There’s been a whole lot of hoopla lately about trigger warnings, those cautions about potentially traumatizing content (sexual abuse, colonialism, racism, etc.) in books or movies or on websites. Now that UCSB students have asked their professors to include trigger warnings on their syllabi.
What I find baffling about this is that for the “hypersensitive” among us, the entire world is a trigger. Advertisements, trees, the sound of church bells, the font on a candy wrapper, the particular way the sun slants on a garden wall, the sound of dead pine needles underfoot, the sound of gum ball machines, thrift store smells.Depression-prone people tend to fall easily down memory holes. They let a single melancholic moment metastasize into morose delectation. Songs are the most irresistible and potent memory spells ever conjured. Vanished pleasures, deep sorrows–even the most banal or obnoxious song can evoke a soul-altering tragedy. Case in point: Bread.
Today I was waiting for my spin class to start. As the previous class wiped down their bikes, I could hear the earnest opening of “Everything I Own,” Bread’s 1972 hit, except I guess it was NSYNC’s version. This song, like the way-more-wrenching Nilsson tear-jerker “Without You,” always reminds me of the death of my 19-year-old sister Julie in 1973. I was really young then and Top 40 helped me mourn. Love songs became larger–encompassing other forms of grief and loss. Although Julie died over 40 years ago, music always makes her loss more present than any photograph or letter. The memories aren’t just visual or aural, but physical, as if all the places and states of being live quite literally inside my body. The rising “I would give ee-very-thing I own,” makes me see again the rolling green fields around our house, the aching feeling of listening to Top 40 in the car while the New England landscape rolled by, and thinking of the childish bargains I would make if only I could have Julie back again, or re-living the last time I saw Julie when my parents drove her to the hospital and all the things that I didn’t or couldn’t say to her.
Waiting to go into spin class I felt startled by the song, but not ambushed by childhood trauma. Maybe if I was already depressed about something else, I would have been more vulnerable. Maybe if it had been Bread and not NSYNC, I would have meandered down the familiar, beautiful, wrenching path toward that deep sadness that is always there. Julie’s death can always be conjured if I so choose along with a million other sadnesses, losses, anxieties, unresolved obsessions. “The shit,” my first therapist said, “is always there.”
I know that all trauma is not created equal. The earnest, eerie refrain of nostalgia isn’t the horror of the combat vet with PTSD. Once triggered, certain traumas are immediately physical and terrifying. But even so aren’t we all ultimately responsible for our own healing whether it’s finding a shrink or a meditation practice or writing or love? The world will never cater to our particular wounds or losses. Shouldn’t a blanket warning about potentially upsetting book or movie be enough?
I used to be very vulnerable to memory. If a sad song played, I had to relive whatever it summoned. I had to feel the agony of lost love, death, lost time. It wasn’t so much a decision, as what David Foster Wallace might have called a “default setting.” Not being pulled in the direction of every thought, memory, song was something I had to learn. Unless I really want or need to remember, to renew a memory for fear of losing it or unless I am writing something and need to remember deeply, I find “catch and release” a nice motto to live by.
When I checked Songfacts for more information about “Everything I Own,” I learned that David Gates wrote the song not about a lost lover, but about the death of his father. I also noticed that beneath the usual trivia about chart positions and things like that, a few people had posted their own personal memories of the song, many of which seem pretty traumatic. Alcoholism. Sexual Abuse. A lost sister. For many the “you” in the song is God. For these people this song has become a memory about not just about the trauma itself, but a reminder of their own survival, a way of creating perspective, marking time.
I feel curmudgeonly. I want to write something about today’s kids needing to “toughen up.” Life is often brutal and the best literature is often unsparing about this truth. If Nabokov or Baldwin or Achebe or Fitzgerald evoke trauma and pain, think about what they actually might be saying about racism or pedophilia. Maybe they aren’t so much triggers of trauma as catalysts for deeper understanding. If a Bread song could initiate a contemplative exploration of childhood grief and loss, just imagine the power of Virginia Woolf.