Trigger Warnings in Education: Some Reminiscences and Suggestions from a Survivor

The NY Times, the New Republic, and a slew of feminist blogs have recently been debating whether it’s appropriate for educators to put trigger warnings about potentially traumatic material on their syllabus. Not surprisingly, the mainstream media has taken the tack that students should expect to be challenged and disquieted by new ideas in the classroom, not shielded from the upsetting facts of life. It’s hard not to see a gendered value system behind this attitude, in which students’ dispassionate intellect (male) reins in their emotional reactions (female) so they can “properly” analyze horrific topics.

Jacqui Shine’s xoJane piece “What We Talk About When We Talk About Trigger Warnings” should be everybody’s starting point for required reading. Shine myth-busts the nasty stereotypes about survivors that recirculate like a bad penny whenever the topic comes up. I’ll post a short excerpt below, then share some personal memories and suggestions based on my time in academia.

Shine writes:

…Among the assumptions that come up and go unchecked are that trauma survivors are the ones asking for trigger warnings to be broadly applied in the first place and that, whether or not they are, asking for consideration means that there’s an imminent threat of a culture war-style takeover by a cabal of survivors who want to curtail our civil liberties or the exchange of ideas or the free expression of artists. (Honestly, it escaped my notice that we’re living in a world that slavishly caters to the needs of trauma survivors. If someone had told me, I would have made a point of enjoying it more!)

I’m also baffled by this assumption that trigger warnings are meant to prevent us from having to see or feel anything difficult–that the only way one responds to a trigger is by falling apart. Being triggered doesn’t mean you fall apart or are overcome by stereotypically feminized hysterics. Trauma responses can include a huge range of reactions, including physical symptoms like headaches, stomachaches, and heart palpitations and emotional ones, like anxiety or numbness. Sometimes being triggered looks like getting really quiet and sitting through something until you can get somewhere safe to take care of yourself. Sometimes it looks like someone going on as though nothing has happened at all and then having a really terrible nightmare that night.

Likewise, I’m not sure why a trigger warning has to imply censoring someone or stopping something. A “warning” is just that, and if you know what to expect–that you’re about to see something upsetting–you can plan in advance how you’ll handle it and how you’ll get through it. And we often warn people when they are about to see things that might be disturbing, whether we know them to be trauma survivors or not…

The following is just my personal perspective. I don’t make any claim for its universality. I completely support professors and students who have found that TWs make their classroom environment healthier. But I would hate to see the conversation start and end there, because the real issue is survivors’ right to an accessible education, not the merits of one particular access ramp. We need to experiment with a wide range of strategies for different situations.

Would TWs have improved my experience in academia? On what kind of material? I can’t imagine it, because I’m so different now, and my triggers in those days were more global than content-specific. I mean, as far as I’m concerned, every university should have “TW for bullshit and abuse of power” emblazoned above their entrance gates.

From early childhood to two years after I graduated law school, I was living in an abusive home. Currently, my life is fantastically psycho-free. Yet I find myself much more triggered by specific media content than I was then. I don’t know why.

I have a huge collection of horror fiction that I no longer read. More than half of the literary fiction that I pick up makes me feel gross inside because the author doesn’t seem to recognize how unhealthy his characters are, or that their deluded condition isn’t inevitable. I’m more quickly overstimulated by rapid-paced violent action in movies (though special effects have also become much more overpowering in the past two decades). With my feminist 3-D glasses on, I become dizzy watching romantic comedies because I see that the protagonists are nothing but stalkers and wounded childen. As for theology, once my favorite genre, a lot of it gives me a headache because I encounter chilly abstractions where empathy and personal narrative would be more relevant.

All of this is to say that it’s hard to imagine how TWs would have helped me in high school, college, or law school. I was too numbed-out to be triggered!

Seriously, though, I think I managed all right despite my raw mental state in those days because of two factors: I could predict (from the course topic or the book’s reputation) what kind of upsetting material a book might address, and I was smart enough to get decent grades despite not reading all of it. (Heck, I boycotted entire novels in senior year of high school because I didn’t approve of stream-of-consciousness–bite me, Andrey Bely!–and Mr. Everdell still passed me. Talk about being coddled.)

An example of successful trigger-management from my law school career: I chose to take an elective seminar called “Law and Politics of Pornography”. One of the required books consisted of scene-by-scene descriptions of numerous adult films, grouped thematically by chapter. I think this book, which was actually somewhat boring, was an excellent choice on the part of the professor, because it gave us a working knowledge of what these films depicted, in a format that wouldn’t overwhelm us sensorily. I’ve always feared mental contamination by images merging sex with violence. The author considerately grouped such films in the S&M chapter, which I pretty much skipped over. The chapter title was a sufficient TW for me.

Sensitive topics become show-stopping triggers because of surprise and sensory intensity. TWs developed to help people manage the unpredictable flood of data on the Internet. When I pick up a textbook on 20th-century history, I expect to come across pictures of Hiroshima victims and dead soldiers, and I’m mentally prepared. When I scroll down my Facebook wall, and those same images pop up between LOLcats and baby pictures, I’m triggered. I could be forced to see something horrible at any moment, from any quarter; there’s no refuge. This panicked conclusion shuts down the mind, making the viewer afraid to explore any media that isn’t completely predictable. Hmm, might the explosion of random, agitating images in every TV commercial break (sex! guns! speeding cars! insults! drunken frogs!) have some connection to America’s closed-minded and polarized politics?

Similarly, TWs on blogs perform the same function as book cover blurbs and reviews, a quick heads-up about content for readers who are unfamiliar with the author’s preoccupations. The sheer volume of writing by unknown authors on the Internet, far more than in your average bookstore, means that readers are taking a risk every time they navigate to a new page. And isn’t that what education is all about–guiding people to risk discovering new ideas, by giving them the tools to orient themselves in an unfamiliar place? So don’t waste my time with your free-speech arguments against TWs.

In the debate over
TWs, we need to distinguish between challenging ideas and overpowering experiences. The former are integral to education, the latter are not.

The very fact that we’re discussing triggers in academia is a radical, positive step. As I’ve said in my “Survivors in Church” posts, trauma awareness is an often-overlooked component of accessibility and diversity training. Finally, we’re acknowledging that students are not floating heads but affective human beings who feel personally implicated in the narratives they read in class.

However, a trauma-management tool borrowed from the Internet may not be as helpful in the classroom. Rather than telling students what they probably already know (“Romeo & Juliet: TW for suicide”), educators should watch out for unnecessarily traumatizing material in their curriculum choices. It’s the difference between posting a sign “Warning: Hazardous Waste” versus not dumping the damn thing in the first place. Which do you think is more effective?

Does this mean avoiding all painful topics? Certainly not. Teachers already balance such factors when important texts contain racist ideas or slurs. For example, schools assign Huckleberry Finn despite its controversial use of the N-word, because the value of learning about American racism outweighs the pain of hearing the slur. However, it would be irresponsible and unnecessary to re-enact scenes from Huck where one student would have to call another student “N-word”. Verbal abuse is not a legitimate teaching tool. That’s what I mean about challenging ideas versus overpowering experiences.

How might this work for other common triggers? Well, if you’re an English teacher choosing between two novels that both fit the course requirements, consider assigning the one without the graphic rape scene. Or assign the one where rape is presented in a context that facilitates critical discussion of rape culture, rather than one that gratuitously eroticizes the assault or minimizes its moral significance.

If you’re a history teacher, have a presumption in favor of low-stimulation media when studying violent events (e.g. written descriptions as opposed to videos). Show violent images sparingly to make a point that couldn’t be made otherwise. Don’t fall into “Operation Rescue” tactics of using bloody photos to shock students into paying attention. Pro-actively acknowledge the students’ need for self-care and normalize their feelings of distress instead of projecting an ideal of emotional detachment. Students who are allowed to empathize and grieve about atrocities will learn the moral lessons of history better than ones who dissociate in the name of objectivity.

Whatever your subject area, don’t radiate contempt for your students’ foundational beliefs and intellectual defenses. Why was I an aesthetic reactionary in high school, turning up my nose at Mallarmé and Ezra Pound? Because I was unconsciously triggered by chaos, be it moral relativism, absurdist art, or an undisciplined classroom. I couldn’t get perspective on this in an academic culture that assumed that all students were safe and complacent, and that the teachers’ job was to epater le bourgeois. My first-year Intro to Legal Thought professor spent our last day of class haranguing us for our cowardice. He’d been giving us bombs to smash the system, he raved, but we’d let them all fizzle out. But some of us come to education seeking a bomb shelter from our shell-shocked lives. We were already born in the ruins; we crave a vision of order and harmony, and the tools to build it.

TWs alone won’t make academia survivor-friendly, any more than campus speech codes ended racism. A deeper values-shift is needed. But anything that breaks the silence around trauma is a good start.


Unconventional Mother’s Day Blogaround

The girly pink explosion of sweetness that is Mother’s Day will soon be upon me again. Do I have a problem with that?

I love this little guy, and I love pink.

But when I think about being a mother, the images that come to mind are not sugary, soft, and girly. I channel the power of a mother tiger protecting her cub. I am a warrior, proud of my battle scars. I feel some kinship with the Hindu goddess Kali, who is one of the incarnations of Mother Durga, creator and destroyer of all things. In Sanskrit, “Durga” means fortress. As a mother, I hold psychic boundaries around my home to make a sacred space where my child can grow safely.

I want to celebrate motherhood in a way that doesn’t erase the difficulties of embracing femininity under patriarchy. I want space to grieve the brokenness of my memories of my own mother. In time, Shane may have complicated feelings about Mother’s Day, too, because it encompasses his birthmother’s loss as well as my gain.

If, for whatever reason, you’d like to add some emotional nuance to your observance (or boycotting) of this holiday, the readings below may be of interest.

At the excellent blog Women in Theology, Janice Rees reviews a documentary about a teenage daughter and her mother’s gender transition to male:

The film’s questions around trans identity helps us to push the motherhood category, or rather, to see it in its normative form. That is, for bodies with wombs that have borne children, an alleged and drastic ontological shift is enacted, and a new normative way of being embodied is established.[3] No longer women (which continues to be the norm for wombed childless bodies), these bodies, from all accounts, take on a new status as ‘mother’. To be a mother is to be caught up in this new quasi-subjectivity. I write this as a parent, one who almost always hesitates on this capital M word, this form that overwhelms me with its situated concreteness. Now, having endured the kind of discrimination and expectations placed on mothers, I find it hard to see a future in motherhood, or any sense in its usefulness as a term…

…Ultimately, this fixed category of mother becomes a foundational lens in which we not only read the quasi-subject (who is mother) but through which other, childless subjects, may emerge in more fluid identities. That [the daughter] Billie’s story becomes the primary lens in 52 Tuesdays is hardly surprising…yet James continues to subvert his status of mother – not due to the supposedly obvious implications of transgender transition, but because of his trans-formation back into a person who wants to be someone. And if having a womb and or being a parent has a future – at least for those of us who feel marginalised and oppressed by the normative categories of gender, and this peculiar ‘mother’ status – then there is something profoundly liberating in James’ subversion…

Dr. Karyl McBride, author of Will I Ever Be Good Enough? Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers, writes on the Psychology Today blog about the painful double standard that this holiday can bring up:

Mother’s Day is approaching and this time of year discussions about mothers explode, but of course the roaring voices describing maternal narcissism are hushed to the background. We hear the praise and celebrations about good mothering, but simultaneously the complete stillness and silence about inadequate mothering…

…If adult children of narcissistic parents discuss their upbringing, they are usually met with disdain. “Good girls or boys don’t hate their mothers!” “There must be something wrong with you, if you are not connected with your mother.” “It must be your fault.” So, this population of people goes into hiding. They go back to what they were taught and practice superficial pretending which does not help their own recovery process. They are told once again to “put a smile on that pretty little face and pretend that everything is just fine with this family.”

But here’s the misnomer. If a narcissistic parent raised a daughter or son, it means that the parent was not capable of empathy and unconditional love. So, that child did not receive the bonding, attachment and maternal closeness from that parent. The issue lies in the disorder of the parent. It does not mean that the daughter or son is not capable of loving or that they don’t love that parent. In fact, these adult children have spent their entire lifetimes trying to get attention, love, approval, and nurturing from the narcissistic parent to no avail. What I have seen in my research and work is that adult children who come from narcissistic families dearly love their parents and the issue is that the parent is not capable of loving them back. Therein lies the need for acceptance and grief for the adult child and this is the first step in their recovery process. But, because the adult child is reacting to the lack of maternal love, they are seen as the one who does not love the parent. This misnomer is not readily understood…

…So let me ask you this: Because you see the disorder in the parent and you are reacting to it and working your own recovery, do you think that means you don’t love your parent? Or are you simply standing in your truth, accepting your reality, and working on your own mental health?…


Finally, let’s remember that before Mother’s Day became a showcase for perfect performance of gender roles, it was a rallying point for women’s activism, as Christian scholar Diana Butler Bass explains in this HuffPo article, “The Radical History of Mother’s Day“:

..In May 1907, Anna Jarvis, a member of a Methodist congregation in Grafton, West Virginia, passed out 500 white carnations in church to commemorate the life of her mother. One year later, the same Methodist church created a special service to honor mothers. Many progressive and liberal Christian organizations — like the YMCA and the World Sunday School Association — picked up the cause and lobbied Congress to make Mother’s Day a national holiday. And, in 1914, Democratic President Woodrow Wilson made it official and signed Mother’s Day into law. Thus began the modern celebration of Mother’s Day in the United States.

For some years, radical Protestant women had been agitating for a national Mother’s Day hoping that it would further a progressive political agenda that favored issues related to women’s lives. In the late 19th century, Julia Ward Howe (better know for the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”) expressed this hope in her 1870 prose-poem, “A Mother’s Day Proclamation” calling women to pacifism and political resistance…

Years later, Anna Jarvis intended the new holiday to honor all mothers beginning with her own — Anna Reeves Jarvis, who had died in 1905. Although now largely forgotten, Anna Reeves Jarvis was a social activist and community organizer who shared the political views of other progressive women like Julia Ward Howe.

In 1858, Anna Reeves Jarvis organized poor women in Virginia into “Mothers’ Work Day Clubs” to raise the issue of clean water and sanitation in relation to the lives of women and children. She also worked for universal access to medicine for the poor. Reeves Jarvis was also a pacifist who served both sides in the Civil War by working for camp sanitation and medical care for soldiers of the North and the South.

My awesome mom-of-choice, Roberta, marching with OLOC at Northampton Gay Pride 2014.

Becoming Church: My Field Trip to an Intentional Christian Community

In late April, I attended the Second Acts Conference in Washington, DC, an initiative of the intentional Christian community and social justice coalition Becoming Church. Becoming Church is an umbrella organization for small-group churches (a dozen people maximum) that follow the Church of the Saviour model of “journey inward/journey outward“. Grounded in their faith in Christ, members support each other’s personal spiritual transformation and work together on service projects in their city.

Their vision for social change is both radical and humble. Radical, because they want to be used by the Spirit to attack systemic injustice. They’re not content to provide palliative care to the less fortunate, or as they prefer to say, “the under-resourced”. Humble, because they try to operate on God’s timetable, not their own, and eschew ambitious arms’-length initiatives in favor of intensive long-term relationships with a few needy individuals at a time. The combination reminds me of Partners in Health.

The topic of this year’s conference was criminal justice reform. Mass incarceration (mostly of poor people of color) due to the War on Drugs, and the legal disabilities placed on ex-offenders, have created a permanent under-class with few opportunities to re-enter society. People with a criminal record, or sometimes even an arrest record, can be legally discriminated against in housing and employment. They’re ineligible for most professional licenses, both white-collar and skilled trades. Essential federal benefits, including food stamps and public housing, are unavailable to them and their families. In many states, they have no right to vote. Barred from the legal economy, many ex-offenders predictably return to prison. (Look for a future blog post about Michelle Alexander’s devastating book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, which was a foundational text for our conference.)

Becoming Church is working toward an ideal of 0% recidivism. They acknowledge that not every “returning citizen” will choose to turn his or her life around. But that doesn’t diminish our collective responsibility to remove every obstacle to their re-integration into the community.

Becoming Church has adopted a multi-pronged approach of prayer, activism, and social service. Their latest activist project involves buying stock in the largest private prison companies and speaking out at shareholder meetings. The small church groups in DC and Baltimore that spearheaded the conference operate “Strength to Love” halfway houses for returning citizens. These houses offer a structured and sober environment, skills training, spiritual support groups, and community gardens where residents can grow and sell fresh produce. We held our Sunday morning worship service in one such house in Anacostia.

You can find out more about their criminal justice reform work (donate! volunteer!) at their spin-off website, Why We Can’t Wait.

For the remainder of this post, I want to reflect on some striking differences between the Church of the Saviour model (as I briefly experienced it) and the mainline churches I usually attend.

Spiritual Growth, Not Church Growth

When a Church of the Saviour community grows beyond a dozen people, they’re supposed to split off. The accountability and support relationships among members are so intensive that it would be unwieldy to build that kind of trust in a larger group.

Contrast that to the endless bragging or hand-wringing about membership numbers in traditional churches and denominations. Our churches keep score by the numbers. We treat growth as a verdict on the rightness of our theology or political views, relative to other churches that are shrinking. Or we let ourselves be led by economic imperatives to fill the pews so that we can maintain our buildings and staff.

The Church of the Saviour groups do own a number of properties, but as I understand it, these are mainly for the benefit of the community, not worship spaces. Examples include a hospice care house for homeless people, an arts center for youth, the Strength to Love houses, and several small apartment buildings for low-income tenants. In most cases, each service project is spun off as a separate 501(c)(3) nonprofit.

The needs of the neighborhood drive the church groups’ ownership and use of real estate. The property is a resource for the neighbors, whether or not they attend church. By comparison, a traditional church has its own property which needs financial infusions, and invites neighbors to join so they can contribute to it. (Yes, I’m being cynical, I know we also want to spread the gospel, but the structure of the institution tells a different story.)

Inner Work Comes First

For Church of the Saviour communities, personal spiritual formation is the foundation on which the social gospel is built. Members help each other remain emotionally honest and open to God’s presence. Like a writing workshop or a Weight Watchers group, they bolster each other’s commitments to the spiritual disciplines (prayer, meditation, journaling, tithing) that might otherwise go the way of so many New Year’s resolutions.

This is because they understand that God does the work of transforming the world, not us. We’re just the “donkeys” who devotedly carry our little piece of the great burden.

Now, I’ve only spent three days with these folks, so I can’t say whether they’d start piling on the “shoulds” during a more long-term relationship. I can only observe that I never once felt burnt-out, pressured, guilt-tripped, or commanded to serve others in a particular way. Instead, during the support group check-ins and prayer times, the facilitators constantly invited us to share what the Spirit was doing in our lives. We were given opportunities to be educated about social problems, and encouraged with detailed case studies of successful outreach. Then it was up to us to discern our personal path to discipleship.

On several occasions, one of the conference leaders proposed that Christians are not spiritually prepared for the work we have to do. We haven’t taken stock of the sacrifices and suffering that might come our way when we stand up for justice. We aren’t sufficiently plugged-in to God’s love to be able to respond with compassion and equanimity when wrongdoers lash out at us. Our first priority must be knowing Jesus in our hearts.

By comparison, the liberal church frequently preaches Jesus as the supreme giver of homework assignments. We’re told that we should tackle huge structural injustices through individual good deeds (some of which, to me, sound strategically ineffective as well as inadequate) because “Jesus cared about the poor”. We don’t hear nearly enough about spiritual practices that would replenish our strength, ways of reconnecting to God’s love and getting support from our church family.

Church of the Saviour appears to understand that superhuman challenges require superhuman assistance.

I’m Not Okay, You’re Not Okay, but Maybe We’re Okay

Friends who’ve been through 12-Step programs have quoted these wise maxims to me: “You’re only as sick as your secrets” and “Don’t compare your insides to somebody else’s outsides”. I didn’t hear these exact phrases at Becoming Church, but these principles inform their accountability practices.

Church of the Saviour was conceived as a community of racial and economic reconciliation. Participants undertake to let go of the status markers that keep us separated from one another. Money can
easily become an enabler of ego-defenses and falseness. It makes us feel superior or simply allows us to hide dysfunctional aspects of our private lives.

Therefore, Church of the Saviour offers a more intensive membership track (in addition to spiritual support groups) where you make your financial statements transparent to the group, and accept guidance from them about developing a spiritually balanced relationship to money. Members also hold each other accountable for sticking to regular prayer practices, and try to keep each other on track in their personal lives, such as guiding a married couple through a rough patch. Members choose annually whether to renew their commitment to this intensive track. There’s supposed to be no judgment attached to the decision either way. It’s my understanding that they can still remain in the small group.

This is the part of Church of the Saviour that I have mixed feelings about. I don’t think I would adopt this model for my future Christian community for trauma survivors. People with my kind of history have been trained to submit to others’ judgments instead of developing our own sense of right and wrong. We are hyper-sensitive to emotional cross-currents in social situations, and can have trouble hearing our inner voice over the noise of others’ expectations. Reclaiming our privacy is a big part of our healing. This ties into a larger problem with Christianity–assuming that everyone’s main problem is taming an inflated ego rather than rebuilding a crushed spirit. (Or both at once, since parts of the self typically become inflated to protect other vulnerable parts.)

Based on some remarks from the conference, the accountability program seems based on notions of “objectivity” and self-suspicion that are quite mainstream in traditional Christianity, but that I have come to reject. Participants expressed the view that left to her own devices, the individual will be selfishly biased in her own favor, but her fellow group members have no motive to misjudge her.

In my experience, this is not true. Bias against a particular person isn’t the only obstacle. Most of the time, we have trouble even seeing that person through the fog of our own projections and pre-existing opinions. I mean, that’s what racism is, right? I don’t want to have negative stereotypes of African-Americans, I don’t hold that as an ideology, I try to overcome racist beliefs when I notice them, but I probably still make a lot of subconscious assumptions about people based on their looks and cultural markers.

My false diagnosis by adoption clinicians currently has more traumatic charge than memories of my abusive childhood. I don’t take the latter so personally, since I thoroughly understand the suffering that clouds my mother’s mind, but part of me is still tempted to internalize the former, because I can only speculate what (other than my “objective” presentation) made them see me as so repellent and damaged. The belief that they had “no reason to be biased” seriously messed with my head for years.

On the other hand, the companionship of two dozen grateful, devout, and grounded people inspired me to envision a time when my options would be less constrained by my trauma history. I had moments when I was able to perceive that God’s power was so much greater than the power of the people who hurt me. I still think I’m too much of a loner introvert to join this kind of group, for the same reason that I don’t usually join writing workshops, but I wouldn’t be motivated by fear anymore. And I can imagine that an accountability group with good boundaries might be an interesting opportunity for some survivors to face their fear of intimacy.

Church of the Saviour has a refreshing humility about, and lack of attachment to, any specific institutional format. Their attitude (in theory, at least) is “this seems to be working right now, but go ahead and change it as needed”. I’m really grateful to these folks for helping me open my heart and mind to new possibilities.

Here’s a hymn we sang at the conference that made a big difference to me. Lyrics here.