So, I heard this clip from Radio 4 suggesting the idea of trigger warnings for books. Apparently, at a recent feedback session with the undergraduates, a professor of English Literature at Lancaster University was asked about the possibility of ‘warning students’ about the possibility of distressing material within books. Similar suggestions were made in an American university last year. Now, I have been a student representative at meetings like these and I know what it’s like to have to bring forth the views of what for want of a better phrase I will refer to as one’s ‘constituents’ – I myself had to argue for more generous deadlines for essays because one girl had moaned that she kept handing in hers late. I didn’t agree with it, but I had to put forward the case. Still, this one appeared more complex and so I found myself wondering – do we sometimes need to be warned about what we are about to read?
Aged sixteen, I studied AS Level English Literature and the first book that we were set was The Color Purple. I took it home and, like a good girl, started to read it. Within the first few pages, the book’s heroine Celie is raped rather graphically by her father. I have mentioned before that I have a tendency to faint when things bother me – rape is something that definitely bothers me. I remember crying to my other that I would not be able to take the course if I had to read that book as I would spend the whole time trying not to faint. But you know what? I got through it. To be fair, my mother reassured me that things would get better as I went along and there is something of a happy ending but basically, I just gritted my teeth and got on with it. I had a similar experience the following year when the school book club was reading The Wasp Factory and the bit about the babies in the ward made me dizzy. On that occasion unfortunately my mother had gone to bed early so I asked my Dad who is even more squeamish than I am so my seeking reassurance was not appreciated.
My basic point though is that I am probably the classic example of someone who would ‘fear’ challenging literature – it actually has the power to make me lose consciousness and yet, I read on. For me, when there is a barrier, when I find myself having to confront a topic, I am reminded of this quote from The Life of Pi:
I must say a word about fear. It is life’s only true opponent. Only fear can defeat life. It is a clever, treacherous adversary, how well I know. It has no decency, respects no law or convention, shows no mercy. It goes for your weakest spot, which it finds with unnerving ease. It begins in your mind, always … so you must fight hard to express it. You must fight hard to shine the light of words upon it. Because if you don’t, if your fear becomes a wordless darkness that you avoid, perhaps even manage to forget, you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you never truly fought the opponent who defeated you.
Increasingly, I feel that we are in a world which chooses fear over life. I remember working with a class of children who were objecting very vocally to having to study a topic on the human body, because they found these realities revolting. They preferred to remain in ignorance of the miracle of their body – this generation of children are choosing the virtual world over reality. They have not read Little House on the Prairie because their parents wish to protect them from the death of Willy the pig. They do not read Charlotte’s Web because they are being protected from the knowledge that bacon and sausages come from pigs. So when they get to reading Mrs Dalloway, they cannot cope with the ideas of depression, and rather than taking a deep breath and continuing, they go to their tutors and complain.
The fact is that literature has the potential to introduce painful subject matter in a safe environment. I remember reading Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption before going to sleep one night when I was twelve, and I had to stop because Andy Dufresne was being raped in prison. The next morning I talked to my mother about it and then carried on. Although I knew about rape, I had never encountered it before from that perspective. It was upsetting to read about, but The Shawshank Redemption is an amazing story and I would have been the one who lost out had I stopped reading – had I read a trigger warning though, I would most likely have steered well clear.
I can think of so many books that I have read that have explained various of life’s mysteries to me and this idea that we need to build fences, have signposting, create warning labels makes me incredibly sad. These students who claim that their set texts are bringing back traumatic memories need to remember that if this is the case, then they are clearly still looking for a resolution. You cannot make a book the object of your fear, for it is not what is on the page that frightens you but rather what lies within yourself.
When I was a teacher, I once taught a class where many of my pupils experienced violence at home. With a strong culture of silence, it was hard for me to protect them and so one day I read them For Every Child, a summation of the Declaration of the Rights of the Child in accessible language. It is a very beautiful book, but when I read the page that stated that ‘No one, not even our Mums and Dads, have the right to hurt us or make us afraid’, one of my children burst into tears. He had a violent father. For the rest of the year, that boy flinched whenever he saw that book, he hated it, he would hide it away whenever he could. The book though was not what was causing him pain. I would argue that the same is true here for these much older children.
Literature should not lose its power to surprise, to draw out a visceral response unfettered by a clunky trigger warning. We must shine the light of words on these difficult topics, bring them out into the light – we cannot allow fear to silence us and we must allow literature to open our eyes and help us to reach out to those in need.