liz baudler

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Living Material

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. 

The Infernal Logic of Being Charlie Hebdo

On January 7th, I stayed home sick from work, napping in fitful sore-throated bursts. When I opened Facebook, I saw an NPR headline that said something like: SHOTS FIRED AT FRENCH NEWSPAPER OFFICE. I remember this because I am not usually home sick and I have sad fascinations with both tragedy and journalism. I had never heard of the newspaper. Throughout the day, the profile pics of my writer friends merged into a mysterious phrase “JE SUIS CHARLIE”. I understood that the staff of Charlie Hebdo had died for their words and ideas because someone else was not OK with them, and that was not OK with me. I clicked a button and a JE SUIS CHARLIE post appeared on my wall.

Within 24 hours, that message was negated. I AM NOT CHARLIE, the feeds of my writer friends proclaimed, the same friends who live-tweeted the live-tweets of Ferguson and Baltimore. And now I was intrigued enough to read the piece in Paper Bird. OK, there was more than intrigue on my part. I was worried that I might have committed some terrible social justice faux pas, because the majority of my friends are liberal, and sometimes my worldview is myopic and sometimes I don’t get that my experiences are not the only valid ones. I am not someone who gets incensed often by issues of social justice. I wish things could be different and occasionally I say so, but that is often the extent of my participation.

Scott Long nicely placed Charlie Hebdo in a cultural context of generation of anti-Islamist thought and general French xenophobia.  When I finished reading, I felt partially educated, yet unmoved to agree. In fact, I felt two things: that the article’s interpretation of JE SUIS CHARLIE was deliberately literal and that there were still twelve people lying dead in their office. And that this turnaround time on ignoring the second fact was far too soon (and that the phrase “then the terrorists win” is obnoxious in any context).

To me, the arbiters of socially conscious were capitalizing on the Charlie Hebdo deaths to point out the obvious: these men drew Islamophobic, racist cartoons. I understood the cartoons were likely insulting and offensive. I judged no news outlet for declining reprints, knowing they feared not only a backlash against the work’s insensitivity, but potentially violence against themselves.

But if you wanted to make your point,I thought, you should have said all this when they were alive. Louder. To me, the whole social justice universe had proved itself morally bankrupt and devoid of empathy. And now satire itself, the form that Charlie Hebdo’s art took—a form of writing dear to my absurd contrarian little heart—was being deemed by its very nature problematic.

I hate the word problematic. I know why it exists; not everything is wholly bad or good. Well-intentioned yet ill-informed statements litter the world.  Unknowingly saying something problematic is akin to wearing your favorite jacket and feeling sexy while forgetting there’s a giant rip in the arm. But saying something is problematic—the word feels slithering, unctuous. People who see the rip seem to be gloating about it rather than pointing it out calmly or offering you their jacket instead.

I think some satire is bad. I think the Onion using a misogynistic slur to joke about an eight-year-old Black actress is so off it doesn’t deserve the term satire, and I think South Park is more offensive than funny. And I think that maybe my standards for satire might be a little wonky and high-minded and maybe Charlie Hebdo isn’t included in them either, but I think satire can be employed  thoughtfully and effectively.

So I sat feeling deeply infuriated but conflicted. I knew why I was angry but I felt wrong for being angry and now, four months later, one of the world’s preeminent writing organizations has created a firestorm because they focused on the tragedy and not the controversy. PEN made a decision to honor the Charlie Hebdo victims at their annual gala.

And here’s where things get even murkier for me: despite being angry with the world’s response to Charlie Hebdo’s content rather than the slaughter of its staff, I’m not angry at Francine Prose, Teju Cole, Peter Carey, and the other writers for declining to participate in an event honoring them. But I’m very, very confused as to why other people are angry. Presumably, the six writers who didn’t want to honor the publication felt that way from the instant the deaths were confirmed. They did not want to celebrate those whose work they felt “valoriz[ed] selectively offensive material”. But suddenly, that objection is no longer valid currency. Suddenly the Hebdo men are heroes once again, like we forgot that we were angry, that we had our moment of waving our hands wildly over what they did wrong, that we remembered finally that no matter what they did wrong they did not deserve to die instead of paying that lip service in the first paragraphs of blog posts.

To be fair, no one may be sure of how many voices spoke on either side at any point. And knowledge gives us power to change our minds. But I want to know why my anger over Charlie Hebdo feels so inappropriate and simmers in contradictory splotches, and all I can really think about is how the situation was made for some sort of satire, that someone needed to point out its incongruence or else we would never learn from it. And how satire is not a tool for one group of people to attack another, but a tool to illustrate hypocrisy and interrogate beliefs, whether for an individual or a group. And that need will never, ever go away. 

 

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.