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.
The flu + youtube= a melancholy meditation on pop culture
When did sagging, bulbous bologna become happy baloney:
slang sung by children peeling sweaty circles from the lunch bag’s caress
Who in the schoolyard knew of crazed pigs chewing each other’s tails off?
Who had heard that the runts were slammed to death against the slaughterhouse floor?
Or that a pig that met such a fate was known by another childhood name: Thumper.
We loved the oblivion of mayonnaise.
We learned to laugh off those surreal familiars: leg, shoulder, breast, wing
as we forgot our longing for an ecstatic father
who ate Golden Grahams in a tent
or drank Nescafe from a transparent globe.
I trace the inception of pre-adolescent dread
to my inability to reconcile disco and earthiness,
transparent lip gloss and false ferns
I blame the crackling aftermath,
the lingering shot of the silent game board
or cake mix in lengthening shadow.
That tension between ultra-sheer understatement
and memory yarn,
the shame of instant milk.
What does the rise of fascism, class struggle or the brutality of capitalism have to do with the marauding great white in JAWS? Although I don’t always agree with Zizek, I do like his take on my favorite film….
A man at my yard sale held up two DVDs: “Rosemary’s Baby” and “It’s Alive.” The cover of the former features an ominous baby carriage on a hill. In the background Mia Farrow’s dazed and staring face fills the sky. On the other cover a sharp demon hand dangles over the side of a bassinet.
The wispy ghosts of my high school Spanish deserted me.
How could I surmount the language barrier and assert the vast superiority of Polanski’s movie?
“Both demon babies,” I said. “But “Rosemary” was made first, in 1968. It’s much better. You never see the baby.”
“No different movie. Both Satan’s baby, but different. Different plots.”
“I see. So they are the same.”
All the many years of cultivating my discerning aesthetic seemed irrelevant in the withering heat. I took the dollar he offered for “Rosemary’s Baby,” and watched him reluctantly place “It’s Alive” back in the ripped cardboard box from which it had come.
“Take them both,” I said. “You’ll see.”
Why did I own so many horror films about demon children? Only minutes before I’d watched wistfully as a smiling, very focused man with red sneakers and wisps of white hair wreathing his temples snatched my copy of the 1979’s “The Brood.” At the end of the afternoon, when only the dregs remained, a tall collegiate looking girl rescued Tarot cards from the bottom of a box, and lingered over the books, trying to choose between Famous Statues and Their Stories and The Cat in Ancient Egypt.
She finally decided on the statues.
“There’s a lot of witchy stuff here,” the college girl confided to my friend Deirdre, tugging absently on her U.C. Berkeley lanyard.
She then confessed she was going to cut my 1930s art book up for collages, which struck me as a rather brutal form of creative “magic.”
By the end of the long, unbearably hot day, when my DVDs were mostly gone and a few stray cards from an animal magic divining deck littered the sidewalk, a friendly family arrived.
A young woman who walked with a limp approached me and I showed her the boxes I’d packed up for Goodwill.
“I have a weakness for books,” she said, “I’ll take any books.”
Isn’t it strange how easy it is to feel love for someone you don’t even know? I gave her the box full of books on art, on love, on witchcraft, old Gothic paperbacks with dry attic-sweet pages, books on movies. She accepted it all with enthusiasm, even wonder. I handed a woman who must have been her mother a pair of 1950s decorative cats, a white 50s ashtray, “Thank you, Thank you….!” I piled each of them high with stories I’d loved or pictures I’d studied or ephemera from the dead I could no longer carry. They didn’t subtly imply that I might be a practicing Satanist, or ask me to explain the fine lines that separated one doomed birth from another. They didn’t inquire why I might be handing off these once-beloved parts of myself to strangers. They just opened their arms in gratitude.
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