My earliest memory: I am a small girl, prone on a bed. Sunlight is streaming through the windows, sending streaks of gold and amber across the pinewood floors of my family’s brick house on a country road. The floor is so clean that it shines. My mother mops the floors of the house in the hours after we go to bed, and she sings softly while she does it. Her voice is usually the last sound I hear before I go to sleep.
When I look at the floor this time, I hear her singing in my head. She isn’t home. She is away at her job in town, at the Piggly Wiggly, to help my sweet bear of a father keep the lights on in our house. Her voice is golden, and I need it now to take me away from what is happening to me. I am being touched in a way that literally tears at me, and I don’t understand why this is happening or why it cannot be told.
These were my first memories. I am broken from the beginning. Shiny wood floors, random R&B, and the Motown tunes that my mother used to sing as she made our home clean can make me broken again, even after all this time.
I am 12. It is summer, and I am on the floor, supine. I am struggling so hard that my body breaks out in great gouts of sweat. I am fighting my attacker because I know that if he manages to unwrench the tight twist I have made of my legs, I will be irredeemable. I lose, and every early summer from the time I am 12 until this, my 40th year, I unravel. The season itself is what tips me over into darkness.
I am 16, maybe 17. In science class I am learning about the \”miracle of life,\” with the permission of my parents, who signed the necessary papers as they do every year. We are watching a film in which a woman is giving birth, and, just for a moment, I see the bloody curve of the baby’s head as it pushes its way into the world. My head, hands, and feet go hot, then cold, as I imagine how this push for life must tear at her. I go blank.
I am 25, in a graduate class on the Victorian first-person narrative. My love for Victorian writers is as old as the first time I read A Tale of Two Cities, and I am enthralled with my professor, who is kind and encourages me with my writing.
I do fine in the class—more than fine, in fact—until we get to the weeks when we read a memoir detailing the sexual history of an upper-crust Victorian who exploits girls and women to satisfy himself.
I am curled up in my bed reading, so when I blank out this time, there is no danger of my falling. I must have read the book and gone to class, but I don’t remember the first sex/rape scene (the distinction is blurred in the work; that I remember). I do remember feeling as if some blunt force had struck the front part of my brain. In the weeks that follow, I am all animal. I eat infrequently and refuse to bathe because I cannot bear to touch my own body.
When I stuff my seminar paper under my professor’s door weeks after it is due, I attach a letter explaining that the narrator of the sexual history shares an uncanny resemblance to the person who raped me when I was 12, and that although I know the intellectual difference between fact and fiction, between my story and the strangely complementary story of this memoirist, I found myself so damaged by the reading that I lost my capacity to write for a while. I never hear back from her, but I do well in the class. It takes me months to right my ship.
I am 40. I am reading an article in The Chronicle about how much the author hates the advent of trigger warnings. They are, says the author—along with online comments in response to her piece and similar anti-trigger-warning essays that appear sporadically over the spring—a sign of political correctness run amok. Trigger warnings are an attempt to tamper with free speech, and just an excuse for students who don’t want to do their work or to confront difficult material.
I have been in therapy on and off since I was 25 and have the benefit of several decades of learning how to push my voice out into the world when I am feeling most silenced. But still, the arrogance and lack of compassion in these essays stun me into silence. It as if the work done by Elaine Scarry and many other respected theorists on the impact of trauma on language, the body, perception, and human experience had not been written.
I finally decide to post a comment on The Chronicle’s Vitae to try to explain: Telling students who come to our classes with severe traumas that often leave them with post-traumatic stress disorder to just suck it up is not a reasonable response to what trauma does to you. These students deserve the chance to take care of themselves. I couch my argument in terms of best practices for adapting teaching for students with invisible disabilities.
Beyond that single letter I wrote to my professor in grad school, I have never written or spoken publicly about the abuse I survived. I never told a single college professor about why I would disappear for weeks after being required to view or read narratives of violent sexual encounters.
I struggle for months to figure out why all these anti-trigger essays challenge my view of myself as an English professor and the future of the profession in general. Then, while reading Adrienne Rich’s poem \”Power\” one day, in preparation for a class, I finally get it. Rich closes her poem about Marie Curie this way:
She died a famous woman denying
her wounds came from the same source as her power
I am an earnest, somewhat old-fashioned English professor. I am a true believer: Language is powerful, images even more so. A word or an image is as capable of triggering hurt or delivering violence as a fired gun. To blithely introduce powerful, rousing images of violence into your classroom, to tell your students that these words and images are worthy of thought and study, and then to deny that such stuff might at least bruise those students is the worst kind of hypocrisy for those whose stock in trade is the word. Our students deserve better.
Author Bio: Angela Shaw-Thornburg is an associate professor of English at South Carolina State University.