Why Trigger Warnings are Futile and Infantilizing

“People must not be humiliated, that is the main thing.”–Anton Chekhov, in a letter to his brother

“Oh, honey. Life shits on everyone eventually.”–Mom, survivor of many traumas, helping me through my own

“Trigger warnings infantilize women. We can’t run the world if we don’t read about all of it.” Me, an ardent feminist, right now

I sat alone in the darkened art house theater near my home. It was a rainy Seattle night in January, the kind that narrows your options to a film and chocolate Ritter bar or opening your veins with a hand-whittled shiv.

My best friend and partner had died three months prior in a mountain climbing accident. Nineteen hours after his body was found, his mother and sister were at my door, asking for his keys. His mother said, “We might as well plow through this,” as if they were headed to Costco on a Sunday, and they proceeded to clear out his apartment, including my things and gifts I’d given him. His obituary bears no mention of me–though it also lists his date of death incorrectly, so it’s not a really a totem of accuracy–and they did not ask me to speak at his funeral. Embodying the worst stereotypes of small-town Christians, his parents, from whom he was distant, wanted to eradicate my role in his life.

Friends across the sexual spectrum noted the similarities between his family’s disdain toward me and the way conservative families often mistreat their gay kid’s partner. Mordantly joking this was another way I’m a bit like a gay dude, I agreed when these friends suggested I see Tom Ford’s adaption of Christopher Isherwood’s classic “A Single Man”, in which an English professor in the Sixties loses his longtime boyfriend to a car crash, only to have the boyfriend’s family request he not attend the funeral.

Perhaps it was counter-intuitive to see a wrenching film while I myself was wrenched, but that’s why I sought it out: to feel less alone and to find solace onscreen. God knows there was very little off of it.

What no one told me, though, is that the film opens with a shot of a dead man, frozen in the snow, bleeding from the head.

Really? No one thought to mention, “Hey! You know how he fell one thousand feet when loose rock gave way and wasn’t found ‘til four days later? And that horrific image of his broken and decomposed body that bombards you day and night without warning? This film depicts something quite similar in the first two minutes. Hope you get an aisle seat!”

Within seconds, I was wailing. Not daintily crying, but emitting howls from a place roiling in agony for the past three months. The theater was sparsely filled–apparently not many folks wanted to see a film about grief and alienation, despite its great reviews–but the few nearby patrons turned to stare. I was bumming out even those who had acquiesced to major bumming. A feat, to be sure, albeit a pretty messed up one.

Maybe I should have left and returned to the blanket tomb on my living room couch. But weirdly, this epic pain felt good. Not good as in “having an orgasm and then a sandwich” good, but “someone else has felt this way before and prevailed and I might, too” good. I was so comforted by “A Single Man”, I watched it several more times on DVD. On the Director’s Commentary, I learned, Tom Ford had written the opening monologue–not found in the book–based on his own despair after his cousin’s suicide. Tom goddamned Ford. (Look him up if necessary, straight guys.) He missed his cousin terribly, but reclaimed his life and found joy again. This would be monstrously hard, but ultimately possible. And if it was possible, I could do it.

But would I have seen the film that inspired me so much if my friends had warned me of its grisly imagery?

In my current state? Yes. Definitely. Then? I’m unsure. Given its similarity and proximity to the worst horror of my life, I instead might have stuck to my life goal of committing “30 Rock” to memory, in case the apocalypse robots come and I can only watch reruns in my head. If someone had cautioned me, I might have missed a deeply insightful piece of art that helped me heal.

Which brings us to the paradox of “trigger warnings”, the ostensibly helpful but ultimately harmful alerts that spread unabated online and on college campuses like mold on leftovers. Designed to protect the traumatized from further trauma, they fail in their mission because they place the burden of maintaining our equilibrium on another, usually a writer, editor, teacher, or professor. They imply that others, strangers at that, will protect us from additional psychic harm. And far too often, their intended beneficiaries are women. As if the world doesn’t infantilize and limit our choices enough already.

So many of my loved ones, including many of my closest friends of all genders, have been raped or sexually assaulted. By dumb luck, it has never happened to me. All I can do is keep myself as safe as possible, emit a silent wish to whatever entity might or might not exist, and hope my luck holds. The thousands of women with rape-induced fistulas or the guy down the street raped by his boyfriend did nothing wrong. The blame for rape or any sexual assault lies squarely, 100%, with the rapist or assailant. Parts of the world are safer, but much of it is violent and we are never, ever fully protected. Part of adulthood is recognizing these are the conditions under which the seven billion of us sharing the planet still live. Any attempt to elude these facts is futile.

The obvious retort to my view is to say because I haven’t been raped, I don’t know the singularity of this particular trauma. And you’re right: I don’t. I fully cede that. But without exception, each of my loved ones who is a survivor, intelligent and accomplished persons all, loathes trigger warnings. They known far too well that dodging triggers is impossible and that the only way to prevail is to learn, over time, to control one’s own response to triggers. And, of course, that requires enormous tenacity.

When I was a Domestic Violence Victim Advocate for King County, a volunteer for the King County Crisis Clinic and a volunteer for Northwest Women’s Law Center (now Legal Voice), I listened to hundreds of individuals, mostly women, but some men, recount the terror they had experienced at the hands of another. At the Crisis Clinic, we handled the overflow of calls from the now defunct Seattle Rape Relief. The enormity of abuse was rivaled only by its commonality. Our goal was to help those who came to us find safety and to develop skills to navigate the legal and social service labyrinths. Not because it was their fault the abuse had occurred, but because the world is imperfect, unbearably awful sometimes, and the only viable solution was to help them fight back in a useful way. No one expected the scars to vanish, but to fade in time. Closure remained impossible, but never precluded a great future.

We don’t know why we’re born or, for certain, what occurs when we die. If there is any meaning in this go-round, it seems to spring from treating others kindly and helping them bear their weight.

That will always require more than scrolling forward or turning the page.


Warning sign

About Litsa Dremousis

Litsa Dremousis is the author of "Altitude Sickness" (Future Tense Books). “The book is a howl of pain, a bellow of grief, and a funny-sad Irish funeral for a lover and friend, combining deep wisdom about mortality with an almost naive sensibility...The length is just about perfect: Any shorter and the thousand opposing facets of her experience wouldn’t be fully examined, but any longer might dilute her laser-sharp focus on the subject.”--Paul Constant, The Stranger. Seattle Metropolitan Magazine named "Altitude Sickness" one of the all-time "20 Books Every Seattleite Must Read". Her essay "After the Fire" was selected as one of the "Most Notable Essays of 2011" by Best American Essays 2012. She’s a Contributing Editor at The Weeklings. The Seattle Weekly named her one of "50 Women Who Rock Seattle".
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One Response to Why Trigger Warnings are Futile and Infantilizing

  1. Bec says:

    Re-reading this today, I am struck by how often I do hear the phrase “trigger warning”…is it just this years “anti-bullying”? A catchphrase like “finding closure”?

    As an adult who had a shitty childhood, to say the least, I try not to see triggers, as much as I find them to be reminders of where I was and how far I’ve come. Do television shows about dead fathers make me cry sometimes? Sure. But maybe it proves me to be human, not a woman, just a human with a heart and a memory?

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