Logan Abassi and Eric Rankin on the moral dilemma of shifting the load of trauma and secrets onto the shoulders of their family
For many people with stressful jobs, one thing to look forward to is being able to unload at the end of the day with a partner or family member. For many journalists covering wars, criminal cases and other traumatic events, sharing such experiences with loved ones is often not an option.
Logan Abassi spent 11 years in Haiti as a photojournalist for the United Nations. He is now in the process of separating from his wife, in part because of how hard it was to share the horrors to which he had been exposed.
“One of the problems was our lack of ability to communicate, because of her lack of ability to have any sympathy for the effects of the trauma,” Abassi says. “No wife or husband will ever understand until they’ve been through it.”
Abassi had seen a lot, and photographed many horrors he witnessed. People dying in front of him from a gunshot wound to the chest. Or the remains of people killed in a gunfight, half-eaten by pigs. Or his friends, pulled out of the rubble of collapsed UN buildings in Haiti.
“I have no regrets of anything that I shot; I have regrets of not realizing what I was doing to myself while I was shooting it,” says Abassi, who subsequently spent a month in therapy “to get his head straight.”
He says the only people who he talked to were his coworkers and fellow journalists who had experienced the same things. It became frustrating for him to tell people who simply didn’t understand what he’d been through.
“A lot of people, because of their inability to really grasp the degree of what was going on, would say things like, ‘Oh just get over it, just forget about it,’” Abassi says. “So you stop telling them and you degenerate and they don’t know why. But you can’t tell them anymore, now that you’ve shut down.”
Reporters working on investigative stories often don’t tell their family the details of their work for a different reason: they are protecting the identity of their sources.
Eric Rankin has been an investigative reporter with CBC for the past seven years and says he doesn’t discuss in-depth details about stories because he doesn’t want to violate the trust and the privacy of individuals who’ve come forward with information.
“[My family] usually gets the Reader’s Digest condensed version of what is going on and I don’t give them any kind of critical or confidential information,” Rankin says. “Oftentimes I’ll take their advice on stories that I’m working on.”
It’s the nature of most family members to worry about loved ones. But Rankin says that shutting off completely can cause a problem.
“That can be a point of contention and concern when family members don’t know what you are doing and don’t understand why you are working these late hours,” Rankin says.
Rankin was a war correspondent earlier in his career and travelled to many hot spots, investigating the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and reporting on the siege in Sarajevo.
“I would deliberately not tell family members or loved ones about the situation I might find myself in, because I would just needlessly worry them,” he says. “If I was shot at on Sniper’s Alley in Sarajevo, or being shelled in northern Bosnia, or being sent into a bomb shelter in Baghdad during the allied bombing, I wouldn’t be providing them with those details.”
While Rankin is generally not exposed to such dangers any more, he says the journalist life still takes its toll—on the reporter and family.
“The people in my life generally know it’s a demanding job and it takes up a lot of hours,” he says. “They kind of tolerate the late-night phone calls or the texts or the emails you have to send off.”