In Defense of The Trigger Warning

Note: this post is triggering. Are you sure that you want to read it right now? 


In Defense of The Trigger Warning

Getting triggered is no fun. The first place that I feel it is in the palms of my hands and the soles of my feet as the initial shock wears off and an inflammation feedback cycle begins. The extremities of my hands and feet begin to burn and itch and flush bright red. I’ve come to recognize this odd sensation as a harbinger of further symptoms, which never fail to materialize. My reaction progresses into a sickening onslaught of anxiety, as if my nervous system had been torn out of my body and relocated naked to the surface of my skin. I feel as if I were seconds away from taking a prolonged oral exam in a subject that I have never studied in front of a panel of Supreme Court judges whose verdict will decide my fate as to the guillotine that restrains me, even while my mind is lucidly aware that this is hardly the case. Left unabated, my panic can cascade until it becomes “unmanageable,” to parrot a canonical clinical understatement. In order to disrupt the cascade, I take a low-dose of prescription alpha-blocker that incites sleep, which somehow serves to reboot my neural hard drive. This is good because I’ll eventually wake up more or less ready to face a new day on my own terms.

I know right? It sucks. It interferes with deadlines, teaching, driving, getting to little league on time – you-name-it. The arguably biggest part of the reason that it sucks so bad centers around my inability to accurately predict when and where I might be dealing with the experience described above. Rationally, I understand that because I was in abject terror once a long time ago, my body over-anticipates danger in the naive hope of ensuring my future safety absolutely. Unfortunately for me, this rational understanding of the process cannot, in itself, make it stop – and so I must merely try to manage my reaction until it passes. It happens less and less as the years go by, so that’s good anyway. Every survivor is a unique individual and the triggering process is equally specific. I can’t speak to anybody else’s symptoms or experience, no matter how similar our trauma, but I sure as hell can speak about mine. If you happen to know of a sure-fire better way to manage the above, then I’m all ears. My own method is the result of more than a decade of deliberate trial and error governed by trustworthy medical input.

I am similar to a lot of survivors in that descriptions of sexual violence and its aftermath – even rather clinical ones – are reasonably likely candidates for triggering. But then again, not always. Here’s something that you may find puzzling: there’s this short story that I read about once a year (“Diary of an Interesting Year” by Helen Simpson). I’m not necessarily suggesting that you read it; I just provided the link as reference. Trust me when I tell you that it can hold its own against snuff pornography in terms of its Trigger Index. It includes first-person descriptions of starvation, homelessness, sexual violence and involuntary abortion. It is also the most novel, daring and skilled writing that I’ve ever read concerning climate change. It’s a narrative of apocalyptic environmental deterioration that explores the potential for disastrous social consequences specific to women’s lives. Maybe I keep reading it because I am a perverse and obsessive masochist. Maybe I read it because it is an exceptional piece of literature that also triggers an explosion of imagination that made me view Global Change in a whole new light. Maybe both. I will not stop reading it because what I gain from it out-balances the price that its reading exacts. I do not include it on the syllabus for my course on Global Change, and I feel somewhat conflicted about this. I can’t quite figure out how to write an appropriate trigger warning and until I do, I’ll teach a different text.

Some apparently believe that trigger warnings encourage survivors to indulge themselves in trauma-avoidance. In fact, I’ve read more than one article that comes dangerously close to suggesting that getting triggered is actually therapeutic for survivors. To this I respond, “LOL if only it were that easy!” The truth is that trigger warnings empower me. They give me a precious modicum of control over when and where I may anticipate the symptoms that I described within the first paragraph of this post. This is of great value to me. My placement of this value does not reflect a belief that it is the world’s responsibility never to trigger me. Indeed, I believe that trigger warnings are a courtesy. I also believe that you probably have no idea of the true depth of my gratitude when this courtesy is extended to me. Have you ever felt bad about sexual violence and wondered what you could do about it? Idea: you can put a goddam trigger warning on the sensitive materials that you request others to read. It won’t hurt the people who don’t need it, and it might slightly smooth the rocky ground that some of us must traverse indefinitely. It is a gift that, for whatever crazy messed-up reason, you have the power to give. Will you give it? I fear that I’ll sound like a postmodern cliché when I tell you that writing a post about triggering is in itself sort of triggering, but it will serve to explain why you won’t find me yukking it up on Twitter for a bit. If you’re reading this, I weighed the pros and cons, and then decided to go ahead and post. Because that’s what my life is when it comes to the topic of sexual violence. Because constantly evaluating the trade-off between bodily risk and uncertain gain is what women’s lives are.


Heaven knows that the internet hasn’t been stingy in its supply of discussion as to the legitimacy of the trigger warning.  Everybody and his brother have an opinion about it, ranging from the New Republic to the NYT to the AAUP, each of whom have graced us with their cyber-statements.  I wrote this because no where within this raging verbstorm can I find a convincing description of triggering, which (for me) is a physiological phenomenon.  And I think it matters.

An Open Letter from Your Kid’s College Professor

It’s Finals Week and academia’s annual Festival-of-Regret has officially begun! I am celebrating this year by finally writing the letter to my students’ parents that I wish I had written a long time ago, in the hopes that it might do someone some good. Within it, I’ll employ the feminine pronoun “she” liberally, but all my advice applies to the parents of any student. Incidentally, if my use of “her” jars you, it sure as hell shouldn’t because the enrollment of US colleges has been more than 50% female since the 1980s. Just sayin’.

An Open Letter from Your Kid’s College Professor

Hi there. We haven’t formally met, but I get paid to hang out with your kid. Chances are, you’re paying a sh*tload for the favor, and although shockingly little of it goes to me, I care more than you might think. You see, this ain’t my first ride on the finals ferris wheel. I’ve been in this job for twenty years; I’ve seen students both succeed and fail, often simultaneously and sometimes spectacularly. Ages 18-22 represent an interesting stage of human development. Just like with the earlier stages, there are milestones that are naturally passed during healthy development: between ages 0-1 a child learns to crawl, and so on. During young adulthood a child must take important steps towards self-sufficiency, and similar to the other stages, parental support (or lack thereof) makes all the difference. Towards this, I’m asking you to do five things for your child while she is at college.

  1. Give her some space. Higher learning takes time, and it takes energy. To do college right, your child will need to spend several hours each day sitting in the library and reading, or standing in a lab and experimenting (and that’s just two of the many examples I could put here). She may not be used to spending her time this way and so may have a hard time locating those hours and eliminating the activities that used to occupy them. I cannot overemphasize the following: if she doesn’t successfully find and use those hours, she will likely not do well and possibly even fail out. You are in the overwhelmingly important position of being able to give her those hours out of the time that you used to spend interacting with her. You can choose to give them freely or you can harness her into a yoke of guilt that she will carry for the rest of her life. When she lived at home, she participated in your daily life. At what level do you expect her to continue now that she lives elsewhere? I understand keenly that she is programmed to meet your expectations over mine, and you must also acknowledge this within your dynamics. How often must she visit? Which family events must she attend? Forgive my blunt question: if you decide to get divorced while she’s in college (and I see this often), to what extent will you entrain her in the proceedings? Making these choices is your responsibility, as she is still relatively unskilled at setting boundaries. Note that you may also have to regulate the amount of space that her younger siblings give her, which means that you will have to make up for the attention that they are accustomed to receiving from her.
  1. Reinforce the fact that learning is her most important job. I am working hard to teach your child how to go recklessly overboard. Together we will do crazy things: We’ll read a single book over and over and then she’ll write (and rewrite) a ten page letter to me about one of the characters. We’ll drive a hundred miles just to see one big rock. She’ll grow intimate with the daily customs of people that lived centuries ago and which are now gone forever. I will lure her towards semi-impossible dreams like chasing the faint hope of a cure for an illness that very few (yet still too many) people will ever contract. Believe it or not, all of these things contribute to a supremely practical skill: during her life, your child will often see people go recklessly overboard for love, for money and for power. My job is to show her that going overboard for learning is also an option. I need you to reinforce my opinion that this is a worthy choice, which means that you must embrace her growing identity as an intellectual. Your relationship is no longer about what she eats or when she sleeps, it is about what she thinks about the world. Ask her which class is her favorite and why. Ask her to show you something that she figured out. Listen to her talk about it. For hours. Praise her work and tell her how proud you are, regardless of whether it was graded “C” or “A” – there is always victory in learning. Help her celebrate her intellectual maturation.
  1. Actively push her towards independence. This is the appropriate time for your child to learn to show up on time, pay her bills, fill out paperwork and meet her physical needs without help from you. One of the wonderful things about college is that it effectively provides training-wheels for many of these steps: food is prepared for you, but is only available at certain times; school is your job, but there’s a syllabus telling you what to do week by week in order to succeed. I’ll be blunt: we are all hoping that your child will outlive you, and Heaven forbid otherwise. Once you’re gone she will have to keep herself healthy and safe without any help from you. College is an appropriate time for you both to start working concertedly towards that goal. Does your child know what to do when she needs a ride somewhere, needs to secure birth control, needs to request an override? Her first recourse in these situations should not be to call you. When you get those calls, cheerfully chirp out, “Oh gosh honey, you’d know better than I would — I’m sure you can figure it out.” Then follow up and praise her for trying to do it independently, even if she screws it up.
  1. Try not to feed into the propensity to complain. We all love to complain, but students – if they aren’t careful – raise this to a high art. Unfortunately, this is also a skill that won’t do them any good in the long run. Your child probably feels compelled to carry on at length about how gross the dorm food is, how disgusting the bathrooms are, how her classes are too hard and her professors are just plain boring (and mean). I know you’re inclined the listen sympathetically, but it’s better for you to redirect the conversation into asking her what she does like about what she’s doing and learning. It’s only by long examination of her preferences that she will settle on a career path, and this is best done out loud and with good attitude. Please bear in mind that just because she doesn’t like a class, it doesn’t mean that she isn’t learning something useful, and it also doesn’t automatically preclude her from earning a decent grade. She’ll get more out of college if she approaches it positively – she’s also be much more likely to finish her degree.
  1. Think about it, and then talk about it. Why not print out this post and go through it with your college-age kid over the holiday break? As was ever the case, you have far more influence over your child’s education than her teacher does. I am no substitute for a parent, nor will I ever attempt to be. You love her unconditionally for the person that she is, and I love only the things that I am teaching her to do. For the brief period while she is at college, she is both an adult and a child, growing in critical ways. Perhaps this means that we are raising a child together, you and I. It is one of the great privileges of my job to be able to contribute to her growth, but I need your help — we both do. She is your child, and she will never stop needing you. And now that she’s in college, she needs you more than ever.

If you liked this post you might like like to know Why I Love Science or see my Open Letter to Millennial Women. But maybe you should quit reading the web and go study for your finals. 

Blood Baseball

My son has been telling me for a while now that he wants to be a writer.  Poor kid.  So I am letting him guest-post to get his literary career up and running.  He’s ten years old.  

Blood Baseball

Blood was all over my face. I felt pain, searing pain. I would bet my life that I would be Mr. Scar-face for a month. The pain was so bad I might not have a life so I would have nothing to lose if I lost that bet. I rolled on the ground for about 30 seconds. It felt like 24 hours. I hung on, and now I can fill you in with the beginning.

My dad was jabbering away, as usual. Then he said something about going to the park. That caught my ear so I said, “Let’s go to the park and practice fly balls.” My dad was all over the idea of getting out of the house. He doesn’t like to watch TV. It was Saturday. It was 2 pm. We crossed the five-way that leads to a sidewalk that ends up at the baseball parks. We finally arrived at the Pinto field. I didn’t know what I was in for.

I grabbed my glove and ran out to the best patch of green grass. My dad threw me one ball sky high. I caught it above my head easily. We did this for 30 minutes before the ‘bad thing” happened. I didn’t know it but soon I would not be very interactive for a month. I seriously wouldn’t have any emotions for a long time. That’s why my baseball teammates call me “the zombie.”

The dreaded baseball was locked in my dad’s hand. He wound up and let it go. It was hard to see the white globe with the clouds behind the baseball. I could see the spin though, but it was very faint. The baseball had a very unique spin. It had ­­backspin so it would carry and travel farther. It was drifting in the air. I was heading toward the fence.

Everything seemed to go in slow motion. The ball was descending fast but it felt like months. I was following its trajectory. It was still carrying with the heavy wind. My hat flew off. I leaped. I touched the ground again. Bad timing. I leaped again. I was two feet in the air when I felt the ball hit the tip of my glove. My glove swayed. I was four feet away from the fence. I felt thin solid metal collide with the left portion of my face. I felt pain. Pain I had never experienced. I couldn’t describe it, but I guess I’ll have to. My veins were bursting. My eye stung. My nose felt like it cracked. I couldn’t move my legs.

We walked here so I basically was stuck here. My dad tried to call my mom to come in the car and pick me up. She arrived; my dad helped me onto my feet. He lifted me into the back seat. We got home. I refused to have bandages. The bleeding had stopped. My mom cleaned up my wounds. It felt like a very long day. I had to be careful when I ate because one of my scabs might burst and I would start bleeding again. The next morning it happened.

I felt a pop on my face. My scabs had burst. I yelled. My mom raced into the medical bin. She pulled out a mega bandage. She placed it on, but if you gave me a choice, I wouldn’t go through that experience again.

Do you have a comment? Of course you do, and it’s this one: “Adorable!!!!!” 
Oh by the way, this is the horrible wound in question.

Happy One-Year Birthday to My Blog

One year ago today this blog right here went live when the poor sorry bastard manning the help chat at WordPress finally said uncle and put it online. From that day until this very moment, we’ve shared laughter and tears, and goshdarnit we also learned a little along the way. But it would be just too damn bad to keep all this literary goodness to ourselves, wouldn’t it? Why not celebrate the one-year anniversary of my blog by forcing all your friends to read it? Or send the links to your mom, she likes to forward things. Or hell, print out copies of my posts and throw them out your car window as you drive. And anyway, are you sure you’ve read it all?

Happy One-Year Birthday to My Blog

I’ve made thirty-six blog posts in the last year, according to that dashboard thingy. That’s about one every ten f*cking days. When the hell did I do that? I am asking myself, and no answer forthcomes. All I really know, after considering it objectively from every angle, is that more people should be reading the hell out of my stuff. So here I am asking you if you’re sure you’ve read it all?

My mad computer skills (and the helpchat dude) helped me figure out that a lot of people definitely want funding, might want babies and are sick of feeling like impostors. People also wonder why anyone would want to piss off Nature. Those posts really got read. Not having been born yesterday, I’m halfway done with a post about a well-funded impostor baby who boycotts Nature. Keep an eye out for it.

I also wrote some really good stuff that nobody much read. So I’ve decided to squeak the wheel and hope for grease.

I wrote a love letter, a hate letter, a poem and a recipe for cheese.

I wrote about Marie Curie, Becky Sharp and Carl Sagan.

I gazed into the bottomless navel that is Twitter and wrote about what I saw.

I wrote about Cream-of-Wheat, Barbie, my high-school boyfriend and my fingernails.

I told you what to say and what to do when the sexism happens.

I wrote about how the sexism feels and why you don’t mind me talking about it.

I wrote about hopelessness, predestination and from the perspective of a dog.

I wrote down the stuff that the strict word-count at Nature and the New York Times didn’t let me really explain.

Closest to my heart is the collection of my three comic books, to which could I could add many more readily. Fantagraphics has not offered to publish my comic books on thick glossy paper, nor has my favorite graphic artist Peter Bagge given me any personal encouragement. However, THIS COULD CHANGE AT ANY MOMENT*.

What else can I say? Oh yes. Thank you for reading. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I don’t know if you realize it, but this is all for you. Every word is for you.

I also have a hilariously closed comment policy, a self-serving about me page and an even more self-serving why this blog page. Are you sure you’ve read it all?
*OMG this has changed. Peter Bagge is amazing, you should go read all his stuff.

Follow-up To My Op-Ed in the New York Times

Since I contributed this Op-Ed to an issue of last month’s New York Times, I have received a massive amount of reaction to it. For the most part, I have been listening but not talking. Now after thinking carefully, I find that I have a few more things to say.

Follow-up To My Op-Ed in the New York Times

Commenters have raised several issues: foremost among them is that my story, as well as my very self, are not representative of all women. This is a valid criticism. I have told my story with accuracy and honesty after long contemplation, but it is my story only. I will not presume to tell another woman’s story.

The study by Kathryn Clancy, Robin Nelson, Julienne Rutherford and Katie Hinde reports data gained from hundreds of women. My experience differed from the majority of respondents in Clancy et al. 2014 in some critical ways. Most importantly, my assault involved a stranger who was not a fellow scientist. In contrast, women respondents within Clancy et al. 2014 reported that “their perpetrators were predominantly senior to them professionally within the research team.”  This makes the following a crucial piece of information: The threat of assault is most likely to arise from within the cohort of travelling scientists.

Commenters have noted that my piece does not treat the multiple issues of race and class that intersect with violence against women. This valid criticism is a part of a much larger ongoing discussion examining the exclusionary history of mainstream feminism. I recommend this post by Ambika Kamath as particularly insightful about my piece; her follow up is also important.

Many commenters also noted that violence against women is hardly a problem unique to Science. As I wrote, I believe violence against women arises from the “fundamental and culturally-learned power imbalance between men and women” (my words), a pre-existing condition within virtually every sphere of our lives. It is equally valid to specifically question whether women are safe while practicing Science as it is to question whether they are safe anywhere while doing anything.

Commenters have critiqued the Colonizer mentality that drove the reconnaissance that I attempted. This is absolutely valid. The idea that an establishing scientist must go into an unstudied locality and claim it as one’s own was a model in common use twenty years ago. Since then things have changed for the better, and my grantsmanship demonstrates how my own approach has evolved. The best international field programs are now shared ventures with extensive local participation. Scientific funding agencies actively promote and often require the prior establishment of international collaboration to support foreign fieldwork. The rise of the internet after Y2K made the process of opening correspondence with international colleagues immeasurably easier, and smartphones have made travel easier, and safer, as well.

I would like to address the emails that I have received, because I will not be able to answer them individually.

To the college students who have written to ask me if they should pursue Science given the realities that I have named: I have experienced great joy while working as a Scientist, and I cannot imagine my life any other way. I have also experienced great fear and I have tried to describe its effect on me to the best of my ability. In the end, I would not trade my career for any other calling. I have given all my efforts to Science and it has rewarded my imagination with riches beyond description. Observations that I have made will live on in libraries long after I am dead. I will always believe that being a Scientist is the best job in the world.

To the administrators who have sent me drafts of new policy guidelines for fieldwork: I regret to tell you that I will not be able to evaluate them or give you input. There are women and men at your institution who have valuable insight into what is needed. But before you ask them to pour effort into creating new policy, you must find a way to free them from some of their other duties.

To the people who have written to ask me how to prepare their daughters for a career in Science: Prepare her the same way you prepare her for Life. Tell your daughter that she is more than her body. Tell her that she has a precious heart and mind and soul that cannot be degraded by the events of this world. My parents and I have not always seen eye to eye, but I have never doubted that they believe this about me. This is what got me through. You must tell this to your daughter often, so that it builds with interest like savings that she can count upon if she is ever in need of a very large withdrawal.

To the people who have written to tell me their own stories of pain and anguish: What happened to us was wrong and evil and not our fault. Hear me: you are more than a body. You have a precious heart and a mind and a soul that cannot be degraded by the events of this world. I believe that about me, and I believe that about you.

To my colleagues near and far: Everything I learned during my scientific training tells me that Clancy et al. 2014 represents quality research that should be used to change the world. When I read it, I encountered the data of hundreds of broken hearts and it broke mine open also. Please do not harden yours against its findings, even if they make you uncomfortable. We can still make Science into the noble institution that we hoped it would be. Print it out, take it to your Chair or Dean, and start the conversation.

Scientists all over the United States are already planning for their next field season. I cannot see a way to make these endeavors safer that does not involve all of us starting to talk openly about these issues. This year, as during every other, our universities, colleges and research institutes will send thousands of women into the field in order to study our natural world. I spoke out because I know that their safety is more important than my discomfort, and yours.


Here’s one more link to Clancy et al., 2014.  Please read it and distribute (it’s Open Access).



32 Minutes of Fancy Words Coming Out of My Head

Here’s a thirty-two minute interview that I did for the Breaking Bio podcast, within which the intrepid Tom Houslay basically triggers an eruption of verbal phytophilia, within which I explain that plants are beyond amazing and ever so important to study and fund me please.

If you prefer, you are welcome to skip to the last five minutes [starts at 26:30], within which I discuss my ups and downs on social media, within which I emphasize how grateful I am for readers like you.

Why not follow @BreakingBio to get updates on each new episode, within which are usually featured people more interesting than me?

My 1-page Comic Book on “Having The Talk With Your Student”

It’s Back-To-School Time! Have you had The Talk with your student yet?

Not sure how? Here’s a handy guide you can Download at the low, low cost of absolutely nothing! It comes to you in the form of a 1-page comic book that I made without any help from grownups (it’s a 1.3 Mb pdf file).

Hey, go read my post from the other side of the fence to further enrich your perspective. Then go read all my other comic books as long as you’re here. I guarantee satisfaction or your money back. Then go stare out the window for a while, forever changed.

About copyright: Yes, you can print this!  It’s all super-duper-legal because I bought the images from Dreamstime for a shockingly measly sum. Golly, how do they do it!?!