Dancing in the Dark: Reflections on the Emotional Geographies Conference 2015

By Cheryl McGeachan

My time spent at the Emotional Geographies Conference in Edinburgh this month has been an incredibly illuminating one. For instance, never did I think I would see early morning dancing at a geography conference (thanks Heather McLean, Leslie Kearn and your dirty, sweaty little others!) but I have also been left with haunting memories of painful feelings and experiences that I cannot shake off. As the train back to Glasgow snakes through the sun-lit landscape my mind is drawn back to the stories of trauma, loss, shame, confusion and fear that some of the papers so beautifully brought to light. It should be noted that these themes were not the only ones to permeate through the conference – remember the dancing – but they are the ones that resonated most strongly with me. From my position as a geographer concerned with exploring the lived experiences of mental ill-health, it is hardly surprising that the stories told of therapeutic encounters, traumatic events and personal struggles with self-hood reverberated with me as I try to navigate my own way through this tricky terrain. However, I have surprised myself in how attracted to these tales I have become. On reflection, while pawing through the, particularly difficult to navigate, programme I have actively sought out the sessions that lead me to the darker spaces of the worlds inhabited by individuals caught up in difficult situations. This conference has made me increasingly aware that my passion and motivations for research arise from the struggles and contradictions that face individuals in times of difficulty – I am curiously attracted to the dark. This is coupled with my determination to try, in some small way, to offer light into these darkened spaces through various processes of understanding has been strengthened by my experiences at emotional geographies.

One session in particular has made me stop and reflect upon the stories that I research and write. The session, organised by Dr Sophie Tamas, was entitled ‘Mapping the ethical terrain of personal narrative’ and consisted of a range of speakers (Hester Parr, Mike Gallant, Lindy Barbour and Dagmar Alexander) debating the tangled web of ethics; of going too far but not going far enough, of uncomfortable boundary making and the limits of words. As a geographical biographer, I have always been acutely aware of the ghosts that exist in the research process and their power to freeze, distort or destroy the narratives you may wish to write about the subject and their complex networks. What one chooses to reveal about another is not always in your hands and this, however frustrating, may turn out to be a blessing in disguise. When reflecting upon how much one is willing to disclose about oneself, there is often an easy answer: nothing too embarrassing, nothing too intimate, nothing too damaging to my world and those encapsulated within it. There appears to be a line. How far one chooses to go in their revealing is personal, for one person’s embarrassment is another’s funny story, but what happens when the line is drawn not by you but by another? My biographer-self worries about this line a lot – have I revealed too much? Did I check with enough of the people involved? Is it really my place to tell these stories at all? However, despite these anxieties over the method, I still continue to write biographical narratives. I am still fascinated by the people, lives and worlds that reside beyond my own and sketch them into stories that others may read, judge and share. I feel these stories are powerful, I believe they can generate understanding, engagement and respect. They can create debate and resurface (historical) silences. However, the question of ethics, as discussed in the session, is certainly important to ponder on further as would I wish my life to be pieced together in such a way? My gut reaction is ‘certainly not’. A challenging contraction.

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