Writing about suffering…and wine

A few years ago, I started reading about wine (a few months ago, I even started doing some writing). At first, I didn’t tell anyone about it (apart from people very close to me), later, I started talking about it more openly. And the reaction has been, to put it euphemistically, mixed. So here is a blog not so much about my interest in wine, but about what it means to study and write about pure suffering.

Before I tell you about myself, I’ll tell you about a conversation with a scholar studying communication in rape trials a hotel bar many years ago. At some point, she started telling me how difficult her research was. She was a major scholar in legal communication, very successful and seemingly content with her academic career, and she was telling me about the toll her research had taken on her. I was quite shocked – she presented it as a painful process which takes quite a lot out her. I sympathised but today I know I had no idea what she was talking about.

Fast forward a few years….When I started interviewing men diagnosed with depression I was looking forward to listening to stories and writing about them. I never expected what was ahead. One day three men attending the outpatient clinic in the hospital where I was based agreed to be interviewed. The interviews, I took them one after the other, went very well, all lasted over an hour, I felt the men were able to talk openly about extremely difficult things. All thanked me for listening. What happened next still sends shivers down my spine.

I felt that they all had offloaded all the sadness, misery, unhappiness on me and I was crumbling. My mood was going down, headlong. I needed to talk to someone and fast, as I really wanted to find a tree and hang myself. All this misery was crushing me. I went up to the ward where I was based as an intern and had a long conversation with a wonderful shrink. She helped me a lot and suggested we met more often. We did, I survived. And I shall always be grateful to Dr Jola Robak, one of the best psychiatrists I have met.

Then came the research on fathers and their stories of rejection, of attempting to be ‘normal’, so that the children would accept them as fathers. But the hardest was still to come. Almost by accident I learnt that the University of Wroclaw was the custodian of a large corpus of suicide notes, collected by Prof. Monika Zaśko-Zielińska, then anonymised and digitised and made available to bona-fide researchers. I pounced on the corpus.

I started reading the notes and very quickly realised I couldn’t cope. All those letters had been written by people who were no longer there, the letters were, at least in some cases, their last words. And some of notes were heart-breaking. A child telling their parents he killed himself  because they hadn’t bought him a mobile phone, a young man writing about not being able to cope with a leg amputation. And then the letters about a love scorned. That was difficult. Within a couple of days, I realised I could not read more than 2-3 notes at a time. Just to survive.

After the book on men’s suicide notes came the book on suicide process (with Justyna Ziółkowska whose kind-heartedness makes the world appear better). We wanted to know what the time before taking one’s life looks like. It’s the letters like: “I’ve taken the pills, now I am waiting”. These were the last words of a person.

I actually sometimes envy the number crunchers. They don’t do stories….

Justyna Ziółkowska and I are about to write another book – on the suicide’s identities/subjective positions (not many people know that that the word ‘suicide’ refers to both the act and the person doing it). We’ll be getting a contract soon. And I am dreading the book.

This research and writing have taken a toll. Somehow, every time a little part me disappears when I read, and re-read a suicide note. Something dies in me. The suffering, the pain just snuffs out a little light.

Before I continue, I want to say that it’s important to consider all those things not only because Galasinski has a problem. I think it’s important to understand it because we rarely think of what research does to us. We think about what research does to others, the people we like to label vulnerable. But we rarely think that sometimes research makes us vulnerable. And the pressure to do more and more and more has many more dimensions than the institutional publication scores. Sometimes the pressure doesn’t let you breathe.

Yet, I do think that the research is important, I do want to continue. That’s why all those years ago I left ‘real linguistics’ – I wanted to write something of significance. And there is still much to do. But I also need something joyful, a research project which will help me cope with another year of writing about suicide.

And here comes my interest in wine, a long-term interest which has waited its turn. I thought its turn would come later but I can’t wait. I need to write something about what has been part of my life for years, and for years also present in my reading. I want to write about wine (well, about wine communication). I need to look at the world in which people describe wine, one of the most wonderful things human beings invented (or is it discovered?). I need to leave the world of pure suffering and enter a world which, at least for many, is one of joy.

So, I want to thank all those who have already spoken to me and those who have agreed to speak to me. I appreciate it a lot. I do understand that talking to someone who has no track record in wine writing or wine research is hard. It appears to be a whim from a capricious professor who doesn’t know what to do with his time. You need a leap of faith. And I want to thank you that you have made it. What you tell me allows me to understand the world of wine much better and through this I will be able to write something much more insightful. Thank you so much!

Why have I written the above? Well, first, I want to say that sometimes research we do is hard, gets to us bit by bit, eats away at us, regardless of the armours we have to defend ourselves. I also do this because I am not worried, embarrassed or shamed by my vulnerability (too old and too seasoned by now). Second, my wine project is not a jolly, it’s a serious project which has an additional goal. I hope it will allow me to catch a breath.



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