Who Gets To Know?
This is what happens when children read books they aren’t supposed to read
This is the midweek edition of Men Yell at Me, a newsletter about the places where our politics and our personhood collide. This week’s essay is something I’ve been thinking a lot about. It’s about growing up Evangelical homeschooled, about book bans, and protecting our children.
The best place to sneak books out of the library is by hiding them in the potted plants that are blocking the space between the security gates and the wall. They’re large, so you can’t sneak through. But I slide books in between the pot and the wall. And while Mom is checking the books out and talking to the librarian, I walk through the gates and pick up the books.
I am one of eight kids, and if you are quiet enough, it’s easy to get away with it.
My mom doesn’t censor my reading, not exactly. But I’m not allowed to read about witches and ghosts and murder. Those are the occult and will somehow connect me to Satanism. I’m not exactly sure. So, of course, that’s exactly what I want to read. I sneak Goosebump books out of the library and then move onto Agatha Christie, and then I go into the biographies of movie stars. A librarian catches me reading about Judy Garland and takes the book away.
That’s how I know it’s bad, when the librarian steps in. I find ways to read it. I hide the book behind some others and read parts when we come to the library. And then, one day the book is gone. But that book is how I learn about what sexual assault is.
I’m always trying to access forbidden knowledge. My friend gives me a copy of Gone with the Wind, and we take turns reading it, discussing it outside underneath the Cottonwood trees in the yard, where our mothers can’t hear us. This is how I learn about survival. About clawing your way out. About racism. About unlikable people. About marrying for stability rather than love.
The summer before I go to college, I am sent to a camp designed to help protect my mind from the liberal indoctrination that would come from my professors. It is called Worldview Academy, and the camp still exists. The instructors are pastors and erstwhile professors at Christian colleges. We had an entire class about how the humanist view of the world in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein went against God’s design for humanity. We had to be careful, the instructor warned us. Some books were fun to read, but they’d ruin our minds. He calls out Emily Brontë specifically. And when I raise my hand and try to tell him that the Brontës were actually raised Christian, he tells me that I need to tame my mind into submission, like a wild horse needs to be tamed.
We were being trained not to learn. Trained to close our minds and fight any idea that would threaten the world we'd been raised in. For the rest of the week, I sit in unairconditioned college classrooms in the summer, smelling my own body odor, and pretending to take notes.
By the time I get to college, I want my mind to be ruined.
I read everything in the college library. I read Bitch in the House and Me Talk Pretty One Day. I read Hemingway and Baldwin and Voltaire. And I get so angry.
All those years, sneaking books out of the library. All those years, trying to learn the unknowable, and the answers were right there. They had always been right there. I just hadn’t been able to access them. I hadn’t known where to look. And this was the beginning of my undoing. I’d read books about women who were saints in the Church who had the same questions I had about my faith and my femininity. Women who wrote centuries before I had been alive. Women who were revered and studied. But women whose works and lives had been kept from me.
And I don’t mean kept, actively kept; I doubt my ministers and parents even knew about them and their lives.
But reading Teresa of Ávila, I realized I hadn’t been an aberration, or a sinner, or had an ungodly, unruly mind. I’d simply been a person born with questions and curiosity.
This moment of revelation would happen over and over again. And continues to happen when I read Simone de Beauvoir. When I read bell hooks. When I read Rachel Held Evans, and then again when I read about Dorothy Day and find myself sobbing in a Catholic monastery realizing that who I am is not a problem in need of a solution.
I hear this story over and over. Friends who were told their identities and their sexualities were the problem. Then one day they read that they are not alone, and the world opens. It’s devastating to learn you felt alone and broken for so long, when you didn’t have to feel that way.
In the a manifesto, which was handed out by the activist group ACT UP in the 1990 New York City Pride parade, the author (which could be more than just one voice), laments, “I hate that in twelve years of public education I was never taught about queer people. I hate that I grew up thinking I was the only queer in the world, and I hate even more that most queer kids still grow up the same way.”
It’s no accident that the move to ban and remove books from school libraries and to restrict the teaching of Critical Race Theory is happening after a summer of historic racial reckoning. It’s no accident that it’s happening after the murder of George Floyd ignited the country in a debate that forced people to at least pay lip service to the idea of equality and to at least reconsider, for a moment, our history and the way we tell the stories of our country and our culture. It’s no accident that the book bans are also happening as younger generations talk about sexuality and gender in a way that was taboo, even just 20 years ago. The book bans are a reaction to the floodgates of knowledge.
It’s about fear. It’s about power. And I think it’s not so hard to understand why you would ban something. The true wonder is when people actually tell the truth.
Controlling access to information is about preserving power. Who gets to know that queer identities have been around as long as the history of humanity? Who gets to know about the women who preached and about the queens who put on pants and loved other women? Who gets to know about how to find birth control? Who gets to know about condoms. Who gets to know which boys to avoid dating? Who gets to know which bosses not to be alone with in the office after hours? And who is left out from this knowledge? And who then finds themselves at 35 finally learning that what happened to them at 20 was assault? Who gets to know? And who gets to put a name on their pain? And who doesn’t? Who finds themselves at almost 40 years old reading books written over a hundred years ago and saying, “Why didn’t I know this sooner?”
When Moira Donegan wrote about creating the Shitty Media Men list in 2018, she noted that one of the most shocking things about the list, which was not intended to be public, was how common women’s experiences with harassment were. And yet, how many of those women felt isolated for so long because of it.
Too many of us have been raised with secrecy as normalcy. We code-name body parts, pretend sex doesn’t exist, pretend skin color doesn’t exist, but all this does is put children at a disadvantage. Teaching children the correct names for their anatomy is the first tool parents have for preventing sexual abuse. That’s the power of naming. Of knowing.
The impulse to hide a book is the same impulse that drives a parent to refuse to name the labia. It’s about fear. It’s about power. And I think it’s not so hard to understand why you would ban something. The true wonder is when people actually tell the truth.
And I know it’s done out of love. Or what people call love, but what is instead a rope tied around you, one that holds you in place, keeps you tied up and tamed, like that horse the man compared me to all those years ago.
But that is not love. Love is freedom; it’s not entrapment. That’s also something it took me too long to learn. Something I read in a book, just two years ago, and cried when I read it. How I wish I had known all of this before.
The world changes when you know things.
In 2014, my friend’s son died. One day he didn’t wake up from a nap. He was only 11 months old. I immediately packed up the car and took my children (then 9 months old and almost 2) to her home. My friend had two other children, and I watched our kids play as I scrubbed out her fridge and made her casseroles, because I didn’t know what else to do. “How could you take your children to that funeral?” someone asked after we came back.
And I try to explain that why should my kids be protected from a brutal truth while other children have to experience it. Isn’t it better that they not feel alone. And three years later, when I ended my 12-year marriage, that same friend came to help me move and clean my new fridge, and I would think what a relief it is to have someone with me who knows that life can just fall apart.
But that “How could you expose your kids to that?” is a logic that traps some children in the loneliness of knowledge and others in the loneliness of ignorance.
But as parents, we believe that children cannot handle whole truths. We hide death. Disease and abuse. We believe we must parcel out the world in small doses to them. But really, it’s just creating a cycle of ignorance that just establishes control. After all, if you can control what is good and bad in a child’s life, you can control them. Once you open the world up, once you show that things are more complicated, control becomes a lot harder. The line of authority is breached.
They are no longer tethered.
But I remember childhood. I remember being protected from the world out there. I remember being monitored for dangerous ideas. And so I know that children know the world is deep and dark and bright and beautiful. We don’t have to teach them that. We don’t have to hide the monsters from them. Instead, we have to equip them to slay the monsters and hold fast to what is true and good.
Here is the truth. What I wrote above? I stole that from Neil Gaiman, who stole that from Terry Pratchett, and all of us are just misquoting G.K. Chesterton in his book Tremendous Trifles. In 1909, Chesterton wrote in response to a letter writer, who was upset about fairy tales exposing children to witchcraft and other evils:
Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.
This is what I believe about knowledge. This is what I believe about books.
I am taking a night class about philosophies of love. During a conversation about bell hooks a young person, exasperated, sighs and says, “I wish feminists had been having conversations like this about love before.”
And I’m irritated. I want to hand her the stack of books that is by my desk, leaned against the wall. I want to tell her the conversation has been happening for centuries. But I understand; people don’t usually hand young girls copies of the Dialectic of Sex and say, “Marriage is a form of control, but love can be liberation.”
And I know why we don’t do that. Because knowledge rips open the world. Knowledge comes with risk. When they say the truth sets you free, what they don’t tell you is that the freedom comes because the truth lit the match and burned down your home. Not knowing is a little easier.
I wrote a whole audiobook about my childhood. It’s an Audible Original called Cottonwood Creek. I also wrote about being homeschooled, power, faith, the Bundy’s, and paranoia in 2016 for Pacific Standard.
I also liked this take on book banning and parenting by Jessica Grose. Although, I will add that I don’t actually think every child will read and find the banned books. And that’s the tragedy.
And author Viet Thanh Nguyen wrote about books and their power to disturb for the New York Times.
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