Tag Archives: trauma

On triggers and warnings and those darn kids today


I wasn’t going to do any significant blogging this week, because I’m scrambling to A) get an intensive summer course ready to teach next Monday, and B) prepare myself for Readercon, but the Jack Halberstam essay on trigger warnings that’s been floating around, and the various excellent responses, have sort of got me worked up and I want to say something. Probably nothing that hasn’t been said by others elsewhere and better. But this is me talking for a sec, not just about what Halberstam wrote but about this whole Thing in general.

One could criticize the essay on a number of levels, and people have. Natalia Cecire writes about the problems with the ways in which Halberstam discusses neoliberalism and approaches the emotional fallout of painful history. Ari (Tumblr: navigatethestream) writes about the deep problems involved in approaching activist culture from the perspective of the academy, and Halberstam’s use of examples of transmisogyny. And as usual, Robin James has some great stuff to say about legitimacy and the performance of “resilience”. So I’m not going to deal with this on those levels but instead go after some things that are smaller and a good bit simpler but that really, really irritated me because of my particular experience.

Full disclosure: I’m not cisgender or straight, but I’m white and ablebodied and American with a decidedly upper middle class background. I have privilege out the ass. There are so many marginalized experiences I can’t speak to and wouldn’t dare to speak for. That said: There are so, so many ways in which we talk about trauma and trigger warnings – that Halberstam is reproducing here – that really, really gross me the fuck out. Probably the best articulation I’ve seen of these feelings so far is Jaqui Shine’s excellent piece “What We Talk About When We Talk About Trigger Warnings”:

How we talk about trauma survivors is what’s most troubling to me in all of this. I hear people expressing contempt for who they think survivors are: fragile, weirdly entitled, narcissistic, pathetic, weak. With outrage, people ask angry, accusatory rhetorical questions that communicate their views: Do trauma survivors expect “us” to make the world safe for them or protect them from anything scary? Why should “we” be responsible for the fact that they can’t handle reality? Can’t survivors deal with their feelings and move on with their lives? Are they really so weak that they’ll fall apart if confronted with a difficult image or idea? This is what we think trauma survivors are like.

And it’s all so, so wrong. I don’t think anyone knows better than trauma survivors do that the world isn’t safe, that we can’t be truly protected from anything (except certain communicable diseases, via appropriate vaccinations). I don’t know what other people think constitutes reality, but for me it’s included burying both of my parents and repeatedly committing loved ones to terrifying psychiatric hospitals for their own safety. I’m pretty clear on what reality can look like.

We don’t get triggered because we’re weak; we get triggered because trauma responses are physiological. They’re not imaginary or only psychosomatic, and they’re not necessarily part of a lifetime condition.  Lots of people around you are trauma survivors, but you may not know it because we’re dealing with our feelings and, exactly as you say you want us to, moving on with our lives.

Read it.

Bullet points.

  • We gender trauma in order to dismiss it. So much of the discourse that represents anti-trigger warning positions contains deeply sexist/misogynist language, even if it’s not someone explicitly saying “man up”. Trauma survivors are characterized as weak, helpless, sniffling and constantly weepy, overly emotional, and actively protecting their status as victims as if it confers some kind of privilege. This is dangerously close to the derailing tactics that get used against marginalized populations every time they demand that pain and damage and oppression be recognized. It’s really not a road one wants to go down. You end up in a bad place. Halberstam does this, and it’s very disappointing to see:

    In a post-affirmative action society, where even recent histories of political violence like slavery and lynching are cast as a distant and irrelevant past, all claims to hardship have been cast as equal; and some students, accustomed to trotting out stories of painful events in their childhoods (dead pets/parrots, a bad injury in sports) in college applications and other such venues, have come to think of themselves as communities of naked, shivering, quaking little selves – too vulnerable to take a joke, too damaged to make one.

    Yeah, I’ve heard “you just can’t take a joke!” before. Don’t do that.

  • Not everyone’s ways of working through trauma are the same or will work for everyone, yet we keep talking about trauma as if that was a reasonable thing to expect. Know what? No, some people can’t just “get over it,” and if you’re saying that, you’re an asshole for demanding that they should, on your schedule. And some people can. And some people can but only with some things. And some people make a lot of progress and then get shoved back ten steps. Trauma/emotional injury/mental illness is individual, and recovery is individual. Everyone’s experience of oppressive social systems and processes is individual. We cannot and should not ever lose sight of the fact that psychology is not enough to understand this by, and it’s absolutely true that with a lot of the stuff around trigger warnings, we risk focusing far too much on the individual and ignoring the larger systems and institutions that perpetuate physical and symbolic violence. But we also need to recognize that there’s no hard and fast rule for any of this. Among these groups are vast individual differences of experience, and those differences need to be respected. We ignore that at our peril.
  • Emotions are not separate from the body. Emotions are embodied, and we all experience physiological reactions to emotion, at least to some degree. Yeah, you’re goddamn right, we talk about trauma like it’s a physical injury. It is. Everyone I’ve ever heard talk about their triggers has talked about them in physiological terms, because that’s usually what happens. This isn’t about “hurt feelings”, at least not for most people, I really do not think. This is about shaking hands, numb fingers, shallow breathing, sweaty palms, racing hearts. Even if it’s not about those things, it’s about being hurt badly enough that it interferes with your life for a while. I have a couple of triggers that are upsetting to differing degrees; sometimes they give me the physiological reactions above, sometimes they make me completely unable to deal with anything for the rest of the day, and sometimes they just force me to get away from whatever the trigger is and very firmly distract myself for a while. See? Not only are triggers different for each individual, but different people can experience multiple different triggers differently. I’m sorry, we don’t all necessarily fit your academic theories of trauma. That doesn’t make the pain illegitimate.
  • Trigger warnings are not about protecting our precious fee-fees from any pain whatsoever. They are about informed consent. This gets talked about a good bit in Shine’s piece above, but it’s worth emphasizing. I’m not saying they can’t be used poorly and I’m not saying none of the pro-TW discourse does that. I’m not saying there’s no uncomfortable, unhelpful narcissism happening anywhere here, or that TW discourse can’t, as Robin James points out, “legitimate some kinds of trauma, when experienced by the ‘right’ kind of people/on the ‘right’ kinds of bodies”. What I am saying is that when used correctly, trigger warnings make it easier to approach difficult and painful things because one can make a decision about whether or not one can deal with something at a particular time and how much of it one can take. Listen, I read some sick shit as part of the work on war and genocide I’ve done in graduate school. I’ve read and written about the worst, most twisted, most disgusting atrocities you can imagine, individual acts of horrifying violence in contexts of equally violent institutionalized hatred for the bodies against which the violence is being committed. I can handle that, most days. I deserve to make that choice for myself, where possible. Trigger warnings, ideally, open up discussion. They don’t close it off. They are not “censorship”. Stop calling them that.
  • At their best, trigger warnings are community-building. Halberstam is talking about trigger warnings as weapons for use in in-fighting, and I’m sure they get used that way. But in all of my experience – and yes, like a good sociologist I realize that my anecdote is a poor dataset on which to conclude anything – that’s not what I’ve primarily seen it doing. What I’ve seen it doing is connecting people with each other, creating profoundly meaningful bonds around shared pain and also bringing into play the recognition that different and even unfamiliar forms of pain are to be respected. That we have obligations to work together with greater respect and compassion precisely so that we’re better equipped to work in coalition to fight the oppressive social systems that assail us from all sides. I’ve seen it employed as a tool we can use to care for each other. As Jenny Davis writes:

    I argue that in contrast to the oft stated fear that technologies drive humans apart, or get in the way of meaningful relationships, the trigger warning is a means by which technological developments—or at least our reaction to technological developments—create an ethic of collective responsibility for the psychological well-being of one another.

    The trigger warning is not merely a curatorial tool, but a collective curatorial tool, provided by humans, for fellow humans. Content creators may not have you specifically in mind, but when they post trigger warnings, they do so for the general You, all of the Yous who make up the Us.

  • Deciding whose pain is legitimate and whose is to be belittled and ignored is ableist and shitty and you shouldn’t do it. Seriously. It’s not hard to not do.

I’m in full agreement with everyone I linked to above that it’s not that there are no issues around trigger warnings that need major attention and discussion and it’s not that Halberstam has no good points; it’s just that they’re obscured by way too many poorly thought-out claims, incorrect assumptions, and just plain… I’m sorry, but I can’t really think of anything to call it other than smugness. Halberstam comes off as smug and superior.

And it’s unhelpful. And it’s just like no.

On #Wiscon and trauma and recognizing it as such


You don’t want to be judged? You won’t be. You don’t think you’re strong enough? You are. You’re afraid. Don’t be. You have all the weapons you need.

Now fight.

– Sucker Punch

Anyone who follows me on the Twitters or the Facebooks or here will know that I spent this past weekend in Madison for WisCon, which is sort of My Con, because it’s almost more like an intersectional revival meeting than anything else, and it makes me have a lot of emotions. Or rather, it gives me a space in which I can feel those emotions safely.

That usually means that Wiscon, while it’s an incredibly positive, energizing, communal experience, is also often draining, and I come out of it mulling over some difficult, painful things. That was especially true this year, in significant part because it coincided with the Santa Barbara shootings, which reminded so many of us – as if we needed reminding – that we live in a culture that is not only hostile to us but lethally dangerous. Where we are not safe in any meaningful sense of the word.

(I should note that although I identify as genderqueer, I consider being raised as a girl an important part of the development of my identity, and in most important contexts the rest of society would consider me a woman. So I’m putting myself in that category for practical purposes. Anyway, GNC people are in that kind of marginalized Other space in any case to varying degrees for various reasons.)

So this was all going on, and emotions – again, many of them not negative ones – were running high, at least in me. And right at the apex of it – sitting in a panel on mental health, ironically enough – I had a very upsetting exchange via email with a member of my family about the shootings, which left me feeling deeply, deeply hurt.

And also something else. It took me a few minutes to really grasp what was happening. I was shaking hard, my palms were sweating, my heart and thoughts were both racing, and my breath was shallow. In other words, I was having a classic fight-or-flight response.

And I was like Oh my God. I’m being triggered.

I have a difficult past with this family member, and a very fraught relationship which we are only now – and very slowly – beginning to try to repair. The peace is fragile, and it doesn’t take much for it to slide back down into ugliness. In fairness, this is not one-sided; they were not the only one who participated in emotional abuse during the period when things were at their worst. I know they have experienced and do experience their share of pain, and that pain is real and legitimate.

But for me, that moment was a revelation. It wasn’t even really about the email and the nastiness that was in it. I was having a physiological reaction to past trauma. It was a reaction that I had experienced many, many times before, and for whatever reason I had not recognized what was happening to me.

This made me realize two additional things: 1) It wasn’t my fault that I couldn’t control it, which in the past I had believed; and 2) I could ask for help.

So I did. I texted a friend and she took me out for ice cream. And then later I Floomped (dance party) in a furious manner and went to a Jem vid party and I had a great time and by the next morning I had mostly recovered.

But again, this was a revelation, about my right to my emotions and my pain and my right to take care of myself, and to reach out to others for assistance in doing that. I didn’t have to wrestle with it alone, I didn’t have to blame myself for not being able to just calm down or let it go. It was okay to not be okay, and that actually made it possible to be okay in a way I’ve never experienced before.

So that happened. It meant that I had to miss NK Jemisin’s amazing GoH speech, which saddened me a great deal, but then later, sitting in a noisy, uncomfortable airport terminal waiting for a late flight home that had been delayed over an hour, I read the speech, and what others have very properly characterized as a call to arms also felt to me like an embrace. You’re all right. And someday you’ll heal. But in the meantime you have the right to defend yourself, and you have the obligation to come to the defense of others.

I wrote an email to my family about it, and in some respects it was a direct response to the member of my family who triggered me. It was the only kind of response I felt able to make, short of no response at all. But silence is painful, and it didn’t feel like it would protect me from anything. I have no idea if they read it. I sincerely doubt that they did. But to me, that didn’t really matter. What mattered was speaking out. So among other things, I said this:

I decided a while ago to make 2014 the year I started doing what Anne Lamott says we have to do as writers and as humans, and dig down into the truly ugly stuff hiding in my psyche, the stuff we’re told – especially if we’re gendered female – that we’re supposed to keep hidden. I’ve decided that I have to do that because that stuff is true, because it’s real, and because the best writing is the writing that tells the truth. I’ve written a few stories that go a long way toward doing that; they’ve been purchased by editors and you’ll see them soon. But something else I’m dealing with, as I consider what it means to write about pain, is that I’m entrenched in both a genre of fiction and a culture that contains many people who are clearly and unambiguously hostile to me and people like me, doing the work that I’m doing.

And how difficult it is to turn and face that and demand recognition of that hostility.

Because without that recognition, there can be no healing, and there can never be reconciliation. Broken bonds won’t be repaired. People will remain strangers to each other.

Me and people like me have been told, repeatedly, to chill out. To get over it. To stop reading too much into things. To sit down. To shut up. To stop making people uncomfortable. That we’re overreacting. That we’re hysterical. That we’re crazy. That we’re looking for things to get upset about. That if we laugh it off everything will be okay.

It’s not okay. And I’m not crazy. And I won’t shut up.

All of us suffering, all of us walking wounded, we have a right to ourselves and our safety. We have a right to be protected and to protect others. We have a right to self-care, and we have a right to ask for help in caring for ourselves. It can be so difficult to recognize and accept that right, because I think often we have a harder time seeing ourselves clearly than seeing others, but also because we’re just straight up taught that we don’t have a right to any of that. We exist in a context that denies our right to be good to ourselves in that way.

We need to claim it. It’s vital that we do that. Without that, we won’t heal.

And we also have a right to fight back. Nora speaks true.

Arm yourselves. Go to panels at Wiscon and claim the knowledge and language that will be your weapons. Go to sources of additional knowledge for fresh ammunition — histories and analyses of the genre by people who see beyond the status quo, our genre elders, new sources of knowledge like “revisionist” scholarship instead of the bullshit we all learned in school. Find support groups of like-minded souls; these are your comrades-in-arms, and you will need their strength. Don’t try to do this alone. When you’re injured, seek help; I’ve got a great list of CBT therapists, for any of you in the New York area. Exercise to stay strong, if you can; defend what health you have, if you can’t. And from here on, wherever you see bigotry in the genre? Attack it. Don’t wait for it to come directly at you; attack it even if it’s hitting another group. If you won’t ride or die for anyone else, how can you expect them to ride or die for you? Understand that there are people in this genre who hate you, and who do not want you here, and who will hurt you if they can. Do not tolerate their intolerance. Don’t be “fair and balanced.” Tell them they’re unwelcome. Make them uncomfortable. Shout them down. Kick them out. Fucking fight.

And maybe one day, when the fighting’s done, then we can heal. On that day, all of us will dream freely, at last.

Sunday linkdump: Up all night

The Orbital Antares rocket at the Wallops Flight Facility in VA. We were there for the launch yesterday, which was unfortunately scrubbed.

The Orbital Antares rocket at the Wallops Flight Facility in VA. We were there for the launch yesterday, which was unfortunately scrubbed.

So things sure happened this week, didn’t they?

  • Whitney Erin Boesel seriously questions whether images of tragedy belong on something like Vine.

    One might argue that this self-repeating aspect makes Vine a powerful tool for reporting, but just because Vine can be used this way doesn’t mean it should be used this way. And Vine definitely shouldn’t be used this way without careful reflection about what it means to put six violent seconds on infinite (and infinitely circulative) self-repeat.

  • And I expand on her points with a bit of a meditation on the nature of trauma.

    Vine is only the latest, purest iteration of something familiar. Our experience of eventfulness is now the clip, perhaps more even than the still image. A few moments of something, repeated over and over, widely shared and everywhere you go. It’s a feeling of tiny saturation. You may not even notice it as it’s happening. But here’s the thing about the momentary clip, about event-as-seconds: It isn’t memory. Memory involves the incorporation and understanding of a past but also the mediation of a present and the imagination of the future. Memory is what we move through in order to get somewhere else.

    A vine has no past, no future. A vine is a moment without a memory.

  • Gawker asks “Is the New York Post Edited by a Bigoted Drunk Who Fucks Pigs?”

    The back-to-back focus on innocent people of non-European ancestry could imply that the Post is systematically hostile to nonwhite people, and that the paper’s editors are so wedded to the notion that all Muslims are terrorists that they literally do not care which Muslim or “Muslim-looking” person they happen to be targeting on any particular day. We are not saying that Col Allan, motivated by bigotry, is intentionally trying to use the Post to stir up hostility against Muslims. We do not know that Col Allan is a racist. The evidence may suggest that he is a racist, but we are not saying that Col Allan is a racist.

  • “Let’s be honest about Kermit Gosnell’s abortion ‘house of horrors’.” Why the whole “cover-up” thing is sort of maybe bullshit.

    Troy Newman, a pro-life leader and the president of Operation Rescue, is among the loudest voices sounding the Gosnell alarm. He’s also talking about how Gosnell is a gift from God to the pro-life movement. What Gosnell is accused of doing in his clinic is horrifying and illegal, which is why he’s on trial. His illegal acts are no more an indictment of safe, legal abortion than one child-molesting doctor is an indictment of all pediatricians. But pro-lifers like Newman are glad Gosnell exists, because they can use him to tar all abortion providers. These are the folks who want abortion to be dangerous, gruesome and unregulated. Of course they’re thrilled that they finally found a real villain.

  • “Gitmo Is Killing Me.” Read this. If you read nothing else linked here read this.

    I will never forget the first time they passed the feeding tube up my nose. I can’t describe how painful it is to be force-fed this way. As it was thrust in, it made me feel like throwing up. I wanted to vomit, but I couldn’t. There was agony in my chest, throat and stomach. I had never experienced such pain before. I would not wish this cruel punishment upon anyone…There are so many of us on hunger strike now that there aren’t enough qualified medical staff members to carry out the force-feedings; nothing is happening at regular intervals. They are feeding people around the clock just to keep up.

  • “One Narrative Fits All.” Dove’s Real Beauty campaign is kind of problematic you guys.

    Just as ads of yore leveraged the attitudes that made women feel bad about their looks in order to sell products, the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty leverages the response to those attitudes in order to sell products. It allows for exactly one way that women can feel about our looks—bad—and creates a template for women’s relationship with their looks that’s just as rigid as the beauty standard it’s challenging.

  • “Meet the 28-Year-Old Grad Student Who Just Shook the Global Austerity Movement.” Okay, but what’s really remarkable about this is that an economics PhD student is going out with a sociology PhD student.

    Herndon was stunned. As a graduate student, he’d just found serious problems in a famous economic study — the academic equivalent of a D-league basketball player dunking on LeBron James. “They say seeing is believing, but I almost didn’t believe my eyes,” he says. “I had to ask my girlfriend — who’s a Ph.D. student in sociology — to double-check it. And she said, ‘I don’t think you’re seeing things, Thomas.'”

  • “Living the Dream.” Writing for a living is hard. It’s hard even after you get to the point where you can do it at all.

    There’s an inspirational quote that gets passed around, usually misattributed to Confucius:

    “Choose a job you love, and you will never work a day in your life.”

    I’ve got a job I love, and I’m gonna come out and say this quote isn’t just wrong, it’s so fundamentally opposed to the state of “rightness” that if you put it together with a true quote, you’d create an explosion powerful enough to rip open spacetime and devour Kalamazoo.

    I love being a writer, but if you try to tell me it’s not work, I’ll send goblins to eat your feet.

New Daft Punk makes everything okay.