Trauma, Drug Misuse and Transforming Identities: A Life Story Approach

Author(s) Kim Etherington
Publisher Jessica Kingsley Publishers
Published 2008
Pages 224
Price 19.99
ISBN 9781843104933
Reviewed by Ms Ann Dalzell
University of Bristol, Graduate School of Education
Review published 23 January 2008

The voices of individuals who have lived experience of misusing drugs are rarely heard. In contrast, Kim Etherington’s new book places the stories of eight people, at different points of their journey away from the identity of ‘drug-user’, at the heart of her provocative exposition of the complex relationships between childhood experiences of trauma, transformations in the construction of identities and drug misuse.

By asking the participants where their story begins, Etherington prompts the narrators to tell how they understand their previous drug misuse within the context of their life story. The result is a collection of honest and forthright narratives. The author does not, for example, shy away from including stories of the pleasure that was experienced by some when using drugs – something that is frequently concealed or overlooked during discussions around drug misuse. At the same time, stories of incredible personal resilience and survival are witnessed. By beginning with Hannah’s stories, the author succeeds in drawing the reader into the complexities of the themes that are explored across the book.

It is clear from the outset that Etherington is not concerned with formulating generalisations but with exploring, alongside the storytellers, the meaning each brings to specific life events. References to related academic research are therefore intentionally kept away from the individuals’ stories. Academic references are, however, used elsewhere in the author’s explanation of her research position and to examine theories relating to trauma, drug misuse and transforming identity. In each case, the author uses her academic voice successfully as a means of facilitating greater access to the stories.

This is a beautifully written book. Etherington uses a range of writing styles to complement the narrator’s words and to emphasise their individuality. I particularly like the way in which she gives an insight into her emotional responses to the stories as they unfold without orchestrating how I, the reader, am to respond. Likewise, she avoids pulling together all the threads weaving through this research in order to direct the reader towards a specific conclusion. Instead, the reflections, both across and within the individual narratives, in the final part of the book leave space for readers to make their own emotional and intellectual connections.

Etherington has created an intensely powerful and informative book. I suggest it would be very difficult not to engage with it at an emotional level; indeed, it is a testimony to Etherington’s relational research methodologies and her skills as a writer that the reader encounters the stories within cultural frameworks that honour their uniqueness without reducing them to a set of abstract conclusions. The result, at times, is an unsettling read which fulfils the author’s aims of being engaging and challenging.

With each reading, I have come into contact with a further dimension of the book that I had previously not encountered. It is, without doubt, a valuable resource for anyone wanting to move beyond the familiar stories commonly associated with drug misusers. I suggest it would be an excellent core text for students interested in gaining a more enriched understanding of how social and cultural factors can impact on an individual’s life. In addition, there is much within this book that offers support to those currently negotiating their own difficult relationship with drugs as well as professionals wanting to enhance their work within the field of drug misuse.

Furthermore, this book gives those interested in research methodologies a fascinating insight into the work of a skilled narrative researcher. Etherington is an active presence within this research rather than a distant and dispassionate observer. Consequently, the reader is able to witnesses how the research is developed through negotiation with each participant – from whether or not to continue with a particular strand of a story through to the experience of taking part in this research – and how meaning comes to be situated within the socio-historic context of ones stories.

I have no hesitation in recommending this book. It is an inspirational, multilayered, book that offers much to a wide range of readers.