Entertainment

Leigh Bardugo's ‘Ninth House’ and the Complexity of Trigger Warnings

Reception for the author’s first adult novel vividly reflects our struggle discussing trauma.

by Angela Lashbrook; photos by Daniel J. Torres
Nov 18 2019, 3:11pm

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The first words of Leigh Bardugo’s new novel, Ninth House, make it immediately clear: This is not a book for the easily queasy. “By the time Alex managed to get the blood out of her good wool coat, it was too warm to wear it,” the book begins, and goes on to describe a safe house that’s rapidly running out of food, and the protagonist—Alex—whose untreated wounds are turning black and staining her filthy top “yellow with pus.” It vividly illustrates Bardugo’s intrepid ability to dive right into difficult subject matter, both on the page and in conversation.

Bardugo’s previous books, uniquely complex Young Adult fantasy novels led by fractured heroes, have sold more than 3 million copies and been translated into 38 languages. Her series, including the Grisha trilogy and the Six of Crows duology, have a loyal fan base; some devotees even have tattoos similar to the crow and cup tattoos worn by many of the characters in Six of Crows. These fans’ idolization of Bardugo and adoration for her novels is nearly as intense as the enthusiasm for George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series, albeit on a smaller scale—for now, at least. The way things appear to be going for Bardugo, it wouldn’t surprise many of her readers if she were one day catapulted to that level of literary stardom.

Her latest novel, her publisher would like you to know, is not YA. Ninth House is an impressive achievement, a book for adults that tackles many of the same themes as her earlier novels—the lingering specter of trauma, the lengths people go to survive, the power unjustly wielded by the wealthy at the expense of the supposedly powerless—but with more grit. Robin Wasserman, a YA author who also recently started publishing fiction for adults, has helped Bardugo talk through the writing of her books since her 2012 breakout Shadow and Bone. “Every writer is always like, I’m desperate, please help me, save my book,” Wasserman said. But “from the very beginning, especially with [Ninth House], it was like watching a locomotive speed down the tracks. It was like she was vibrating with the desire to get this stuff down on the page.”

“I don’t ever want to blindside my readers, and I do not approach this with a sense of callousness or disregard. But I also think that if there is a bigger question about content warnings on books, then let’s have that conversation. But let’s not target individual books divorced from that conversation.”

Bardugo didn’t take a straight path to becoming a novelist. She was born in Jerusalem and soon moved to Los Angeles. For much of her childhood she lived with her single mother in an apartment in the San Fernando Valley; when her mother remarried, the family moved to a much wealthier area of Los Angeles, and Bardugo began attending a private, all-girls school. Suddenly, she says, she was the odd one out, thrust from a less prosperous, but comfortable, situation into one in which she was one of the only Jewish girls in her class. She didn’t know the rules, she said. And she was pissed. Though she wasn’t religious, she was made aware of the differences between herself and others very early on, and she became acutely cognizant of the mechanisms of privilege. It’s a theme she explores in all her books, each one more directly tackling the havoc wreaked by those with power against those without.

After high school, Bardugo attended Yale, but unlike many of her classmates, she wasn’t able to immediately hop into an unpaid internship or meager-paying job while her parents purchased her a home in New York City. Instead, she jumped around—for a while, she worked at the New Haven Advocate, a now-defunct weekly, while living on her friend’s couch. She became a freelance copywriter and got into grad school for creative writing, but her father’s death and her subsequent depression made it impossible for her to take on the immense effort required to uproot her life and get a graduate degree. Instead, she became a makeup artist, which she called “one of the stupidest things I could have done, and absolutely the act of a depressed person.” But it opened up the creative mental space for writing the book she had coming together, and she told me that after getting off an encouraging phone call with a friend, she sat down and started working on Shadow and Bone.

“In our lives, we will all have a moment where we have to learn to hustle,” she said about that time. “Maybe it happens when we get out of school. Maybe it happens with the first book, maybe it happens on the fifth book, when you sold and you sold and then you stop selling.” Ever since her time as a makeup artist, she has hustled. She wrote Shadow and Bone, about a young soldier who discovers a latent magical power that could save her shattered kingdom, in eight months; the sequels, Siege and Storm and Ruin and Rising, came out in 2013 and 2014, respectively. That series, alongside her duology, Six of Crows, is being adapted by Netflix into a television show created by Eric Heisserer, the screenwriter of the Academy Award–winning Arrival as well as the hugely popular Bird Box. Ninth House, meanwhile, has been optioned by Amazon for its own series. Bardugo will be writing the pilot.

With each series, Bardugo has grown more direct in how she presents these concepts to her audience. In the Six of Crows duology, one character mercilessly gouges out an enemy’s eye, much to the horror of the colleagues surrounding him; another speaks of being repeatedly raped and beaten in her time as an underage prostitute imprisoned in a cruel brothel. With Ninth House, which debuted at number four on the New York Times bestseller list for hardcover fiction this October, Bardugo goes a bit further.

“You know, I think that initially, I thought this one would be a fun romp. And I’m going to tell this story of dark magic,” Bardugo said in late September over tiny bowls of ceviche at downtown Los Angeles’ suitably baroque NoMad Hotel. But inevitably, she said, the story turned into one in which she wouldn’t want to pull her punches.

The path Ninth House’s audacious, if traumatized, heroine Galaxy “Alex” Stern takes is a crooked one. At an early age, Alex realizes she can see ghosts, or what she’ll later learn are called Grays. The creatures are everywhere, invisible and mostly harmless to the rest of the world, but oppressively visible to her and, as Alex learns one day as a preteen, not harmless. Alex’s revelation occurs at a California coastal butterfly reserve, where she is raped by a particularly vicious Gray on the reserve’s otherwise deserted restroom floor. Alex, of course, can’t tell anyone what happened. Who would believe her? So begins her descent into alienation, objectification, and drug use, until she finds herself the sole survivor of a horrific multiple homicide in her apartment in violently sunny Van Nuys, California. Eventually, she’s “rescued” and ends up at Yale with a full ride, but for a price: She must monitor the unsavory occult activities of the school’s secret societies.

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“This story is all about fallout. It’s all about the damage that is done to us. It’s about the things that protect us or fail to protect us. And I think for me, Alex’s story was really born out of that—how do you survive it? At one point, she says, ‘I want to survive this world that keeps trying to destroy me.’ And I don’t think that’s just Alex’s story. I feel like that’s the story of pretty much every woman I know.”

It’s the assault at the butterfly reserve, along with a few other scenes, that earned Bardugo some pushback by early readers online. The delineation between what readers could expect from Ninth House versus the tamer handling of the same topics in her earlier work was not, apparently, clear to fans who picked up review copies at the Young Adult Literary Convention this summer. One would-be reader on Twitter called the lack of warning about the assault “unacceptable.” “Leigh bardugo and her team haven’t even mentioned it and it is something a reader must be aware and prepared for before reading it and also reviewers should have added trigger warnings to their reviews i really hope there will be trigger warnings in the book,” the same Twitter user wrote in July, continuing that merely calling the book “very adult and dark” wasn’t enough. Another listed the book’s apparent triggers, to which one person replied, “I don’t think that’s good for any readers.” One gave a longer list of triggers for the book: “rape of a child, rape of someone under the influence (basically a magical date rape drug), overdoses, death, suicide, self harm, forced eating of human waste, blackmail, a LOT of gore and murder. I believe there’s harm to animals but not in detail?”

Contrary to what many readers online hoped for, the book did not, in the end, come with trigger warnings. Joanna Volpe, Bardugo’s agent of nearly 10 years, said the book has been clearly marketed as adult, and that she wasn’t sure what more, exactly, she should say to people confused about the book’s more upsetting scenes and themes. “If I went into a store and I saw trigger warnings only on Leigh Bardugo’s books, and I’m an adult reader reading adult books, I’d be like, what the hell is in Leigh Bardugo’s books that is not in Gillian Flynn’s or Stephen King’s?” Rather, she went on, if readers want trigger warnings on adult books, it needs to be an industry-wide conversation and decision. “I just felt like, Leigh Bardugo is not gonna be the first author to do this.”

It’s fascinating that these angry readers—who are an apparent mix of young fans attempting to forge new ground in how we discuss painful topics while keeping survivors safe, and adults aiming to protect younger readers and themselves from uncomfortable and explicit material—are protesting a book that deals, quite clearly, with the repercussions of trauma by a novelist who is herself a survivor. I have trauma in my past, so there are certain topics I’ve occasionally avoided because I know they’d make me uncomfortable. But that’s a distinctly different experience from someone whose PTSD causes them to have acute episodes caused by triggers, and framing it as though it isn’t, said Bardugo, is disrespectful to people with PTSD. “When we use those words, we are really talking about disability and about mental illness, as opposed to simply being uncomfortable,” she said.

“I don’t ever want to blindside my readers, and I do not approach this with a sense of callousness or disregard. But I also think that if there is a bigger question about content warnings on books, then let’s have that conversation. But let’s not target individual books divorced from that conversation.” To help mitigate this issue, she and the publisher made it extremely clear that the book is for adults, she said, hoping to signal to some of her younger readers that the book might not be for them.

It is, nevertheless, a difficult conundrum to solve, particularly when early research shows that trigger warnings don’t make people less anxious about reading material (though it’s worth noting that the research has been done primarily on people without diagnosed PTSD). How do we protect vulnerable readers while also honoring the complexity of a work apart from its most harrowing scenes?

“Let women write horror. Let women write darkness, let women write trauma, without having to carve out their own trauma to justify it.”

Colleen Lutz Clemens, the director of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, has written about her support of trigger warnings before. She said that while offering trigger warnings at the beginning of the semester for students seems pretty clearly a good idea—it allows students who have traumatic pasts, such as war veterans or rape survivors, to prepare themselves for texts that feature potentially upsetting relevant content—the question is less cut-and-dry for adult books on the shelf.

“For a young adult novel, I think that is an interesting idea to have somewhere—there could be some kind of note” indicating potentially threatening material, she said, but she isn’t sure about the value of that for adult books. Instead, she said, triggers could be brought up in the conversation around a book, such as by reviewers, readers, and teachers. But requiring trigger warnings on adult novels would be unsustainable, she said. “Every book I teach would have[a trigger warning].” “I wonder if some of this is gender-related—like the expectation is that she’s a woman, so she should have this sensibility.”

Bardugo had also mentioned to me how frustrating it was that the conversation is clearly a gendered one. “It was very painful to see a work that I had poured my heart into for years and my own experiences into for years reduced to a list of atrocities without context or nuance,” she said. To her knowledge, she told me, authors like Jay Kristoff or Pierce Brown, who write both YA and adult fiction, have never been called upon to add trigger warnings to their books, despite dealing in similar subject matter as Ninth House.

“Let women write horror,” Bardugo said. “Let women write darkness, let women write trauma, without having to carve out their own trauma to justify it.”

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