Way back when we were in high school, my friend was raped. Raped in a park two blocks from her house. Later, there was drinking. There were drugs and other ways of forgetting. There was The Incident, the one with too many pills and an ambulance. There was too much heartache.
But there was also healing, eventually. There was bravery. There was commitment to moving forward anyway. Now, this friend of mine is grown up. She doesn't use her history as an excuse for stupidity. She's a mom and a wife and an employee, a responsible person who pays taxes and returns her library books. She is still a friend, an awesome friend, a person I couldn't bear to not have in my life, and her experiences have become a part of me, even though I wasn't there with her in the park that horrible night, and even though she wasn't with me when I had my own dark encounters. Because we know each other's secret scars, our empathy is doubled. Her rape makes me hate rape because for her—and so, by extension, for me—it isn't something vaguely known, an ugly word about an ugly act. It is something real, lacerating, degrading.
This morning I read a newspaper editorial by Wesley Scroggins, written in a Missouri newspaper that calls for the banning of Slaughterhouse Five, Twenty Boy Summer, and Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. In all honesty, I have forgotten most of Slaughterhouse Five (which I read when I was pregnant with Jake in my Contemporary Lit class), and haven't gotten to the top of the Twenty Boy Summer waiting list. I cannot speak to the writer's objections to those titles. But to Speak? I might just have something to say.
Speak is about a high school freshman, Melinda, who is raped at a party a few weeks before school starts. She doesn't tell anyone about the rape, not her best friends or her mother or a teacher or anyone. She simply turns inward. The voice this novel is written in is unique and unforgettable, and her process of coming to find her literal voice—the one she speaks her experience with—is enlightening. I love this book. My copy is battered and scrawled in, and would even be signed by the author herself if I hadn't forgotten to bring it along when I had dinner with her earlier this year.
The author of the cry-for-arms against Speak claims the novel is soft-core porn. I think, perhaps, he needs to crack open his dusty dictionary and look up the word "pornography." If he doesn't own a dictionary, he can use an online version. He might even ask his wife or the guy in the cubicle next to him. Any definition of "pornography" includes the concept of "designed to titillate or arouse sexual excitement." Either Mr. Scroggins has a serious hole in his education or he's just revealed himself as a wanna-be rapist. Who else save a potential predator would think that a book decrying (outlining and limning and illustrating) the difficulty of being a rape victim as soft-core porn? Who is it turning on?
But honestly, his stupidity isn't what offends me the most. (Though it is fairly offensive.) Instead, it's the very concept of banning a book at all. Freedom is based on choice, I believe, or on the opportunity to make a choice. Banning a book removes all such opportunity. If it's not on the shelf, it cannot be read, and if it is not read, it cannot influence someone else. "Exactly!" might be Mr. Scroggins' call to that idea. "I don't want this book influencing anyone."
Maybe he should stop to look, critically, at how the book might influence someone. Maybe it might stick in a boy's head and influence him to think about a girl at a party as a person and not an object for his gratification. Maybe it might reassure a rape victim that she is not alone; it might even influence her to seek out help. Maybe it might teach compassion to someone who hasn't been raped for someone who has. Influence works both ways, negatively and positively, and by banning the book you remove the positive influence as well.
People like Mr. Scroggins want to live in a fake sunshiny world. They would like the real world—the one where yes, cheerleaders have sex on Saturday and then show up to church on Sunday, and people have dysfunctional families, and girls are raped—to be ignored. They would like to pretend that bad things never happen. Rather than letting people use their brains to think and to act, they want to do the thinking for us. And that, my bloggity friends, is the most offensive thing I can think of. (Yes, even more offensive than group-rate abortions.) (That, Mr. Scroggins, is called sarcasm.)
A few weeks ago, I helped a library patron find a few books to take home. "I want something nice and cheery," she said. "Not sad or offensive. I don't understand why anyone wants to read anything about the awful things that happen in the world." I sent her on her merry, oblivious way with some gentle reads and a metaphorical eye roll. We read about awful things because by reading about them we can understand them without having to experience them. Or we read about them because we have experienced them and are searching for commonality, for someone else's experience to erase the loneliness of our own. We read about the ugly, dark things in the world so as to understand how people overcome them, so we can see courage in the face of trouble and hope set against despair. We read so our empathy may be doubled. Ignoring the awful things that happen doesn't make them go away. Ignorance make them more awful. Keeping the dark things in the dark gives them more power. Shining a light on them takes it away. Choosing to read brings that needed light.