A few months ago, I had a conversation with a friend (hi, Jon!) that has been chewing at me ever since. We were discussing what books one can recommend to people who are starting on their road to recovery from violence/trauma/abuse, and are experiencing numerous or intense triggers. We were trying to think of books that are both useful and user-friendly in that context, and coming up with… not a lot. Most of our favourite books are solid with triggers.
STOP AND PAY HEED: Yes, we’ve all seen people claiming that they’re “triggered” when they’re actually “mildly bothered” or “just wanting you to shut up.” We’ve all seen the “lol triggered” “jokes”. However, that doesn’t mean that triggers are a joke. Suffering from triggers is not just upsetting: the reactions can be extreme, to the point of being physically dangerous, and they can last for days. Being triggered effectively means that your brain is putting you through your trauma as if it was happening all over again. If you think that’s joke-worthy, then I suggest you stop reading this blog and read up on PTSD and cPTSD. That shit is debilitating. End rant.
It was an upsetting revelation, and the most upsetting aspect of that was that some extremely useful books, books that can literally save lives, are totally unsuited to some of the people who need them the most.
I’m going to pick an example that’s gonna piss everyone off, because that’s how I roll: I loved “The Gift of Fear” when I first read it. It gave me the terminology to describe behaviours I’d seen and been affected by at a time when it was really important to me to learn how to stop that kind of shit from happening to me. I would, however, be extremely reluctant to recommend it to any person in recovery, because it’s a goddamn triggerfest. It literally sets off with the fictionalised description of the build-up to a rape. Starting with an anecdote like that is brilliant marketing, as well as a great way to get people to understand the real-life importance of the information to come, but it makes the book wholly unsuited to someone who is recovering from violence or trauma. The last thing they need is to be forced on an emotional rollercoaster like that. Aside from the fact that it could mess them up for days and set the clock back on their recovery, it adds nothing to their ability to process the following material.
Oh, yeah, fun fact: triggered people do not good students make. Sometimes, going through a triggering learning process is essential to getting over that trigger – e.g., if you re-enact an event to give yourself the opportunity to re-write that story with a better ending. That kind of activity is pretty damn risky, though, and requires a lot of prepping and aftercare. It also requires prior consent on everyone’s part. Surprising students with a rape story without prior warning meets none of those requirements, doesn’t give them the confidence that they could avoid that experience in the future, and is therefore likely to serve no practical purpose whatsoever.
The moral of the story is that I still like “The Gift of Fear”, and I’m still glad I read it, but I tend to refer people to its Wikipedia entry instead. It lists the Pre-Incident Indicators (i.e., the shit you gotta watch out for) without any muss or fuss, which gives the reader an immediate tool they can use for their own protection. Yes, the Wiki lacks the dramatic qualities that made The Boston Globe describe TGoF as a “how-to book that reads like a thriller”, but, precisely because of that, it carries at least half the book’s benefits and none of its risks. I call that a win.
The same kind of issues apply to many other books I have read and loved, but would hesitate to recommend to the people who need them the most, and this isn’t true only of self-defence books. There is a veritable plethora of books about trauma, mental health issues, and neurodivergences that are fabulous, except for the fact that they are written in ways that make them potentially damaging to people with traumas, mental health issues, or neurodivergences. And I’m not talking about the kind of trashy non-fiction that basically amounts to Damage Porn, whose sole goal is to give people the chance to ooh and aah at other people’s struggles as if they were at a Victorian freak show. I’m talking about books solid with useful information casually interspersed with totally avoidable triggers. The triggers add drama, but not content. They may allow for increased circulation, but they are a barrier to the readers who need the information the most.
I guess it depends on what a writer is trying to do, and why. Books help nobody unless they’re read, they won’t be read unless they’re sold, and if you gotta make them a lil’ bit spicy to sell them, that’s just how it is. I just wish that wasn’t the case, I guess. I wish more writers thought about the impact of their words on the people for whom they matter the most. Until they do, the people most likely to consume their work are those least affected by it: trauma tourists, mostly, and perhaps the odd trauma-adjacent reader.
(Note: I’m not claiming that I managed to make my books trigger-free. I bloody well tried, though. In all honesty, I’m not sure I’d have the guts to write something like the Toolkit ever again, because there’s just too much risk of accidental damage. But I fought tooth and nail to keep the examples in Trauma Aware SD Instruction as clinical as possible, as well as neatly contained in their easily-avoidable bubbles. It can be done. Whether it can be sold, that’s another story.)