At the beginning of March, I was asked to watch Holly Austin Smith’s survivor story. My team at work was planning to discuss including it in a curriculum. From the setup, I expected to hear about trafficking, a sometimes emotionally upsetting topic, but not a personal experience of mine. I didn’t expect to hear about the trafficking survivor’s childhood sexual abuse by a cousin. It caught me off guard, particularly when she went into detail about how she tried to tell her parents what was happening, and how her parents failed to hear her.
Eventually, she found the words to tell her mother, who promised that the cousin would never be allowed near her again. The mother then made her daughter promise never to tell anyone else. When the daughter inadvertently disclosed her experience to a school counselor, her parents instructed her to say that she had been lying to get attention. Standing in her parents’ living room, facing her school counselor, the girl repeated what she had been told to say: She’d been lying about her cousin. Nothing bad had happened. She was sorry.
At first, what I noticed was an absence—my own absence. I felt disconnected on the inside, like something had been unplugged. I felt dissociated, but not the way I feel dissociation in my life, not the way it comes through my body in the moment of trying to escape a trauma. More of a calm, dead, lost feeling. Closer to depression than to the fuzzy cloud I think of as dissociative space. I didn’t cry. I didn’t flinch. I didn’t even notice in the moment that anything was wrong with me. I simply felt empty.
The thing about trigger warnings is they don’t operate the way people seem to think. Since triggered and trigger warning have become cultural punchlines, I hesitate to even use the words, because they have been so roundly mocked and criticized everywhere from Twitter to graduate school classrooms. Some people who mock the idea of these warnings focus on the impossibility of avoiding every upsetting detail. Life is hard, these critics say. Sometimes we have to read or hear about upsetting things. Furthermore, each person’s trauma history is specific. It’s impossible to know what precisely will set someone off: a word, a smell, a person of a particular age or height. Often survivors themselves don’t even know what their triggers are. Even the ones who have done a lot of investigating. Even the ones, like me, who’ve spent a lot of time rooting around in their trauma, looking for patterns or grist for their creative process.
A few days later, after a frustrating conversation with my supervisor (the same one who’d sent me the video to watch days before), I curled up in the well of my desk at work and sobbed. I have been known to rage-cry, but this felt different. Something was happening inside me that was more than just frustration. My emotional response was disproportionate to the conversation that had just happened. I knew this meant something, but the harder I tried to push for answers, the further it slipped away.
So I tried to piece together what had set me off. I combed through the previous week of my life, curious about where it had stemmed from. Like placing beads on a string, I organized and tracked my experiences one by one, obsessively ruminating on them, turning them over in my hand, revisiting them like some kind of emotional rosary. I thought I could make sense of my response. I was sure that my emotions had a logic to them. I was trying to make sense of something I didn’t have a name for. What I did have were fragments, and vague interior feelings that something had happened, that something was wrong.
Have you ever had a dream that was so vivid, so alive, that when you wake up you want to write it down or tell someone about it? I had one of those that night. I tried to tell someone about it. I wanted to write it down. The more I tried to pin language on it, the farther it slipped away from me, back into my unconscious, my own internal night. The more I pressed for language for what I had felt inside the dream, what I had seen, the more words failed.
What is the point, then, critics suggest, of coddling? Wrapping people in bubble wrap, helping them avoid what’s hard, easing their way in a world that is unyielding. Trauma is trauma, hard is hard, and we all get through one way or another. Millennial snowflakes and their participation trophies. You’ve heard these criticisms before, haven’t you? Just a quick Internet search returns a full page of articles with titles like, “Trigger Warnings Coddle the Mind”; “Trigger Warnings Might Actually Be Harmful”; and “The Trouble with Trigger Warnings.”
Roxane Gay says, “There will always be a finger on the trigger. No matter how hard we try, there’s no way to step out of the line of fire.”
It felt like I was grasping at duct tape to patch a hole in my vocabulary. What I mean is, it didn’t make sense. The less sense it made, the more it bothered me. I wanted to understand, and I wanted an explanation. I wanted the soothing predictability of logic and normal to fall into place and explain.
The next day, scrolling Twitter, I got lost in Lacy M. Johnson’s thread about the phrase “all of a sudden.” It was a funny thread, one of those “do you say it like this or like that” sorts of threads. Then, all of a sudden, the word sudden stopped making sense to me. I couldn’t remember what a sudden was, why it was spelled that way, what the meaning of it was. The whole word suddenly fell apart, both as a concept, and as a sound. Sudden. Was that the past tense of sud? What was a sud? Was it related to sodden? The more I thought about it, the less sense I could make out of the word and the sounds. Soon, the letters became lines and dots. My brain squealing and kicking back against the concept of letters. Weren’t they just a series of lines and squiggles and dots? Why did we think any of them meant anything at all?
It was a reverse hallucination, where the average world, and it’s sheer simplicity, in the sober light of day, makes no sense at all. All the tiny social contracts we follow: stop at red lights, walk when the little man lights up in the box, an S looks like this, sounds like this, slow traffic keeps right, and we read from the left, and the word is only meant to be read one way. All of these tiny agreements that make my place in the world cognizable. I had lost my cognition.
Trigger warnings, the argument goes, threaten our resilience, they create an illusion of safety and control in a world that has none of that. Particularly for the marginalized, for whom, it is said, trigger warnings exist.
For two weeks I was stuck simmering with rage and frustration. Too many things seemed illogical, and this overwhelm made me want to cry, but not because I was sad. Because I was pissed that I couldn’t make sense of it. There was no logic to my feelings; there were only feelings. I realize feelings don’t always answer to logic, but I wanted to make the feelings stop, and I could not. Even with the trafficking video weeks behind me, and even though I regained my ability to understand letters and use words, my anxiety lingered along with my frustration. I was still… something
I could feel… something sitting on the back of my tongue, just waiting to pour out. Sometimes it came out raging, and sometimes in tears. I felt like a tiger handler. Only the tiger lived in my mouth, and came out yelling. I felt a weight inside my chest, a whisper of guilt and a thing I couldn’t put my finger on. I complained loudly to anyone who had the bad fortune to ask how things were going.
In the 1980s, Christopher Bollas, a British psychotherapist coined the phrase, “the unthought known.” What he meant by it was, there are things inside us that we know, but cannot think about. There is a way of knowing that other than language. Maybe this is intuition, maybe it’s that feeling of a dream. Where language fails. Where the cliff of reason, semantics, symbols, logic, drops off into the oceanic abyss of the wordless soundless.
In 2006, Annie Rogers called it The Unsayable.
Trauma also lodges in the part of the brain that is outside of words.
In my experience, trigger warnings almost never keep me from engaging with a piece of art. On the contrary, I am often drawn to see plays, hear music, or read books because they were created by survivors and metabolize their stories.
What trigger warnings do is give me the chance to prepare and to give informed consent. I also prefer less inflammatory language. Content note (often CN) offers the same opportunity for topic disclosure, without the expectation or judgement that the word “triggered” carries.
Back at my office, last month, I was prepared to hear about trafficking. I ended up hearing about coercive parents and child sexual abuse and mandatory reporting and the girl who got lost in those experiences. I would have watched it knowing that; I just would have been ready to hear something much closer to my own trauma. I don’t blame anyone for not including a content note. I don’t blame anyone for triggering me. Mostly, I’m curious about my own process and my own trauma, and how it continues to resurface for me, and where.
My trauma hinges on my lack of control and choices. I didn’t have a choice about my abuse, and I didn’t have a choice about how it ended, when it ended, who knew, what they were told. I didn’t have a choice about whether to tell my parents or when. I didn’t have a choice about what my abuser was told, when he was told, how he was told. Nobody asked me, not until there was a plea bargain on the table, and all I could do was choose whether or not I wanted to ask for a criminal trial. It was a choice between two terrible outcomes, neither of which I wanted. It was no choice at all.
When I am allowed to choose whether or not to engage with something that may upset me, I get something back that I lost: control. I will rarely refuse to engage with someone’s survivor story, but knowing that I could if I wanted to, knowing what is coming, is critical for me to feel like I have a say. Even if what I say makes no sense, or is just a series of lines and dots.
I am trying to show you a thing that I don’t have language for. I am trying to dive into a vast night that I can’t explain. Inside this story, there is a thread of curiosity, of lost feminine darkness, of power and what it looks like, of the unsatisfying resolution. I am trying to write what’s unspeakable, what runs from my language the harder I try to capture it.
I don’t have a neat and tidy answer. I only have a feeling without a concept. I want to go deeper. My discomfort beckons me. The problem is, I don’t have the words.
Rumpus original logo and art by Aubrey Nolan.
The Thread is a monthly literary conversation, developed for The Rumpus and edited by Julie Greicius. Send us what you’re reading that you can’t stop thinking or talking about to [email protected], or reach out to Marissa on Twitter or Facebook, and she just might pull the threads of it apart for you in a future column.