Just Another Day in the Life of a Trigger Warning

This past Sunday I opened the NY Times to see the screaming headline, “The Internet Is Overrun With Images of Child Sexual Abuse. What Went Wrong?” I then read the article which as impressive as it was disturbing.

The first thing that impresses is the formatting, layout and presentation. The headline was dramatic enough but the experience of clicking through it and scrolling through the introduction was brilliantly effective, sensitive and powerful. After clicking the headline I saw a single sentence (the lede, I suppose) in large black type on a blank white background.

“Last year, tech companies reported over 45 million online photos and videos of children being sexually abused—more than double what they found the previous year. “NY Times

As I contemplated the enormity of the statement, four small and colorful abstract images slowly appeared in a reverse fade. The images were anonymized photographs of children—presumably, but obviously. Without the context of the headline and lede the images look benign, as if they could be simple, innocent snapshots. Then the words, “scroll to continue” appear.

As I scrolled through three more screens, the images accompanying the words multiplied until they obscured they obscured the screen. This introductory sequence was an elaborate and effective trigger warning that let me know that what I was about to read would be dramatic, disturbing and, possibly, overwhelming. Which, as the article details, is the same effect on the investigators who must endure witnessing the original photos to investigate the crimes they represent.

I’ve been reading the Times for forty years and during that time I have been critical of some of their editorial decisions, especially of late. I was disappointed enough to cancel my subscription at least three times in the last couple years but I always resubscribed and an article like this devastatingly profound story illustrates why. Such a story must not only be told, it must be told while balancing the need to convey hard facts with sensitivity to the victims, the investigators and the readers. This, The Times does with aplomb.

A few years ago I wouldn’t have been able to read past the introduction of such a story. I was the victim of a violent sexual assault when I was a young boy and I kept that secret until I was almost 50 years old. For most of my life, I even managed to hide the event from myself, such is the power of mind and imagination.

The people who object to trigger warnings are ignorant at best and perpetrators at worst. I have never needed a trigger warning. But if I told you that I found discussion of rape to be traumatizing what does it gain you to initiate that discussion? And on you, or someone else’s, terms? I don’t need trigger warnings but many people do.

When what happened to me happened to me, my brain was rewired to be on constant alert. In one violent moment, my brain became programmed to hide the memory of an experience, while it simultaneously recorded a myriad of factors to recognize henceforth as existential warning signs.

What is intuition but an instantaneous recognition of signals, usually of the subtlest kind, by the subconscious mind? I cannot tell you how many times I succumbed to a sudden and surprised expectation of imminent annihilation by being exposed to a set of certain unconscious stimuli. The end is near, indeed. I have always trusted my intuition. I continue to trust my intuition. The signs might mean something different than I expect but the signs are very real.

“Trigger” is the wrong word, but I can’t think of a better one, except maybe “trauma.” A trigger warning is a trauma warning. A trigger (noun) is an “event or circumstance that is the cause of a particular action, process, or situation.” That sounds so benign. How about this: a trigger (verb) will “cause (an event or situation) to happen or exist”? Put another way, exposure to trauma, even by merely reading about it, can feel like a recurrence of the original trauma. Trauma triggers trauma. Triggers traumatize.

Duly warned, I read the entire article and I was not triggered in the sense I have suggested. I could read it without suddenly choking up, without suddenly surprising myself with a cry of shock or despair, without punching my fist through drywall, without pouring three fingers of bourbon, without forgetting where I am or what I was doing. I thought, “good!” I thought, “This redeems the Times for Dean Baquet.” I thought, “Finally, the world will be talking about this.” Then I went about my day.

Pam and I walked to the pop-up farmer’s market nearby. Halfway there she said, “Oh shit, I forgot to bring money.” I had asked her to bring cash because I didn’t have any. When she told me she forgot, I became angry. I didn’t tell her so. I said, “No big deal. Some vendors will take credit cards.” But inwardly I seethed. We didn’t buy anything. We walked the market loop one and a half times and left. It was a pleasant walk on a pleasant sunny day. I kept quiet about my feelings because the anger seemed inappropriate. Pam didn’t do anything wrong, she just forgot to bring cash. After I asked her to bring some. But still. No big deal.

We got home and I went back out by myself to a market nearby. The store kind. I picked up a few vegetables and a protein. Then I checked in with myself on the walk home. Still angry. What the fuck was going on? I never get mad at Pam, especially for something so trivial. Then it ht me. The article. I read the article. Of course.

I cannot tell you how many times I had done this. Witnessed trauma then didn’t realize that I had been triggered. Re-traumatized. Because when you spend most of a life hiding from trauma it owns you. Once I made the connection between the article and the disproportionate anger, I was no longer angry. I was very sad. I started crying behind my sunglasses and kept walking.

Approaching a corner, I saw an older couple idling on the side of the street in conversation and was glad for the sunglasses. I make it a point to make eye contact when passing people on the street but made an exception in this case. As I passed I outwardly pretended I didn’t see the couple. Inwardly, though, I took off my glasses, looked them each in the eye, and spoke through my bawling, “I was raped as a young boy. Can you please tell me I didn’t deserve that?” I pictured her saying the words. I pictured him saying the words. As I continued to walk, I had them each repeat the words to me several times. It helped.

Later that day I told Pam that the article had traumatized me. Not in as much detail as I’ve written but by then I had decided I would write this and let her read it.

I’ve told you all this, but I left something out. Pam wanted to read the article, but I urged her not to. With words, the writers recreate some vile pictures that cannot be unseen. I don’t fault them. It was necessary. These stories must be told. They are all around us, and nobody wants to hear them. I get it. Neither do I. But we must.

I can feel the skepticism when I tell people that 1 out of 6 men and 1 out of 4 women are survivors of sexual victimization. Who wants to believe that? Then I add, “that’s only that we know about. The number is probably higher.” Where are you now? Are you able to look around? Do you see any people? We are everywhere. We might be you.

Read the article or don’t read the article but I want you to know that it’s there. That the Times did something important by publishing it. I trust you to decide for yourself if it’s safe to read. I will continue thinking and talking about this for the rest of my life. I don’t have a choice. But some of you do. I’m not laying a trip on anyone who does. I’m just telling you a small piece of my story.

It’s Friday. Five days after the article ran in Sunday’s paper. I haven’t seen a single reference to it again anywhere. I guess there are more important things to talk about.