Guest Post: Lev Raphael

Can Reading Harm Your Mental Health?

One of the courses I guest teach at Michigan State University is crime fiction, so I’ve been paying special attention to the growing movement on college campuses across the country that’s pushing for “trigger warnings.”

These warnings are meant to alert people who might be suffering from PTSD that certain events in assigned books might trigger trauma for them as war veterans or survivors of rape. But it doesn’t stop there, because other groups have been included in theorizing about who needs these warnings.

As the New York Times recently reported, a draft of a guide about trigger warnings was circulated at Oberlin College and though it never took effect, its scope shows the kind of thinking behind this new movement to protect students from books that might harm them.

The guide said faculty should flag anything that might “disrupt a student’s learning” and “cause trauma.” Faculty had to be vigilant against any trace in their assigned books of “racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression” and realize that “all forms of violence are traumatic, and that your students have lives before and outside your classroom, experiences you may not expect or understand.” Referencing a Chinua Achebe novel set in Nigeria before it was independent, the guide said this acclaimed novel might “trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide and more.”

My first thought when I read such a global set of warnings (note the “and more”) is how can anyone be expected to teach any book without someone being traumatized?  Think of poor professors of survey courses in The American Novel, for example.  If a student’s parents split up because of an affair, The Scarlet Letter could be a time bomb. If a parent was institutionalized after a breakdown, the same could be said for Tender is the Night.  And The House of Mirth would be a virtual land mine thanks to its classism, sexism, anti-Semitism, drug use, and suicide.

Then what about professors like me teaching crime fiction courses?  Are we supposed to comb through each book to note every single violent act or threat of one, and list them all in the syllabus?  How specific should the warnings be? Should there be a 1-10 severity scale, or color coding, or both? And If we did do anything remotely like that, what would happen to suspense, to discovery, and the pleasure of reading?

What disturbs me most about the move to label books is that it posits some very dubious realities.  It pictures a highly mechanistic view of human psychology.  If you were hit by a car, for example, then apparently reading about someone being run over is going to make you suffer through your experience all over again and therefore you need to know in advance. Really? Are triggers always so grotesquely obvious, so blatant?  The psychologists I’ve asked about this don’t agree.  Even in the case of rape, they explain, reading about a rape isn’t automatically going to re-trigger a woman’s (or man’s) experience.  The trigger could be something quite unexpected, something seemingly trivial to others but somehow connected to the scene of the attack.  And more than likely, it might be intimacy itself, perhaps simply being physically touched, that could serve as a trigger.

The whole drive to slap trigger warnings on books and syllabi also increases students’ victimhood, depriving them of agency. At Michigan State University, for example, book lists are posted on line months before the classes start. I’m sure we’re not alone.  Why can’t concerned students contact professors or look up the books in advance, read Amazon or Goodreads reviews, find plot summaries, or just do Google searches for their triggers plus those books?  All the information they need to make a decision is easily located on the Internet.

Let me be clear: I’m not in any way denying the power of PTSD, having suffered it myself aftEdith Wharton Murderser severe trauma, and I’m not being unsympathetic to anyone who’s had a bad experience in a classroom because a book unexpectedly brought back some trauma.  But the world of traumatic events is so large and the world of potential triggers so much larger, that institutionalizing “trigger warnings” would disrupt education as a whole like something farcical right out of Gulliver’s Travels.  It’s asking the impossible, it’s asking for protection that doesn’t exist, and it calls to mind the sad observation from Joan Didion’s Play it As it Lays: “In the whole world there was not as much sedation as there was instantaneous peril.”

Lev Raphael is the author of The Edith Wharton Murders and 24 other books in a wide variety of genres.


16 thoughts on “Guest Post: Lev Raphael”

  1. I couldn’t agree more, Lev. First, the call for “warning labels” on books overlooks one of the most crucial aspects of reading widely. Books explore difficult issues in a safe and thoughtful way, and may people who have been traumatized have learned how to cope by reading and exploring their feelings as they watch characters navigate a similar experience. Second, if a reader can’t cope with major American novels like those by Mark Twain, Harper Lee, Edith Wharton, and others, they shouldn’t be allowed to leave the house.

    Very good post.


  2. Thanks, Lev. I tend to agree with you. As an English major in college (BA and MA) I’ve read works over man time periods, from Beowulf and Chaucer to Samuel Becket. The range is too great – in theory, there’s a trigger for something in everything. And then what are we going to read?


  3. Thanks Cynthia, for the platform. Though it feels more like a well-furnished and comfortable salon. 🙂 Susan, it’s scary to think about all the ways in which people could claim a book might harm them, whether classic or crime fiction. Sue, censorship has many forms, some of them obvious, some insidious, though I suppose if a book had warning labels on it, some people might rush to read it.


  4. Rant alert!

    OK, can I jump off a cliff now? This is the stupidest thing I’ve heard of in quite some time. (I can say whatever I want about this as a PTSD insider who has recovered about 99.9%. And please, there are plenty of people with PTSD.) I was just reading on another blog about bibliotherapy–reading about characters who have experienced similar traumas and how this can lead to a great deal of healing. Last time I was in England, somebody told me they were warning against children raising their hands because they’d get repetitive motion stress. *palm to face* People want to talk about these things, not hide from them!! WTF?!

    I know. Let’s all wrap ourselves up in bubble wrap and wear gloves and a face mask.

    Remember that character in K-PAX who was so afraid of everything he wore gloves and a mask? He also had his hands tied at night so he wouldn’t fall off the bed. He was in a mental institution, of course, which is where these people who’ve suggested this belong. Or at least in therapy.

    Rant endeth here.


  5. Theresa, for one second I thought you meant my blog was the stupidest thing you’d ever heard. And instead of being angry, I was kind of surprised. “Surely there must be stupider blogs out there?”

    But seriously, it is a very odd way to approach literature of any kind. Books heal us in specific and general ways. I was a pretty lonely kid and found great healing in being taken away from my loneliness into one amazing world after another, whether it was the world of robots with Isaac Asimov or the world of musketeers with Dumas or feuding Veronese families with Shakespeare (read him pretty early).


  6. Lev, thanks so much for this…I can’t stop thinking about it.

    I wonder if any of the trigger-warning proponents have read Bruno Bettelheim…didn’t he argue that the darkness and violence of fairy tales give children a way to deal with things they are already scared of but can’t yet articulate (and deal with)?

    Also, I think it’s important when art in general (and I certainly include literature in the art category) destabilizes and challenges our ways of thinking about the world.


  7. Cynthia, you’re welcome, and me, too: it’s a subject that would fascinate me even if I weren’t guest teaching at Michigan State. In that case, I might be wondering, say, how someone might label one of my books.


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