Trigger Warning: You’ll want to look away from Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State, but you shouldn’t.
Last week, students at UC Santa Barbara, Rutgers, and elsewhere took the next step in a growing sensitivity movement by suggesting trigger warnings appear on their college syllabi. When proposed by a student at UC Santa Barbara, these warnings were intended to warn the most likely PTSD sufferers – victims of rape or soldiers – of items in required materials that might take them more time and emotional energy to process than it would the other students. In worst case scenarios, they could ideally opt out of reading the offending materials all together. Even if colleges decided to implement this rule, there still remains a problem: trauma and the things that can exacerbate it can come in all flavors, and worst case scenarios can be hard for victims to predict. Considering this dilemma, students at Oberlin College, expanded the scope of potential trigger warnings by drafting the following as part of a guide for professors:
“Be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression. Realize that all forms of violence are traumatic, and that your students have lives before and outside your classroom, experiences you may not expect or understand.”
In other words, anything could prove to be a trigger for someone. So how does one even begin protecting everyone from – well – everything? And how does a deeply traumatized person, who is constantly surprised by the kinds of things that can send them back into the darkness of their own fear (because it’s not always something as obvious as a rape scene in a book or a battle scene in a movie) even begin to ask for help on the scale that she really needs it?
It’s germane that Roxane Gay’s debut novel, An Untamed State, should be released only days before these student body proceedings became public. Gay, who is a co-editor of [PANK], essays editor at The Rumpus, and regular contributor to the entire internet, has written an emotionally difficult novel that is especially poised for use in college classrooms. Courses on feminism, post-colonialism, African American writers, or surveys of contemporary literature are all potential homes for it, and if trigger warnings do in fact become a standard part of syllabus construction, this novel will require more of them than just about any other book on offer. Anyone who has suffered physical, sexual or psychological trauma is in for an unpleasant, but very important, ride, here. Hopefully anyone who has perpetrated the above is, too. As is the lucky and rare individual who has never experienced trauma. No matter what your personal experience is – and the possibilities are infinite – you should read this book. The story is told in the first person, allowing the Mireille, the narrator and victim, to take her story into her own hands by relating it with unflinching precision, to establish a kind of control over it. For her to do this, she needs recovery time – the story is being told at least five years after it takes place – and she needs an audience. She needs us. In other words, Roxane Gay makes a good argument for refusing to look away.
The story begins when Mireille, an American born Haitian, is visiting her wealthy parents in Port-Au-Prince. She, her American husband Michael, and their infant son are on their way to the beach when a cluster of SUVs gathers around them, trapping them on the road. The armed men in the SUVs violently take Mireille away, bringing her to the dingy basement apartment that will be her horrible home for nearly two weeks. During these two weeks she is regularly raped and otherwise assaulted, is allowed no privacy, and has to call her family as proof of life only to hear that her wealthy father is dawdling on paying a ransom she knows he can afford. Her torture, described with painful exactitude for over half of the book, is made even worse by her father’s seeming unwillingness to bring it to a halt, by the rest of her family’s inability to come up with a convincing argument as to why he should. Feeling totally abandoned, she realizes she is as oppressed by the seemingly loving environment outside as she is by the brutal one inside her cage. This makes her subsequent recovery, detailed in the book’s second section, that much more beset by a surprising array of triggers, predictable and unpredictable alike.
These triggers regularly make Mireille feel that she is still captive, resulting in behavior that would seem insane to anyone who is not living inside of trauma, a head space she refers to as her “new cage”. Contributing significantly to her suspicion are her husband Michael’s fantastically misguided ideas about caring for her: he physically restrains her when he thinks she’s acting inappropriately (in one instance, inappropriately means going to work before he’s decided she’s ready), forces her to see a male gynecologist without an apparent second thought, and becomes impatient and grouchy when after only a few weeks she is unable to fully return to what he thinks of as her duties as wife and mother. Though Michael genuinely wants to be helpful and is painstakingly coached in not being awful by his parents and Mireille’s sister, the message is clear: men are more likely to do harm than good, whether they intend to harm or not.
There are a lot of dichotomies in this story – immigrant versus native, wealthy versus poor – but the gender line seems most distinct, and the male characters don’t tend to fall on the right side of it. It isn’t that men are always violent or evil and women are always their victims. It’s that these male characters, well intentioned or otherwise, simply don’t get it, while the women, who are pretty much always well intentioned, do. What is it? It is admitting that you don’t understand a person, people, or circumstance, and probably never will. It is what Mireille admits about the people of Haiti, what Mireille’s mother-in-law Lorraine admits about Mireille’s trauma, what Mireille’s sister Mona admits about their stubborn, wealthy father, Sebastien. It is what Michael has to be explicitly told more than once, what Sebastien refuses to hear even when told, and what no one is even around to tell Mireille’s kidnapper, The Commander. Even though men can be taught to do right, they do, in fact, require teaching. These men never intuit what’s right and they’re reluctant to put up with how difficult doing the right thing is, neither of which seem to be difficult tasks for Mireille, Mona, or Lorraine.
Ultimately, the goal of An Untamed State’s horrifying narrative is to encourage comprehension of the incomprehensible. There is no euphemistic language, no fading to black before the real trouble begins, In relating one woman’s unthinkable and prolonged trauma, Gay is as unflinching in describing the details as Mireille is in suffering them – neither writer nor protagonist cries, neither writer nor protagonist winces. But the reader, whether bringing her own trauma to the story or not, does both. A lot.
But crying doesn’t help a person is destroyed to the extent Mireille is. So how does one protect a raw, frightened person when there is simply too many threats out there to even keep track of? How do you, as the raw, frightened person, figure out what kind of protection you need and a way to ask for it? I won’t give away the novel’s powerful conclusion, except to say that, according to this text, you can’t. You can’t fully protect anyone. There are simply too many variables, too many possibilities to be made unsafe, or to feel unsafe. What you can and should do is learn to be patient and compassionate. What you can do as a victim is be patient and ask for compassion. What all parties can do is admit they hardly understand the magnitude of the problem. This tough read helps with all three and whether these lessons are easy to put into action, An Untamed State will definitely convince you to give it the old college try.