Personal Statement: Trigger warning

Monday, October 9, 2017 - 11:10pm


Illustration by Emma Richter


Editor's note: The author of this piece remains anonymous to protect their identity.

Monday morning. I sit waiting with classmates for the professor of our literature and human rights class to arrive. “Did you hear about the shooting in Las Vegas?” someone asks. I hadn’t. I whip out my phone to read about an aged man who was an accountant and then a murderer before he committed suicide. I wonder what matters in this article. Does it matter to the victims and their families that this man used to crunch numbers at his 9-to-5 or that he was 64 years old when he ravaged lives and ended his own?

Our professor arrives, and we begin our discussion of a scene in a novel where a woman is gang-raped. Her father wants to talk to her about it, wants her to seek justice, wants her to show him how broken she is from the experience. She doesn’t.

My professor told us a few weeks back that he believes in trigger warnings, so to talk to him or email him if we might have an issue discussing sexual violence or graphic violence. Sexual violence is a separate category from other violence, conjures up other images and other characters. I try not to think at all when the topic comes up for fear of true images. Photographers, we think of ourselves as magicians trying to capture fleeting moments and ephemeral light. Some moments have enough of their own magic to stay in the mind. Dark magic, Sauran-level shit.

I sent him an unobtrusive, professionally polite email.

“Hey, I have a history with sexual violence, so I might get quiet in discussion if we talk about it. Thanks for your understanding.” Just like that, another person who knows an episode of my story.

I used to stand in the shower for what felt like hours, scrubbing my nails against my palms, doing nothing but feeling the heat of the water gnaw at my skin. I counted how many people knew every time I showered. I named them, murmured them to myself, lifted my fingers like a child to count them on my body. I do not know why this ritual mattered to me. I still don’t know.

And now, I am at the same table as someone who knows this piece of me, discussing the meaning of a female character’s rape — what matters when we discuss this? How can I abstract a type of violence I know so intimately? Am I imagining something sympathetic or concerned when he looks at me? Can he see the chill that crawls under my skin when we discuss this?

He can’t know that my father is a crying man, that I told him I was raped on a walk in the woods together. My dad didn’t bother me or push me to do anything like the character’s father. My dad never told me what part of him broke or died upon hearing the news. I’ve seen him cry at Pixar movies and discussing Martin Luther King Jr. and when we visited the American cemetery in Normandy. I didn’t see him cry over his daughter’s rape. I don’t know his sadness just as my professor doesn’t know my sadness as I sit in that brightly lit classroom.

I wish we all carried this sadness together, from time to time. I wish we vocalized it, spat it out in profanities, wailed it.


My mom visits me on a weekday. We drink iced lattes together, go to Zingerman’s, wince at the smell of weed in the elevator of the parking garage. Her sister comes into town for the night so we can have dinner together. Our outfits always seem to match — silver jewelry, polished colors, looking as if we could all walk into a meeting with a business casual dress code.

We all drink Diet Coke at dinner. We all love the sweet potato fries and rosemary fries equally (these things we share). My aunt doesn’t like ketchup; I didn’t know. By dessert we’ve devoured the topic of my grandmother’s current living situation. “It’s just sad,” we all say. We don’t say that we’re sad; I know we are.

“I just think so often about how she must have been raised, how her life must have gone,” I say. I perform the error of associating her with a 1950s housewife from time to time, but then immediately I recall how an individual, a woman with a husband and children cannot be a vintage trope. I know her complexity and persistent optimism after spending afternoons planting flowers in her yard and taking her out to lunch. I know the ways she folds her hands and fixes her hair. I do not know if she ever felt pressured by her life to conform or perform.

I think of this as I sit with my mother and my aunt, my women in blood and conversation. I don’t know if they know what it feels like to be forced to submit or if my grandmother ever knew such repugnance. I wanted someone who knew the feelings of what happened to me this past week, someone who understood how my mind could be rattled years after a trauma as I sat in that safe, inviting classroom.

In this way, I feel quiet. I do not ask. I do not answer; I do not have answers. We asked what justice would have been for the character in the book, but I cannot define what justice would have been in my own life or if how my Nana lives is justice for society's expectations for women or if my aunt or mom ever cried to themselves for the reasons I do.

Now, I do not need to know. I needed this, my mom and my aunt at the same table with me in a quiet restaurant on a Wednesday night, skimming over the topics of our lives and delving into them together.

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