on the floor of the apartment downstairs, her body being carried out by police, and the news articles that filled in all the gory details, like the many kinds of knives the man used. How Bailey had to testify at the trial, had to meet the woman’s parents, had to come face to face with the man who killed her neighbor.
A couple weeks ago, about eight years later, I sat in a Manhattan theater to watch a play Bailey wrote about the murder. Bailey is a playwright, and I knew that she had been trying to write this for years. She’d held an informal reading of a draft at the theater last year, but I made up an excuse not to go. I wasn’t sure if I could watch a reenactment. To be honest, I wasn’t sure how she could write about it at all.
But what I saw was not a straight recreation. Instead, it was a kind of reinterpretation. Bailey said she had PTSD in the years following the murder—I think we all did. And by writing down what happened, it ultimately helped her to deal with it.
In the face of trauma, people react differently. Many will be resilient, said Robert Ursano, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience and the director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress at the Uniformed Services University. Others might have symptoms like intrusive thoughts, avoiding reminders of the event, having negative thoughts about themselves, having trouble sleeping, and being easily startled. In addition to seeking out counseling, writing is one of the ways a person can help process their emotions.
“Writing about trauma experiences can be part of the recovery process,” Ursano said. “It is a way to express one's feelings, state out loud the shock, horror, and fear associated with such an event and begin to give meaning to it.” Clinicians call it “expressive writing.” It's writing specifically about trauma, big or small, that a person hasn’t talked about or has kept repressed. Starting in the late 1980s, researchers started to show that writing about the bad things that happen to us can make us feel better.
In 1988, social psychologist James Pennebaker asked 50 college students to write about either traumatic experiences or neutral ones, for four days in a row. When he and his colleagues followed up with them later, they found that the students in the trauma-writing group reported better moods and had visited the campus health center less often.
Pennebaker has also asked patients with asthma and rheumatoid arthritis to write about stressful events in their lives, and found that they showed improvements in lung function or disease severity compared to those who wrote about neutral topics. A 2002 study by other clinicians on women with breast cancer found that they went to fewer doctor’s appointments and had fewer symptoms after participating in expressive writing. Pennebaker and others have continued to replicate this effect many times since.
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Anxiety, depression, stress—all emotions that have complex interactions with our bodies, and drive our choices regarding lifestyle and health. There is something about getting trauma out on paper that helps not only mentally, but physically as well.
Of course, expressive writing may help some more than others. It’s important for the writing to be a kind of release, rather than an obsession or rumination. With expressive writing, Pennebaker usually recommends people try it for a few days, and if they don’t feel better, acknowledge that writing may not be the best thing for them.
Some studies have found that expressive writing doesn’t work as well for people who aren’t easily able to express their emotions, and might make those people more anxious. But for Bailey, my friend, a writer, expressive writing about this night in our lives helped her to name what we had been through.
“When you refer to trauma in vague terms, it's a disservice to what the experience is like about recovering from something,” she said. “Because it's all about specifics. It's about going back into it and reliving the details over and over again.”
Two days after the murder, Bailey told a friend in her playwriting program that she would never write about it. She would never want to relive those details in such a concrete way. For years, she would only bring it up after a few drinks. But sharing it that way didn’t bring her much relief.
When she did finally decide to write about it, it wasn’t easy. “Every early draft I did of the play was so bad, it was fundamentally dishonest, it was embarrassing, and I couldn't figure out why,” she said. Eventually she wrote a list of everything she felt and thought about the murder, and it turns out, it wasn’t in the writing. “I'm like well, that's why this play is so bad," she said. "It's about nothing that I care about."
The final version was made up of four parts. It began in the apartment, painted all white, and was an absurdist take on the days and months after the murder, when life felt depressing, odd, and surreal. It was also unexpectedly funny, and I found myself laughing at a topic I thought I never would have. The second part continued the surrealism by mimicking a true crime television show, complete with the dramatics and insensitive moments. Bailey had felt like the news coverage of the murder was over the top, disaster-porn-like, and her searing satirical take on it justified similar emotions I didn’t know I was still harboring.
The third and fourth parts were where things started to get serious. In the penultimate section of the play, Bailey used the text from the killer’s confession verbatim, which the police had released in full. She told me that editing his words gave her an outlet for that information, and also helped her foster a sense of empathy—a place I've never gotten to.
“I’m not defending his actions, obviously, but I think it’s too easy to think of it as 'bad evil man, hidden monster, kills nice beautiful lady,'” she said. “I don't think that violence is this inhuman act that only evil people do. I think regular people do awful things all the time. And reading his transcript was disturbing to me not because he's this evil monster, but because he's just like, a dude.”
In the final part of the play, an actress walked out onto an empty stage. She spoke as if she was Bailey, and nakedly laid out the events of the murder and her emotions. Bailey told me that this monologue was the hardest to get out, and didn’t appear until the end of her writing process. “I think you have to name the things that scare you or make you feel bad,” Bailey said. “I don't think you can really move on from something without trying to name it.”
We had been drinking on the night of the murder, and Bailey wondered if we had been sober, if we'd been able to find the woman before she bled to death. In another section of the monologue, Bailey described how she fantasized about finding the woman in time to save her life. "And I meet her," Bailey wrote. "I meet her at the hospital. She is wrapped up in bandages. I bring her flowers. It is awkward, neither of us have much to say. We don’t have anything in common, but we are bonded by something. We were both there and now we are here. We are both okay."
Every person who saw the play got a taste of what it was like for us to live through this. “[Writing] allows us to express in our own world of words the feelings, the loss, and the fears,” Ursano said. “By conveying them out loud or to others, we can feel less isolated and as if we emerge from the cocoon of trauma events and enter back into the world in which we have friends and loved ones, even if the world feels like a more frightening and less certain place.”
A couple days after I saw the play, Bailey and I sat at my kitchen table and discussed the murder at length for the first time ever. Bailey said the play was not only about what happened to the woman who was killed, or her killer. It's about what happened to us, the friends who were sitting upstairs. Writing it helped her to find her way back to a more innocent version of ourselves, who had never heard that first scream.
“The more I think about it, the more I realize it made me less hopeful about everything in my life," Bailey said. "How I stopped planning for the future and I really stopped writing and gave up writing for so long, because there didn’t seem like there was a point. Writing this play and doing this kind of expressive writing has, for whatever reason, made me feel a lot closer to who I was before.”