BY ANONYMOUS 1L
STUDENT AT MCGILL FACULTY OF LAW
I was triggered during the first week of law school. Of all words, it was “corroborative” that provoked me. My Criminal Justice professor used it on the first day of class, and it immediately took my mind back to a difficult family situation. I consider myself fairly well-adjusted, so––as far as triggering typically goes––the feeling hit me out of left field.
In the 1980s, my mother was violently raped at a work event by her boss. He harassed her for months afterward and she was eventually bullied out of her job; it took her more than a decade to tell anyone about the assault. He, on the other hand, has since become prominent and well-accomplished in his field. My mother decided in late 2017 that she wanted to call him out.
She has some contacts at a prominent national newspaper and, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, they were interested in publishing her story. A journalist was assigned to her case, and interviewed several family members, including me. However, after a few months of research––and a cease and desist letter from the rapist––the newspaper decided that the story did not conform to their journalistic standards; they did not have enough “corroborative evidence”. I was sad, disappointed and––having not yet started law school––a little confused. But I accepted the newspaper’s decision.
In September 2018, I started 1L eager to learn about all facets of the law. I was particularly intrigued by criminal law and hoped to learn about prison justice, one of my motivations for applying to law school in the first place. My professor gave a quick survey of the Criminal Justice course and mentioned there would be a unit on sexual assault. She briefly talked about how the law requiring “corroborative evidence” has relaxed over the past few decades, making claims of sexual assault (to some extent) easier. This obviously captured my attention and, like several of my peers, I lined up after class to ask her a follow-up question. I didn’t feel sad at all––I just wanted to ask her more about this all-too familiar expression. As I was mentally preparing my question, my trauma suddenly bubbled up and my eyes became teary. “Shit,” I thought. I considered ditching the line, but it was suddenly my turn to speak. I meekly asked my professor about her point on corroborative evidence and hardly paid attention as she answered. I quickly thanked her and left.
That day in class, I had the experience of being triggered. This incident led me to reflect on the range of potentially triggering content I would be encountering throughout this degree, and coping strategies in the context of law school. “Trigger” in the psychological sense concerns an emotional or physical reaction to a particular sight, sound, or form of recollection. It is commonly associated with post-traumatic stress disorder, and manifests in different ways depending on different experiences. Violence, abuse, racism, colonialism, homophobia and transphobia can all be sources of trauma. In the context of universities and colleges, trigger warnings allow students to choose whether they want to avoid certain subjects that could agitate them, and the debate around these warnings is controversial. Proponents of trigger warnings maintain that they foster safer spaces and make for a better learning environment, enabling students to mentally prepare for the material. Critics, on the other hand, are quick to dismiss student fragility, believing that trigger warnings are an anti-intellectual form of censorship that stifles the learning environment. I believe that signaling potentially triggering material in advance is valuable. Nevertheless, experiences of trauma will continue to impact an individual’s engagement with sensitive subjects, and trigger warning may not always be a sufficient solution. When even a seemingly harmless word like “corroborative” can initiate a feeling, warnings may not always be effective. Moreover, in fast-paced settings like law school, students may feel pressure to attend lectures regardless of content warnings and, like me, may not want to skip class for the sake of their mental health.
Sexual assault in the legal context presents unique complications, given its inherently traumatic nature, and there has been debate on if and how to approach it. Globally, one in three women experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, and while not all survivors develop PTSD, the subject will often remain a source of pain or shame. In my experience, violent assault can also have an inter-generational effect. It is particularly difficult to approach this subject from a removed and technical standpoint, and the dissonance between having experienced a traumatic incident and studying it in a legal context can be hard to grapple with. While reading legislation and case law, many of us will endure distracting, troubling recollections. If I have a follow-up question, as I typically do, it’s hard to tell whether I will tear up if I ask it. I want to be professional in front of my peers and professors, and I have learned that I will sometimes have to forfeit my understanding of the subject for the sake of saving face.
Nevertheless, I genuinely want to confront and learn about these issues. A legal perspective can sometimes inhibit our intuitive and creative reflexes, but we all have dynamic backgrounds and good reasons for being here. While I do not believe I will work in sexual assault law in the future, I have a desire to understand it. That being said, this may not be the case for all students, depending on their experiences, and I respect people who recognize their boundaries in our learning environment.
This experience has made me realize what I do and don’t want to do in law. Like many 1Ls, I don’t have a game plan for my legal career––and I’m happy about that. For the time being, I will remain receptive to the subject matter we’re taught, despite how distressing, frustrating (or boring) it may be. Whatever our approaches to law school are, they will positively inform our roles in the legal world, and I believe that our respective choices to face or refrain from triggering subjects will make us equally capable and well-rounded jurists.
 Francesca Laguardia, Venezia Michalsen & Holly Rider-Milkovich, “Trigger Warnings: From Panic to Data” (2017) 66: 4 J Leg Educ 882 at 882.
 Ibid at 882–883.
 Ibid at 884.
 Ibid at 885.
 Jeannie Suk Gersen, “The Trouble With Teaching Rape Law” (15 December 2014) online: The New Yorker <www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/trouble-teaching-rape-law> [perma.cc/ZJ6A-F26Z].
 “Violence against women” (29 November 2017) online: World Health Organization <www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/violence-against-women> [perma.cc/YT9X-KPJC].