“I had an incident come up in class this week” could be another way of saying, “I taught a Mary Gaitskill story in class this week.” I’m a fan of Gaitskill’s work in the same way I’m a fan of Joyce Carol Oates’s: it makes me uncomfortable; it makes me think; it reminds me how people very different from myself think, and then it makes me think some more about what that says about our world.
We read “The Girl on the Plane” in my Narrative Time class, a pretty brutal story about a vile man who gang-raped a woman when he was much younger and is just now coming to accept that’s what he did. For years he has justified his behavior based on her behavior, and told himself what he wanted to hear, and only now, years later, does he see how little that holds.
Shortly before class, I received an email from a student saying she thought it would be a good idea to warn students beforehand about material like this, to basically offer a trigger warning, a term that is debated a lot in academic circles and about which I have mixed feelings. I decided to ask the class about it and the feelings were mixed. “It’s college and people should be aware we’ll be discussing adult topics.” “How can you ever guess might be someone’s trigger?” “People shouldn’t be forced to read something that makes them feel unsafe.” “This kind of thing takes away from the real topics at hand” (as evidenced by the fact we were giving classtime to talk about the issue versus narrative time). All good points.
Like with most things, I can see both sides, and I don’t mean that as I’m a well-rounded individual who takes the high ground, but as someone kind of wishy-washy who would have sucked at debate in high school. At some point I would have stood at the podium and said to the opposition, “Well, gosh. You’ve got a good point there,” and scratched my head.
I guess my bottom line came down to this: if a student is that repulsed or triggered by a story, there’s no way she’s to get out of it what I want her to get out of it. You can’t discuss the brilliant use of switchback time or point-of-view when you’re that preoccupied with something else in the story. I also told students that if something like this were to come up again, while I couldn’t speak for other professors, I would want them to stop reading. Their mental health is more important than reading a story. I would want them to come talk to me about it and we could figure something else out. I think we can all have stories we react to like this and mine would be different from theirs. If it continued to happen to a student with any frequency, I think the student would have to take a hard look at whether this was the correct major for him or her.
As for now, I don’t think I’ll teach the Gaitskill story again, and a part of me thinks that’s too bad. It’s a wonderful, tough story and one that explores a psychology that is very much a part of our culture. I don’t consider this censorship but common sense. There are other stories that work just as well to demonstrate narrative time so I’ll use them instead. I do worry though that what I’m calling common sense is also wanting to avoid the headache of it all, and if laziness isn’t the first step toward a form of censorship.