Literature in Real Life: The Case for Trigger Warnings in Books

Morning, folks. In celebration of Banned Books Week I want to close this week and take an opportunity to talk about how we can serve readers and students as a literary community without supporting censorship. I’m talking about Trigger Warnings (TWs). A much debated and contested topic of discussion over the last two years since a group of students at several universities began requesting warnings be included in the syllabus whenever appropriate.

Blessed Bookworm's Literature in Real Life: The Case for Trigger Warnings in Books

First before anyone gets hot and bothered I want to reiterate the most important part of this: I do not support censorship in any way. At all.

That being said, I am a rape and sexual abuse survivor and live with an anxiety disorder and severe PTSD as the result. So let me explain to you why I think that providing literary trigger warnings is a great service we should not only be supporting but openly embracing.

When you have experienced trauma in your life, it stays there forever. If you’re lucky then you are able to get help and learn how to process it so that the effects are not always so visceral – though many do not accept that help – but even once you’ve processed those things in a healthy way, a trigger can still send you into a spiral of memories, anxiety, and more. A full PTSD episode in many cases. Books unfortunately can become a part of this with no warning. However, providing readers and/or students who are assigned books in various courses with a way to adequately prepare for a possible trigger or decide that they are unable to handle it gives them power over something that could literally knock the wind out of them if encountered unexpectedly. It gives them power over their own life and recovery.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t think we should not read books or write them with these events or stories – writing about trauma and the grotestque parts of human existence is one of the biggest pillars upon which great literature rests. It’s how we learn about experiences and perspectives that are not our own, it opens conversations and widens world views. It’s absolutely a necessity to the field that should in no way be taken away.

Trigger Warnings are not about giving an excuse to keep a closed mind - they are about protecting those who have experienced and lived with trauma, not those who haven't and merely want to hide from ideas and experiences that make them uncomfortable. To speak more directly: it's not always about you. Using TWs is being considerate of the massive shift that takes place in a person's life when they life with PTSD. Don't belittle that or treat it as petty. Embrace your empathy.

Posting a TW does not infringe on that necessity nor does it take away from that discussion. In fact, it broadens the discussion. A TW on a book which includes a brutal rape scene out of nowhere for example, can shut down a survivor’s interest in contributing to discussion because they’re too busy dealing with their own reactions to it. Caught unawares they are possibly dealing with their own personal hell reliving their own assault and a myriad of other painful reactions to triggers. If you give them notice, they can read that book being mentally prepared for what’s coming. They can share perspective if they so choose as to why the scene is important to literature rather than be assaulted anew by something they didn’t expect. A TW provides them with the chance to take control of their recovery and to offer their own opinion on it – or exercise their right to skip out on something that could cause more harm than good.

I’ve read books when ready for what was coming – Toni Morrison’s writing and I became very close in college and she’s a favorite writer of mine - and I’ve also been in the midst of my mental safe place (reading) and brought into an anxiety attack over a rape scene – Lev Grossman’s The Magician King -  that I was not only unprepared for but was also unnecessary to the story in the detailed style it was written (something about which I will write another day). It ruined the entire book for me and I’m unsure if I’ll ever finish the trilogy now.

What I’m really getting at here is – why are TWs a debate? I’m not asking that these books be censored or removed from syllabi; on the contrary, I encourage their existence and presence in education. But why can’t we take on that part of literature while also paying a little kindness to our fellow man and woman by making sure they stay in their most healthy state? Reading is supposed to be a blessed escape. A place to widen your perspective. To leave behind your pain. To heal. Why can’t we make sure that it stays that way for everyone – especially those who need it most after experiencing things that no one should?

TWs can easily warn those sensitive to traumas relating to war, drinking, physical/psychological/sexual/emotional abuse, rape, racism, and more. We can do more to serve our fellow humans. To help make reading the loving and safe place it should be for everyone.

I would like to begin building a Trigger Warning list either on this website or Goodreads (maybe both) so if you can think of texts where a TW could be helpful, please let me know in the comments or send me a message. Have a good weekend, darlings.

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