Trigger warning: the book you are about to read contains content about xyz… The warning is a familiar one, but why do we read on?
A couple of months ago, I “discovered” a debut novel by author Teresa Driscoll, I Am Watching You. (See my review of it here.) It’s suspense– a psychological thriller that I couldn’t put down. When I saw that her second novel The Friend was in pre-release, I didn’t waste any time trying to get my hands on an advance copy.
The blurb itself gave me pause before reading it. It told me that the book involves a four-year-old boy in an accident with his mother hundreds of miles away. I have a four-year-old boy.
Being a parent is the leading cause of aging and grey hair, isn’t it? My brain already has a heyday with worse case scenarios. I’ve unintentionally imagined my loved ones dying in so many horridly vivid scenes. Why would I read a book that just adds fuel to the fire?
I read on.
The Friend didn’t disappoint. It can be a stand-alone book; however, it does continue the stories of a couple of characters from I Am Watching You. Like that first novel, The Friend is a page-turner. I eagerly anticipated reading time to devour chapter after chapter. Its characters were engaging, although I did get frustrated by the weaknesses of Sophie, the protagonist. Would I be as idealistic and naive? I would hope not.
The plot remains gripping throughout the novel. Knowing a sentinel event from the beginning, you read with growing dread as the story unfolds. Like watching an 80s horror movie, you want to shout at the characters, “Don’t open that door! Don’t spend the night at that spooky deserted lake cabin! It won’t end well!”
I continue to be impressed with this upcoming author and heartily recommend The Friend, if you can handle the subject matter. Read on for reasons why it might be okay to not shy away from it, though…
The Friend will be available on March 22nd, but you can pre-order it here with Amazon’s low price guarantee.
What is a Trigger Warning, Anyway?
When my oldest son was almost two, we went on a whale watch. I was in my first trimester of my second pregnancy, and my son and I puked the entire three hour trip. Worst family outing ever.
Fast forward a couple of months. My son was in his high chair, and I gave him some gummy snacks. I didn’t realize at the time that they were the exact flavor he had eaten just prior to losing his lunch on the whale watch. He caught one whiff of them and instantly vomited all over his high chair tray. That, my friends, is a trigger reaction.
In books or other media, you have seen something to this effect: The material you are about to watch contains potentially disturbing content: (insert trigger here). This New York Times article does a good job of defending trigger warnings and their purposes.
These trigger warnings put the reader or viewer in control– allowing them to make the decision whether or not to proceed instead of being blindsided by a topic that is personally disturbing and/or triggers past experiences.
But I don’t want to debate the issue of needing to put trigger warnings on material. I want to know if there is benefit to reading books that make us uncomfortable.
Why We Read What Makes Us Uncomfortable
To make us grateful for what we have.
This is the point that I keep coming back to, so it will lead things off. When I traveled with that poor mum through the heart-wrenching uncertainty about the status of her only child in The Friend, I held my boys closer and reflected on their health with a thankful heart.
When I read stories of third-world societies, I’m grateful for running water and a full pantry and so many other things.
When I read the plights of orphaned and neglected children, I’m thankful for my own safe childhood.
When I read about issues that have also touched my own life, I can look back with gratitude for where I am now, as opposed to where I was.
To connect with others.
“We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.” ~Dietrich Bonhoeffer
I think this works in two directions. We cannot truly empathize with others with whom we do not share experiences, but books can bring us to at least a partial understanding of what another person suffers. Uncomfortable topics can be hard to swallow, but reading about the road others travel can increase our empathy.
“We read to know we are not alone.” ~C.S. Lewis
When we read books that trigger our own pain points, we can connect with a circle of people who have shared experiences. Isolation is difficult to maintain when we open ourselves up to connection.
“One sheds one’s sicknesses in books.” ~D.H. Lawrence
Hand in hand with the above point, when we read about the things that make us uncomfortable, we are forced to evaluate them from another angle and begin the process of healing.
Of course, there may well be a period of time where certain topics are far too sensitive to expose yourself to. Don’t force it. Be kind to yourself, but not blind. Along with therapy, know that thoughtful books on sensitive topics can start to draw that circle of connection and assist the grieving and/or healing process in your own life.
To challenge our misconceptions, prejudices, and general ignorance.
“Whenever you read a good book, somewhere in the world a door opens to allow in more light.” ~Vera Nazarian
Oi. It’s a hard thing to think about how little we know about the world and how much of our information is jaded. But it’s a big, big world,. Unrealistic to be able to travel to every culture, every community, we are left to learn by reading.
I am a firm believer in learning about, well, everything. When that becomes uncomfortable, it means that our boundaries are being threatened.
Time to evaluate. To analyze. To grow.
Questions to Ask Before Reading
- Why am I feeling uncomfortable about this subject material? Is it because of my prejudices or because of my experiences?
- If it’s because of my past, am I ready to read this? Will it cause a setback, or am I ready to start evaluating and connecting?
- Is the subject matter uncomfortable because it is only there to be sensational or exploitative? Will that truly help me learn and become more empathetic?
In my reading challenge this year, I touched on this subject with our April category, a book set in a country that intimidates you. I polled the members of my Reading Challenge Group about the topic of uncomfortable reading. I found that most agree with my thoughts about growth and look forward to exploring genres and subjects that they don’t customarily read about. Some, however, admitted that even that month’s topic makes them a little uncomfortable. I love the honesty, and being able to discuss these things in a safe environment.
Bubbles don’t expand. (Well, probably they do. It’s been a long time since physics. Just go with me here.) Reading in a bubble doesn’t encourage either personal growth or healing. Though the process may be uncomfortable, what would that growth look like to you?
Another step in the journey of becoming your best self.
Trigger warnings are useful for information and preparation. What we do with them says a lot about where we are in our own life journeys. Whatever your decision, the end result should be kindness. Kindness for yourself and kindness for others.
“Give me knowledge, so I may have kindness for all.” ~American Indian proverb