The Color Purple starts with the repeated beating and raping of a teenage girl. Romeo & Juliet ends with teen suicide. Both are broadly considered literary classics. When I read them in my teen years, there was no warning, though of course I knew how Romeo & Juliet ended before I ever tried to read it. The beginning of The Color Purple made me wince, but I still finished the book, and found the experience worthwhile.
I believe that reading challenging works can develop your emotional strength. You develop sympathies that might not otherwise happen in normal life, and wrestle with questions you might never ask yourself, if you’ve never been exposed to child abuse or addiciton or war.
This, too, is the key mechanism of scripture. People read about Jesus, for example, think about his story, and relate it to their own lives. Going to church is, essentially, repeat-reading the story, with the guidance of literary critics called priests and elders. The story is enhanced with music, and you are guided through your inner world to reflect on all this through discussion and prayer. Religion is one of the most powerful examples of how stories can shape character.
Should the Bible open with a warning? Should we be cautioned at every book within it which contains a story of genocide, adultery, prostitution, or selling children into slavery?
I find warnings presumptuous. There is no single standard for sensitivity. I had a mother in law who would flinch if anyone tapped on the window to get her attention, because a Nazi soldier had done that at her home when she was a child. Many Americans regualrly watch shows which pivot on acts of horror — all the primetime spinoffs of Law and Order and CSI Whatever come to mind — yet those kidnappings, rapes, and murders don’t seem to affect the digestion of our dinners.
I’ve found that, since becoming a father, I can’t handle stories where children are abused. I don’t need a trigger warning about that — I just turn it off or close the book. It’s not something that bothered me as a young man. It’s a new trigger, a new sensitivity. As an adult, I have the maturity to say, “No thanks.” I have an internal warning, which I heed.
In America, we are particularly sensitive to sex, but flippant about violence. I find this to be a backwards morality. We are much more likely to be exposed to nipples than exploding heads in real life. Our sensitivity to nakedness is a Victorian leftover. Attacking it makes us feel proper, when actually we’re pretty sick. Rape and murder shouldn’t be entertaining — even as a setup for revenge fantasy — and pubic hair shouldn’t terrify.
Fiction isn’t the problem. We humans are a wonderful, yet perverse, species. Sometimes, our fiction too readily reflects that.