Pull the Trigger
I’ve been reading a lot about the trigger warning debate online lately. Maybe you have too? There is an interesting conversation about whether to put trigger warnings on college courses, or on specific texts required in those classes.
It’s become a subject of fascination for me, mostly because of a story from my past that revolves around this very subject.
When I was in college, not so very long ago, in a Christian university, I found myself in a literature class. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced before and it challenged me in new, and often uncomfortable, ways. All of a sudden, I was learning to read Robert Frost from a Freudian perspective or putting a Structuralist spin on Nathaniel Hawthorne. It stretched my brain, sometimes almost to the limit, in a good way.
But then there was Flannery.
I realize that I tread on thin ice when I tell this story, central as she is to the canon of many. I will say it now, as I said it then: Flannery O’Connor is a great writer. Since college, I have stayed far away from her work.
There is a story, you’ve probably read it. It’s called “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.” It’s about a serial killer, the Misfit, and an unfortunate family who accidentally cross his path, largely because of an incident with the cat, as I recall.
I read this story with mounting horror, watching the characters die and finally wondering when the Misfit would realize that I was still there and kill me, too.
It’s not logical, of course, it’s just a story. The Misfit isn’t real. But I couldn’t calm down. I spent several nights suffering through fitful sleep, nervous about the darkness.
I’ve always been an experiential reader (and viewer). This is often a blessing, allowing me to plunge deeply into a fictional world or feel like I’m having coffee with the author of a memoir, but it can also be deeply disturbing, as when I saw the Sixth Sense in high school and couldn’t sleep in my own bed for two months, dreams altered and terrifying, as a result.
This might seem extreme, but I’ve learned that images and words stay with me. I have felt their power, an invisible hold.
After the incident with Flannery, I went to my advisor. She is a kindred spirit, the same woman who took me into her home one Thanksgiving and made me feel very much a part of the family. She also understood this feeling, from experience. She too is careful about what she watches and reads. She urged me to go to the chair of the English department, my professor for this entry-level English class.
I was scared to death.
I made my appointment and calmly told her my problem. I still remember her words after I had described my reaction to the Misfit.
“But Cara, it’s supposed to be read as an allegory.”
“If I could read it as an allegory, I wouldn’t be here,” I said.
It was then that the accomplished woman in front of me told me something I never would have expected to hear from her. I was a little in awe of her, to be honest, she almost frightened me with her intelligence. “I think you should Cliff Notes everything for the rest of the semester,” she said. “Ruin the endings, make sure that there are no surprises. Maybe that will help.”
You know what? It did.
We read several more things in that class that were disturbing. (We were right at the beginning of a unit on Flannery). I searched for summaries of short stories and novels, getting a sense of what I was getting into before I dove in. The preparation gave me a little bit of armor, and the ability to choose when I would engage with particular challenges.
I don’t recall skipping any texts, but the nightmares went away.
I continued in this practice throughout my college career, checking out a book before reading it, a baby step toward self-care for my easily traumatized self. I learned to say no to books when I needed to. I still do that today.
It’s taken me a long time to realize that I wasn’t less strong, or less of an adult because I am deeply affected. It feels that way, sometimes, when I’m saying no to a film or a book, but I’m learning to be gracious to myself.
I have learned that the right information finds it’s way to me and my heart grows full and heavy at the proper time. I have learned that I don’t have to read about all the details of female genital mutilation in order to care, to cry, to want to bring change.
My own weaknesses are teaching me to be more gentle with others, unsure about where their tender spots might be. It’s easy, for me, to forget that gentleness is indeed a fruit of the Spirit, perhaps not as sexy as love or joy, but a sign of that Presence nonetheless.
It has been said, in this Trigger Warning debate, that those who are desirous of placing such warnings on classes and texts are hoping to get through college without engaging difficult subjects or perspectives that might be different from them. This is not my story. Daily, I choose to search out challenge to my perspective, through conversation, and what I consume. Daily, I choose to do so without crushing my spirit.
For more on this topic, I recommend starting with this article by Rebecca Joines Schinsky over at Bookriot.