Twitter, Why the 'Trigger Warning' for Dylan Farrow's Open Letter?

02/13/2014 07:49 pm ET Updated Apr 15, 2014

Everyone reacts differently to the news that someone they know has been sexually abused.

When Dylan Farrow's open letter was published in The New York Times, social media took to frenzy: people praised Dylan Farrow, defended Woody Allen, blamed Mia Farrow, criticized the legal system, debated the line between art and the artist, and analyzed society's entrenchment in and propagation of rape culture.

I expected such responses. What I didn't expect was the call for a trigger warning.

Although The New York Times did not label Dylan Farrow's open letter as content that might be sensitive to readers, millions of tweets posting the link to the story included the phrase "Trigger Warning," or "TW" for short. In response to those who did not employ the "TW," there were tweets imploring them to follow suit.

I understand the importance of a trigger warning. I first became acquainted with the "TW" when I was 29 and diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, caused by the sexual abuse I'd endured in my childhood. Except for my therapist and a couple of close friends, people discouraged me from openly discussing the issue. When I disclosed the information to my mother a few months after I began therapy, she said she couldn't hear or know of the truth; she said that if she did, she wouldn't be able to get out of bed in the morning to go to work or live her life: "I won't be able to function," she told me. She asked me not to talk about it. I was to pretend it hadn't happened, or at least that it hadn't affected me. My need to embrace the truth in order to heal from it and my mother's need to turn away from the truth in order to survive it estranged us.

Seeking community, I joined an online forum for survivors who wanted to "chat," to receive and lend support. One of the rules of the site was that if you were going to list any graphic details of your rape, for example, it was important to write "TW" to alert readers that your post's content had the potential to trigger flashbacks and/or stir up intense emotions, which might, depending on the reader's state of mind, cause a setback in recovery. This allowed the reader to decide whether or not to read the post, to protect his or her psychological well-being. The purpose of the "TW" was one of healthy protection.

While I'm sure the Twitter-based "TW" for Farrow's piece is motivated by a sense of kindness and politeness, it seems to have less to do with well-being and more to do with a general public intolerance for seeing or hearing about the sinister existence of incest. While Farrow's open letter uses concrete terms to name the parameters of her experience, she is far from graphic.

We have no problem reading the graphically detailed sexual encounters written about without trigger warning in Fifty Shades of Grey; we voraciously view the 109 of 125 scripted TV dramas that were reported to have "depicted or described in detail a rape or murder" in the 2012-2013 season. But when it comes to a real-life sexual abuse survivor's declarative statement, we expect a trigger warning as a social courtesy.

Why? Sexual abuse, particularly incest, scares us more than anything.

When terrorists flew airplanes into the Twin Towers, when Boston police chased the marathon bombers in what culminated in a violent shootout during a citywide lockdown, there were no trigger warnings before the media displayed -- and replayed -- the gruesome story, or when we tweeted about it. We kept our eyes and ears wide open. We took in the details in order to make sense of the senseless. We stayed with the local TV reporter on the scene, in real time, as she cried, "Oh, my God! Oh, my God!" as shots were fired; we watched people jump to their deaths; we digested tearful interviews with survivors. We called for the coming together of community. We did our best to take care of those hurt in the process. We bore witness. We took action to prevent history from repeating itself.

We don't request a trigger warning for a topic of cataclysmic horror, except when the subject is alleged incest. Then we become skittish. We close our eyes and ears and doors, and hearts. We abandon ship. "We" are spouses, families, friends, legal authorities, ordinary citizens, readers, and tweeters. "We" are bystanders. We pass along the responsibility of bearing witness as if it were a hot potato.

Psychiatrist Judith Herman, in her landmark book Trauma and Recovery, states:

The ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness. Certain violations of the social compact are too terrible to utter aloud. Atrocities, however, refuse to be buried. Remembering and telling the truth about terrible events are prerequisites both for the restoration of the social order and for the healing of individual victims.

Incest is an atrocity. The need for a "TW" to preface an abuse survivor speaking about his or her experience is a symptom of our need to make such a story "go away" -- it's about our sense of terror. It's about self-preservation.

"TW" says, "I cannot handle this." It says, "This is too much," without assessing if it actually is. It is a term of aversion, a gesture of estrangement. "TW" labels Dylan Farrow's open letter as taboo, and by extension the similar stories of so many others: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in four women and one in six men were sexually abused as children, which means there are more than 42 million survivors of childhood sexual abuse in the United States.

When I began to write about how I came to terms with the sexual abuse of my childhood, many people, including those in the publishing world, told me to stop: "Write about something else -- anything else," they said. "Put your book in a drawer. Burn it. Write fiction."

It seemed hypocritical to me that publishing stories of sexual abuse or pedophilia in fiction -- take Lolita, or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, for instance -- was considered of mass appeal, but when such a story was nonfiction, when it was labeled true, suddenly no one but the survivor was willing to commit to sharing it. I refused to be dissuaded by fear; I searched for and found people who saw through the taboo, who saw meaning and importance in the endeavor.

Recently, when an editor added a trigger warning before publishing an essay I'd written about healing from incest, I felt conflicted. I didn't think I'd written anything graphic. But suddenly I felt guilt and shame: Had I said "too much"? Had I gone "over the line"? I considered withdrawing my story from public view. Then I watched the essay site tally over 3,100 "likes." Readers were not deterred.

There is strength in numbers. Writing and publishing and otherwise sharing such stories are acts of resilience and defiance -- for both the writer and the reader. Doing so transforms the realm of perpetrated and perpetual fear.

Let us be stronger. Let us be brave. Let us be willing to see, to look beyond our fear, the "TW" factor. Let us not believe the warnings that say we can't handle the truth, because we can.

For certain, coming to terms with sexual abuse -- with anything unthinkable -- is difficult terrain, but it is one that is worth traversing. Knowing about terrible things, and grappling with them, gives us the ability to mobilize, to change our world. Only then do we have the opportunity to transcend our pain, to live happier, fuller lives.

Tracy Strauss is seeking a publisher for her memoir, Notes on Proper Usage, about her relationship with her late writer-editor mother, the discovery of her mother's secret collection of documents and journals, the abusive man who marked both their lives, and her journey towards forgiveness and reconciliation. Learn more at