Years and years ago, I read Wilson Rawls’ Where the Red Fern Grows. The experience still haunts me. When my nephew mentioned that he’d been assigned the book, I felt the need to warn him that the book would destroy him. I’d been so emotionally wrecked by the book that, at the time, I skipped most of the end of it, because I just couldn’t handle it. I’ve never been able to go back. And, now that I think about it, I’ve always had a hard time when an animal is killed in a story. There have been human deaths in books that have moved me—A Tale of Two Cities and A Constellation of Vital Phenomena come to mind—but ever in the same way that animal deaths do.
I’ve been thinking about this all week as I’ve worked my way through The Only Good Indians, by Stephen Graham Jones. I picked it as a scary read for Halloween. (It absolutely delivered.) But I kept putting the book down because of what happens to an elk doe, her calf, and her herd. It’s an important plot point, necessary to the entire book, but there’s something about the callous brutality of how animals are treated in this book that made it hard for me to continue.
So what is it about animal deaths that seem to hurt in a more visceral way than human deaths? I can’t count how many murders of humans I’ve read. While I stay away from the goriest serial killer novels, I love reading a good puzzle book or riding along on a revenge quest, or even stepping into the trenches in a war book. The first is all about intellectual stimulation and the latter two reasons are a way to experience part of human life that I would never, ever want to see in person. I can handle it. I can handle fictional violence. (Usually.)
As I’m writing this, my cat Mogwai is loafing next to me. He’s kind of an obnoxious asshole when he wants attention, but I love him and every cat I’ve ever had. Maybe the experience of having pets has made it hard for me to read about even fictional cruelty. Maybe it’s that when animals are hurt or killed in fiction, it’s almost always to teach a character a lesson or to threaten them or to show us just how evil a character really is. It’s effective, for sure. My guts always clench or my heart aches or my mouth snarls like the author wants them to. But unlike so many other reading-induced emotions I’ve sought out in a story, these ones always leave a bad emotional residue behind because I often can’t help but look over at whichever of my cats is nearest and think about how awful it would be for something to happen to them. (My other cat, Ari.)
I’ve talked to other readers who’ve developed the same sort of aversion to seeing violence towards children. No matter that the stories are fiction, they (and I) can’t forget the very real representatives that live around us. And we can’t forget that our children and our animals are under our care; we are here to protect and nurture them—which brings me back around to Where the Red Fern Grows and my need to give my nephew a heads up about what would happen in the book. It took me some time to come around to the idea of trigger warnings. I realized that I had misunderstood what they were for. I believe that it’s important to challenge ourselves, but also that we don’t have to walk into that challenge without warning and without being able to prepare.
So, readers, I promise that I will always let you know when elements of a story might trigger you, because I want you to be able to make an informed decision about whether you want to start reading. I will always tell you if the dog (or elk or cat, etc.) dies.