Friday, June 13, 2014

Thinking about Trigger Warnings

While waiting in the doctor's office yesterday, I picked up a copy of The New Yorker and read Rebecca Mead's brief but insightful comment piece on the rise of demands for trigger warnings in college classrooms (online version here). "Trigger" here refers to a traumatic trigger, a term used by psychologists working with people with post-traumatic stress disorder. Triggers are words, objects, or events that remind PTSD sufferers of the original trauma they experienced, and which may lead them to re-experience that original trauma (flashbacks, nightmares, frightening thoughts), engage in avoidance behaviors, or experience fight-or-flight hyper-arousal, all of which may severely disrupt their ability to function in their daily lives. A trigger warning, then, is a caution to those who have suffered traumatic events that what follows (a blog post, a film clip, a work of literature) includes a discussion or depiction of trauma, which may act as a trigger to those who have experienced similar traumas in their own pasts. Having been duly warned, a person with PTSD can then make an informed decision about whether to engage with, or avoid, said materials.

I've come across trigger warnings in blog posts and blog post comments about romance novels, but until yesterday, I'd not encountered one in an actual work of romance fiction. But reading Mead's post reminded me of a book a fellow NECRWA member had sent me with a request for a review: Summer Rain, a collection of "romance novelettes" published in support of RAINN, the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network. When I opened my e-ARC later that day, I found author Audra North's opening "Dear Reader" letter, in which she explains that "Each of these romantic novelettes is preceded by a Dear Reader letter introducing you to the story's characters and content. If necessary, these letters have trigger warnings, and therefore might contain spoilers" (Loc 23). Two of the actual "Dear Reader" letters contain explicit "trigger" warnings, while other stories' descriptions provide less direct warnings of potentially triggering material.

I hope to talk more about Summer Rain in a later post, once I've finished reading the collection. Today, though, I want invite readers to share their thoughts about trigger warnings. When are they appropriate? When are they not? Is there a difference between trigger warnings in an individual work of literature and those in a classroom setting? If your teachers in high school, or your professors in college, had included trigger warnings on their course descriptions or syllabi, how would that have influenced your decisions about whether or not to take a course? How does your own past (having experienced trauma directly; at one-remove, through a relative or friend; or only indirectly, through literature or media) influence your thinking about such warnings?


  1. Before I was 21, I had lost both my parents and been the victim of rape. My assault was a variation of date rape in 1968 (before the term even existed). I spent at least a year struggling with suicidal thoughts and many more years wrestling with guilt and shame. But I am by nature someone who talks about my feelings. I was in my own home throwing a party, drank too much and crashed in the bedroom where the guests’ coats were being kept. I was so drunk I was unable to fight the man off—I just kept saying 'no' and 'please don’t.' Saying ‘please’ still fills me with shame. What kind of a feminist says ‘please’ to her rapist? About an hour after my assault, I told my roommate and a small group of guests (close friends) who had not left what had happened. My roommate (a woman) told me I should have just relaxed and enjoyed myself. A man in the group told her she was wrong. He said what had happened to me was rape. We were radicals, and he said I had been denied my right of self determination. It was so liberating to be validated. Six months later I began a relationship with that man that has endured 45 years.

    While I am empathetic to people who have flash backs, I do not think that trigger warnings are required by authors. Hardy did not provide one for ‘Jude the Obscure.’ Tolstoy doesn't have a warning for ‘Anna Karenina’ and Edith Wharton did not clue us in before we read ‘House of Mirth.’ It is obvious suicide is my trigger, but I do not demand future writers tell me up front.

    My first novel contained both a rape and a murder. I had numerous reviews and comments that attacked me for not providing a warning. I added one and still received hostility for writing about such a topic in Austenesque literature. Jane Austen would never have written about such a horrid theme was a refrain I heard many times over. I tried to defend myself by pointing out that she wrote of three fifteen-year-old women who were conned by older men. One of those young women was impregnated and abandoned, her life ruined.

    The reason I do not believe in warnings is that with the enormous numbers of women who have endured sexual assault, we need to talk about that fact. Romance novels are a perfect place to have that discussion. Do not the 20% of women who have been raped deserve romance and a happy ending? The same is true with regard to the horrors of war. One will never heal from these traumas if they are ignored. Counseling and talking about what has happened is a much more rational approach than avoidance.

    I am now prepared to accept the hostility when I write about difficult topics—like the modern (Calliope’s Choice)I am writing that will have a character who has an abortion and does not regret it. I will not include a warning because that would be offensive to me.

    Kate Millet was my literary criticism professor at Barnard. She disliked D. H. Lawrence and I was not as hostile. It is possible if I reread 'Women in Love' (my favorite of his novels) I might be more attune to the phallic emphasis. Should he have included a warning about the sexual content?.

  2. A lot of the commentary I've read on this topic seem to blur the idea of censorship and trigger warnings, and I think it's important to distinguish between the two. I think it's actually possible that proper use of trigger warnings would diminish cries for censorship, at least from some quarters.

    enrage_femme, I agree that you should write about difficult topics at will, but I don't see why including trigger warnings would get in the way of that. They're not meant to be scarlet letters. I know I'm a bit late to the conversation, but if you're still around, can you explain why you equate trigger warnings with the people who've been angry with you for what you wrote about?

    I think another thing that makes the debate more confusing than it needs to be is the gross overuse of the word "triggers". My understanding is that this is a limited phenomena, with a medical definition. People who are triggered by certain content experience SERIOUS emotional distress, perhaps to the point of breaking down and having to seek treatment or at least significant self-care. For people struggling with PTSD, triggers are a huge deal. I think of trigger warnings, in this context, as being like those warnings on certain videos about how the flashing lights may trigger epileptic seizures. The warnings aren't saying the video is bad or shouldn't have included flashing lights, they're just giving important information to people who have a particular vulnerability.

    Of course people have seized on the word and expanded it far beyond its original meaning. For example, I wouldn't think that a trigger warning would be necessary for someone who has an abortion and doesn't regret it, any more than I think gay fiction should include a trigger warning for gay relationships or an inspirational romance should include a warning for god-talk. Trigger warnings aren't about things some people don't like, they're about things that some people are DAMAGED by.

    Now, there's practical considerations. Given the nature of the brain, people aren't always triggered by things a novelist/publisher could predict. I've read commentary from someone who's triggered by discussions of cooking. I believe her that she legitimately is, and I can't imagine what it would be like to go through the world having to be on guard for cooking shows or mentions of cooking in books, knowing that exposure could lead to a serious emotional shock. But she wasn't asking for trigger warnings, and I don't think we could realistically provide them for her or for anyone else with less common triggers. But for people who are triggered by sexual violence? What does it hurt to give them a warning?

    For me, the use of trigger warnings has actually led to LESS self-censorship. I wrote a short story that included a fairly intimate, although not exactly detailed, rape. It was important to my character and the way he thought about it influenced his later development (he consciously, deliberately thought of it as 'bad sex' and the book was written in close third, so in order to make it clear to the reader that this was something much worse than bad sex I had to show at least some of it). I didn't really want to write it, but to explore the character properly I had to. I knew some people wouldn't want to read it, for various reasons, and deciding that I'd include a trigger warning for it actually made it easier for me to write freely, because I felt like I'd absolved myself from the guilt of doing harm to a reader.

    I want my readers to be emotionally touched by my writing. I want them to cry, sometimes. And I want them to think and be challenged. But I don't want them to be damaged. I like trigger warnings because they allow me to write what I want without worrying so much about inadvertent effects.