I’ve been thinking a lot about trigger warnings recently. It’s a complex issue. What are they? Why do we have them? Do they work? Do we even need them? Generally, film and TV programmes now include a warning at the start of a showing, listing the things addressed in the material that the viewer might find difficult, such as sexual assault, suicide, self-harm or drug abuse. Anyone likely to be upset at these issues can switch off. The idea of the trigger warning divides people, and there is evidence both for and against them. Some see them as compassionate, as protecting those dealing with trauma, while others see them as a pandering infringement on free speech. Some experts say that anticipating a certain topic makes people better able to regulate their response it, while others say that this anticipation can exaggerate the reaction, even if the person avoids the very film they’re being warned about.
But my concern is more about literature and whether trigger warnings should be included in books? I raised the issue recently in an online book group and things got quite heated, but the general consensus leaned towards readers not wanting them, mainly because of the ‘spoiler alert’ ruining the story, but also because they felt they could just stop reading if they needed to. Many of those who commented said that for anyone who really did need a warning, then the book reviews on Goodreads and Amazon often include a list of the difficult subject matter within a novel, as does the blurb.
I started thinking about trigger warnings in books when a reader emailed me last year because the issue in one of my novels had upset them.
They wrote: I was looking forward to reading I Am Dust until I started and ended up reading a lot of triggering material (specifically self-harm). I’m just writing as I feel like this should be brought to your attention that in this day and age to not have a trigger warning on a book with such graphic detail about such an awful thing is upsetting and especially angering. I hope you read this email and understand my concern for any potential trigger without a warning this book may have for other people. Myself included.
I want to say here – before I go any further – that I’m a survivor. I suffer with childhood PTSD. Suicide, depression, mental illness, self-harm, and alcoholism are rife in my family so I’m not writing this piece from a privileged, judgemental, uncompassionate place. I know the pain of these things; I know the long-lasting effects of abuse.
And yet, I don’t believe in trigger warnings for literature.
Going back to the email that got me thinking: my immediate thought was sympathy for this person. They were clearly in a dark place and my book – words I had written – had added to their pain. That bothered me. But then a friend who I showed the email said this reader had put the responsibility of their distress on me; that their upset was because of their own issues, not because they had read my book. Obviously, I sent a kind reply to this reader. I said that I hoped they had recovered, and that I don’t have a say in such a thing as trigger warnings, but that if I did, I felt having one might ruin the book for others who don’t want this alert.
And still, I wouldn’t want a trigger warning in my books.
In my opinion – and it’s only that, I understand that others may feel differently – I can stop reading if I don’t like the content. It’s that simple. If I arrive at a line or just get a hint of the thing coming that I’m triggered by, I can put the book down. Never pick it up again. Go away and do something I enjoy. Give the book to someone else. (No, I won’t warn them, because I don’t know if they want that warning, though I would likely only give the book to someone I knew well enough to know they’d be OK with it.)
A year and a half ago I went to the cinema to see a horror film with my then nineteen-year-old daughter Katy because we love a good scare. About a quarter way into it, a man jumped off a cliff and crashed to the ground, resulting in horrific leg injuries, and yet him still being alive. Five months prior to this my mum jumped off the Humber Bridge and luckily survived. She had experienced the very same injuries. Naturally, Katy and I were traumatised, so we left the cinema at that point.
Still, I don’t think a trigger warning was required. How could they include one for a fall anyway? How could the filmmakers, months earlier, have known that somewhere in East Yorkshire two women might have found the scene difficult because it mirrored one they had experienced? Because this is another problem. How can anyone know how much to include in a trigger warning? How can we know exactly what triggers any single individual at any time? It’s impossible. Granted there are general themes we know to be triggering, but how far do we go with it?
For the record, I would never have dreamt of complaining about that fall scene in the film to anyone. It’s no one’s fault that the scene upset me. It’s life. I experienced something unusual and a piece of art mirrored that and reminded me of my hurt, but I’m OK.
There’s also the huge problem that a trigger warning on a book could ruin it for those who don’t want one, and there are many of us. Most writers and readers I talk to say they would rather not have one, that it’s very easy to find out what the general themes of the novel are if really needed, and that it all spoils the anticipation of the read. Should we therefore include them for a possible minority, especially when as I mentioned earlier they are not even proven to work. Some researchers have found that trigger warnings actually increase a person’s self-reported anxiety because the words involved can cause emotional damage. I suppose two editions of a book could be released, one with a trigger warning included and one without, but I fear that the books that include one would sell fewer copies, though I could be wrong, and this would be a difficult thing to manage anyway.
All of this said, if someone specifically asked me – person to person, privately – if my book contained a certain issue, I would tell them. That’s different. It isn’t affecting anyone else’s experience. Because this is the key for me. In attempting to protect some people, we’re not considering everyone. Are we considering real choice? After all, we can go and research what tricky topics are in a novel before we read it, but we can’t unsee a trigger warning that might ruin the overall read for us.
So should I have included a trigger warning for this piece? Maybe. Maybe not.
But I didn’t.
There’s a strong part of me that feels that real life doesn’t come with a trigger warning. I can walk down a street and hear a graphic conversation about cutting. I can open a magazine and see an image that I’m personally triggered by. I can turn on the TV and catch a graphic news report halfway, having missed the warning. Unlike with a direct attack – either physical or verbal – these things weren’t aimed at me personally. What should I do then? I can’t tell two people not to have their own conversation. I can’t predict what page I’ll open a magazine onto or what I’ll catch on the TV randomly. So I move away. Take myself out of the situation if it’s upsetting me.
And yet of course I have kindness in my heart for those who are seriously suffering, who read or watch something without a warning that causes them grief. I’ve been there myself. Isn’t a simple MAY CONTAIN DISTRESSING SCENES enough?
But still, I don’t want a trigger warning on either my own books or on those that I choose to read.
How about you? I’m genuinely interested.