Do we need trigger warnings on classic literature?

Irony: putting a trigger warning on a post about trigger warnings. Irony aside, it’s only fair to give a warning that I’ll mention a particular episode of my bulimia as part of this story. So if this is an issue for you, feel free to read something else.

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I was an art history minor in college. I loved all my art classes, with one exception.

Contemporary art and issues.

I don’t connect with most contemporary art, or the art doesn’t connect with me, or we fail to appreciate each other’s vision and see only the other’s blind spots. (As if “art” is as human as I am!)

That semester was a particularly lonely time for me. I was recovering from a nervous breakdown and mono, and was still wrestling with depression. I also had no one in my life who loved art like I did, no Christian to help me puzzle through the ideas and issues thrown my direction. I muddled through.

I made it through abstract expressionism. Jackson Pollock and paint drip paintings. Messy, but no problem.

I made it through pop art. Andy Warhol and soup cans. Yummy, but no sweat.

Then, halfway through the semester, the visual slides took a darker turn. The works embraced controversy, desiring it like an object of lust. Sex. Violence. Ugliness. Deliberately provocative pieces that punched traditional ideals of beauty in the gut.

One afternoon, the professor flipped to a slide of a work by Cindy Sherman. Sherman is known for dressing in costumes and different guises and creatively photographing herself in various locations. It’s a challenge to the notion of a fixed identity, rather than a true “selfie” or “self-portrait.” Many are disturbing. This particular one focused on eating disorders, the ideal image of the feminine, and how far some of us will go to become change our image, though our self-image never matches the ideal image.

In the photo, a pair of sunglasses lies on a beach towel.

Reflected in the dark lenses is a woman—Sherman in another of her disguises—vomiting.

I flinched.

Suddenly, I was back there, at my old college, wrestling with bulimia again.

I swallowed hard and kept silent during the hybrid lecture-discussion.

Another slide, this time by Andres Serrano (of Piss Christ fame). I don’t recall the exact image, only that it was grotesque and violent. I shuddered and looked away.

I may not remember the image, but I remember the feeling it created in me: a sickening sense of personal violation.

My face must’ve betrayed my revulsion, because the professor caught up to me before the next class. He apologized for showing the offensive slides.

“They’re important works,” he said, his brow furrowed, “and I feel like I have to show them. I know they’re offensive to your religion, so would you like a warning before I show a rough slide? Or you can slip out the door if you need to. That’s okay, too.”

I was grateful and said, “Thanks, yes, that would be great.”

Not only had he explained his position and why he had to show these slides, but he showed respect for my personal convictions and feelings. Plus, he gave me an option that wouldn’t embarrass or offend me. He must’ve guessed, rightly, that I wouldn’t leave a class mid-lecture without permission.

From then on, if the next slide was graphic, he gave a warning. “Next slide’s a little rough,” he’d say, and I’d duck my head and take notes. This helped me handle the troubling subject matter.

Recalling this incident made me think about the idea of placing “trigger warnings” on certain reading material, such as classic novels. Think about some of the literature that’s commonly assigned in upper level English classes. There’s a lot of disturbing elements.

Ancient Greek tragedies and mythologies are filled with incest (Oedipus & family), rape (all those human women unlucky enough to attract the attention of Zeus & company), and violence (the battle scenes of The Illiad), not to mention the slaughter of children by their mother (Medea).

That doesn’t include the sexual innuendos (common in comedy, from the ancients to Shakespeare to Restoration lit to present), adultery, suicide, racism, sexism.

It’s not that these pieces are bad literature. Quite the opposite. One of the reasons that the writings have survived is how brilliantly the authors have grappled with the truth about humanity, often the brutal and ugly parts no one wants to see.

Some people need to see it: they’re hiding under a rock, pretending that the world’s as pretty and sterilized as a Thomas Kincade print. They aren’t naive, but willfully ignorant.

But others should not, because they know all too well that the world can be a terrifying and grotesque place. Those people need to be shown that beauty exists, too.

An official warning label plastered on the cover of Oedipus Rex might not be appropriate. But a clear indication of the text’s contents from book reviewers or novel blurb writers might be. Then the reader can judge for himself whether to read.

In a classroom, I think teachers should allow students to skip certain books (or flag the most disturbing sections, at least) if the student says that the content is problematic (meaning, triggering, not just difficult!) for her.

Obviously, this is a difficult subject, and not one that is easily resolved.

Any thoughts? What would you do, if you were a teacher wanting to discuss a text that might cause problems for your students? What would you do if you were an author of such a text?

(Photo credit: alice10, morgueFile.com)
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22 thoughts on “Do we need trigger warnings on classic literature?

  1. Reblogged this on multicolouredsmartypants and commented:
    Very interesting post raising some thought-provoking points. From my personal experience, when I was at college (as an adult – this was back in 2010) we had to split into groups and do a presentation on various issues. We were assigned the groups and the subject matter. My group was assigned sexually transmitted diseases. I volunteered to do the historical research, thinking that that was something I could handle. The others in the group wanted to use pornographic photographs as part of the presentation to shock people and provoke a response. While I could see why they wanted to do that, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me. I spoke to the tutor and explained a little of my history and why I just couldn’t do the presentation, though I would do the write-up. It was tough but it gave me the confidence (for the first time!) to *not* feel like I have to be ok with the same things as other people. It took me many years to learn that it’s ok to say no!

    Now I avoid any and all ‘triggers’ as far as possible and am waiting (still) for EMDR therapy. Like you say, I know all too well the horribleness of life and need to be reminded, again and again, of the goodness. This is why ‘one day at a time’ works for me – each day I can begin again, thankful for what is, practicing staying in God’s presence, and knowing that whatever happens, God is good (this helps because it takes the emphasis off me, off my family, off humanity even).

    As for trigger warnings on books – it would help if there were warnings about certain extreme events, but on the other hand some people have triggers that aren’t generally considered extreme, so they have to work out their own strategies, I guess. It should be made clearer to young people that it’s ok to say ‘no’. Also, what about books with ‘adult’ content that can be accessed by all ages? I think there should be at least some age restrictions. On the other hand some say that that comes down to parenting. On the other hand not everyone has good parents… If I have any more hands I’ll be an octopus. I don’t know. We have restricted access to television in our house and I monitor my children’s reading material. I think this has benefited everyone, not just the children. But most importantly we *talk*. I have wandered off topic but I do think these things are related.

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  2. I think your professor handled this wisely. In my Constitutional law class we had to read some pretty disturbing cases. There are things out there I never would have dreamed existed had I not taken this class. The cases couldn’t be eliminated, but, when we discussed tv ratings our professor did ask for input about whether or not a certain video clip was appropriate to post for class discussion. It was from network tv and was pretty tame compared to what is out there on tv and internet, but I appreciated the fact that he did include the class in some of those decisions. I personally think images are harder to forget than a written description of something and discretion is needed when showing them. If I am reading a book and I come on something that is distasteful to me I can skip over it more easily than I can if I am watching something on television. So I would definitely give trigger warnings for images. Trigger warnings for books would depend on the age of the class.

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    1. I never thought about the application for a law class until you and Tim mentioned it, but I can understand how deeply disturbing some cases would be. I’d hope that someone in law school would know themselves well enough to know when something would be “triggering” for them, and prepare their minds accordingly. (And maybe have a close friend or counselor prepared for an “emergency talk” if things are bad afterwards.) If I’m prepared and know that whatever will be said will trigger the ED for me, I try to distance myself from the text far more than I would for a non-triggering text. Turn on all analytical gears and turn off all emotional ones as best I can. (I don’t know if that would work for others, especially dealing with abuse issues.)

      I, too, have more difficulty with images than with words. I don’t go to the movies a lot, nor do we have a television; I try to be very selective in what I see.

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  3. Yes, very thought provoking blog today. For me, I’d say that as difficult as it for some to view or read some art or literature, warnings should not necessarily be a norm. I say this because oftentimes that is the only time students will be exposed to things that actually exist, and are not pretty or clear. We live in a world that has ugly in it. If we do not have some sort of preparation for it, we will fail to know how to handle it when it crosses our path in real time. If anything, the teacher or professor needs to make sure that they are prepped for an open discussion regarding the material being studied — to be able to explain how what the student is seeing or reading connects to what it is to be human and live in our world — their world. Better to face monsters in a room of your peers and an informative instructor, than to come face-to-face with monsters in real life and find yourself totally unprepared to handle them or the situation. JMO (Just my opinion). I would highly recommend reading, KILLING MONSTERS, by Gerard Jones for anyone wanting to know how exposure to ugly things through art, movies, books, can actually be help our youth to cope better in our society.

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    1. Robin, thoughtful comment. I agree that many people shouldn’t need warnings. Those students who haven’t encountered the ugly reality of the world need to do so, and sometimes it’s safer in fiction, especially with a great teacher, who prepares the class and guides them through the thinking process. I’d say the same for many Christians, who prefer their movies/books/art to be completely sanitized (and ripped of real humanity in the process).

      My concern is for those who have experienced those monsters firsthand, and any additional pain they experience as a result of unknowingly encountering trigger-raising events in a text. If the prof can give any kind of heads’ up, they might deal with it better.

      Thanks for the book recommendations. I’ll look for it.

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  4. I think it was Karen Swallow Prior who wrote about teachers wrestling with trigger warnings for readings such as the seduction/rape passage in Tess of the D’Urbervilles. (I write “seduction/rape” because that is one of the issues usually discussed by people studying the book: which is it, seduction or rape?)

    Like dpersson7 said in her comment, law school can cover some rough subjects too. I wonder how many people were triggered the day we covered sexual assault in our criminal law class, or discussed abortion in constitutional law, or divorce in marital property class.

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    1. I never thought about law school cases from this angle, but that would be a tough one. As I said in my comment to dpersson7, I hope that there’s enough foreknowledge about what that class period would cover that the person who has that issue would be prepared. It helps (I think) to know: this is going to be tough, I need a plan for how to deal with it if I’m triggered. Maybe the person would try to focus on analyzing and disengaging from the emotional aspects of the discussion, and possibly have a close friend or counselor available afterward if there were problems. Obviously, skipping class that day and trying to get out of reading the assignment isn’t going to work for law school!

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  5. Thank you! Thank you thank you thank you. This post was so well thought-out.
    We can’t just stop showing/reading about these deep issues, because people need to grapple, but we need a way out for those who have already grappled and been through the wringer in that particular area.
    I think your suggestions are fantastic. I had proactive parents when I was in high school who read the books ahead of me and were able to get me out of assignments that reminded me of my abusive past. Other kids really needed those books and learned a lot from them. We’re all different, and instructors must understand the varied needs of their students.

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    1. Elizabeth, thanks for commenting and understanding what I’m trying to say. I’m thankful that your parents were able to help you get out of those assignments; it’s hard enough to deal with an abusive past without having a school assignment as a reminder!

      Like you say, we can’t avoid grappling with the hard issues. But some people grapple through a text–as I have with many issues–and others grapple through horrific experiences. If I were a teacher, I would never want to cause my students additional pain by assigning a problematic text without a warning and a way out. (I think I’d have a different text available, possibly one by the same author or dealing with the topic from a different angle, for those students.)

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  6. Intriguing. Mihrank has a good point, but I do think that in general terms, it is a great educational discussion point that certain topics, including rape, sexual abuse, racism, and bullying, might to particularly difficult for certain people to read/hear/watch and that students should be sensitive to that. Excusing students from assignments, or labeling works with trigger warnings, though is problematic. You do not want to retraumatize, nor do you want to draw attention to someone without their consent, but you want to address difficult issues and help students to overcome adversity and think deeply. A teacher can be sensitive without censoring, as was your professor.

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    1. Kitt, good point. If I were a teacher, I wouldn’t necessarily excuse the student from the assignment per se, but I would provide an alternate text (by the same author or on a similar topic from a less graphic text) for that student to use for the assignment. (For example, in a class on modern American lit, I might substitute Toni Morrison’s Home for Morrison’s Beloved, depending on what the triggering issue is.) I certainly wouldn’t draw attention to the student at all.

      But couldn’t a warning–such as what my prof provided–still be considered a trigger warning? I don’t think there’s any harm in saying, “We’re going to be reading Tess d’Uberville, and in chapter X, there’s a rape/seduction scene.” Or, even more subtly, preparing the course outline to include major discussion points of each novel, which in the case of Tess would include “rape.” Anyone who has an issue can then decide what to do.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I like the course outline idea. Your professor handled the situation gracefully and sensitively. Trigger warnings need not be called such. Disturbing material is meant to be disturbing and provocative, to get people to think and to feel. I would not want warnings on books, unless those books were childrens or young adult books, in which case you can list mature themes so that parents and teachers can take that into consideration, but books are not cigarettes and should not have warning labels. Freedom of speech is essential to human liberty. To some extent, I question the wisdom of walking on eggshells around people who have survived trauma. We must respect our ability to develop healthy coping mechanisms and to survive and thrive in spite of past events over which we have no control. If we are to fight injustice, we must face injustice, not sweep it under the rug. Engaging in meaningful discussion of difficult subject matter helps humanity and the greater good more than warning labels. As a Christian, you have read extremely provocative passages in the Bible, especially the Hebrew bible. Would you put a trigger warning on the Torah?

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      2. Hm, trigger warnings for the Torah? Well, it would depend on the age discussing the passages. When I was in 5th grade, our Christian school teachers had us studying Judges and I and II Samuel; they instructed the parents to read certain parts with us, so we would understand and the teachers would avoid the potentially hazardous task of explaining things to the students. My husband and I read the Bible each night to our kids (ages 7 and 11) and I won’t let him skip anything. He reads, I offer explanations, commentary, and occasional sermons on “why David shouldn’t have slept with Bathsheba and killed Uriah,” that sort of thing. I’d hesitate, though, if the children listening weren’t mine.

        Several months ago at our current church, the pastor was preaching through the life of Abraham. When he got to the parts about Sodom & Gomorrah and the following chapter (Lot and his daughters), he didn’t want to skip over those passages but he also didn’t want the kids to hear, either. So for those two weeks, the church opened up children’s church for kids up to age 12, let the church family know through email what was happening, and left it up to the parents’ discretion as to whether their kids stayed during the sermon or not. (Ours didn’t.) And now, I also wonder if it was a heads’ up of sorts to those adults in the congregation who would’ve struggled with those ugly passages of Scripture. (Both sermons were excellent, BTW.)

        So while I wouldn’t put “trigger warnings” on the Torah, I would urge pastors and teachers to use discretion and direct discussions of those hard topics of Scripture in a compassionate manner. (This is particularly true if they are aware of a church member’s issues.) I would also urge other church members to use compassion and wisdom as they discuss these issues in class; we never know if the person we’re sitting next to might have abuse in their past, and our careless, thoughtless words bring pain to them in ways we don’t understand. And to remember, too, that the pain and abuse and trauma may not be in the person’s far past, but in their recent past and they haven’t had time to process what’s happened, much less heal.

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      3. Sorry, I missed your very thoughtful and detailed response to my comment. Your pastor is very wise. My father once told me that he kept his Bible under his bed as a boy so he could read the bad parts at night. I’m not sure whether or not he was pulling my leg. He definitely provoked some interest, though. “Bad parts?” Hmm… Still, I am far from a biblical expert. I lead a fairly secular life.

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      4. I really like the idea of not necessarily a big “BEWARE” sign on the book, but someone just letting you know, “Hey, this issue gets discussed.” As a victim of rape, I did NOT enjoy having to relive my past when a book in college triggered me. I cried a lot and had bad dreams and had to relive my past experiences. You don’t want to force any victim through that. (In that situation, the teacher did not provide an alternate, either, forcing me to try to do the assignment on a partial reading of the text.)

        On the flip side, I had a teacher who did as Laura suggested and had an alternate standing by. It addressed the same key issues (racism) without having a dramatic rape scene. That alternate, Cry The Beloved Country, remains one of my favorite books to this day and was influential in opening my eyes to race issues–WITHOUT opening old wounds of mine.

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      5. I love Cry the Beloved Country! I read that in high school, and I remember comparing it with Return of the Native; both were summer reading assignments. What struck me the most was how depressing Hardy’s novel was and how Cry should’ve been the more depressing of the two novels, given the topic and what the characters wrestle with, but it was uplifting and eye-opening.

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