Caution: No Trigger Warning!

Rivi Handler-Spitz uses a graphic novel approach to show how to help students deal with texts they find disturbing.

August 21, 2018

These days, students seem reluctant to engage with disturbing material, and well-meaning professors too often cater to their preferences, shielding them from what they'd rather not confront. Last semester in a history of Asian literature survey class, I had an encounter with a student that challenged both of us -- professor and student -- to rethink our positions.

Text: A woman is reading The Tale of Kieu, by Du Nguyen: “Oh shame! A pure camellia had let the bee explore and probe its ins and outs. A storm of lust broke forth – it would not spare the flawless jade, respect the pristine scent – her tears of silent grief poured down like rain. She hated him, she loathed herself as much. What breed is he, a creature foul and vile. My body’s now a blot on womankind…” Word bubble says, “Oh God! All those horrible childhood memories are flooding back…” She had to put the book down. In the next panel, the woman is typing, “Dear Professor, I am not one to shy away from challenging material, but I couldn’t get through last night’s reading. I plan to miss class tomorrow. Sincerely, Alex.” Will she think less of me? I’m afraid she’ll think I’m not a serious student. Early the next morning, the teacher checked email. Teacher’s word bubble: “Sure, I’ve heard all about this generation of ‘fragile snowflakes,’ but this is too much! It’s not as if I made her watch graphic porn or documentaries about lynching! The violence is all metaphorical. What’s Alex’s problem?! Pull yourself together. I want your ass in class!” Professor’s thought bubble: “Heh heh. Mmm, perhaps not.” Response from professor: “Dear Alex, yes, the novel was disturbing. That’s all the more reason to discuss it in class. The decision is yours, but I think it would be a mistake for you to skip the class. Beth.” Professor’s thought bubble: “Uh-oh. What’ve I done? Will she come to class? Will she forward my email to the dean? Will I be branded a bully?”

In class the next day: Professor’s thought bubble: “Oh my god. There she is. Wow!” That night, Beth called a friend. Beth: “She participated in class and asked questions. She seemed totally fine. I’m so glad I pushed her.” While Alex, alone in her dorm room, attempted to read the next chapter. The memories rushed back again. She had to stop reading, but still couldn’t fall asleep all night. Illustration shows Alex crying while reading. Minutes before the next class, Alex visited Beth’s office. Alex: “Do you have a moment to talk? It’s about the novel. I, um, couldn’t get through the assignment.” Beth’s thought bubble: “Oh geez. This is really not the time. Class is about to start.” Beth: “Um, sure! Come on in. Tell me. What’s going on?”

Beth: “I’m not sure what this is all about. You did fine on Thursday’s class. Clearly you were capable of engaging with the material then. I find it troubling that you are not mature enough to discuss it now. It’s fiction, Alex!” Alex’s thought bubble: “She doesn’t understand. Why is she blaming me? I want to do the assignment. I tried my best. But those images keep haunting me… Sniff. Oh crap. Now I’m crying in her office. She must think I’m totally immature. Sob.” Beth’s thought bubble: “Tears? What have I done? I need to soften my tone and backpedal… fast!” Beth: “Alex, take a tissue. Your tears prove that you are a woman of deep feeling. Only a robot would be removed. You’re experiencing profoundly human emotions. Now pull yourself together. Class is starting.” Alex: “I can’t. I’m sorry.” They agreed to meet again before the next class.

That night they each consulted friends. Beth, on the phone: “Evidently this story is not over. She broke down in tears in my office. I didn’t want to leave her in that condition, but I had to go to class! She’s clearly dealing with something very painful, but I can’t ask her what it is and I do not feel right excusing her from reading the rest of the book. I want her to learn to cope. What should I do?” Alex, on the phone: “It was awful. She said I was being immature. I started to cry. It was embarrassing. Will she try to force me to read the book? I don’t think I can. What should I do?” Alex’s friend: “How insensitive! I can’t believe she didn’t give a trigger warning. You need to protect yourself. Have her give you an alternative assignment.” Note from Alex: “Dear Beth, I’ve tried everything, but I continue to find reading this novel extremely upsetting. I’d like to discuss the possibility of my reading something else instead. See you tomorrow at four. Respectfully, Alex.”

Beth: “Alex, my goal is not to torture you. I know you’re a diligent student. I’m trying to imagine how it would feel to be so sensitive to a topic that I couldn’t bear to hear it mentioned – even metaphorically. I’d be scared because I’d never know when it might come up in conversation. We need to develop some strategies that will enable you to tolerate this topic, so that when it comes up in other contexts you’ll be prepared. Not reading the book is not the answer.” Alex: “Have you heard of exposure therapy? If someone is afraid of spiders they first look at the word ‘spider.’ Then they look at a picture of a spider. Eventually they build up to letting a real spider sit on their hand for a few minutes. I want to overcome my fear of this topic, but I need to work up to it gradually, step by step. Otherwise I panic…” Alex was a psychology major. Beth: “Hmm. I see. Can you explain what specifically you are afraid of? Are you worried that a classmate or I may say something upsetting in class?”

Alex: “Actually, what frightens me most is encountering scary scenes all alone when I’m reading. Brutal images get lodged in my mind. They give me nightmares.” Beth’s thought bubble: “Phew! At least she trusts me to lead a respectful class discussion.” Beth: “The literary critic Georges Poulet argues that when we read, our subjectivity – our ‘I,’ if you will – merges with that of the narrator. This experience is very common. Perhaps your sensitivity stems from overidentification.” Alex: “Is there an audiobook version?” Beth: “Why do you ask?” Alex: “Maybe if I heard the story told in somebody else’s voice I’d be less prone to overidentify.” Beth: “Interesting idea. But listening to an audiobook would not solve the problem of your confronting disturbing material alone. Could a friend read to you? When you encounter an upsetting passage, you can pause and discuss it together – you know, process it.” Alex: “I’ll try that.” Beth: “Great! Keep me posted.” Alex and Beth each left the meeting feeling optimistic about the tentative solution they’d forged.

That evening: Alex’s friend reads aloud: “I am a fallen woman, answered she… and what’s there left of me, a faded flower…” Alex: “STOP.” Note from Alex: “Dear Beth, the method we devised worked well for a while. But when the material got really upsetting, I could not bear to listen. I don’t know what to do. Yours, Alex.” But Beth didn’t respond right away and in the meantime… Alex: “I really want to know what happens in the story. Could you read ahead, summarize the sexual assault part, and resume in a few pages?” Alex’s friend: “Fine with me!”

Together they finished the novel. Alex, deeply moved, decided to write her final paper on it. Ideas flowed from her fingertips. Alex’s thought bubble: “On the function of metaphor as a means to encourage empathy between readers and characters in Nguyen Du’s The Tale of Kieu…” Beth: “What a beautiful, insightful essay!” After class on the last day of the semester, Alex told Beth this novel had been her favorite book all term: “I didn’t think I could make it; I’m so glad we worked through it together.” Beth: “You did it!” Based on a true story.

As this graphic treatment depicts, without any trigger warning -- being a graduate of the University of Chicago, I avoid them -- I assigned my class the 19th-century Vietnamese novel The Tale of Kiều. This novel contains many highly metaphorical descriptions of rape. One day, an excellent student emailed me saying she found the content upsetting and could not bear to come to class. I was shocked and dismissed her concerns as excessive. Unwarranted. Or rather, I felt that the only way I could condone her hypersensitivity would be if I knew about her past. Such a reaction might make sense, I supposed, if she had been assaulted herself. But I could not ask. How then, I wondered, could I possibly adjudicate whether her sensitivity was justified or not? And how could I respond appropriately?

We scheduled a meeting, and she broke down in tears in my office. At that moment, I realized that her present state, not her past, was my concern: I had in front of me a young woman who, for whatever reason, was profoundly disturbed by even the poetic suggestion of sexual violence. Her feelings were powerful and real. And they needed to be respected no matter what experience, real or imagined, underlay them. My job was to help her develop strategies for engaging with a text she obviously found extremely disquieting.

Over the course of more than a week, we discussed her situation several times both in person and online. We also each sought out trusted confidantes with whom to analyze our ongoing interactions. This iterative process was essential, and through it, we moved closer to understanding one another's points of view. I choose to express the story visually here because doing so challenged me to imagine our interactions from both the student's perspective and my own. Drawing -- especially the thought bubbles -- prompted me to imagine her perceptions and to envision her thoughts, fears and concerns.

The story as told here exhibits my greatest hope for students: that they will learn to titrate their own exposure to content they find disturbing, and that they will eventually wean themselves off the need to rely on professors’ or other authority figures’ trigger warnings or “opt-out” assignments. In the end of this story, it is the student herself -- not the teacher -- who comes up with the best strategy for approaching the text. Students must gain this independence, as eventually they will decide for themselves what to read and how to read it. They will take responsibility for balancing between protecting and pushing themselves.

Share Article

Rivi Handler-Spitz is an associate professor in the Asian Languages and Cultures Department at Macalester College.


Rivi Handler-Spitz

Back to Top