The Girl of Triggers and Thorns

Originally posted on backroomwhispering.com on April 8th, 2016.

“That’s the thing about pain. It demands to be felt.” (The Fault in Our Stars)

Recently, I started thinking back on my experience of first reading The Girl of Fire and Thorns. Nobody had told me that Elisa was “fat” or that body image and self-love played a crucial role in her character development. Nobody had also told me that, in the first novel, there are instances of Elisa emotionally driven to bingeing upon food to the point of physical pain and later vomiting it all back up. (Please note that all bold-typed emphases within utilized quotations are my own.)

I’m not sure how long I stand there, joined to the serving table as if by design. Eventually, I feel Ximena’s gentle hand on my upper arm.

“Let’s go, my sky.”

I don’t resist when she pulls me away, and I stumble after her, so full I can hardly breathe.” (Thorns, 120)

At the time that I picked up The Girl of Fire and Thorns, I was a still-recovering bulimic; I had not yet reached my one year anniversary of entering treatment, let alone being considered “clear” or “healed.” I went into this book, one that I had seen praised from reviewers on Booktube — that corner of YouTube where people review books — with whom I shared similar literary tastes, knowing only that it was a YA fantasy about a girl with something called the “godstone” who must become queen. There was not a single “trigger warning” for eating disorders.

“Trauma triggers,” as they’re more accurately referred to in psychology, are related to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in that they are experiences that cause individuals to recall a previous traumatic memory. The trigger itself need not be necessarily objectively traumatic; oftentimes they are quite subtle and, thus, difficult to anticipate. sleeping-with-the-enemyThink of the Julia Roberts film Sleeping with the Enemy. Roberts plays a young woman in an abusive relationship, but manages to escape and run away.

There is, however, a particular piece of music that always reminds her of her husband, a piece that triggers an immediate anxious and fight-or-flight response: the Symphonie fantastique by Hector Berlioz, very specifically the fifth movement entitled “Songe d’une nuit do sabbat” (Dream of the Night of the Sabbath). You can listen to the specific movement highlighted in the film here.

An innocent piece of music, not directly stating any kind of trauma, and yet induces in this character emotional pain due to the ties it has to an abusive past. That is a good instance of a proper trauma trigger: a character has suffered a severe trauma (spousal abuse) and, therefore, has certain seemingly unrelated things that bring up memories of that trauma and exacerbate what is clearly PTSD.

This is not the same thing as the “trigger warnings” that now proliferate the Internet — these ways of warning people away from pieces of media for fear that it will contain difficult, potentially uncomfortable topics. They didn’t start that way, mind. According to Jay Caspian Kang’s article in New Yorker magazine:

“Roughly ten years ago, editors at feminist and progressive Web sites realized that they needed a way of encouraging frank and candid conversation about sexual assault without catching readers unaware. Many survivors of sexual assault experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress; graphic depictions of rape or violent attacks can trigger flashbacks, nightmares, and crippling anxiety. The editors theorized that a warning posted before disturbing narratives could allow readers to prepare for what might be an upsetting, but ultimately necessary conversation.”

This began as a way to engage in the conversation about traumatic, uncomfortable, and challenging topics. And yet the “trigger warning” movement has mutated via the Internet into something near-insidious: a way to completely a avoid that issue as it appears in art and literature. In a way, deny its very existence through that avoidance. As it pertains to literature, I think these Internet “trigger warnings” in violate of the sanctity of the relationship between reader and text, reducing a work of art down to its ugliest plot points with no more discussion. And I object strongly to this, especially in the written medium where a trigger warning amounts to a kind of preemptive defacement of a piece of literature, especially when the literature is tackling a brutal topic — it’s censoring someone’s view of a novel before they’ve even begun. The same can be said for films or television series’.

Had I been given a trigger warning about The Girl of Fire and Thorns, I would have gone into that book waiting for those scenes: I would have braced myself to mentally prepare for that moment when, “Oh, there it is! That’s the eating disorder moment!” And that’s not fair to either the book or my own fortitude as a reader who has suffered emotional distress, because it implies that I am not strong enough to deal with feeling uncomfortable or challenged. We all read the Internet, and we all know that there are plenty of things to challenge us and cause us discomfort every waking second of every day.

I lie awake a long time, unable to relax. Sharp pains shoot across my abdomen and down my legs. The food I’ve eaten burns in my chest. Worse, I can’t stop wondering how many people watched as I consoled myself [with food]. I imagine Alejandro shaking his head at the indignity, while Ariña clings to his arm, smirking. I imagine Lord Hector turning away in disappointment.

Hot tears of shame dribble down my cheek and onto my pillow…

…The added sensation in my belly is too much, and I launch from the bed and dash for the atrium. There’s no chance I’ll make it to the garde-robe at the far wall. I clutch the tiled edge of the bathing pool and heave the contents of my stomach over the rim. I retch until my nose and throat burn, until my stomach aches from the spasms.

Breathless, I slide down to the floor and lean my cheek against the blessedly cool tile of the pool. The taste in my mouth is abominable, but I feel too weak to rise. After a while, I realize the pains in my abdomen are gone. (Thorns, 121)

Do you know what happened when I read that scene? I was uncomfortable, extremely uncomfortable. As a recovering bulimic — an eating disorder in which I engaged in the physically painful and exhausting acts of bingeing and purging — this scene, and a few more bingeing scenes like it, were painful to read. They were painful because, despite them occurring in the opening 150 pages of a 400+ page novel, I cared about Elisa, and seeing her in such emotional pain, having her take it out on her body in such a destructive
d0cnc1ZDrBP-JHn0xpd9EtMDmbeCeBkD_640x360_53834819582way…it’s heartbreaking and sickening. I wanted to wrap my arms around Elisa, Good Will Hunting-style, and tell her that it was not her fault and that she could be okay.

And suddenly, in that moment, I understood how my mother felt the night she came down and found me in a dark kitchen cramming who knows what number of peanut-butter sandwich into my mouth at one in the morning after having already vomited up everything else I’d eaten that day, throughout the day. I remember she took my hand which, despite shaking, gripped a butter knife slathered in that gooey, nutty stuff so tightly my knuckles were white, and pulled me in to a hug as I broke down completely.

Trigger Warning: Unhappy Human Experience

Trauma is, unfortunately, a part of the human experience — it happens to anyone, at anytime, anywhere. And yet ignoring the problem, trigger-warning people away from difficult topics, does nothing. It neither eliminates the problem, nor works to fix it. And from what little I’ve gathered of psychology through a handful of courses and reading, there are a good deal of psychologists who agree that avoidance reinforces PTSD as opposed to alleviating it. An article that I read in preparation for this post cited that:

According to a rigorous analysis by the Institute of Medicine, exposure therapy is the most efficacious treatment for PTSD, especially in civilians who have suffered trauma such as sexual assault. For example, prolonged exposure therapy, the cognitive behavioral treatment pioneered by clinical psychologists Edna B. Foa and Barbara O. Rothbaum, entails having clients close their eyes and recount their trauma in the first-person present tense. After repeated imaginal relivings, most clients experience significant reductions in PTSD symptoms, as traumatic memories lose their capacity to cause emotional distress. Working with their therapists, clients devise a hierarchy of progressively more challenging trigger situations that they may confront in everyday life. By practicing confronting these triggers, clients learn that fear subsides, enabling them to reclaim their lives and conquer PTSD.

Whether or not you entirely agree with this, and even I have some doubts given that every person is different, I personally find that oftentimes one cannot work towards dealing with a problem and actively trying to fix it, until one confronts it. Yes, it’s uncomfortable and, yes, it will likely make people squirm — but art becomes a kind of “safe harbour” of enlightenment for that discourse. It is where people can emotionally experience the pain of a trauma without physically undergoing it ourselves; where they can learn or enhance their own empathy. And if said readers have experienced trauma ourselves, they can, perhaps, find a kind of catharsis within that fictional experience.

Because hurt happens. And if I spend my life avoiding it, I’m giving it the power.

But more than that, what I find the most insulting part of “trigger warnings” is not just that it reduces whatever media to its ugliest plot point, but treats victims as only that: victims. As if a victim is nothing more than the result of their own trauma. I am more than my eating disorder, just as I am more than the time someone decided my ass was something to grope on the tube.

In The Girl of Fire and Thorns, I briefly relived my own visceral, human pain, and in doing so, came to also understand the pain of my loved ones who watched me suffer. The impact was real because I went in without all of the guardrails up, without someone preemptively cushioning me against hurt. Nobody reinforced the toxic message that I, as a victim, am inherently vulnerable.

So, ultimately, I almost feel I should not only thank Rae Carson for writing a character who deals with a difficult, emotional issue such as an emotionally-charged eating disorder, but I should thank the people whose reviews I watched or read that did not reduce this novel to its ugliest moment by trigger-warning it.

Thank you for letting me use a piece of fantastical literature to confront my own pain.

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