My Opinion On: Trigger Warnings & Literature

I have a feeling that if you’re reading this and you don’t write fanfiction, you probably don’t fully understand what trigger warnings are and how they work. So – let me explain the culture of the ‘Trigger Warning.’



In fanfiction, authors started used trigger warnings somewhat recently, right? I have been publishing fanfiction online, as well as reading it, for 11 long years now, and I don’t think I personally saw trigger warnings in use until about 5 years ago. I didn’t question it, of course, because I have depression – I have anxiety – I have been sexually harassed and assaulted throughout my life. Rape, self-harm, mental illness – these topics are hard for me to read. I never truly know what will send me into a mental breakdown spiral until I am reading it.

And as I write this, I’m finding articles discussing the culture of the “Trigger Warning” in writing around the 2014-2015 time frame. These things feel very new, right? It feels like “political correctness” to many people – even authors – and is being seen as a bad thing. As a writer myself, I don’t agree that it is really ‘political correctness,’ but I can see why authors would describe this as a ‘bad’ thing – since ‘bad’ and ‘inconvenient’ are often synonymous in our work lives. Also – it is kind of like giving out some spoilers, isn’t it?

I imagine just about anyone reading this blog is probably familiar with Harry Potter, so I highly doubt that there’s really in any spoiler in saying that Hermione Granger gets tortured in the last book by Bellatrix Lestrange. This is technically triggering content. If I’m writing a fanfiction about someone, say, Hermione Granger, being tortured by Bellatrix Lestrange, I have to tag that on the story for my readers. Not because it’s the right thing to do (even though it is, honestly) but also because it’s the guideline of the fanfiction service/database I’m utilizing. I could actually be reported for not disclosing torture as a potential trigger for readers – and lose my account as a result if it happens enough times.

As an author, though, how would you feel selling your book and putting on the first page with your book title this: “Warning to Readers: This book will describe in detail the torture and abuse of a main character for several pages in Chapter 23.” That gives an absurd amount of information to the reader before they even officially crack open the text. It could make people less interested in reading your book – which kind of sucks, right, knowing that people may be less inclined to read this thing you’ve put so much work into creating.

I think about the books I write and how they do have triggering content, even for me, and I don’t ever stop thinking about where I would put my trigger warning. This book mentions and describes aspects of rape. This book addresses self-harm. This book attacks religious views and counters the belief system of Christianity. This book discusses sexual intercourse amongst teenagers and the effect of those choices. Each of these trigger warnings could go ahead of something that I’ve written and shared online.

One of the reasons I’ve been prompted to write about this topic is because of the book I just finished reading: Turtles All The Way Down.

I had mental breakdown after mental breakdown while reading it.

Before I’m criticized for continuing to read the book even after it proved to be triggering, be reminded that John Green is an author that I admire – a person that I look up to – and someone I hope to someday emulate in some capacity. It would be a disservice to myself not to finish the novel, personally.

I won’t spoil the book – but something you learn within the first few pages is that the main character, Aza, is mentally ill. “Turtles All the Way Down” contains a first-person narrative from the perspective of a mentally ill teenager – and I don’t think I could read for more than 20-40 minutes at a time without crying. It wasn’t necessarily because of the content of the story, though, which was deep in a quiet and patient way. The content wasn’t painful so much as that reality of being a high functioning mentally ill person.

The amount in which I related to that character and her thinking and the impact it has on her life – even as an adult – it is me. That connection and understanding absolutely destroyed me and I often felt that I shouldn’t have tried to finish the book. I found myself angry that I didn’t know about this beforehand – I found myself damning John Green, my role model and author idol, someone that I completely admire. It felt like blasphemy to not want to finish this novel I waited so long to get and to read.

But I did finish it, and I did feel relief when I turned the final page, and I will not read it again because I know that I will never forget it. When I put the book back into my backpack and thought about it, really, I decided that – you know what – books should have trigger warnings too. Damn the spoilers.

Trigger Warnings have been around for much longer than people realize. This idea of triggers actually stems from a time when patients first started receiving PTSD diagnoses, at which time patients were encouraged to avoid scenarios that could reactivate the traumatic experience within that person’s mind. In the medical frield, we’ve been referring to ‘triggers’ from as far back as the early 1900s. (I am not sourcing this information intentionally because I knew this already, btw). So it’s not like this is a new concept to the world or to our culture. It’s just new to literature.

After all, we’ve been using the ESRB (game ratings), MPCRS (film ratings), and TCRS (television ratings) for years upon years. We have bars and liquor stores, clubs and tobacco shops, etc, etc, etc. Everywhere you look in modern society has some sort of restriction by age or warning labels so that people can make informed decisions. So why not extend it to literature? About the only real classification system in place is that of a genre – and the only genre people tend to avoid because of the racy content within the pages is Adult Romance and Erotica. We should do better than this because not every book has a summary that tells you what you’re getting yourself into where triggering content is concerned.

That’s why I’m writing this, though, because we need that change.

Some sort of warning about the potential for triggering content that will result in an unhealthy emotional response is, I feel, necessary to bring literature into the modern days of social awareness. As I’ve become more educations and aware of the world around me, I’ve begun to see the importance in the words I preached for years without realizing the true and dire purpose behind them. I’ve always believed that we can do, and do, and do, and do endlessly positive things to change the world that we live in to make it a better place but those are words. “Actions speak louder than words” is more than some bullshit thing we say to make others do what we should already be doing, and out language somehow overrides our mental capacity to make the right physical choices.

For example: Random Person A can go to women’s marches, Black Lives Matter movements, anti-gun rallies, and share every single body positivity post they see on social media – but if that person still uses the N-word and calls women in short skirts slutty – then that person isn’t really changing anything. We can preach it but if we don’t live it, then how are our words ever supposed to matter?

I think we should stop saying it and start doing it. Live the words you believe.

The reality of our world is that actions speak louder because of the words we use. Another example, if you will: Random Person B is going to a women’s march and also educates misogynistic co-workers that a person’s actions are so important because their words support it. Even deeper than that, the language that we use to educate someone who isn’t aware of understanding of the social issues going on in the world right now even further amplifies the actions that we take.

I know, I know, I hear you: But, Alixx, what doesany of this have to do with trigger warnings in traditional literature? The answer is: everything!

Mental Health Stigma still exists – as evidenced by harmful movies depicting mentally ill people as villains, such as in the film “Split.” People just aren’t taking mental illness seriously and often treat those with mental health issues as infantile and choosing to have the diagnosis assigned to them.

By including Trigger Warnings on all forms of literature, we are empowering the reader to decide if they can handle the content.

By including Trigger Warnings, we are acknowledging that mental illness is a burden that cannot be unloaded from one’s self.

By including Trigger Warnings, we are changing the language by bringing it forward and normalizing that some content is difficult to read and may cause emotional distress – even to those who are not mentally ill.

All I’m trying to say, really, is that we need Trigger Warnings on anything that we would read… Newspapers, novels, essays, magazines, poems, short stories, blog posts, anything! We owe it to ourselves, to our readers, and to future generations to start making a positive change in the way we write the world – and the way we present that to those who will inevitably replace us.


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