Trigger warning: abuse
With its variance, trauma defies useful metaphor, but I think of it in terms of wood. Wood carries warmth. It was alive. It was one of the first things we understood how to use for ourselves, a strong substance that cracks and scars in a way fundamentally different from the rust and dents metal acquires.
Outside my childhood bedroom grew a Chanticleer pear, a tree with no function besides ornament. It fruited hard green berries that I secretly hoped would elongate and round. As a simulation of something actually useful, much like the tree itself, I picked the fruit as a child. It was my favorite tree, a constant shadowy presence on my bedroom wall.
In my junior year of high school, I heard a crack during a snowstorm and saw one of the pear tree’s thick arcing branches tumble into our yard. In the next three years it would drop more branches, with high winds, with ice. If the tree had ever decided to tip backwards, it would shatter the window above my bed. We were told it was rotting away, and the branches that looked so healthy, that I had grasped and pulled myself onto, were destined to keep falling.
When my mother decided to have it cut down, I hauled away the smaller branches for weeks, tying them into bundles under the hot sun. She never removed the remaining third of the stump, and it sits well under the window now, trying desperately to regrow the branches it lost, branches destined to weaken and fall.
I can no longer remember why, when I was 12, my mother threw piles of my clothes from that same window while I stood watching her and shivering. If I was to learn a lesson, it wasn’t effective, but it’s one of the first times I realized that I was being abused in some way. Some of the clothes caught the branches of the tree as they fell. Dutifully I gathered the piles of clothes, hoping to make a warm nest for myself in which to spend the night, although she eventually unlocked the door and let me back in.
My point is, I am not without trauma, although mine often feel like long cons rather than specific incidents. I often suspect I am rotting from the inside out and have not found a way yet to stop the inevitable dropping of branches. But I count myself lucky to be gifted with an unshakeable sense of security—I knew as I gathered those clothes off the sidewalk that I did not deserve what had happened. Yes, I am lucky, but my other point is that all trauma is not debilitating, and that is where my imagination runs out. My trauma is not, although it might have been for someone else. I realize that I am somewhat unique, and I have nothing but respect and sympathy for those who have different reactions.
To imagine what a trigger is I have to revert to useless, personal metaphor. My current apartment has a wood floor the color of honey, battered and scraped through generations of poor maintenance and questionable furniture. By the bed one nail sticks up enough that I’ve caught my foot several times. A trigger for me is merely a painful spot—for others it releases a cavalcade.
I’ve never looked at trigger warnings from a writer’s perspective—a writer’s responsibility is to tell their own truth no matter who’s listening. And I do think the dilemma trigger warnings pose—helpful or restrictive—is a problem unique to presentation, otherwise an audience can self-select. The debate inspired is vicious, and often spans beyond merely, “should Ovid’s poem require a trigger warning?” into an indictment of an entire generation of college students who are too weak and too distracted by thoughts of trauma to actually learn. Even the sympathetic ones worry that students will become narrowed by their avoidance or that “trigger warning” is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
This week I hosted an open mic about gender, sexuality and feminism, which I had never done this before. When my co-host and I selected artists rather than leaving the evening up to chance, we never considered offering a trigger warning. This seems weird in retrospect—while we knew what would happen, the audience didn’t, and we certainly don’t know what triggers an audience member might have.
But with the unexpected nature of the open mic, I feel the need to give a trigger warning, general and all-purpose. I just want everyone to know they have the option of acknowledging that they feel unsafe. I want to say I don’t want anyone to get hurt, but sometimes we get hurt, sometimes we get triggered. Yet it’s the response that defines the situation, not the situation itself.
More so than we need to debate their right to acknowledgement, I think we need to wonder why an entire generation of college students may feel traumatized. I also think we need to trust an individual’s ability to recognize how they feel in the moment or after and to self-select for the right reasons. Nor should material or opinions should be policed or checked to make a political point, because that is a separate agenda entirely from acknowledging trauma. Trauma is not a weapon, nor should the response to its confession be outrage.
Because I have limits to my own imagination, I still think we need trigger warnings. I want them to be there for the people who need them, whose heartwood has splintered and might never scar over, and to acknowledge that I could be, and might yet be, one of them.
Liz Baudler writes for Newcity and the Windy City Times, and co-hosts Sappho's Salon at Women and Children First Bookstore. She spends far too much time reading things on the internet and not enough time doing dishes. Find more of her work at www.lizbaudler.virb.com.