I’ve recently been introduced to the concept of the ‘gallows laugh’. Like when a word you’ve never seen before keeps cropping up in books, the gallows laugh has been hot on my heels, jumping out in surprise when I least expect it. If you’ve never heard the term, you’ll most certainly know what it is. Gallows humour strikes in the laugh we use when we’re talking about something serious, usually our own suffering, but inexplicably we laugh in the telling of it.
In a recent training session, one of my comically gifted colleagues shared a story with the group. We were all smiling along with her, and when she reached particularly dramatic points she laughed and we laughed; it was all very funny. I hadn’t noticed my tutor, sitting still, listening empathically, but straight-faced. She soon brought this fact to our attention. She brought us back to reality, explaining as though to children, that the story we had just heard was about someone who needed medical attention who wasn’t getting their needs met.
Put like that, why on earth were we laughing? My tutor was absolutely right, and the narrator herself, let’s call her Jenny, said that if she had seen a friend in her position she would have taken her to A + E. Our heads hung a little low and I felt like a complete bitch for finding the story so funny. At this point I sincerely wanted to apologise to Jenny for laughing at her plight. But Jenny had laughed too, so didn’t that make it OK?
Jenny’s laugh was the gallow’s laugh. We see it in fiction all the time when a character laughs nervously in the face of danger. My own protagonist in my, let’s face it, progressing-slower-than-a-snail’s-pace novel, uses the gallow’s laugh quite often. I’ve put her through all kinds of hell, so why do I write that she laughs about it? Well, she’s strong, guarded, perhaps not all that likeable, so she needs to show some humour about all the crap she’s going through in order for one of the other characters to fancy her, right? Hmm. This sounds familiar, perhaps I’d better start from scratch before I end up with a humongous cliché. I think I may be close to interpreting the purpose of the gallow’s laugh, however.
Back to Jenny, who admitted committing the gallow’s laugh frequently. Our tutor said that she too had felt a pull to join in the laughter while Jenny was telling her story. Yet she forced herself to resist. Maybe I’m not such a bitch after all if laughing was in fact a natural reaction. However, as counsellors and therapists, we must resist the urge to join in. I sense trouble looming; I am no stranger to the gallow’s laugh. I’ve realised since this episode that I do it all of the time: ‘I’m so poor I can’t afford to heat my bedroom, hahaha!’; ‘I’m so useless at relationships I’m going to die alone, hohoho!’ Not being as funny as Jenny, sometimes when I do the gallow’s laugh, people just smile sympathetically rather than laugh along. This happened when I checked in with my counselling class recently; I told them about my recent break up and that I’d been quite emotional about it. I emphasised the word ‘emotional’ and followed the announcement with a laugh as though my situation was hilarity itself. Perhaps my attempt at joviality wasn’t particularly convincing. Probably because my eyes were welling up at the time. In truth, I was in pain, so why was I laughing? And why was Jenny laughing about a situation that nearly saw her in hospital?
I started to think there must be some sort of evolutionary advantage to gallow’s humour – if we didn’t laugh, we’d cry. Perhaps it’s simply a way of coping with life’s knocks, finding a way to get through the day. It’s a way for us to manage and it also helps to make other people feel comfortable. So why shouldn’t the therapist be complicit in the gallow’s laugh? Because therapy is the one space where you’re allowed not to cope. You’re allowed to be completely real, feel your words, hear yourself say what’s painful, hurtful, emotional for you. And when we don’t join in, you’ll hear truth in the silence. The therapist and client may feel uncomfortable, but that is a good thing. That is where the switch flicks and the real work can begin. If we, as counsellors, can resist the gallows laugh, we can pull away the cobwebs that conceal the truth.
Behind the laughter is probably where some of the darkest pain lies. This is what I’ll endeavour to remember when I start my placement and come face to face with real clients who need me to be there. I am hoping and praying that I’ll be able to keep my nerves at bay, and the fear I feel of holding my first client won’t be the kind that induces the nervous blurt of the gallow’s laugh. It catches, you know.
Kate Eve Smith lives and works in Northumberland where she is studying for a Diploma in Psychotherapeutic Counselling. She spends much of her time exploring the county's wilderness and coastline, and on colder days puts pen to paper. You can follow Kate on Twitter.