Trigger Happy: On Literature and Fear

The recent article in the Guardian about US students requesting trigger warnings on works of literature that could potentially trigger memories and feelings of trauma has been circulating with rather diverging opinions. This type of thing resonates differently with people depending on their experiences but also on how they’ve dealt with them. Nevertheless, comments are generally polarized, with little variation: mainly, by those who think trigger warnings are valuable and even necessary and those who staunchly disagree.

Steven Beattie, writer and critic and author of the blog That Shakespearean Rag, is one of the latter. He strongly disapproves of the idea of literature with warnings. He wrote:

“A draft trigger warning policy from Oberlin, quoted in Inside Higher Education, used Achebe’s acclaimed text as an example of a work which might require a warning, saying the novel was ‘a triumph of literature that everyone in the world should read. However, it may trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide, and more.'”

FOR FUCK’S SAKE!

LIFE might as well come with a trigger warning.

Literature’s entire PURPOSE is to deal, honestly and forthrightly, with difficult and traumatic experiences in a fictional context. Doing so helps build empathy and understanding. It can also help people who have experienced similar trauma recognize that they are not alone. It need not be subject to warnings that it might trigger emotional responses in its readers. That is the POINT.

I’m inclined to agree, and I take it one step further: not only does it help people realize they are not alone and also many times show characters overcoming their issues, but it also can help the reader deal with their PTSD or triggers. The thing is, trauma and emotional distress is often specific to the individual, whether it’s regarding experiences of war, suicide, rape, murder, miscarriage, infidelity, bullying, loss of a loved one (including a pet), and even, yes, even vomiting. Where do we draw the line in being considerate of others’ sensitivities, or else risk every piece of literature having some sort of warning?

While considered by many a courtesy, I see TWs as yet creating the view that most literature is dangerous, something to be feared. There are few people in this world who have not suffered some kind of trauma, and then those who would deem some traumas worse or more valid than others—as do the warnings. Literature becomes rather unjustly categorized. Putting warnings on potentially disturbing literature not only segregates the work but also insults it and the author, sends the message that while authors have the right to write what they are moved to, they may be penalized for it. TWs do a great disservice to the literature in preforming people’s opinions and setting the tone for the reading experience, as well as pre-empting certain lines of discussion that more fully treat the literature. They strip readers of their ability to make their own, uninfluenced decisions, and ultimately prevent readers, even those who might experience triggers, from a more enriching experience. This cheats the author, too, whose work it was to write a story that people could relate to and that evoked emotion. And all of these sound suspiciously like the issues of censorship. Perhaps most important, putting warnings on literature comes too close to coddling and actually even setting apart trauma sufferers as Others, rather than empathizing.

I’m not saying that people who want trigger warnings are weak and should sac up. I am saying, however, aside from what I think TWs do to literature (above), that we have to question what’s behind the avoidance. At the risk of sounding like a therapist, this isn’t really about the literature, but rather ourselves. We all have our own ways of dealing with trauma, our own levels of emotional depth of experience, of preparation for dealing with it. But the significant issue in this particular case, regardless, is fear.

For 15 years I suffered from such severe panic and anxiety attacks that I became physically paralyzed at times, and also unable to do many things, like ride public transport or drive on the highway, or go many places, like parties or movies or the theatre or the fucking food court—even out for a walk on our street. Several childhood traumas led to this. I understand fear. And triggers. And I get what it’s like to live in fear of being triggered. It can be completely debilitating. It is a strain on you and those you love. It’s torture.

I understand that trigger warnings on books are meant to alert people so that those who don’t want to read don’t have to, or they can try and prepare themselves. The thing is, again, literature, art in general, reflects us, the good and the bad. If we try and cover all the bad to help people avoid triggers, that doesn’t leave us with much for English class. Fear limits us. Instead, why can’t we take the opportunity in studying the literature to examine and question the issues within, even take a stand or be moved to action? to strengthen ourselves?

Confronting and acknowledging trauma and the feelings that arise from it is, ultimately, helpful. I can say this from experience. It facilitates mental and emotional health and fosters knowledge and the learning process. Discussion about it is also good thing—this is (isn’t it?) why we go to university or college in the first place—to learn, to grow, to question. While it worked to promote equality and discourage stigmatization, university, for me, was never a safe place (not only because I was one of the very few non-Dutch students and also the only Catholic in a Protestant school at the time); it was yet meant to challenge, and by god, it did. As one reader of Steven’s comment pointed out, challenging and triggering are two different things. This is true, but applying trigger warnings invariably negates challenge. Instead, it leaves us with only benign literature.

When I was in uni, one student refused to read Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage for our contemporary lit class because, once he found out what it was about, he said it would insult his Christian beliefs. This guy not only segregated himself but missed out on a formative experience because he assumed what the book was about and what Findley was saying with it: he remained fearful of being questioned, which meant he was never prepared with valid answers. I see this as somewhat similar to what I’m discussing here: by avoiding literature, we stunt ourselves.

Literature that examines the dark side of what it means to be human is a gift. In a classroom, it’s a tool we can use to gain perspective and understanding, to broaden our knowledge of issues, to intelligently form defensive and offensive positions, to cultivate empathy and space for healing. By applying trigger warnings, we close the doors on bettering ourselves. We perpetuate avoidance, fear of both the known and unknown. We cut off opportunity to dialogue about culture, power politics, heinous crimes, human tragedy, all part of the lives we lead. We separate ourselves from others who have suffered. We label people as too fragile. We label authors as offensive. We categorize literature as threatening or safe. We change the point of literature entirely. In that case, why take the class at all?

  22 comments for “Trigger Happy: On Literature and Fear

  1. 20 May, 2014 at 5:40 pm

    It is an interesting and rather polarizing debate, but I don’t get why it is framed the way it is (that TWs are purposely for avoidance). Personally, I’d like to see trigger warnings on some things – but NOT as a means of avoiding, simply as a means of preparing. To me trigger warnings should be a way to stimulate discussions not a way to stifle them. I don’t think they should give anyone a pass or excuse to avoid anything, especially in a classroom environment where that is the whole POINT of your learning, but they should start the discussions. They would almost be a way to force those discussions on those who don’t want to have them: I never heard a professor talk about the racism / sexism / etc in the literature being discussed, when I was in school, for example. They never even considered it, as all white and mostly male professors.

    TWs would also be a way to prepare. For example if I’m having a terrible day already and I want to relax with a book, and I can’t decide which book, perhaps I’ll choose the one which deals with issues that don’t specifically trigger me, because I know I’m in too vulnerable a place to work through it / appreciate it fully. There are books that I know I would have appreciated more if I wasn’t blindsided by certain topics while at especially low points – and other ones I really loved because I knew going into it what I was going to get.

    All this is odd because I often don’t even read the back cover on fiction books. If it’s an author I know I like, or someone recommended it, or it looks nice, I just pick it up and give it a try. I would see TWs as similar to author blurbs – a short statement that you could check out or not. (And mostly I’d ignore them too, except when I know I’m in a bad place.)

    Of course, I can also see that some people might use them to avoid topics… and that would be bad. So I can see why not to have them too… I guess I can really see their use but am scared they would be mis-used and so haven’t fully made up my mind!

    • 20 May, 2014 at 6:17 pm

      I understand your thoughts on wishing to have something to prepare you, particularly if you’re having a bad day. As I said on FB, I think the synopsis of the book should be enough: a synopsis should tell what the book is about without giving away too much. One of the issues is how personal this is. Therapy or some other previous work does wonders to prepare one for potentially distressing scenes in literature. While literature and movies have certainly triggered me on various subjects, I can’t say that I’ve ever wished I had been warned. I kind of like triggers. Is that weird? They give me opportunity to think further on what’s going on. I can deal with them through personal work, or creative writing. I just don’t want to suffer, so I try and read what I can on topics that trigger me. I think it’s to my benefit. I totally get, though, that not everyone is like this, that some scenes are so distressing that people relive their nightmares and regress. But again, then, I think that’s an indication that something has to be done outside of trying to avoid triggers. You mentioned preparing, but then you said you would choose a different book. So I think there’s still a type of protection going on.

      Do you know what I mean?

      • 21 May, 2014 at 9:22 am

        That is a good point Steph. It’s not always that I want to know that things will occur, I want to know when they will be badly done ;) (That being said, topics like sexual assault aren’t often known from the synopsis. Racism / sexism / homophobia often are more visible though at that level.) For the most part I like triggers too and seek out difficult work for that reason, but when I come across it poorly done in a book I wasn’t loving anyway… I can get pretty cranky! Additionally though not everyone has good access to good (or any) therapy which decreases their ability to deal with triggers.

        That being said, I do think it’s a nice to have as consideration, and that it would get discussions going in places where they often aren’t. Instead of having to uncomfortably ignore it in a classroom setting, for example, it’s forcing the conversation.

  2. 21 May, 2014 at 5:59 am

    Fabulous post, Steph. I agree with every damn word you said. I also think it’s really brave of you to write about your panic attacks and how you’ve got experiences that bring them on. Blurbs on back covers I believe to be 100% enough. I also echo what Beattie said: “Life should have a TW.”

    • Panic
      21 May, 2014 at 9:56 am

      We all realise that back blurbs are marketing tools, nothing more, designed to get you to read the book, not warn you off it, right? Did they put the incest on the back of the Anne-Marie Macdonald book? No, they did not. This reliance on back blurbs is incredibly facile.

      • 21 May, 2014 at 10:25 am

        I responded to this on Twitter!

  3. Panic
    21 May, 2014 at 9:13 am

    I understand that trigger warnings on books are meant to alert people so that those who don’t want to read don’t have to, or they can try and prepare themselves. The first part of this is wrong, and it’s so frustrating that people continually miss the point, to serve their own perhaps. The whole thing is about students who MUST read these books to pass their classes. They don’t get to opt out. It’s a tiny tiny tiny tiny tiny little thing and that thought pieces decrying the death of literature in the face of a small fucking consideration for people makes me think that literature hasn’t taught anyone any empathy at all, despite the thousands of comments stating otherwise. WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO ME IF THERE’S A TRIGGER WARNING? Nothing. Nothing will happen to you and nothing will happen to Nabokov and wow, the hand-wringing around this is totally nuts.

    Confronting and acknowledging trauma and the feelings that arise from it is, ultimately, helpful. I can say this from experience. For you, and at the point in your journey that you decide. AGAIN, these books happen to students during an academic career. They don’t get to choose when they face the trauma. That’s really important and everyone’s ignoring it.

    And I’m ashamed that so many people are choosing cruelty “because books.” Books are not under threat. Education is not under threat.

    • 21 May, 2014 at 10:03 am

      I hear what you’re saying, I do. But no one is forced to take the classes. You have a choice what classes to sign up for, to ask about the curriculum, and a choice as to what university you attend. I chose my university based on the English program and what it was offering. Also, not for one class did I have to read a book in order to pass. That’s odd to me. It was impossible to read all the books assigned. University and college are paid for by the student. No one is forcing you to do anything, let alone even attend class. I suppose you might fail if you don’t show during the time they’re discussing a certain book, but I didn’t come close to reading all the literature, and I never came close to failing, either.

      I’m not talking about the death of literature: I’m saying that trigger warnings strip the literature of its right to be read without prejudice. It’s not under threat of existing, but it is under threat of the things I mentioned in the post.

      I also disagree that these potentially triggering books “happen” to anyone, or that there is no choice in any of this, or that students are under threat. I don’t understand that at all. I do get that triggers come upon people without warning, but what I’m saying is beyond that.

      • Panic
        21 May, 2014 at 10:13 am

        You have a choice what classes to sign up for, to ask about the curriculum, and a choice as to what university you attend. Oh come on. One, there are such things as required classes, two classes aren’t called “Rape Books” or “Domestic Violence: An Introduction” so it’s not like that’s always clear (often it’s done by time period), and REALLY? I guess if you have enough money you can choose your Uni, but wow, is that a classist thing to assume. I chose my university based on the English program and what it was offering. I chose mine because it was in the city I lived in and could afford it. Some people have fewer options.

        Also, not for one class did I have to read a book in order to pass. Really? Weird. We were expected to do the readings assigned. Maybe my shitty university had a pretty good program after all.

        That’s a hell of a dance you just did there to deny a piece of paper that says “Hey, this book has the following themes so when you read it be aware that’s going to happen. Ok have a nice day.”

        I’m saying that trigger warnings strip the literature of its right to be read without prejudice. If you have ever stepped foot outside your house, you bring that with you to every book you read. The other amazing thing that’s happening around this discussion is that people suddenly claim we approach every text as a tabla rasa (while having read the back blurb though, and made a decision based on it, gee how’s THAT possible?).

        • 21 May, 2014 at 10:53 am

          Required classes didn’t mean I was required to read every novel in my program to pass. There were simply too many. And this was by no means some easy, shitty program. I read what I could, and naturally we were expected to read them all, but I didn’t have to write a thesis on every single one of them and I was certainly not failed for not reading every one.

          Also, your assumption about money and calling me classist is unfair. I am so far from coming from money, it’s laughable. (I knew I wanted to study English because of my experience with it in high school as well as my love of reading. It’s not like I hadn’t been exposed to what literature is, particularly troubling literature.) When I was looking at which universities to go to (as there weren’t any in or near my small town), I looked at their English programs and picked which one I liked the sound of best, then applied. I got into all of them and couldn’t afford to go to any, as I had no savings, my parents couldn’t contribute, and it turned out the OSAP wasn’t enough. So I found another, even better, which happened to be private and luckily offered scholarships as well as much more OSAP. Which later bankrupted me when I came out with so much debt. I’m still bankrupt.

          Heather, I don’t mean we should be unkind, or force people to go through horrible things. That’s not my intent. I just think there needs to be a better way to approach this. I don’t understand how we can accommodate everyone’s potential triggers. Prioritizing certain ones over others can’t be right.

          The point of literature classes is decreased if we apply such warnings or teach in avoidance. But then what would I have us do? Tell students, well, you’re bound to be triggered, I mean, it’s literature, so don’t take English? Of course not. Honestly, I don’t know. Yes, it would be easy to just write up a warning for people. But the effect of that is not simply kindness, and that’s my concern.

          • Panic
            21 May, 2014 at 10:56 am

            Also, your assumption about money and calling me classist is unfair. Ok. I don’t mean to make you write all that out, but you have to understand that my limited options make me read “You can just go to any uni you want” a certain way. We read with prejudice, don’t we? ;)

            I just think there needs to be a better way to approach this. Maybe, but is the answer to do nothing in the meantime, or is it to try this, see what happens, and improve on what we learn?

            The point of literature classes is decreased if we [...] teach in avoidance. No one is advocating that.

            But the effect of that is not simply kindness, and that’s my concern Again, I don’t think the answer is to do nothing. People have recognized a need, we can’t just ignore that.

  4. Panic
    21 May, 2014 at 9:15 am

    When I was in uni, one student refused to read Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage for our contemporary lit class because, once he found out what it was about, he said it would insult his Christian beliefs.
    And being triggered is NOT about being offended. So let’s stop with that too.

    • 21 May, 2014 at 10:04 am

      I agree with you here. But I wasn’t saying that they are the same. My point was about missing out on an opportunity to dialogue.

  5. 21 May, 2014 at 11:13 am

    Crap, it won’t let me reply right under your response.

    I do agree that doing nothing is not the answer. I just don’t know, based on the thoughts I still hold, what the something should be.

    Please know that I’m not holding anything you say invalid. I very much understand dealing with triggers.

  6. 21 May, 2014 at 11:31 am

    This is the first I’ve heard of putting trigger warnings on literature, but after reading this well though out essay on it (as well as the comments), I have to agree with you. I have also suffered from panic attacks, which have been triggered by certain things I have read, but I find the more I face it and let myself be triggered, the more confident I feel about my panic disorder. That is just my experience, and I know many people have a lot more trauma in their lives than I do, but trigger warnings just seem like a kind of band-aid, an d are not actually going to really help most people in the end. And I agree that it might even prevent people from reading books that might actually help them. Thanks for writing about this. It is not easy to write about something that is obviously so controversial.

    • 21 May, 2014 at 2:12 pm

      Thanks for reading and for your comment, Naomi. I hear you.

  7. Ruth Bradley-St-Cyr
    21 May, 2014 at 4:37 pm

    Funny you should mention Not Wanted on the Voyage. That was the book that triggered my most extreme emotional response to a work of fiction. It was not because of any questioning of Christianity; rather it was about what happened to the unicorn. I almost passed out and had to lie down on the floor at work until I felt stable again. I can’t imagine how anyone might have warned me about this.

    Literature is meant to provoke a response in readers. It almost always deals with some sort of trauma. I have to conclude that people who have trigger issues will have to give up reading fiction, and probably non-fiction as well, and give up watching TV and movies… Almost all TV drama now has a warning about something that plays before the show starts and movies come with warnings about violence or language. My personal favourite warning is about “mild language.” If the language is mild, then why warn us? Perhaps we could just address this in the BISAC codes by which books are market segmented, such as FIC022010 FICTION / Mystery & Detective / Hard-Boiled. See https://www.bisg.org/bisac-subject-headings-list-fiction

    Of course, such warnings pretty well spoil any element of surprise. I once accidentally let it slip that Lady Sybil dies in childbirth in season 3 of Downton Abbey and had to face the wrath of my friend Trish. “Oh well,” I squeaked apologetically, “at least now you’ll be prepared.” She was not amused. TWs might just as well be called spoilers.

    • 22 May, 2014 at 3:50 pm

      Ruth! Oh!! I remember that unicorn scene. Yes.

      I think in this case triggers are reminders of trauma, rather than simply instigators of strong emotion, but I agree with you that while there are warnings on some things, like movies and TV, they don’t really prepare you. In that case, I suppose you could avoid them. But then that goes back to what I said in my post…

  8. Elle
    3 September, 2014 at 6:28 pm

    I’m late to this discussion, but it’s one I’m passionate about and somewhat knowledgeable about, so I thought I’d chime in just in case any latecomers find it useful.

    When readers are triggered for traumas such as parental suicide or sexual assault it can be devastating and very dangerous for them. If you are not going to give trigger warnings it would be KIND to have a listing of available resources for people who may become triggered. A list with hotline numbers, counselling centers numbers, campus resources, etc. listed in the back of a book or on the classroom wall.

    Is it the author’s/teacher’s responsibility to do that? No.

    It is, I think, an admirable kindness to someone who has suffered something horrendous.

    • 3 September, 2014 at 8:07 pm

      Elle,

      It’s neat that you came here: I was only just thinking about this again yesterday, because I’m waffling about it now. I still feel strongly about preconceived notions before one reads a story, or about avoidance, but those feelings stem from my own way of handling trauma: wanting to face triggers head on, no matter what it might bring. But then when I think about someone reading something they didn’t want to read after all, I feel bad. I recently wrote a couple of quite dark stories that have triggers in them, and I was thinking yesterday: What if one of these stories won a contest or something and was going to be published? And what if people I know wanted to read it because they’re friends, but have suffered things that the story deals with and in the end really regret reading it? I’m thinking it wouldn’t be too detrimental to the reading experience to say, simply, that this or that story contains a suicide or rape and you can choose not to read it. This is really difficult for me, being both empathetic as someone well familiar with triggers and also a stalwart promoter of hard literature.

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