Aug 07

Warning: Triggers. And Warnings.

I read with interest the article “Literature and Life” in the June 9/16 issue of The New Yorker.[1] This is the first I’ve heard of trigger warnings, defined as “preemptive alerts, issued by a professor or an institution at the request of students, indicating that material presented in class might be sufficiently graphic to spark symptoms of post-traumatic-stress disorder [PTSD].”

It seems students at the University of California, Santa Barbara, “earlier this year…agreed upon a resolution recommending that such warnings be issued in instances where classroom materials might touch upon ‘rape, sexual assault, abuse, self-injurious behavior, suicide, graphic violence, pornography, kidnapping, and graphic descriptions of gore.’” This was sparked by a sexual-violence survivor’s shock “when a teacher showed a movie in class which depicted rape, without giving advance notice of the content.”[2]images-3

Trigger warning proponents are not, at this point, arguing that pieces with this content be removed from syllabi. They just want a heads-up that they’re going to run into it.

As an author who writes extensively about PTSD and intense situations, I sat up straight in my chair. And as anyone who writes books knows, some of the acts listed are so common, whether they form part of the plot or the backstory of a character, they’re called tropes.

How long until the publishing industry notices, or is forced to respond to, this debate? Do we need to consider putting trigger warnings on our books?

On the one side, I completely agree with the UCSB students. I personally have experienced haunting reactions to situations I’ve encountered in books, reactions it’s taken me days or sometimes even weeks to get over—and some I’ve never gotten over, and wish to this day I hadn’t read. Do I wish I’d been warned? Hell yes.

This may be true. And it may not be.

This may be true. And it may not be.

And yet…

If I’d been warned, I wouldn’t have read the book. I certainly wouldn’t have bought it.

If we cover our books with trigger warnings, we’re risking several things. First, and most obviously, we’re risking sales. But there’s a deeper and more insidious risk—who, exactly, is going to come up with the definitions of these things? The trigger warnings listed above lack something very important, and that’s nuance.

I’m not being stupid here—a rape is a rape is a rape. But if your scene is at all nuanced, do you deserve this warning on your book? I’ve read books where it’s not clear total consent was given, but I wouldn’t call what happened a rape, either. To slap a rape warning on such a book would be…what? Wrong? Or is it close enough that those who have suffered such a horror should be warned? Do the legitimate needs of those who have suffered outweigh the damage done to a book when it has a label attached to it? Because what happens when powerfully dark words are linked with a book? If you write a story consciously to add something to the ongoing discussion of trigger topics, such labels could take your contribution out entirely.

And look at “graphic descriptions of gore.” Just about every crime novel I’ve ever read needs this warning. So how useful is it? But in the other direction, what is the line you have to cross to warrant such a warning? An otherwise gentle story that involves a farmer slaughtering a pig for the family’s food stores for the winter—does that invoke the warning? Is the “graphic gore” of such a scene enough to trigger anyone who’s sensitive to such things, or traumatize someone who isn’t?

Think of Where the Red Fern Grows, a staple in elementary and junior high reading lists. I warned the heck out of my ten-year-old son that the dogs were going to die before he read it. In fact, I had him read it at home, before he finished it in class, so he could allow himself to react however he wanted without worrying about the embarrassment of such a reaction in front of his classmates. And thank goodness—he sobbed, hard, for two hours, and asked…why on earth a teacher would ask his students to read such a book without any warning.

As a high school English teacher, I routinely warned my students of intense or troubling scenes in their upcoming reading and gave them space to discuss their reactions in class, if they wished, and you would not believe how many did.

If labeling did become mandatory (this isn’t completely far-fetched—think MPAA ratings on movies and TV), would authors begin to avoid scenes and topics that would get them labeled?

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Where do trigger warnings cross the line into censorship?

Of course, this couldn't happen. Of course not.

Of course, this couldn’t happen. Of course not.

Which brings up the other side.

Because I’ve also seen how incredibly valuable it is to read about such things and have a safe place to explore them—as long as the teacher/leader/facilitator has enough strength and trust and respect to hold the space for such a discussion.

Trigger warnings allow those who do not want to encounter such content to opt out of the book, the movie, whatever it is that contains the trigger. But they aren’t just opting out of the content—they’re also opting out of the discussion sparked by the content. And it’s the discussion which can be so rich and valuable, even if the triggered person doesn’t say a word.

Just being in a room where such a thing is discussed openly; watching fellow human beings wrestling with their own reactions; and hearing and feeling the validation that comes from others acknowledging the horror of such experiences can be very healing. It can give someone the courage they need to seek help, either to get out of a situation or to work through the aftereffects.

It really can be like this to someone who needs it.

It really can be like this to someone who needs help.

Or not. Again, it could, instead, reinforce the original trauma.

Trigger warnings can be used as a way to raise consciousness—to name that which is not seen is to bring it from the unconscious to the conscious. When we learn about racism, for example, we are more sensitive to the fact that not everyone experiences the world in the same way, and we become aware how we either add to or help solve the problem. Problems about which we know nothing are problems we can’t do anything consciously about.

However, no one needs to be re-traumatized, ever. And those who have experienced trauma have a right to be warned if they are about to encounter a situation that could negatively impact them, especially if they are in any way not prepared to deal with what would come up for them around it.

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I have no answers. For now, and possibly forever, this is a hypothetical exploration. But I think an ongoing debate both around this issue, and the existence of triggers in the stories we write, could be rich, deep, consciousness-raising, and empowering for everyone involved.

[1] All quotes from The New Yorker, June 9/14, 2014, p.39-40.

[2] There’s an obvious problem with this list, in that it doesn’t even come close to covering all the possible triggers for PTSD, but there is no way to create such a list—as “Jessica Valenti has noted on The Nation’s Web site…, potential triggers for trauma are so manifold as to be beyond the possibility of cataloguing.”