Just a little too late (and, boy, there’s both a pattern and a metaphor) for Banned Books Week, a woman named Lisa Reid has arisen here in Greensboro to complain that students at Grimsley High School shouldn’t be allowed to reid Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” She’s afraid high-school-age students will be harmed by the book, and she claimed that the Guilford County Schools have no standards for determining appropriate reading material for children.
Well, I take second place to no one in my hatred for the disorganization and clutter of the GCS website, whose search algorithm seems to have been written by developmentally disabled chipmunks, but, that hatred notwithstanding, I found such standards in less than 30 seconds. If Reid wants to argue that the standards are inadequate, we can have that conversation, as long as she’s willing to discuss what an objectively quantifiable definition of “adequate” might look like. But, sorry, she doesn’t get to lie.
Over at the collection of right-wing nut jobs playing journalist at the Greensboro Guardian, Joe Guarino, who, as a book critic, makes a pretty good physician, claims that the book “has numerous sexual references and graphic passages. It repeatedly depicts promiscuity and multiple partner sexuality. It contains cultural messages regarding sexuality and relationships that are potentially harmful to adolescents during their formative years. The book also glorifies drug use and dwells on suicide. There is considerable profanity found throughout the book– which also contains unfavorable depictions of Christianity.”
Well, no. It doesn’t contain “unfavorable depictions of Christianity.” It contains the things he mentions as hallmarks of the kind of patriarchal, authoritarian crushing of liberty that Jesus Christ himself explicitly condemned. That condemnation notwithstanding, that’s precisely the kind of religion to which Guarino adheres. He’s free to do so, but he’s not free to try to use the power of government to impose his beliefs on the rest of us, which is what he endorses.
I won’t go over the whole plot of the book here, but the conservative critics’ main problem with Atwood’s book is that although she wrote it as a cautionary tale about a dystopian future, they want to use it as a freakin’ government instruction manual, as guys like Todd Akin, Joe Walsh and Richard Mourdock, and every single GOP national platform since 1980, already have demonstrated.
And with all due respect to Lisa Reid, if her own children are fine and healthy and unmolested, she’s blessed, but many of their peers, even at a “good” school like Grimsley, aren’t so lucky. As Sherman Alexie, author of the young-adult book “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” writes:
I can’t speak for other writers, but I think I wrote my YA [young-adult] novel as a way of speaking to my younger, irredeemable self.
Of course, all during my childhood, would-be saviors tried to rescue my fellow tribal members. They wanted to rescue me. But, even then, I could only laugh at their platitudes. In those days, the cultural conservatives thought that KISS and Black Sabbath were going to impede my moral development. They wanted to protect me from sex when I had already been raped. They wanted to protect me from evil though a future serial killer had already abused me. They wanted me to profess my love for God without considering that I was the child and grandchild of men and women who’d been sexually and physically abused by generations of clergy.
What was my immature, childish response to those would-be saviors?
“Wow, you are way, way too late.”
My daughter, who, by the way, also attends Grimsley, is 14. She doesn’t know it, I don’t think, but for one of her good friends, the Lisa Reids of the world are already “way, way too late” — and, by the way, banning “The Handmaid’s Tale” wouldn’t have saved her. And that’s just the one I know about; statistically speaking, there almost certainly are others. For Reid to be worrying about this at this late date … well, that, in the immortal words of Charlie Pierce, “is a horse that has left the barn, run over the hill, sired twelve A-level stakes-race winners, and is now buried with honors on the backstretch at Keeneland.”
Moreover, one of the many outstanding characteristics of the kind of free country we imagine ourselves to be is that we do not let the most rigid pecksniffs dictate how everyone else gets to live, particularly when those pecksniffs have demonstrated an abiding inability to distinguish between “glorify” and “mention in any way, shape or form, even to caution against.”
We live in a country in which our high-school freshmen may be 18 months from being sent to fight and die in Afghanistan or Iran or God knows where else. You want to argue that it’s not time to talk with them about life and death, in all their blood and suffering and glory and redemption and passion and reality? Good luck with that. That’s the kind of thinking that’s standing around this week wondering why the New York subway tunnels, dry these last 104 years, are now flooded, and it’s not just stupid, it’s an existential threat to itself and all the rest of us. I’ll give Alexie the last word:
Teenagers read millions of books every year. They read for entertainment and for education. They read because of school assignments and pop culture fads.
And there are millions of teens who read because they are sad and lonely and enraged. They read because they live in an often-terrible world. They read because they believe, despite the callow protestations of certain adults, that books-especially the dark and dangerous ones-will save them.
As a child, I read because books–violent and not, blasphemous and not, terrifying and not–were the most loving and trustworthy things in my life. I read widely, and loved plenty of the classics so, yes, I recognized the domestic terrors faced by Louisa May Alcott’s March sisters. But I became the kid chased by werewolves, vampires, and evil clowns in Stephen King’s books. I read books about monsters and monstrous things, often written with monstrous language, because they taught me how to battle the real monsters in my life.
And now I write books for teenagers because I vividly remember what it felt like to be a teen facing everyday and epic dangers. I don’t write to protect them. It’s far too late for that. I write to give them weapons -– in the form of words and ideas — that will help them fight their monsters. I write in blood because I remember what it felt like to bleed.