Sunday 6 December 2009

This morning I was led to think more deeply about my “Warning” blocks at the tops of some of my more graphically violent chapters.

I read a post by “impertinence” on Dreamwidth, and before I link to it I want to include her own requested warning:

Warning: Very explicit discussion of sexual assault and the nature, anatomy, cause & effect of triggers. Is itself triggery.

(And this post may be somewhat triggery too, so you may want to quit here if that’s troubling for you.) 

Here is the link: “Sexual Assault, Triggering, and Warnings: An Essay.”

Why we should warn

It was a horrifying and humbling read, and I would understand if you’re not up to reading the whole thing, so I’ll tell you the important thing I got out of it: The reactions of a survivor of a traumatic event to literary treatments of traumatic events are fundamentally not the same as those of people who haven’t experienced that trauma.

It is not merely a question of degree — the idea that something that I would find disturbing would be, oh, deeply disturbing to someone who has experienced something like it.

It’s not even simply that they are “reminded” of their own experience, on top of the squicky feelings evoked by the fictional narrative, and that 1 + 1 = twice as disturbed.

The difference is that the story may actually trigger the feelings she felt at the time. As impertinence said:

I wanted to die. And I was being sexually assaulted.

It is necessary for anyone reading this to understand how I felt in the moment, so that you can understand how it feels to be thrown back to that moment.

So: the anatomy of triggering.… [A]n event [or feeling or object] … throws the survivor back into the mindset he or she was at during the time of the assault, or at the very least brings that feeling very close to the surface.…

Often, people who have been triggered cannot stop reading. Because of the nature of sexual assault, part of a trigger is being brought back to that awful feeling of violation.… Triggering is being made helpless all over again. It is instense and sometimes unavoidable. It can result in anything from a crying jag to weeks of worsening depression. It’s not very well understood, and it does not only occur in people with post-​​traumatic stress disorder. My therapist told me that it is a coping mechanism my brain uses, to draw boundaries and try to process the memories of what happened with the reality of what I may be reading/​viewing. It is a warning, saying, “get out now before things get even worse”. It is also just a really horrible and unfortunate side effect of severe trauma.

Writing trauma

Now, I am aware of the concept of “triggers” for people experiencing post-​​traumatic stress disorder. There’s the classic example of the war veteran hearing a car backfire up the street, and ducking for cover because he thinks he’s being shot at, and suddenly his adrenaline levels are through the roof and he’s in the middle of a panic attack.

And this is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, after what Egelric has been through. A few cuddles with Finn aren’t going to erase his mental scars any more than the physical ones, and he will be dealing with this trauma for months or years to come. (And I’m going to have to write about it.)

I’ve even made a few little unresearched hints at PTSD with chapters like Sophie’s reaction to K’s offer of a candlestick and Lena’s attempts to squash down surging memories of unspoken horrors in her past.

But strangely enough — considering how hard I work to evoke emotion in my readers — I never considered that I risked not only making my readers feel some of what my characters felt, but that there might be readers who would actually feel some of what they felt in a similar situation. Considering how physically sick and shaking I make myself when I put myself into my characters’ heads for chapters like “Egelric travels to twilight’s end” or “Ris makes a sound”, you would think I would be more sensitive to that.

Warnings on this site

Even as dark and bloody as it has been lately, this story is still 99% safe for everybody, so I don’t want to just go with a site-​​wide disclaimer — something like: “This story is for adults, don’t read it if you’re not comfortable with adult themes.”

I think that is valid for those of us fortunate enough not to have experienced those “adult themes” in real life, and who simply don’t want to read anything squicky (or would rather be forewarned).

Hey, I refuse to watch horror movies, and I am grateful for “cover your eyes” warnings when watching worthwhile films with a few moments of graphic violence. Still, I’m not literally traumatized if something slips past me. So I think that this sort of “It’s not a horror story, but sometimes you may want to cover your eyes /​ skip a chapter” disclaimer is fair for people like me. (Especially since I do try to warn you when an eye-​​covering scene is coming.)

But survivors of sexual assault and other trauma are “adults” too, who may want to read about some “adult” themes (such as good clean SECKS :bunny:), and they shouldn’t be forced to deny themselves anything not rated G. It would be arrogant and insensitive of me to dismiss them outright with “You’ve been warned; read at your own risk.”

So I’m definitely going to keep my little warning system going, and I’ll probably apply it more liberally in the future, if not also retroactively. I’ve already put warnings on some of the really graphic, blow-​​by-​​blow violent chapters, like “Twilight’s End.” But there are at least a few detailed encounters of assault — such as “Aia is given a truth to tell” — where I didn’t. I may rethink that.

Warnings: not just for the graphic scenes

Even once I have the graphic descriptions out of the way, I think something like Ris wrestling Madra onto the bed may be enough of a trigger for some people to warrant a warning, even though he didn’t actually rape her (for physical definitions of “rape”).

I won’t quote impertinence fully here, because it gets disturbing, but she explains that it’s not just depictions of sexual assault that trigger her, but also that sense of mounting dread that “something bad, something non-​​consensual, was about to happen.” She claims that, to her, this is actually worse than reading a violent rape scene. Because that is the feeling she lived with every day.

I will probably try to find a way to formalize the warnings a little… especially if they are going to appear more often, to make them more standardized and easy-​​on-​​the-​​eye while still being readily visible. Part of the reason why I don’t write warnings more often is that I end up writing a different paragraph for every one, and I just don’t know what to say. I’m beginning to think a “rating” system, with simple mentions of the difficult themes treated within (sexual assault, graphic violence, etc.) — such as what I have for Storylines — would not be such a bad idea after all.

Warnings: not for everybody?

However, I admit that, as a writer, the idea of ratings with labels annoys me a bit, because if I start a chapter with a “Warning: contains sexual assault” then I have basically just started my own chapter with a spoiler and ruined the surprise.

But, y’know, maybe sexual assault isn’t something you should surprise readers with? I’m not sure. Maybe I could include a button to hide the details of warnings — or even hide the warnings entirely — for users who truly do choose to read at their own risk. “Surprise me!” Mode.

Concluding angsty existential tailspin

Writing this post has just led me back around to the question: Who am I to write about all these things, anyway? Who am I to presume to write about horrifically abusive husbands, or incestuous rape, or parents grieving dead children, or soldiers grieving dead comrades-​​in-​​arms, or kids with a suicidal father, or X for nearly any value of X that my story touches on? How do I do it? Why do I do it? Who am I? How dare I?

And where do these monsters come from if not from inside of me?