on Old Men
Wonky Frame and Summer Haiku

Utter, Say, State, Mouth, Whisper, Bellow, Say it Outloud

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.

Comments

Lucy

Thank you for putting into words a thought I have been having for weeks: why I read some things that contain some pretty horrific subject matter.

I finished a book called We Need To Talk About Kevin weeks ago and have been unable to articulate why his reasoning for committing mass murder at his high school troubled me beyond what was so obviously troubling. The character said (I'm paraphrasing) "you all just read about life or watch about it on TV. I had the courage to do something real. I am what everyone else watches and reads about." It horrified me a bit because it felt a little true.

But, then, no...you explain the real reason. Because by reading about it, I don't have to experience it but can have sympathy for those who must. Or...maybe I have. And then I know I am not alone.

I've only read Slaughterhouse Five of the books you listed and have no idea why it would be banned, nor why most should be. are

heidikins

I got goosebumps reading this post. I don't think literature should be censored, regardless of it's content. I think individuals should take responsibility for what they choose to view and leave a "censoring board" out of it.

And I'm with you--I don't like the fluffy rainbow-infested stuff, it's all fake and hard and shiny. I prefer reality, thankyouverymuch.

Excellent post.
xox

Melanie

I love reading your thoughts on literature. I sometimes envy people who live in sunshiny, blissfull ignorance. But I can't really relate to those people. Especially when it makes them unable to sympathize with others and their trials.

I hate the idea of banning books. Who gets to decide what someone else gets to read? And heaven forbid someone's eyes get opened by reading about something they would never experience otherwise.

Maureen

great post.

Janssen

Oh, this is so excellent. You should try and get this published.

Megan B.

I love your posts, especially about reading! I try to "celebrate" Banned Books Week every year by reading a challenged book.

chris

wonderful post. and i totally agree. i do not believe people can truly understand the breadth of human experience without either experiencing first-hand or reading about it. i know several people who believe that living in a "bubble" is the best way to live. these same people believe if they don't hear about something or let it touch them than it doesn't exist. the world can be an ugly, cruel place. it is also a place that is filled with many wonderful, beautiful things. the world is a dichotomy. i think in order to fully understand and comprehend why we are here and where we need to be we need to know about both sides of the world. and why it is unfortunate and sad that some must choose to suffer pain and cruelty firsthand, by reading about these people's experiences, we like you said can increase our empathy and shed some light.

thanks again for speaking your mind. i love that.

Susan

Hmmm . ..what I love the most about reading is the wide variety of literature available. Sometimes, I love to read the trite fiction - -it can be a brief escape from difficult days, sometimes I love poetry - it can calm my spirit, sometimes a mystery or a funny book can bring a smile. Sometimes I read to gain knowledge about how to handle a problem (like all the books I've been reading lately about ADHD) or I read biographies about people I admire . . .or non-fiction for wisdom . . .anyway, I think what I'm trying to say, is that reading provides a wide variety of venues to walk us through this life - - I am usually reading a couple of books at once - and depending on my mood or what kind of day it has been I decide which I am going to pick up. I don't believe in censorship of any kind - - even judging what others read (which I have been guilty of, I have a friend who loves trashy "romantic" novels - - while I think they are a waste of time, she finds enjoyment in them . .)

any way. loved your post.

Pamela K.

I love this post! I was discussing with my son the other day about some of the required reading he may have in high school. I know many of these books would probably be on a banned list. How sad I think it would be that my son would not be exposed to these pieces of literature that would teach him the things you mentioned like empathy for a rape victim. Thank you so much for writing this. I think it would be great if you could email this to Mr. Scroggins so he can get another point of view than just his own.

Kary in Colorado

Curious that I happened upon this today, as just last night I read Speak. My 9th grade son had been struggling with it for weeks (he is NOT a happy reader) and I just picked it up and started reading, thinking I could maybe help him with his english assignment. Amazing, amazing book. I read it in an hour or two (which greatly impressed said son) and was still thinking about it when I woke up this morning. My son is a VERY young 15 and really didn't understand the story, so we'll be discussing it this weekend (between Conference sessions?!?!). The edition he had had an interview with the author at the end and I was struck by her answer to one of the questions. She said that many young men just couldn't understand why Melinda was so upset by the rape. She said she thought at first that this was an odd response, until she heard it over and over and realized that these young men REALLY didn't get it. Maybe Mr. Scroggins is one of those guys. All the more reason to read and discuss--although one-on-one is probably more useful than in a classroom.

Judy

Very astute my friend, as always. Funny - I am just finishing up "Widdershins" by Charles de Lint and it deals with dark subject matter too. When I started the book I admit I thought to myself, "Oh man, do I really want to read about this?" But I'm so glad I did. This is a GREAT book and I learned a lot by experiencing it. How sad if some yahoo were to push it off the shelves and take away my right to read it or not. So I totally echo your thoughts ... you are right on, sister.

Chris Selander

Now I want to read "Speak!" I don't believe in books being banned. Some books are harder to read than others but it doesn't mean they shouldn't be read. I recently finished "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" It was extremely hard for me to read and at times I wondered if I should stop reading it. But I was glad I finished it and I'm going to read the rest in the series. Right now I'm reading "Left to Tell." It's a true autobiography about the Rwandan Holocaust. Extremely hard to read but it's a book everyone should read. Great post!

Apryl

Is Mr. Scroggins his real name? Really?

You write real good Amy. Real good. (You articulate you points so fluidly. I admire your skills.) And on this post, my official opinion is: Agreed.

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