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 published fanfiction online and 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’ve come across 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 to be seen as a bad thing. As a writer myself, I’m not sure I agree with the political correctness bit, but I can see why authors would describe this as a bad thing. Right – because – spoilers?
I imagine just about everyone 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. Not because it’s the right thing to do (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.
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 the even official crack open the text. That is not a good feeling.
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 contains mention and descriptions of rape. This book addresses self-harm. This book attacks religious views and counters the belief system of Christianity. This book discusses teenage sexual intercourse and the effect of different choices.
And then I think about the book I’ve just read: Turtles All The Way Down.
That book is why why I’m writing this, actually, because I had mental breakdown after mental breakdown while reading it.
Now I won’t spoil the book – but something you learn within the first few pages is that the main character, Aza, is mentally ill. This is a first person narration 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 breaking down in tears. 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 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. 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 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. These triggers actually stem from receiving a PTSD diagnosis, in which patients are encouraged to avoid scenarios that could reactivate the traumatic experience within that person’s mind. Those things were referred to as triggers 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 new to the world or to our culture. It’s just new to literature – and not even the kind of literature you pay for, which is kind of lame.
Which is also kind of why I’m writing this.
Some sort of warning about the potential triggering of an unhealthy emotional response to the content within a piece of text is what I feel is necessary to propel literature into a truly socially aware dimension. I’ve always contested that we can do, and do, and do, and do positive things to change the world we live in – to make it a better place – but underneath it all – beyond that “actions speak louder than words” bullshit – our language overrides our physical choices. Random Person A can go to women’s marches, black lives matter movement, anti-gun rallies, and share every 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.
The reality of our world is that actions speak louder because of the words we use. If Random Person B is going to a women’s march and also educates misogynistic co-workers, that 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.
So – what does “actions speak louder because of the words we use” 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, for example: Split. People aren’t taking mental health seriously and often treat those with mental illness as infantile and choosing of their fate. 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 the 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.