Before I start I want to make it absolutely clear that I am not belittling anyone’s experiences and possible traumas they have encountered in life. We are all a sum of the things that have happened to us, both good and bad, they should never be denied, ignored or made little of because they are what makes us, us.
A week or so ago I had a nightmare. In my nightmare (and like most dreams/nightmares my memory of it is patchy and disjointed) there was an open door that I couldn’t close that I kept seeing over and over but then I was in bed, and there was a man, a dark shadowy figure, who was touching my hair and I was scared. Very scared. Beside me @domsigns slept and I couldn’t wake him. I kept calling and crying out his name but I seemed to be unable to make a noise.
Eventually I woke and I was still scared. @domsigns held me and talked to me and finally I went to sleep peacefully. It was only in the morning when he told me that I had woken him repeatedly in the night thrashing around and calling his name and that it had been almost dawn before I finally settled. I spent that day tired, we both did in fact and when I thought about my dream my overwhelming feeling was fear. I have no idea why I had this dream, what triggered it and why it went away but what if I had the chance to tick a box that said, no scary dreams? I wouldn’t tick it, because that would be denying me an experience that tells me I am alive and that I feel. I feel so many things and fear is one of them.
A few months ago my daughter was reading a book by Darren Shan. She went to bed to read but then I could hear her calling me. She sounded distressed. I went up to see her and she was shaking and tearful.
“The book is scaring me Mummy” she said
“Ok, so stop reading it then” I suggested
“No, I don’t want to but I want you to stay with me while I read this bit”
I did and then it was lights out time. The rest of the book she read in our presence and afterwards declared it one of the best books she had ever read. I challenged her on that saying
“But it made you scared, really scared?”
And she replied…
“I know, but I liked it”
She has since gone on to read a number of his books; she likes them because they make her feel something. Because she believes in the story whilst knowing that it is still just a story, because they hold her attention, stimulate her imagination and yes, sometimes scare her.
I wonder if they had been covered in trigger warnings would I have let her read it? I hope I would have, but I am sure many parents wouldn’t. She had the option to stop reading, to cast the book aside but she chose not to because the book gave her something. It made her feel something. Just like the insane rollercoaster rides that she adores this book made her heart race. Just like jumping out airplanes with only a parachute and scary movies that make us hide behind a cushion do the same thing. We are meant to feel, it is what makes us humans and what tells us we are alive. Books should do this also.
The world is a challenging place, life is challenging. There is pain, fear, horror, anger, grief, sadness just as there is love, joy, fun, pleasure, happiness and laughter to name but a few of the things we experience and feel. Sometimes the things we experience leave us scarred and traumatised and sometimes things that have happened in the course of human history are truly appalling. Violent, dangerous, suppressing and evil but they happened and pretending that they didn’t will only, as history shows us, make the chances of them happening again even greater. Teaching our young people that you can opt out of difficult experiences is teaching them a lie. You can’t. You have to learn to face them. Life is not a pretty a picture, life is hard and tough and challenging. It is wonderful and rich and diverse and most of all it is to be lived and experienced.
So why I am writing this? In a recent article in the Guardian* about the proposal that trigger warnings should be included on course material and literature in some US colleges the author claimed that it was a step away from book banning. I don’t know if that is the case, but I do believe that it is part of a general move by society to be overprotective and censoring. We seem to be slowly drifting towards a world of entitlement, where young people believe that being challenged is not something they should have to experience, that the true evil and violent horrors of human nature are something that they shouldn’t have to face.
Again, I am not belittling anyone’s life experiences and how facing these truths might affect them. I assume that it will but that is because it should, because it is meant to and it is how we learn, and inform ourselves. For those who have experienced traumas that they may find challenge their ability to cope should be able to find help and support but one of those options should not be avoiding all experiences that might make them feel something. Life is going to make you feel something whether you fucking well like it or not. Protecting people from feeling is tantamount to and in my opinion censorship of our emotional selves.
If authors wish to include trigger warnings then good for them but making it a requirement is fraught with danger. I know people like to dismiss the slippery slope aspect of censorship and taboo associations but sadly history shines an all too bright light on it that tells us that it rarely ever stops but only increases its power as those with religious, political and control/power agendas use them to their advantage. Compulsory trigger warnings would be like gifting those people will a new toy. Surely it is not beyond anyone’s imagination to see a world where “all books with trigger warnings can only be sold to over 18’s”, or where they are all kept in a separate part of the library or bookshop and you have to register your name in order to read them. Or maybe all books with trigger warnings are wrapped up in plastic, so that no one can pick one up, leaf through it and accidentally feel something negative.
One of the teachings often associated with World War II is the words ‘Never forget’ Although the term originated with the World War I poem Ode of Remembrance it has over time become strongly associated with The holocaust and the belief that remembering the horrors of this is important. It is why so many holocaust survivors have dedicated their lives to talking about, writing about and educating people about their experiences because they believe that the human race needs to face the horrors of what happened and that if they do then maybe we will strive towards never letting something like this happen again.
I am sure there are/were many survivors of The Holocaust who were so traumatised by what happened to them that they chose to never speak of it again but I am fairly sure that none of them ever called for others who did want to talk about to be silenced.
Of course there is another aspect to this and that is shame. There is no shame (or at least in general very little) to standing up and saying “I am a Holocaust survivor”. Sadly the issue is that the same can’t be said for rape, bullying, domestic violence, child abuse, and the list goes on. For many people admitting to having experienced something like this is often accompanied by a message from society at large, of shame. Their experiences are something to be talked about in hushed tones, to be whispered about as if they are part of the problem, to feel sorry for them and hope upon hope that they never mention it to you because then you might have to acknowledge it.
Have you ever looked at the amount of fiction books there are surrounding the various events of World War I & II? I am guessing here but I am fairly sure it numbers in the thousands, maybe even tens of thousands. Maybe if we wrote about the horrors of rape, marital violence, female oppression, homophobia etc in those numbers then maybe it might help to challenge people’s ideas about these things. Those war books make us, as a collective consciousness, feel something, revolution, sadness, grief and fear, they have informed much of our lives today and our beliefs that xenophobia is abhorrent. Imagine if the same could be said for other things? Trigger warnings, and teaching our young people that avoiding challenging material is an option is never ever going to do that. It allows them to mistakenly believe that when things are tough you can just tick the “opt out” box and someone else will deal with things on your behalf. It is perpetuating their belief that they can live in a safe and soft secure environment ignoring the tough bits if they feel like they can’t handle it. It is teaching them that they can pick and choose and that feeling things, especially challenging things, is something they can avoid and even worse that challenging things, that feelings, emotions and experiences that are not positive are totally undesirable. How does the young child learn that the radiator is hot? Yes we tell them, over and over again and we go to great lengths to tell them but really, they only truly learn when they put their hand on it and feel it for themselves. Emotions are the same, we have to experience them to learn them and know them. We have to face them, the big ugly truth of them.
Books (fiction) are meant to make you fucking well FEEL something and from that we learn and inform ourselves about the world around us and where we fit into it. Books are not to be sanitised to make them safe or pretty, life, as I said before, is not safe or pretty. It is an ugly, jumbled, violent, confusing, challenging, and truly amazing place and the fiction that we write about it should reflect that.
“Life is a process of becoming, a combination of states we have to go through. Where people fail is that they wish to elect a state and remain in it. This is a kind of death.” ~ Anaïs Nin
Anaïs Nin was a wise women and said many interesting things about writing but this one just seems to fit here. Life is a process of becoming and we only become by living, feeling, experiencing and learning. We never become, by opting out.
I thought long and hard about posting this piece but then I went and read Cara Sutra’s piece on the same topic, which is truly excellent by the way, and realised that I was not alone in my belief that trigger warnings are a nonsense. She ends her piece with this
“If you are old enough to study great works of literature, you are old enough to deal with the subject matter. If you have an emotional response to the subjects discussed, good. They’re part of life, if not for you then for others. It’s called empathy, people. Deal with it.”
I couldn’t agree more. You are meant to feel something, it is what life is about. We are meant to feel and books are meant to make us feel, good and bad, happy and sad, safe and scared. You might not always like it, or enjoy it, but that’s life.
*I think the original article in the NY Times was a much better piece than that published by the The Guardian