JoAnn Gometz

Writing | Editing | Content Strategy

Research Isn't Always Pretty

"You should blog your misadventures in writing." I'd pinged my friend Abby with my latest foray into the wilds of Google, in which I strung together words I'd never felt the faintest urge to assemble. This was her reply. It's good to have friends who know gallows humor is a thing.

You see, over the last eight weeks, I've been reading books on subjects similar to my own work, books that use literary techniques I should add to my toolbox, and news of current and past events that form the backdrop for my project. It's been ... enlightening.

Youngsters, turn away now.

Frankly speaking: I've spent the last two months reading nonstop, graphic descriptions of physical and psychological torture, execution, and death. It's grueling stuff. My first reaction was horror, as anyone's likely would be. But then, as it often does when something is emotionally overwhelming, my brain switched to autopilot and I absorbed all of the information as practical, rational data. My memory tends toward the eidetic, so almost everything is logged in precise detail and available for recall later. 

When I reach back into the shelving unit that is my brain, though, rational thought and emotion collide. Poor Abby had just received my explanation that I was writing my report on Maziar Bahari's Rosewater when I found myself Googling "term for anal rape with a foreign object" to be sure I clinically and correctly identified one of the forms of torture used against a group of protesters. Thankfully, Abby is one of my posse of friends-like-family. She understood that my inappropriate giggling was not triggered by the phrase I'd typed, but by the absurdity of having to type it at all. "Who," I was thinking, "does things like that?" (And by the way, "rape" covers all the details. Good to know.)

That brings us to the great challenge of research. The goal is to learn things we don't know. The conundrum is that we're likely to learn things we'd rather not have to know. Or in many instances, things that we'd rather no one experience, ever. The specifics of torture and rape have that effect. Sebastian Junger takes us to the brink in The Perfect Storm, with a victim's perspective on the clinical events involved in death by drowning and a scientific detailing of what happens to a rescue diver's body when he hits a rough ocean from 70 feet up.

It's hard to read. Numbing, even. The kind of thing that most of us will never, in our lifetimes, experience firsthand. The fact is, though, someone did experience it. And if people don't read and absorb, then how does anything change?

That's a lesson I learned years ago. For a couple weeks straight, on 12-hour shifts, starting at noon on 9/11, one of my bandmates at the time led a rescue and recovery team at Ground Zero. When he finally rejoined us for an event, he pulled us all in at the end of the day and told us what he and his team had seen, because he needed to know that people far away from the pile would spread the word. He didn't hold anything back. Not about the condition of the bodies, the heat of the fires, the contents of the dust his team breathed in. And not about the small kindnesses of strangers that made their job bearable, either.

So, no, research isn't always pretty. But it's necessary. Because unless someone goes looking for the information, how will anyone else know it exists?