Content Note: This piece contains a discussion of suicide.
Editors’ Note: Considering the author’s purpose, we thought about not doing a content note for this piece. However, we ultimately decided that the best approach was to offer this consideration to our readers. While recommendations are in flux, there is evidence suggesting that “trigger warnings” are particularly important for people dealing with or recovering from suicidal thoughts, as depictions can reinforce these thoughts.
For better or worse, the phrase “trigger warning” has become a politicized one. Trigger warnings are mocked by the right, defended by the left. For both ends of the political spectrum, trigger warnings are bound up in differing views of history and identity. But having such a politicized understanding of what it means to be triggered can be limiting. Rather than simply deriding or enforcing trigger warnings, we should also be considering the power of a story or a work of art. To learn more about the world and about ourselves, we need to stay open — stay vulnerable even. Sometimes truth catches us by surprise. In certain cases, we may be better off with the lessons we weren’t quite looking to learn.
Triggers in Different Contexts
If you’ve spent any time in a creative writing workshop, you’re likely to have come across the often-assigned tome “The Triggering Town” by Richard Hugo. In it, Hugo makes a vigorous case for the essential place held by triggers in the writer’s life. Hugo’s goal was to move creatives away from clinging on to the particulars of their own lived experiences and to get more deeply in touch with the emotions that those lived experiences churn up. According to Hugo, we are defined by our triggers, by those deep-seated emotions of intense life experiences. The artist should get to know those triggers, hold them close, and revisit them often in order to make powerful art.
This was my first encounter with the idea of triggers: as a writer. On the nature of the triggers themselves, Hugo is fairly neutral. He just wants writers to know our triggers well and see our indebtedness to them. Since we are going to be lugging our triggers around with us for a lifetime, we might as well make the most of them, make them into art.
The next time I had occasion to think about triggers was as an educator. I was teaching Gothic Lit to first-year college students. After reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula, we were going to watch Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), both to discuss themes in the book and to talk about issues of adaptation. I hadn’t anticipated any blowback to multiple class periods spent watching a movie and was caught off guard when a student told me she felt triggered by my requirement that she watch this film. She objected on the grounds of sexual content and nudity in the movie.
I had a hard time finding sympathy. Yes, there are some bare-chested conjoined female vampires who writhe around in what could maybe be considered simulated fellatio; however, there’s isn’t any actual onscreen sex. The nudity is not of humans but of fantastical creatures (because that’s all Bram Stoker was comfortable with!). Surely, I thought, if straight-laced Victorians could stomach sexuality in Dracula, then so could this undergrad. But my commitment to making her analyze the film with her peers dissolved in the face of her threat to go to the department chair. I was only a TA. It wasn’t worth the hassle. I gave her an alternate assignment and moved on.
Political Battle Cries
Because my first reflections on triggers were as a writer, rather than an educator or consumer, I was a little late to the party when it came to seeing their highly politicized nature. It didn’t take long to catch up, though. Conservative pundits and politicians have made it clear that they are opposed to trigger warnings and offering them to students or consumers is just coddling and censorship. Donald Trump, Jr., has even written a book ostensibly exploring the subject of triggers. According to The Right, trigger warnings dumb down intellectual discussion and muzzle real opinion. Political correctness, trigger warnings, cancel culture: these are all buzzwords in the right-wing arsenal of truly loathsome public trends. The expression “trigger the libs” even exists as a far-Right battle cry to destroy their opponents by pelting them with shocking and offensive views on sensitive subjects.
Given my own left-of-center political affiliation, I decided I was pro trigger warnings though I never actually prefaced class assignments or lectures with a CW or TW. I wondered once if I should, when a student hung back after class to tell me that the story we had just read had been intense. “It could have used a trigger warning,” she said. The story involved an unplanned pregnancy and the student proceeded to tell me she was grappling with the same issue: that her family would be scandalized and angry, that she had no one she could turn to. After the conversation, I wondered: if she knew the assigned story was about this subject would she still have read it? If I had prefaced it with a trigger warning, would she be more or less likely to confide in me? I wasn’t sure.
Still, given their highly politicized nature, I remained pro trigger warning. This seemed undoubtedly to be the right stance after the murder of George Floyd. So many incidents of police brutality have been captured via amateur video. These citizens who bear witness are providing a vital public service — but at what mental health cost? Some news outlets have weighed the pros and cons of continuing to share these videos, even with trigger warnings. Some BIPOC writers have suggested the right thing to do, to avoid making individuals re-live race based trauma, is to stop showing these videos. Given the extreme content of those videos and the possible psychological damage that could be inflicted especially on younger viewers, this doesn’t seem like an unreasonable view.
Triggered by Surprise
All my thinking on triggering up to this point had been centered around me being the creator (as writer) or curator (as educator) of potentially triggering content. I never imagined myself on the receiving end. I had no reason to think I would be triggered when tuning in to the season 3 finale of The Crown. I knew the storyline well enough to see Princess Margaret’s suicide attempt coming. The season features Margaret’s gradual unraveling. I watched the episode as an average viewer up until the penultimate scene. When Margaret comes to from being treated for her overdose, Queen Elizabeth confronts her with a mixture of love, anger, concern and sadness, delivered in her customary understated way. Out of nowhere, the story is not about the messiness of the royals but about an older sister grappling with the multi-faceted pain of her younger sister’s suicide attempt. I watched till the end like a person set aflame, then hauled myself upstairs to curl up in a fetal position and weep in my bed.
When I was 21, my younger sister attempted suicide. My family apparently made the same exact call as the royal family and labelled the incident a result of exhaustion (at best) and a cry for help or attention (at worst). Maybe the intention to end her life was real; maybe it wasn’t. However, it was real enough for me, having already spent a lifetime worried about my younger sister succumbing to Cystic Fibrosis (CF), the genetic disease she was born with. My younger sister’s physical health was rocky during my college career. My undergraduate years ended with this suicide attempt and had begun with my father being diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. Compounding all of this, during my junior year of college, one of my best friends in high school was diagnosed with leukemia and she died shortly after I graduated.
I never talked with my sister about her suicide attempt. Time and especially the demands of CF marched on too swiftly. That episode of The Crown put words to all the emotions I’d never spoken aloud. Queen Elizabeth addresses her sister’s pain but she also addresses her own. Grabbing hold of her sister’s hand, she says, “Of all the people everywhere you are the closest and most important to me. And if by doing this you wanted to let me imagine for one minute what life would be like without you, you succeeded. It would be unbearable.” Watching the two sisters face this incident in the context of their relationship made me realize how deep my pain was, and how much I’d buried it over the years.
But that wasn’t the end of TV triggers about this incident. When I watched Mare of Easttown, I expected to find glimpses of relatable life since the show is set not far from where I live. I was ready to encounter that DelVal accent I know so well. I did not expect the final episode of the first season to dredge up a variation of the same buried angst I’d confronted via The Crown. “What’s happening to you?” my husband asked gently as I fell apart, watching the show’s last episode. Once again, courtesy of television, I was hurting all over.
My intense feelings had nothing to do with the main police procedural drama of the show but rather a secondary plotline in which Mare’s daughter’s, Siobhan, spends years of her life emotionally stuck on her brother’s suicide. She struggles setting boundaries. A high school senior, she cannot envision a future for herself outside of the electric fence of her family’s grief. A tightly-packed powder keg of sadness, shame and anger, she eventually detonates in the final episode, yelling at her mother, shoving her, demanding that she deal with the suicide. Mare finally does. Siobhan, released from her family’s emotional paralysis, is able to go away to school.
Old Triggers, New Outlets
In both of these instances, TV characters provided the script for an exchange I’ve never had in my own family. The dialogue put words to feelings I’ve never been comfortable owning, boundaries I’ve never been able to set. Because of my younger sister’s disease, my family has been through years of trauma. Our general family motto amounts to something like: “If you made it through, keep moving.” While this is a helpful attitude to have when coping with years of successive crises, it is not an attitude that leads to reflection on past events or any processing of them. This need to keep moving, coupled with a not uncommon mistrust of therapy among the working class, has prompted me to look beyond my family for outlets of catharsis and insight. I can easily identify my own writing process as one of those outlets. Apparently another one is TV!
And maybe there’s nothing wrong with that. Numerous critics have weighed in on the phenomenon of the Ted Lasso and why watching it feels therapeutic for so many. We need stories that make us feel deeply, that connect us to what it means to be human. Would I have watched these shows if they came with a trigger warning alerting me to traumatic content? I’m not sure. But I do firmly believe that being caught with my guard down was essential to the revelations I had as a viewer.
I don’t believe we should dispense with trigger warnings altogether. We need them to keep people safe, especially to not impede those in the process of healing or to inflict further harm on historically disadvantaged groups. But there are things we can learn only when we let ourselves be vulnerable.Become a Patron!
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