How Writing Poetry Became a Lifeline for Processing Trauma

8 min read

“Never apologize for not fitting into a form.

We didn’t ask for our bodies to be broken”

— Erik-John Fuhrer

After delving into how Fuhrer’s newest poetry collection, Gellar Studies (2023), shows the power of pop culture narratives as a conduit for processing trauma, I had the honor of interviewing Fuhrer. In this exclusive interview, Fuhrer explains how pop culture narratives and icons became essential to their ability to recognize and find language for the abuse in their own life.

Reframing their own experiences through the lens of horror—in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I Know What You Did Last Summer, etc.—helped them to then reframe and take control over their own monsters. Their narrative, shaped by fragmented memories and disorientation, emphasizes how healing can emerge despite one’s journey not aligning with traditional hero’s narratives. Read on for Fuhrer’s deeply personal meditations on how they began to make sense of trauma’s seeming anti-narrativity, the power of using writing to claim their stories, and the feeling of self-acceptance that comes with healing.

Melissa Rampelli: Your book Gellar Studies explores the intricate relationship between narrative and trauma. Can you share a moment when you first began to realize the profound impact that storytelling could have on your own journey of understanding and healing?

Erik-John Fuhrer: A video on emotional abuse in my 8th-grade health class was revelatory in all the most devastating ways. The signs and dangers of emotional abuse were discussed by a series host following a series of fictional scenes in which a mother figure belittled and berated her daughter. It was the first time I was able to directly label my mother’s behavior as something dangerous. I had always known that things were not normal: her incessantly screaming, feigning fainting and heart attacks when she didn’t get her way, routinely pushing me down the stairs, the many times I bled because I “fell” or because I was “dramatic,” her strange visits during the night where she “taught me to be a man.” I now had language for it.

Hannibal Lecter was the first true approximation of my mother’s evil that I witnessed. Sociopathic or supernatural horror villains captured the predatory threat of my mother better than any dysfunctional family drama. Writing in the horror genre allowed me to craft narratives that gave me control over my monsters and, to borrow from Buffy, begin to slay them from my life.

MR: From that first moment, how has the use of narrative and storytelling—the narratives Geller’s films/shows provided and the ones you’ve constructed in response— helped you to navigate and process personal experiences of trauma?

E-JF: Gellar’s face can go from calm and beautiful to wide-eyed and terrified in seconds. In that narrative turn is where horror exists for me. Horror was a state of mind for me for decades, and my body often still feels chased. I jump at the slightest provocation. In I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), Gellar’s beauty queen turned scream queen, Helen Shivers, tulips her lips into a shriek when she’s trapped in the back of a cop car as the hook-handed killer approaches. This scene feels autobiographical in some way. It’s these moments of recognition that make me feel oddly connected to her characters:


I promise

I see you”

(“The Language of Eyes,” Gellar Studies)

This was written to Joanna Mills from The Return (2006), but it was also written to all her characters. Gellar Studies enabled me to momentarily imagine her characters looking back; to conjure my own ghosts and to fight the ones that had nested in me.

The Return is mostly just Gellar’s eyes widening over and over. This is what it feels like to still be alive with the ghosts inside. She perfectly captures the narrative of what is not seen. Of what her eyes tell you she has seen. I fall into her stare over and over again when I watch this film and there is some strange comfort in that experience.

Erik-John Fuhrer / Used with permission

Source: Erik-John Fuhrer / Used with permission

MR: Trauma can disrupt one’s sense of self and make it challenging to construct a coherent narrative of one’s life. How have you navigated this challenge personally, and what advice would you give to individuals who are struggling to make sense of their own experiences through storytelling?

E-JF: Trauma clogs and disrupts narrative. I think my mistake was not seeing these disjointed sequences as narrative. I saw them as broken rather than as their own jagged story that didn’t need smoothing.

Living in a traumatized and post-traumatized body is often to experience blackouts. And to experience floods, where everything is rushing back. It is to have had to be hypervigilant at every moment in order to survive but also to experience lapses of time. It is to live a narrative of hyperclarity and fogged disjointedness simultaneously. It is a contradiction. It is a mess and revelation. And it is my story. Our narratives do not have to fit the driving template of the hero’s journey. We are not all of us Odysseus. We forge our own paths and sometimes never make it back home. We are tone poems. We are the stories that quake. Never apologize for not fitting into a form. We didn’t ask for our bodies to be broken.

MR: Gellar Studies delves into the relationship between language and trauma. Can you discuss how language and storytelling serve as both tools for coping with trauma and reminders of its presence in your work?

E-JF: The experience of living with trauma is often extra-linguistic for me. It’s an aura. A scream. A heat rises in my body and turns it into a lamp that lights a path for no one. Living with PTSD sometimes feels like moving through life in a Polaroid snap. No matter how many times I shake myself into focus, something is always a blur.

I often felt trapped inside the narratives of my abusers. I was never the protagonist in my own story. Just as striking a superhero pose is colloquially supposed to raise confidence, inviting Gellar into my work enabled me to strike my own linguistic version of the superhero pose, that of becoming the subject of my own sentences and life.

MR: You’ve worked with both prose and poetry to delve into the theme of trauma and recovery in My Buffed Up Life (forthcoming 2024) and Gellar Studies (2023), respectively. What advantages or challenges did each form present when it comes to capturing the intricate nuances of these experiences?

E-JF: My Buffed Up Life is a hybrid text: a screenplay, a book of spells, and letters to Buffy. Yet, the book started as a conglomeration of poetry fragments and Buffy quotations. Conjuring its final state began with removing the Buffy quotations and focusing on the influence of the television show mostly in form and spirit rather than content. Buffy does remain in the book, but it is my personal and unique projection of Buffy as a conduit for my own narratives and healing.

The poems in Gellar Studies felt organic to me as poems. Sarah Michelle Gellar and her characters were influences and scaffolds, but the poems really took flight as both interpretations of her characters as well as intimate narratives of my personal interactions with the characters and how I incorporated them into my life and narrative.

MR: In Gellar Studies, your poetry collection is not only a deeply introspective exploration of trauma but also a kind of manifesto—a celebration and acceptance of your own identity. Can you elaborate on how your poetry serves as a platform for both self-discovery and self-celebration?

E-JF: Gellar Studies marked a new era of honesty in my poetry and life. I came out as nonbinary and my gender expression became more fluid and authentic during the writing of both Gellar Studies and My Buffed Up Life. The first poem I wrote from Gellar Studies was “Haunted House a Go Go,” a poem dedicated to Gellar’s Daphne Blake from Scooby Doo (2002). Partly an ode to her gorgeous purple go-go boots from the film, partly a celebration of how I am finally comfortable exclaiming how deeply I want a pair of them to galavant around haunted houses with, and all a testament to how Gellar’s films not only helped me face my trauma but made me feel beautiful. A lot of my fashion sense comes from Gellar, and every time I’m complimented on a fit, I think of those purple boots.

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