The Ethics of Writing About Violence: A Roundtable Discussion

It’s funny how whole generations—millions of people—are connected by historical events: wars, assassinations, murders, television sitcoms, films and, of course, acts of terrorism.

It’s funny how whole generations—millions of people—are connected by historical events: wars, assassinations, murders, television sitcoms, films and, of course, acts of terrorism. Americans born in the early to mid-1970s, for example, are connected by images of a crumbling Berlin Wall, two Gulf wars, 9/11 and the grotesque digital photos of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. The writers involved in this conversation are all part of that generation, and, as you will see, they are all searching for ways to tell stories about how their own lives intersect with these events in the hope that they will be able to gain some insight into the unwieldy themes of violence and suffering.

This discussion, which took place by email, was inspired by our collective interest in not turning away from the violence close at hand in our own neighborhoods or far away across oceans, but engaging it head-on. As young writers, our ethics and the aesthetics governing how we write about violence are influenced as much by genre-defining books like “Hiroshima” and “In Cold Blood” as by films like the “Rocky” series and Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs”

and “Pulp Fiction.”Through this conversation, we wanted to try to drive the subject of writing about violence—and the anxieties we feel while writing about it—into a corner and see if we could find some common ground, some code of ethics to write by. —David Griffith

Bradley: In August of 2001, I was attacked by a mentally ill young man in the parking lot of my apartment building. I didn’t know he was mentally ill at the time—I thought he was just drunk and aggressive. He asked for a cigarette, I didn’t have one, and he proceeded to beat me.

After he ran off and I began to come to, I realized my neighbors across the street had watched without intervening or trying to get help. It was all so jarring, and when I first tried to write about the experience, it was an attempt to understand why someone could be so brutal and why others could be so callous.The work might have had some therapeutic value, but it had no literary value at that point—it was too self- pitying and pedantic.

In 2003, during the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, I was bothered by much of the rhetoric in support of the war that was thrown around by the likes of Sean Hannity,Toby Keith and many politicians. Here were a bunch of guys who had an 8-year-old boy’s excitement over violence—this idea that America was going to be “tough” and that there was virtue to be found in killing when the killing was justified. The thing that got to me, really, was so many people seemed so happy to be going to war. Even as I was disgusted, I felt as if I understood this thinking. I used to be an 8-year-old boy, after all, and I remember Rocky Balboa defeating Ivan Drago and turning the Russians to his side—by the end, the Soviet boxing enthusiasts were
on their feet, chanting “Rocky! Rocky!” “Rocky IV” was my favorite movie as a
kid precisely because I believed in the idea that properly applied violence could make the world a better place. “I fight so that you don’t have to fight,” Rocky told Rocky, Jr.That was surely what Ronald Reagan meant when he talked about “peace through strength.” I believed in that.

So I started writing what I thought was going to be my “‘Rocky IV’ essay” but discovered, after I got into it, that I remembered other stuff, too: In particular, how, a few days after watching the movie, I beat the hell out of my younger brother while the other kids from my neighborhood cheered me on. I had no reason to beat him up; I just felt as if it would be cool to do so. I’m not saying watching “Rocky IV” turns kids violent, but I know that, in my imagination, I was the hero in that battle—even though I was the aggressor.

Writing that scene caused me to go back and revisit the mugging. I realized these were two pieces of the same essay—an essay in which I could indict myself a little bit, too, as someone who had once believed violence could be pretty awesome.

Recently, I went back to the essay, “Force,” and found that, while I still like the “Rocky IV” and mugging segments, I don’t feel like the essay quite holds together the way it should. I thought I was indicting myself alongside the supporters of the war, but upon reflection, I think I make the argument that an interest in violence and domination is a childish thing that some of us (liberal professor- essayist types) outgrow whereas the less enlightened wallow in their brutal immaturity. It’s not quite that explicit, but the suggestion is there. And I think that’s wrong and dishonest.

Cowser: William, the distinction you draw between writing about violence done to us directly and violence to which we bear witness was the subject of my book “Green Fields,” in which I explore how far the ripples from a death-blow (in the case I wrote about, the stabbing and strangulation of a little girl I knew, but also the blows her likely murderer suffered at his father’s hand) might extend, whether I might plausibly claim the events had “happened” to me.

I was affected by an old speech in which Robert F. Kennedy refers to “the violence of institutions”—ignorance, inaction, intolerance, poverty. I wanted to write about those violences in my book, too, in an attempt to understand the murder as the tragic expression of unmet needs, as the “equal and opposite” reaction to a kind of violence perhaps harder for us to see. Like the man who attacked you, my friend’s killer suffered from mental illness. I realized it was impossible to write about violence without writing about suffering. Of course, my friend suffered, but so did her family (their suffering continues, even beyond the execution of her killer and perhaps even extended by my book). So did the murderer and his family. So did our tiny community, for that matter. I felt a responsibility to wedge all that suffering in there, to get as much in as the book could hold.

Church: I was thinking about “Green Fields,” Bob, and other books on the same shelf for me, books like Didion’s “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” or Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” and about how violence is intimately connected to place, a part of the character of the landscape.This seems to be a running obsession for me, maybe for all of us, whether it’s the large-scale, apocalyptic sort of violence of nuclear war and tornadoes that I talk about in “The Day After the Day After: My Atomic Angst,” or the public and political violence that you address, Dave, in “Good War,” or the more intimate and local sort of violence that each of you address in your works. It was, honestly, probably easier for me to talk about violence mediated through a movie, to be able to use the movie’s imagery as my own violent imagery and simply retell it.

I’m also interested in places and stories about places where the violence seems to contradict the character of the place. I think this is why “In Cold Blood” completely destroyed me.The book sucked me in, captivated me, unsettled and terrified me as few other books have (also Krakauer’s “Under the Banner of Heaven” and Dave Cullen’s “Columbine”). For me, the scene of the Clutter murders is some of the most haunting and gut-wrenching narrative nonfiction ever written. What’s interesting to me, though, is how Capote casts the Clutters in a kind of mythic, idyllic light.

They’re almost caricatures, perfectly posed pictures of innocence and hubris, love and sadness, the American Dream cast in sepia-toned nostalgia against the backdrop of Kansas.This casting not only insulates the reader from the real horror of the senseless murders but also allows Capote to cast the killers in a similarly mythic light, as if they are evil incarnate, the real godless violence and injustice of the world unleashed on the unsuspecting, innocent lambs, which, in turn, allows the book to be as much about violence writ large as it is about the specific violence of the actual murders or the actual place. When I taught this book, many of my students said it felt campy, like true crime novels or a “48 Hours” TV special, and in some sense, they were right. I had to argue with them that, while that may seem true now, this kind of storytelling didn’t fully exist before Capote.True crime, as a genre of fiction or nonfiction, or some hybrid TV version of the two, owes its life to “In Cold Blood” and the kind of techniques that Capote employed on the page in that book.

Bradley: It occurs to me that at least three of us (Steve, Dave and I) talk about movie violence in some of our work—Steve’s got “Red Dawn,” Dave’s got “Pulp Fiction,” I’ve got “Rocky IV.”

I wonder if that’s significant at all: When it comes to writing about violence, three out of four nonfiction writers “go to the movies.” How do we use movies to explore our own thoughts about violence? We all wind up criticizing these films’ depictions of violence, but I feel like we also acknowledge that once upon a time, we thought these movies were awesome. Is it fair to say movies played a role in developing our attitudes toward violence and, perhaps, our writing on the issue is a kind of corrective, a more nuanced approach to a subject that was handled kind of irresponsibly by the pop culture we consumed during our childhoods and college years? As thoughtful, reflective writers, are we sometimes embarrassed by the fact we used to watch ninja movies and then practice our flying kicks in the backyard?

Cowser: An experiment I conduct in my intro to nonfiction writing class is to have students watch a scene from the adaptation of “This Boy’s Life” in which Dwight (De Niro) confronts Toby (DiCaprio) about having taken the car out for a joyride and then pounds him for having done so. When I play the scene, students in the front row jump back, aghast at Dwight’s brutality (the fact that I don’t must say something about my desensitization).

Then, I have them read Wolff’s description in the memoir, which begins with the wonderful simile of Dwight presuming “like a mime acting out relaxation.” It’s a “blow by blow” account, but it’s much less “cinematic” than the film version. (Duh, right?) If you’ve ever witnessed a real street fight, you know how absolutely uncinematic they are. Wolff’s version manages some interiority and even humor that’s probably impossible in the movie. For instance, he writes that when Dwight first lunges,Toby thinks the man is after the sandwich he’s eating.

Tarantino-esque movie violence is cool in a way that real violence never is. I can watch “Reservoir Dogs,” but if I turn on an ultimate fighting match, I have to watch it in the picture-in-picture screen. Without that literal compartmentalization, the real violence of a bloodsport like the UFC is too disturbing for me.

I understand what your students are saying, Steven, about Capote, and as our written depictions of violence evolve, I guess I’m pushing my students toward the realest evocations possible. I refer often
to Kim Stafford’s advice for writing about difficult material: Look directly at it and proceed slowly with great care.

Griffith: William, I do think of my writing about “Pulp Fiction” as a “corrective,” but more as a self-corrective. The banal violence in films like “Pulp Fiction” and “Reservoir Dogs” lost its savor for me post-Abu Ghraib. As I discuss in my book, Abu Ghraib caused me to re-evaluate the way I relate to violence as an audience member and the way I relate to it as subject matter for writing.

I came of age as a writer while watching Tarantino’s films—probably a lot of writers of our generation did—but I had never sat down and thought about how his aesthetic might have influenced me. It helped me to compare the violence in “Pulp Fiction” to that of “The Godfather,” “The Exorcist,” and Lynch’s “Blue Velvet,” three films I come back to over and over. What I discovered was that, at least for me,Tarantino’s brand of violence did not hold up, and I think it has something to do with his worldview, his artistic vision. For him, steeped in a mix of samurai and B-grade slasher flicks, violence is a means to an end. Period. It’s a way of life, a way of returning things to their proper balance. And while that’s “real”—that’s how life is for some people; that’s largely America’s foreign policy—it’s also a way that cuts off other possibilities. (That’s how we get cycles of violence.)

So while I wouldn’t necessarily say anyone was being “irresponsible” by anointing Tarantino one of the great directors of his generation, I would say his films, if unthinkingly consumed, contribute to the sense, which William alludes to, that “might makes right.” What I decided post-Abu Ghraib—and really, it didn’t quite sink in all the way until after my book was published and I started giving readings and talking to readers about it—was that the way I approached violence as a subject matter was geared toward what peace studies scholars call “interrupting” cycles of violence.

Church: But back to Bob’s point about looking directly at the violence.This, I think, is why I’ve had trouble writing successfully about the use of rock music as torture. I found a list of songs that have been used
by the U.S. military to torture detainees at facilities around the world, many of them in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I wanted to write an essay, a kind of annotated “hit list.” Many of the songs would be on my “all time favorites” list—songs that were important to me as an adolescent and even as an adult, songs that offered me a different version of my own life or of the life around me. To think about someone being tortured with these songs, to read quotes from torturers talking about the psychological effects of metal music on a prisoner, had the effect of completely changing my hearing of this music. Metallica’s “And Justice for All,” an album I dearly loved, that’s largely about environmental pollution, social justice and mental illness, no longer lived in the nostalgic glow of my youth, no longer conjured up memories of my beat-up RX-7, my Kenwood stereo and the Lawrence High School parking lot. Instead, there were images of detainees being tortured not just by Metallica but by the “Sesame Street” theme song, Barney, AC/DC and Don McLean’s “American Pie.” I didn’t know how to approach it. Instead of looking directly at the acts of torture, instead of doing more research into how it was done or into the kind of psychological violence done by prolonged exposure to loud rock music, or even into the reasons our country chooses to employ such tactics or how they choose specific songs, I found myself instead recreating the nostalgic glow, hoping that by juxtaposing it against random floating quotes from various sources, a hodgepodge of fragmented information, I could make some comment about the danger of nostalgia, about how it insulates us from the truth of the power of music, or of art, to do both good and evil. It didn’t work. The essay sucks.

Griffith: Bob, you said you’re pushing your students “toward the realest evocations possible.” What is the “realest” in this case, or in cases like this? Does that mean a particular emotional truth about what violence does to a person? Does this mean trying to capture the jarring, unhinging (or maybe even banal, as seems the case with the onlookers in William’s assault) experience of witnessing violence? I mean, why describe violence at all?

Bradley: One of the things I really wanted people to understand about my own assault was that it wasn’t anything like what you’d expect. I’d seen people get in fights before, but the mugging was different. If two guys in a bar are getting aggressive, the violence itself is prefaced by lots of talk and posturing. I don’t imagine anyone has ever been involved in a bar fight and wondered, “Whoa! What’s happening?” the way I did when my attacker started punching me. I don’t think my attacker was any bigger than I am; physically, I could probably have defended myself. But by the time I processed what was happening, I was already on the ground and bleeding profusely and too weak to do much of anything except call for help.

When my friends found out what happened, they were sad and angry. And, if memory serves, every guy I knew said something to the effect of, “Man, I wish I’d been there. We would have fucked that guy up.” What I couldn’t seem to make them understand was that … well, no, we probably wouldn’t have. Of course, if I’d been with a friend that night, the attack likely wouldn’t have happened. But if it had, I think most people would have reacted the same way I did—with stunned disbelief. Maybe, eventually, the friend in question would have realized what was going on and tried to get the attacker off me. But it wouldn’t have been a righteous ass-whupping.

So, for me, the “realest” way to approach violence is to acknowledge that it’s confusing and surprising and upsetting, not glorious or heroic or something sensible men can seriously bond over with each other, despite what our culture sometimes tells us.

One of the things I wrestled with when I first started writing about the attack was that I couldn’t reconcile what had happened to me with my belief that people are generally well-intentioned and that Manichean divisions suggesting that some people are “good” and some “evil” are ultimately wrong-headed.Yet, some people enjoy inflicting pain on others. So, when I write about violence now, that’s what I’m interested in exploring—why is this the case? how can people be so cruel?

My students frequently chafe at the central argument of Hazlitt’s “On the Pleasure of Hating” because they don’t want to admit they find hating pleasurable. To their credit, they know hatred is destructive, but I feel as if our culture encourages them to delude themselves into thinking they’ve transcended their own occasional hatefulness. I’d kind of like to write an essay titled “On the Pleasure of Fantasizing About Pounding the Unholy Hell out of Some Jerk Who Really Has It Coming.” Because, really, deep down, don’t we all know that feeling? It’s a ridiculous fantasy, of course, like the one shared by my friends, who wished they’d been there when I was mugged so they could’ve “had my back.” But I think it’s one a lot of us tend to indulge—in our heads, not in our lives—from time to time.

Griffith: Speaking of “indulging,” where’s the line between “poetic license” and “exploitation”?

Bradley: I do feel like I have certain responsibilities to my subjects and to my readers. First and foremost, I feel obligated to tell the truth as I understand it. Manipulating facts or memories in service to an agenda— even an agenda as noble as the creation of art—starts me on a path I don’t want to go down. I’m the son of a newspaperman, so maybe it was just drummed into me at an early age, but I guess I feel that if I’m writing about real people, there are real consequences. Furthermore, I feel that if I start manipulating facts about people and their experiences—in a sense, reinventing their stories—I’m doing them a disservice and, well, exploiting them.

I’m not arrogant enough to say what I’ve just typed above is the absolute, capital-T Truth that all nonfiction writers should follow. I’m more concerned with how I approach my writing and less interested in telling Dave, Steve and Bob how to approach their own.

Griffith: My own experience with these issues revolves around a number of the essays in my new manuscript, “Pyramid Scheme.” The first chapter, “Underworld,” which was published in The Normal School, meditates on the brutal murder of four homeless men, whose bodies were found a mere three to four blocks from our house in South Bend, Ind. I won’t go into all the details, but though I felt deeply compelled to write about this, I knew their story was not mine and I had to find a way to write about my reaction to the killings that would be compelling to others, which is to say not sentimental and cloying. My decision was to write in as honest a way as possible about my concerns and about why the deaths affected me so deeply. I drove around the area where the men were found and took photographs. I watched the papers. I monitored the conversation on the Web; I blogged about my feelings.Then something strange happened: A friend of one of the murdered men contacted me. Having read my blog posts, he mailed me to say he had information and needed to talk with me. The police had the details wrong. He gave me the names (street names) of some possible suspects. I was stunned and even a little frightened. I called the police and told them what had happened. It felt like I was playing with fire—scary, yet exhilarating.

A few days later, a reporter from the local paper showed up on my doorstep. She had used my blog posts to triangulate where we lived. She wanted an interview.

So, long story short, I had become tangled in the story. I hadn’t intended on this happening, but looking back now, I see I was doing everything I could to insinuate myself into it. I still have misgivings about the essay. Did I co-opt the deaths of those men for my own gain?

church: While some nonfiction writers out there want to believe nonfiction writing can exist in a moral vacuum, my own experience doesn’t support this. We can’t escape it.The moral risk is part of what makes nonfiction so exciting and artistic, and to argue that morality or ethics don’t apply to it actually seems to harm the genre, to make it more precious and irrelevant, like a shiny bauble on a shelf in the academy.

Some years ago, we lived in a cabin in a canyon in the foothills of Colorado and mostly hated it. We hated the weather, hated the isolation, hated the darkness and the narrow gap of sky. And while we were living there, a 20-year-old woman was pulled over late one night, in the nearby town, by a young man posing as a police officer. He abducted her, sexually assaulted her, killed her and then disposed of her body about a mile from our house. I’ve tried writing about this and mostly failed.

I tell my students that as nonfiction writers, we are basically parasites who feed off the lives of those around us, but that we should always strive to be ethical and efficient parasites. It’s a joke. But it’s also sort of true.When I tried to write about this violent act, about the violent place where we lived—a family walk
in hunting season meant taking your life into your hands; we all had blaze- orange stocking caps—I realized it was mostly about me, about my perception of the place, about my own obsessions and conflicted feelings. It was a self- indulgent, essayistic meditation, and I felt quite insecure about using this crime, this young woman’s death, for my own ends. I didn’t know her; I’d only watched her mother on television talking about
her daughter. I didn’t know the accused, either. But the entire community was captivated by the crime, and the news coverage was intense. It changed the way people behaved, the way they thought about the place. Crimes like this didn’t happen there. Or they did, and nobody wanted to believe it. And the more I thought about it, and the more I worked on the essay, the more I felt like, no matter how much research I did to get the facts right, to tell the story as close to the truth as possible, I was perhaps as much or more consumed with questions of writing craft, with the artistry of the piece. Sure, I asked myself if it was ethical for me to retell the events of the girl’s death, to craft a narrative from the facts, but I also asked myself how I should do it for the essay. I wondered if I could do it efficiently and effectively, if I could do it well and make it artful enough that I would earn the right to write about it. I was (and still am) very much troubled by the idea of victimizing this young woman or her family again in any way.

Another way to look at it is through the lens of ethical theory. I tell my students you can either be a utilitarian consequentialist, who rejects absolutism and believes the greatest good is created by the greatest
art, or you can be a Kantian deontologist, who believes you may never use another person as a means to your own artistic ends, but that most nonfiction writers I know fall somewhere in between the two fundamentalist poles. Most of us are both utilitarian and absolutist in our writing, I think, and it seems a bit disingenuous to pretend otherwise.

About the Author

David Griffith

David Griffith (moderator) is the author of “A Good War Is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America.” His work has appeared in IMAGE, The Normal School, Utne Reader and online at

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