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Vicariously witnessing trauma : narratives of meaning and experience Keats, Patrice Alison

Abstract

My interest in the process and effects of the witnessing act guides the purpose of this study. Here, I initiate a deeper understanding of the vicarious witnessing experience from the perspective of the witnessing participant. My central question is: How do individuals make sense of vicariously witnessing trauma through narrative, visual, and evidence-based representations of traumatic events in the concentration camps of Europe? Vicarious witnessing begins with abstract representations of the event. The evidence is witnessed firsthand, but the event itself is represented through various perspectives such as photographic or artistic images, survivor stories, or physical remnants. Witnessing the evidence evokes a potent embodied experience, so that a person can make the statement, "I have imagined what another has experienced, hence I believe I know." It is through the imagination that a witness forms a picture of the trauma. Undoubtedly, there is immense power in meeting another's experience in the realm of imagination. Compassionate action and social justice is based in this area of human empathy. To best achieve my purpose, I use a narrative method that involves two types of analysis, interpretive readings and narrative instances, as an approach to understand the participant's experience of vicarious witnessing. Participants in this study construct three types of narrative texts-written, spoken, and visual. Each textual perspective shapes the meaning that the participant attempts to express. As a first level of analysis, interpretive readings of the texts include general, specific, visual, and relational readings. Secondly, through exploring the interaction between various parts of these texts, and between the texts themselves, I explore three types of narrative instances--single-text, intratextual, and intertextual. Each analysis of a narrative instance is matched specifically to each participant, and I believe, is uniquely adequate for understanding the experience of vicarious witnessing. My inquiry outlines how individuals make sense of vicariously witnessing trauma, clarifies the meaning that participants make of the vicarious witnessing experience, shows the risks and coping involved in vicarious witnessing, and presents the kinds of social action that vicarious witnessing evokes. In the field of counselling psychology, the witnessing experience is an important aspect of trauma theory that has been left unexplored by psychologists. My research enlarges the social and theoretical conversation concerning the vicarious witnessing experience.

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