For Kinder Education
English Literature Degrees Should Come With Trigger Warnings
My study shouldn’t trigger suicidal thoughts for the sake of artistic analogy.
My hands are shaking as I type out this article. I’m honestly upset I have to be here, and I’m angry that we are still having conversations about trigger warnings in books in the year 2021.
Let’s get the meat of the story out of the way.
I am a twenty-five-year-old female student who is in the last few months of an English Literature course. I use a website that has a trigger warning section in the reviews to track my books. This trigger warning section though imperfect is generally helpful; fellow readers submit the triggers. This, unfortunately, means that one of us has to be triggered first to warn the others.
I’ve survived 70% of my university course. For the majority of my course, there was no mention of rape or child abuse; in fact, many of the books featured hopeful love and female sexual awakening. These books were filled with consent and beautiful relationships if they featured anything sexual at all. However, of the last seven books I have to read, four of them feature rape as either a plot point or a literary device.
Dear Universe, I am tired.
The first two books took me by surprise. I had checked my trigger warning website and nothing red-flagged, so I felt safe reading those books.
The first book wasn’t a big deal. It was a setback in my mental health and an unpleasant surprise. I have been somewhat desensitised to rape content at this point in my healing. I was able to move on relatively quickly (Between The Acts by Virginia Wolf).
The second book is what really set me off. The whole way through the book, the lead character had the same trauma triggers as me. Reading about someone impulsively wanting to change things about their body or act a certain way, even contemplating suicide triggered my own trauma responses. The rape scene at the end of the book sealed the deal. Despite this, I still valued the perspective that the book gave on trauma. I would’ve loved reading it had it provided trigger warnings so that I could mentally prepare myself for the content I was about to read (Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys).
After this book, I read a lovely Welsh play. There were no triggering scenes, so I hoped that I was finally clear of any triggers (Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas).
I was wrong. The fourth book solidified my suicidal thoughts. I had to stop my work and call my therapist. This particular story was written very much from the male gaze. While the novel seemed to condemn those actions, the characters within the novel were more or less indifferent. Or at least they still were at the point I put down the book. I read to just under the halfway mark before I decided that I needed to contact someone. I tried to pick it up again afterwards, only to be met with yet another rape scene, so my husband forcibly removed it from my life (Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih).
At this point, we sat down and looked at the rest of my curriculum, checking the upcoming books for triggers more thoroughly. The next book on my reading list, I haven’t read and will not touch. It specifically deals with the type of trauma I suffered. In my current state, after experiencing so many triggers and emotionally destroying words, I will not be able to read this. It may have literary or moral value, but at this point, I am so angry that I cannot see it (Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson).
This is the last book on my list, as far as I can tell, that has this kind of content.
I want to know a few things.
Why did my university think this was okay?
I could go into all of the statistics about rape culture and triggers, but honestly, I don’t think anyone reading this, apart from victims, cares. I’ve been repeatedly shown that nobody cares about victims enough to change anything about how the system works.
I shouldn’t have to be re-traumatised to get a degree in literature.
Let me say that louder for the people in the back.
I shouldn’t have to be re-traumatised to get a degree in literature!
So what exactly am I asking for?
I’m not asking for much, a little kindness, or a little thoughtfulness perhaps.
All I want is a post on the forum at the beginning of the year with a list of trigger warnings that people can either click open and read or ignore entirely.
That’s the bare minimum.
What would be really nice is a list of other books to supplement my reading so that I still feel as though I have earnt my degree.
What I’m really asking for is a change of culture and the way we view trigger warnings.
A lot of people are against trigger warnings because of spoilers. I do understand this as a reader and someone who doesn’t like to know the ending. I do, however, want the option of knowing if a book is going to make me want to hurt myself or not.
In the case of my literature degree, I found it very difficult to put down these books.
I felt as though my university was pushing me towards self-harm.
It has been incredibly difficult for me to justify not reading the books that I’m required to read for my degree. This is especially true since I’m an overachiever who wants good grades out of this experience.
I’m being edged out of a degree that I have paid for because they have decided that discussions about rape can be casual. They have become so desensitised that rape has become a literary device. They’re insensitive to their students behind the pages.
I’m not a snowflake.
I’m a twenty-five-year-old woman who has been dealing with emotional, mental and physical healing for twenty-three years of her life.
I am a strong woman. I am a powerful person. When I can prepare myself emotionally for content that triggers me, I can read most texts.
Let’s start doing the bare minimum for survivors.
It’s time to put trigger warnings in books!