10 Tips for Interviewing Trauma Survivors for Their Memoirs
By Jennifer Upton
Being a ghost writer of memoirs involves meeting with clients in person, getting to know them, and recording their histories. When I first started ghost writing memoirs, I naively thought most of my work would involve constructing family trees and describing nostalgic tales of yesteryear. I had no idea the vast majority of my clients would have histories of trauma.
Five years and 46 projects later, I’ve worked with veterans of war, survivors of domestic abuse, targets of racial and/or gender discrimination, recovering addicts, victims of child abuse and forced marriages, survivors of rape, and ex-cons. Not to mention those who’ve experienced extreme poverty or lost loved ones in tragic ways. Even the most successful people more than likely have something relevant to their story but might be difficult to talk about. Along the way, I’ve come up with a few things to help clients feel comfortable and cultivate an environment of trust between ghost writer and subject.
1. Prepare them for seeing their story on paper
I’ve had more than one client who felt comfortable sharing their harrowing experiences with me during interviews only to ask me to remove those stories from the first draft. Talking about trauma is one thing, but reading about it can be downright visceral. Talk to your client about this first before you even start the interview process. It will get them to think deeply about what they want to include before I even ask the first question.
2. Set up a peaceful environment. Whether online or in person, it’s important to set up a peaceful environment for interviews. Close all doors and windows, and turn noisy devices (like fans) off. This will eliminate as much background noise as possible. Ideally, set up your seating area in a well-lit location. If you’re meeting in person, make sure you both have tea or other refreshments available.
3. Re-assure the client.
If this is the first interview with a client, let them know that everything discussed with is confidential.
4. Let the client lead the conversation.
Where traumatic experiences are concerned, if the client brings up a particular event prior to or during interviews, then that’s usually a good sign they’re open to discussing a that event in more detail. Do not push for details where they seem reluctant.
5. Be an empathetic, attentive listener.
Do not expect your client to open up all at once. It may take two or three sessions before they feel comfortable enough to cover certain topics from their past. Save follow-up questions for the end of a story. Go at their pace. Take notes if you have to so you’ll remember your thoughts along the way, but do not interrupt a person describing a traumatic event.
6. Let them cry and don’t be afraid to cry yourself!
It brings some clients to tears to remember a loss or traumatic experience, such as the death of a loved. Have tissues on hand for your client and you if you’re an emotional person.
7. Confirm they want this content in the book
Sometimes clients form a bond with their ghost writer and tell them things meant to be shared exclusively between the two of them. If in doubt, ask, “Do you want this in the book?” Make sure they understand the ramifications of using real names. Where accusations of crimes against living persons are concerned, advise them to have a lawyer look at the final manuscript before publication.
8. Thank the client
A simple, “Thank you for being so open about your experiences.” goes a long way.
9. Take a break
If you sense the client needs to take a break before continuing the interview, let them. Five minutes of lost time should not take precedence over a sense of humanity.
10. Administer self-care
More than once, I’ve found myself riding the train home from an interview haunted by my client’s words. Once, I stood up from a Zoom meeting, closed my laptop, sighed and questioned whether or I could continue with the client. I’ve found it helps to take a walk in a favorite place. Engaging in any activity you enjoy will help to clear your mind. If you have kids or pets, play with them. Call a friend and have a chat about their day. Watch a favorite movie. Seek out whatever sourcehttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AfKYMKe3psM lightens up the dark hallways you’ve just walked down.
It’s not always easy to work with trauma survivors. More than once I’ve been told, “Talking to you has been good for me.” It’s an honor to be trusted with such personal information and an even bigger one to be paid to represent and present another’s voice on paper. No matter how difficult the process, it’s always been worth it. The most challenging stories are almost always the ones that will resonate the loudest with readers.
Jennifer Upton is an American Ghostwriter, editor and proofreader in London. Please visit her website https://www.jennuptonwriter.com for more info.