In relationship with data

Some time ago I wrote a post which I titled “Interviewing misery”, in which I reflected on my interviews with men in depression, a set of very difficult conversations which left me emotionally drained. But interviews come and go quickly. What you really live with is the data. And this is what I want to write about here.

When I came across the Polish Corpus of Suicide Notes, the data seemed so extraordinarily interesting that I dropped everything and decided to write a book on the notes written by men (which I sent to the publisher about two weeks ago). However, what I didn’t count on was how hard it would be to read through those letters. One after the other, the notes I was reading were written by people who took their lives. Judging by what is written, the notes were often the last thing their writers ever said/written. After finishing the note, they killed themselves.

Yes, what I have just written is actually pretty obvious – they are suicide notes, after all. It might be me, but it was actually when I started reading the letters that it struck me hard. I was looking through the eyes of men who were no longer there. Every note was what was a remainder of a tragedy and the notes, sometimes very vividly, took me to the moments before the death. Gosh, it was difficult. Even though the corpus is not that large, it took me weeks to go through it – I just could not face reading more than 2 or 3, perhaps 4 notes at a time. Sometimes, I could not face reading them at all. This is because you are in touch with a tragedy, with misery, pain that doesn’t end with the suicide. It lives on in those close to the person who killed himself. And I could not help wondering what those to whom the notes were addressed thought, felt then and now….

All that was just human experience. There is, however, also an academic reflection. I started wondering about me as an academic. This started when a colleague asked me whether I was feeling OK. I was right in the middle of reading through the notes and the question surprised me. He said, I had changed. I grew darker, the ‘public face’ smile disappeared, I was not ready to engage in our usual conversations.

I (genuinely) thanked for his concern, explained what I was doing and promised to take care of myself. Did I? Yes and no. No, I didn’t go for any psychological help, yes, I started reflecting more on my relationship with the data. I was getting involved, whether I liked it or not. Even though I thought I had gone well beyond the problems I encountered while interviewing men in depression (which I described in the post I linked at the beginning), it turns out I was not. The notes got to me, big time.

This experience raises a number issues. Safety of researchers (recently taken up in a seminar initiated by Anna Tarrant), impact on results, on writing. And probably a number of others I cannot think of at the moment.

But I want to raise an issue that has bothered me ever since the interviews. I’ve been wondering about getting more and more ‘prepared’ for the data. This is a euphemistic way of saying that I am getting more and more immune, distanced. It’s like my mind is shouting: “Shields up.” as I distance myself from the experiences I am getting in touch with. But as my mind is protecting me, I fear I am losing something important. Call it empathy, sympathy, I don’t care, I am losing a connection with the data.

Or let me put it like that. Instead of being ‘remainders of a tragedy’, the notes become ‘data’. Yes, yes, they must, after all, I need to analyse them, I need to make arguments on their basis, but somehow, I still would also like to ‘feel’ them. Except when I do, I grow darker and….here we go again.

But before I start rambling and feeling sorry for myself, let me offer a little dig in the ribs of the number crunchers. There is much quantitative research into suicide notes, but none which looks at notes as social texts with certain communicative and social functions (see the note below). They are invariably seen as ‘windows into the suicidal mind’ or data for thematic analysis. Such research does away with all the ‘emotional stuff’. Either you have the illogical suicidal mind or sets of themes. The individual writer, the person who sits and cries as they write disappears in such research. To be honest, I often wished I could just do the number crunching.

Is there a solution? Yes and no, even though I fear that soon there might be yet another risk assessment form to be filled out – it will cover another patch of the institutional back, solving nothing. So, no solution, because you cannot impose on me a framework in which I feel the data. Yes, because as I can be aware of what comes my way, I might be better prepared to negotiate my relationship with the data. And that’s why I wrote this blog. Just, please, don’t ask me how exactly to do it. I have no idea.


Note: The only text I know of which does engage with suicide notes as social texts is a volume Understanding Suicide, by Ben Fincham and his colleagues.

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