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
This is a brilliant, honest and personal viewpoint on this very important subject. I honestly can’t believe this needs to be properly explained to the segment of society which seems to be more for censorship everyday. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, really.
On another note, isn’t it brilliant to see the kids loving books! Makes my heart soar to see them off the electronics for a while.
Thanks for the mention, I’m glad you liked my take.
The more warnings they put on a book, the more likely I would be to read it. You know me. I love challenging those hidden parts of my mind.
I also encourage my children to challenge their fears, and to talk about it. (I’m a horrible mom, I know. I am definitely not a coddler.)
“I know it (whatever) is scary to you. Just do it. Face it. You know it won’t kill you, and you will feel great after.”
I will play Devil’s Advocate. I say let the timid have their tags. They’re not ready for their journey yet. Enlightened people decide for themselves.
As you said on my piece – I agree, and I disagree!
Life isn’t wrapped in cotton wool and shouldn’t be and I would oppose any form of book censorship or mandatory trigger warnings or anything that would restrict access to literature. The world is, and always has been, a violent, nasty place and any attempt to sugar coat that is patronising and just plain wrong.
But I like the fact that I can write some really twisted fiction and put a warning on it to advise caution. And I don’t want to be criticised for that. I don’t want to upset people by tackling sensitive subjects that may affect them more than it affects me, so I see my “Caution Advisory” notices at the top of my dark fiction to mean that I can cross the line, because I have then provided my readers with the tools to decide if they want to read my work, or read it at that time.
For example, last year, there was a Wicked Wednesday and I wrote two stories – Heaven or Hell (http://bawdybloke.com/wicked-wednesday-heaven-or-hell/) – Heaven was a sweet tale of two lesbian lovers whereas Hell was a very nasty scat-based D/S scene. I left the reader to decide whether they wanted a nice story or a nasty story. You were one of the first people to leave feedback and you wrote, “Sorry the moment I knew this was going to be a scat story you lost me. I will read a lot of stuff but that just turns my guts. I am aware for some it is their thing but for me it is a massive turn off and hard limit….” I immediately edited my post to add a warning at the top of the story – “Warning: This material requires caution.You have been warned. It involves scat. ” I felt really bad that I had put up a story that was a hard limit and hadn’t warned my readers beforehand and I apologised on Twitter. I take much more care now, and some subjects I cannot write unless I know I will put a caution advisory on the post.
So I accept that I am in a minority of people and feel that this argument will be as never ending as the DFS Sale. I oppose censorship of all kinds, but as a writer, I sometimes need to put a warning on my tales, for me as much as anyone who might be affected by it.
I think you took my comment on your scat post incorrectly. When I said it was a hard limit for me I meant for me physically. It is not something that I find in anyway sexy and so don’t want to actually explore it. Also, when reading about it (and so far this has always been the case but I am prepared to be surprised in the future) I have never found it to turn me on, in fact, in the case of your story it turned me off. Do I want a trigger warning about it? Absolutely not, because if I don’t read it then how will I ever know, how will I grow and learn if I hide my head. I may find that I never read a scat story turns me on but that doesn’t mean I won’t continue to challenge myself and read them. My reference to a hard limit was in no way an accusation it was a reference to my own personal play limits. If you had had a trigger warning (scat story) before I read it, I would have read it anyway.
Having said that, if as an author it is something you want to do, then do it. My argument is with compulsory use of them and certainly use of them when it comes to reading classic literature.
A very well thought out and eloquent piece. I am of the strong belief that not only should books make you feel (mostly fiction) but that non fiction books should make you think and question. In fact I’ll dare to say that it goes beyond just the written word but all art.
Your daughter’s reaction to Darren Shan so perfectly illustrates why warnings can be so dangerous. A reading experience that will no doubt be treasured by her – despite the fear that she felt – for years to come, potentially lost because of a label.
There is nothing so wonderful as picking up a book and being carried away by it. Nothing so wonderful as having your world turned upside down by a piece of text.
We do not become bad people for reading about difficult, dark or challenging things. We simply widen our experience and, hopefully, obtain a greater understanding of the world around us.
I don’t agree with too much censorship because we should be responsible for our lives. I live in area where some people always like to ask the government to censor this or censor that saying that certain stuff are not good for their kids. It is as if they’re surrendering their parental responsibilities to the state while depriving others the right to view the whole stuff.
Oh, Molly, I am so torn. I thought about it a lot last night; and I slept on it, and there are just a couple of things…
I asked you if this applied to warnings on blog posts and online content and you said there was no difference. The reason I asked is this:
Do I think there should be trigger warnings on books? No. I don’t. I actually think most books are their own trigger warnings. It’s really rare to pick up a book and not be able to tell from the cover, the blurb, the title, even the author! the kind of story you’re going to get. Putting trigger warnings on books for children strikes me as even more pointless because the really triggering things? No one is writing children’s books about those things! And yes, I agree, this is another form of censorship; and we don’t need that.
However, when it comes to online content it is hard to tell what you’re going to get. And if I write about rape or incest or bestiality or abduction or abusive relationships or pedophilia, I put a warning on it. Because although I am never going to be able to protect everyone from their triggers, I can at least have the presence of mind to know that these are extreme things that can trigger people in extreme ways.
When trauma isn’t about feeling scared or having flashbacks to a bad dream, when it means something happened to you that kept you awake for six months and crying for a year, (as was the case for me, and I don’t even think my trauma was anywhere near as bad as some people’s) I don’t think anyone has the right to say you should have to relive that. When you’re dealing with really extreme and sensitive realities, when you’re really pressing things that you know to be traumatic, I still think it’s responsible to let your reader know. I don’t expect everyone to do it, but I do it. And I’ll stand by it.
I’m against trigger warnings on books. Especially books for children; you’re right that they should be challenged. But online, where you really don’t know what you’re going to get, I appreciate every trigger warning I read. And ultimately I’m the only person who gets to decide what I do and do not have to face.
I think there are many children’s book that deal with potentially disturbing issues such as abuse, domestic violence, abduction/kidnap etc.
As I said in my piece I am not belittling anyone’s experiences at all. I think they are totally valid and I also said if authors want to use them then that should be totally up to them. However a trigger warning is only as good as the person who writes it and it purely subjective to that persons point of view. My issue is with the idea of them being used on classic literature and coursework material and the potential that creates for them to become compulsory. For me, that is another potential move towards censorship. Also, I think they create taboo subjects rather than encouraging people to write about potentially challenging issues they label them as something to be scared of rather than something to be addressed, challenged and discussed.
Thanks for writing this, Molly. I wish my response to the prompt was as eloquent. but it is from the heart.
I agree with your opinion on this. As soon as I realized this was a Wicked Wednesday post I knew I had to write something about it. This whole idea is so disturbing. Pretty soon everything will need a warning label.
Thank you Molly, for a wonderful post, for the way you have explained your point of view, Not once have I had the feeling that you were belittling anyone, but only that you were using real life examples to illustrate your words. And I love that you have shared your daughter’s experience, because that made this piece even stronger. I am totally with you on this: NO compulsory trigger warnings, but if an author feels he/she has to put trigger warnings on something, why not. It’s their choice. I for one would most probably WANT to read the things with trigger warnings on them, except when it mentions incest, pedophilia or any human excrement.
Your last paragraph keeps on echoing in my mind: “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.”
Yes, that’s life. We FEEL! And I would not want it any other way!
I agree so much with what you said here. My thought about it is that if we put trigger warnings on books (and blogs and movies and art) we are not just keeping people from feeling and reacting to them, we are also denying them the ability to cope with such things should they happen to them in real life. If you never experience fear how do you react when a trauma happens to you or someone around you? How do you react when a real life monster comes after you? How do you support a friend who’s been beaten and raped? How will having an intruder in your home aiming a gun at you affect you? What about when a police officer shoots that intruder right in front of you?
If you’ve never lost someone close to you, or if their deaths have been hidden from you, not talked about, how do you cope when you lose a parent later in life? It will inevitably happen to you at some point. Maybe you will lose a partner or even worse, a child. Even having gone through losses in the past you will still have a very traumatic and difficult time, but I think it is much better if you have had experience with loss and have some ability to deal with it and grieve.
I believe we are going backwards in many respects and that isn’t good. I’ve been thinking lately about all the things I will need to teach my son. Things that used to be taught in schools that no longer are. I have always made a concerted effort to make him a strong human being who doesn’t shy away from trying things or meeting new people. He has his own sense of “not nice people,” which I am very thankful for. I don’t want him to experience pain, or grief or loss or fear, but I won’t keep him from activities that he will get hurt at, I won’t cover his eyes when he walks around the corner to see a dead animal on the side of the road. I explain things to him. I tell him that sometimes bad things happen. I tell him that he is right to be afraid of some things but that fear shouldn’t keep him from others.
This is a fine piece Molly, and food for thought. Like Harper, I need time to mull over the implications x
We’re on the same page regarding this. I really liked the way you talked about scary examples for you and your daughter. It brings a glimpse that we all move through adverse feelings. Excellent reference to the WWII saying. x
We agree and disagree as you stated on my post.
I do feel that warnings on classic literature are inappropriate, there is plenty of information out there about the content of such writings.
I hope that mandatory content warnings do not come into force, however, I do feel that if an author feels the need to place a warning on their writing then that should be their choice.
Should warnings become mandatory then I would hope that common sense will prevail.
I totally agree, Trigger warnings are silly. I don’t use them. Life is one big trigger warning geez.
I found myself nodding at so many points, and you said this quite eloquently. My favorite was the part about Holocaust survivors not demanding others’ silence.
Censorship is not really protecting. It simply creates authoritarian knowledge for the censor.
I’m glad you decided to share this piece Molly; it’s well thought out & respectful of other views & makes excellent points. I don’t think there should be required warnings either because as you said, it’s walking a fine line towards full on censorship. Who gets to decide what is triggering or inappropriate for readers? I am all for authors choosing to include warnings as they see fit, but making them a requirement doesn’t sit well with me.
Thank you for sharing this post on my blog. A fantastic read and i agree with you 100%.
I remember those books that got you at the back of your throat/by the seat of your pants/right in the tear ducts… And i certainly remember the emotions they brought on. I think you’re right, with TWs on them, they may have been denied to me by others or i may have felt i couldn’t have coped with them.