Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Trigger Warnings: Chelsey Clammer on Lacy Johnson's The Other Side

The back of the book is your warning:

Lacy Johnson was held prisoner in a soundproofed room in a basement apartment that her ex-boyfriend rented and outfitted for the sole purpose of raping and killing her. She escaped, but not unscathed. The Other Side is the haunting account of a first passionate and then abusive relationship, the events leading to Johnson’s kidnapping and imprisonment, her dramatic escape, and her hard-fought struggle to recover. At once thrilling, terrifying, harrowing, and hopeful, The Other Side…[provokes] both troubling and timely questions about gender roles and the epidemic of violence against women.

To: Lacy M. Johnson
From: Chelsey Clammer
May 20, 2014

Hi Lacy,

First, a bit about me: I have my MA in Women’s Studies from Loyola University Chicago, my BA in English and Feminist Studies from Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas (a feminist studies degree from a cow town in Texas? Yes. It exists. Go Texas), and I am currently enrolled in the Rainier Writing Workshop MFA program. Aside from all of that, though, I am a feminist (though I am becoming less certain of that term) who has also been diagnosed with PTSD, an eating disorder and bipolar disorder, and I am also a fabulously recovering alcoholic.

I tell you all of this so you have a general idea of where I coming from. I just finished reading an advance copy of The Other Side (I writing a review of it…) and the whole time I was reading I was a) amazed by its unrelenting vulnerability and questioning, b) engaged with its complexities, c) struck by the magnitude of your damn fine prose, and d) suspended every 50 pages or so by the necessity to breathe deeply in order to give my body a little self-care respite upon reading this intense material.

While reading The Other Side, I also read a NY Times article that was posted a few days ago about how UC Santa Barbara and a few other colleges are considering making it a requirement for professors to put trigger warnings in their syllabi. Personally, I am against the idea. This has not always been my position on the matter. Right after a sexual assault I thought every piece of literature or film needed a trigger warning on it. Now, though, I believe that because it’s impossible to put a trigger warning on the entire world, efforts should be concentrated on how one can take care of oneself when reading triggering material. Unfortunately, there is always going to be violence in the world. It will continue to exist if we continue to avoid it.” In other words, violence is a fact, so how can we react to it and work with it in a sustainable way? I don’t think trigger warnings are the answer.

…I’d like to interview you…


You know the book is going to be triggering. You know the book is about rape and violence and will be emotionally hard to get through, You know this because you read the book’s description. Its synopsis is your warning. You probably shouldn’t read this. And yet. You heed these warnings, you open the book and encounter words and language and stories and realities that defy the idea that a warning can temper the truth. Your only preparation for reading this memoir is your willingness to enter it.

When [the man who will kidnap and rape me] is home, he wants to fuck: in the morning, at lunchtime, after school, before bed. I say no, or turn away, or if I find some reason to be out of the house all day, we’re up until three in the morning, him screaming at me the whole time, twisting my words until they tell a story I’ve never heard before, until I doubt myself, until I finally give in, and let him fuck me while I sob face-first into my pillow. Our polite Asian neighbors never complain, never look me in the eye. (97)

There are no warnings, no cushions that could soften the strength of Johnson’s candor.

Though maybe this would work:

Warning: blatancy.

[After the kidnapping and rape] all I want is someone to fuck me senseless, to pound me until I'm raw and shaking. I want to be held down, pushed aside, flipped over, and smacked. I want to be choked, chained, tied to the floor. I want to bruise, to bleed, to cry out please stop please don’t stop. I want him to leave after it’s done. And then I'll stand up, take a shower, turn on the television. (133)

But how can an author provide a warning for something she doesn’t even want to name?

[It’s easy to write] how he kidnapped and raped me, how he murdered my cat in our kitchen, how he threatened to abandon me in a foreign country….It’s easy to write that I'm afraid of him….It’s hard to admit that I loved him. (87-8)


“Colleges across the country this spring have been wrestling with student requests for what are known as ‘trigger warnings.’ Explicit alerts that the material they are about to read or see in a classroom might upset them or, as some students assert, cause symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in victims of rape or in war veterans.”

The New York Times article explains how some professors are fuming. “Trigger warnings, they say, suggest a certain fragility of mind that higher learning is meant to challenge, not embrace.” The terms “trigger warning” is widely used in feminist blogs with the intention of preparing readers for upcoming content that might be troubling for survivors of violence to read. The warnings are used as signals, as a pause in the text to let the reader gather gulps of breath, take a break, or to walk away.

Advocates of trigger warnings push to have them included in syllabi so violence survivors would be prepared for intense material, would possibly save them from having a panic attack or flashback. A trigger warning could warn readers that The Great Gatsby contains misogynistic violence, that Mrs. Dalloway contains a suicide, or that Things Fall Apart contains racism and religious persecution.

The belief is that a trigger warning would be there for the protection of the readers, to keep them safe as they read the troubling material, to help them navigate different topics they might have felt uncertain about how to respond to them.

Therefore, by mentioning in this sentence that I know of a woman who was brutally raped by her step-father because she was black and he was a white supremacist, and then she committed suicide by slashing her wrists after the rape without giving the reader any sort of trigger warning of this story, I am now responsible for your emotional reactions.

But I don’t know you.

What if, instead, I decided to tell the story of the cute puppy my mother bought me for my 5th birthday? What if, instead of being triggered by stories of sexual violence, you got panic attacks from thinking about puppies because you saw a puppy run over by a truck when you were five and it profoundly altered your spiritual beliefs to the point that you now have unmanageable anxiety when considering the purpose of life?

How can I warn the world of every word I am about to say?

And what if thinking about trigger warnings triggers you?

Warning: this sentence contains the word “trigger.”


Who should be responsible for warning you of your uncertainties?


Chelsey Clammer: Where do you think the concept of "responsibility" comes into play when thinking about how/if the writer needs to forewarn her readers about challenging and possibly triggering material in her work?

Lacy M. Johnson: This notion of the writer’s responsibility to her audience makes me very uncomfortable. If I have a responsibility to my reader, it’s to tell her the truth about my experience, and to do so in a meaningful way. In The Other Side, for example, I’m writing about a personal history of sexual violence and domestic abuse. It was painful for me to write this book, and I imagine it is painful to read it. That’s intentional, because the truth is that the pain of that experience — of living it, writing it, and learning to move past it — is precisely the point. People will likely feel triggered by this book, but I don’t think I make any secret of what it’s about. I mean, it’s right there on the jacket copy.


You might think I need to be warned when a book I am about to read contains scenes of sexual violence. But really, what I need to be warned about is if a character is named Kelly.

It’s funny. I was walking down Wayne Street at 11pm after singing karaoke at a bar with my friends. As I walked home in my short brown dress, a man ran up from behind me. He ran up behind me and he grabbed me. And when he grabbed me, he reached his hands up my dress and put his hands in me. He filled me with his fingers. Think: bowling ball. And then asked me Hey baby, what’s your name? The brown dress I was wearing was the exact same dress that the woman who I had a huge crush on that summer also had, although hers was Kelly Green. This crush wasn’t at karaoke the night a stranger assaulted me by plugging his fingers into me, because she was fighting with her girlfriend. Six years after that night, six years full of therapy and self-harm and alcohol poisoning and hospital trips to stitch up cuts I made myself and a couple shots at sobriety until it really stuck and then moving to a different neighborhood then moving to a different state then moving to another state then getting married then moving again and then I'm at a job interview and meet my future co-worker. She introduces herself as Kelly. Shivers ricochet through me. I’ve been through enough DBT groups to know how to regulate my breathing when I feel a panic attack coming on. I regulate my breathing. I concentrate on Kelly’s lips instead of the flashback that’s trying to claw its way through my presence. The interview is short and in ten minutes I'm back inside my car, finally able to sob.

It’s not hearing the name “Wayne” or seeing a brown dress that scares me. It’s not thinking about the stranger and his hands in my body or my friends who supported me through the effects of his hands in my body. Sometimes I'm doing so well that I can see something that’s Kelly Green and only feel a blip of anxiety. But then six years later I meet a woman named Kelly and I completely lose it.


Chelsey Clammer: As a teacher, how do you approach teaching possibly triggering material?

Lacy M. Johnson: I don’t think about course material in terms of its potential to trigger or not trigger. If we’re watching a film with a difficult scene, I’ll let folks know in advance what to expect and I make clear that if they imagine such a scene will make them uncomfortable, they should feel free to excuse themselves at any time. But I also make clear that this doesn’t mean they’re excused from thinking or writing about the film, or even that scene in particular. If anything, I push harder on them to think critically about their discomfort in relation to the overall aims of the work. 


I'm scared shitless about fishtailing in my truck, crashing into a guardrail and then cracking my skull on the windshield and slowly dying before the paramedics can come and save me. I can’t seem to let go of this fear. And yet I still drive in the rain. I can’t avoid the fact that I live in this world.

I'm not saying a rape survivor should read books or watch films about rape in order to see if she’s “healed.”

But sometimes those books fall in our laps. Since we can’t always avoid triggers, shouldn’t we learn what to do with them?


Chelsey Clammer: Have you ever been triggered by any works of literature, and if so what was your response?

Lacy M. Johnsons: Absolutely. In fact, I tend to seek out works of literature with frank and honest discussions of traumatic experiences. I realize that might sound a little twisted, but I have found that by understanding the stress responses I have to literature (or film or visual art for that matter) that confronts the other people’s experience of trauma, I feel slightly better equipped to understand my own. I feel empathy for that other person, and the intellectual and emotional work of moving with that person through their grief helps me to navigate my own. 


Text as mirror. There I am, on the page. There is my experience. The details are different, and the words are ones I wouldn’t have thought to use, but there I am. Reflected. Held. Connected.

There’s more about how we find strength in other people who will not allow themselves to be silenced. About how we can get through those moments full of fright by knowing that other people have survived. That they have put words to what I have not yet figured out how to describe.

This is about more than sharing an experience with the world. This is more than about a reader feeling like someone gave her experience a voice. This is about understanding how we can’t actually control anything. The world happens. And we’re happening in this world. We need to learn how to work with these things.


Chelsey Clammer: Writing is a way to heal from trauma, but what about reading?

Lacy M. Johnson:  I don’t think I could have written The Other Side (nor would I have felt compelled to) without the brave work of women whose work found me when I most needed it — Alice Sebold, Kathyrn Harrison, Lidia Yuknavitch, Sarah Manguso, Mary Karr. I’ve never met these women, and yet their words — difficult and painful as they were — came as a great comfort to me in a time of terrible doubt and fear. 

I surround myself with books that are hard to open, but even harder to put down once I’ve journeyed through them.

Chelsey Clammer has been published in The Rumpus, Atticus Review, and The Nervous Breakdown among many others. She is the Managing Editor and Nonfiction Editor for The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, as well as a columnist and workshop instructor for the journal. Her first collection of essays, There is Nothing Else to See Here, is forthcoming from The Lit Pub, Fall 2014.


  1. Wow, very interesting. And a complex issue. For me, the world can be a trigger. And I'm glad to know, sometimes, about the things I can step away from if I can. Maybe later, when I'm feeling stronger, I can walk back.

  2. This was such a thought provoking essay. Nowadays, go online and you're bound to come across several trigger warnings--they're not unlike the spoiler alert one comes across when reading a movie review. I see their usefulness. A trauma/abuse victim given the choice to as you wrote, pause, take a deep breath. As for a "certain fragility of mind that higher learning is meant to challenge, not embrace," I wonder, how many of these supposed "frail" (read: RIDICULOUS) minds choose to stop reading when faced with a trigger warning, how many choose to keep reading, and how many choose to read later in a safe space. Maybe classes should be rated: G, PG, PG13, R, NC17. I surmise that much of the best literature falls under R and NC17. In our litigious society, disclaimers are prevalent. But can you put a disclaimer on the world? Or worse, can you put a disclaimer on the mind? Great essay.

    1. "Can you put a disclaimer on the mind?" Excellent question. Excellent point. It's interesting, because I do write personal/lyric essays that deal with trauma, and I find myself feeling like I should warn readers because I would hate to trigger someone. And then I remember, you know, my own experience with triggers and warnings and traumatic situations and flashbacks and panic attacks and all of that, and so when I find myself wanting to warn people, I have started to just say, "Hey, this essay gets a little intense." For me, that's like a head nod to a trigger warning, but still giving the reader the choice to read or pause or walk away or go do something therapeutic or whatever needs to occur.

      I think you’re right about what our “ratings” of literature would be. And it scares me to think that creative work could become censored in a trauma-informed way. Which is weird for me to think like that, but then again it’s weird to come across an author who thinks she knows what my possible response to her work will be, and so I am giving these warnings. And then that makes me wonder—if you’re an author passing out warnings on every page, how much do you really trust your reader?

      Thanks for your wonderful comments and insights!

  3. Great discussion, Chelsey! I deeply appreciate the generous and unassuming sharing of your personal thread as you navigate this question, rather than a purely intellectual (and hence detached & less meaningful) discussion. I'm going to go as far as saying that to me trigger warnings would be a form of censorship. They are based on presumptions about what is shocking and what the reader can handle. I come from a culture in which violence (and especially violence against women) is a common daily occurrence. I could write a piece in which a woman commits a deeply irreverent act that brings great "shame" upon her family, that might be painful for men to read, reminding them of traumatic psychological shame they have suffered due to the acts of their own sisters. Do those men then need a trigger warning about my writing? (Because is one peron's trauma more worthy of concern than another person's trauma?) Or would my trigger warning amount to saying that my writing deserves to be labeled in some way for its non-vanilla content within the context of that culture? I would rather not have any piece of writing (mine or another writer's) pre-categorized on any filter. It's fine (and important) to know what's in a book before I read it, but not okay to have my experience of it presumed upon.

    1. Excellent points, as always, Tayyba. From the different responses I have received from this essay, the term "censorship" keeps coming up. I actually hadn't thought of using that language to think about trigger warnings. I think it's fitting, though, especially as you show here. Thank you for reading and for your astute and spot-on comments.