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9.22.2010

Speak Up About SPEAK & Censorship


If you've been listening in on the book blogosphere the past few days I am sure you've heard the angry buzzing. I like to think of bloggers like bees. Hard working, productive and devoted to their hive under normal circumstances. Kick the hive, however, and these book lovers give new meaning to the saying "mad as a hornet".

It's taken me several days to sit down and write about this latest issue. I don't like confrontation. Avoiding drama is how I prefer to live my life. But sometimes even I feel like action is needed no matter how difficult it is for me to act.

The issue centers around an editorial opinion piece from the Springfield, Missouri News-Leader. Entitled Scroggins: Filthy books demeaning to Republic education this letter from a Mr. Wesley Scroggins points out three books he feels are inappropriate, immoral material for children within the local school district. As a parent I respect his desire to protect his or other children. I do not feel he is wrong in that motivation. But also as a parent I feel that it is not his or any other adults place to choose what my child is allowed to read or not.

Please let me share a very uncomfortable personal experience with you...

When I was 13-years-old my mother and step-father began seeking God. Every weekend we would attend a different local church as my mother struggled with her need for a higher power in her life. Eventually my step-father mentioned a church he had attended two states away in Montana. My family began making Friday night drives to Montana where we slept on strangers' floors so we could attend worship on Sundays. After half a year of this she quit her job and moved us to the place I now live. Our extended family was upset and disgusted at the cultish nature of my parents' faith.

And I will not lie... many things about it were cultish and having known differently, coming into that world as a teenager, I struggled with it. No television or movies, no music, very conservative clothing, no holidays aside from our birthdays. But books were okay... to a point. As soon as another congregation member told my parents that the Dragon Riders of Pern series had sex in them I wasn't allowed to read them anymore. When I found The Handmaid's Tale at a yard sale and tried to read it—knowing it was a frequently banned book had fueled my interest—my step-father caught me and I was punished for it.

Many other children were home schooled so eventually my parents pulled me out too. I wasn't allowed to attend my junior and senior year of high school. I spent those two years very isolated, my only friends younger girls who also attended church. I was told I had to be an example as the eldest child in the congregation but unlike the majority of the rest I knew there was another world. A world with music, movies and books, where punishment from God for any questioning of parental judgement was not a daily threat. All the while my step-father was physically, emotionally and up unto a point bordering on sexually abusive.

But I was one of the lucky ones. I left. One of my close friends was not so lucky.

For the sake of privacy let's call her Amy. Amy was my opposite. I was tall and skinny, dark haired and shy. Amy was shorter and athletic, blond and bold. She was a few years younger than I was but we shared a lot of interests. We snuck off to movies and traded contraband CDs. We became long-distance friends with a pair of sisters from another congregation of our church. Amy was kind of like the sister I never had. What little we knew about the outside world was enough to convince us that not everything our parents were protecting us from was bad. But the time came when I couldn't live under the religious thumbs of my parents. My step-father had begun to exhibit behaviors toward me that suggested a less than fatherly love and I was terrified he was going to hurt me. I left that life behind and with it I lost touch with Amy.

A few years went by. I married, had a child, and had moved around the world and back. Through my mother I got in touch with Amy and her family. We got together and she was very pregnant at the time. It turns out that like me, Amy had gone through a stage of wanting out of that over protected life. For her it had resulted in accepting a date with a guy ten years her senior when she was only 16. He had met her at her job, since she was home schooled she could work when other girls were attending school. Because, like myself, she was very naive about what sex was (our good Christian parents never taught us anything but that "it" was a sin unless we were married) he managed to convince her to do certain things. He began plying her with drinks and eventually invited his friends around and would make her service all of them one after the other. She ended up strung out on drugs and with STDs. Eventually someone found out and got her away from him but the damage was done. She ended up pregnant by her drug dealer boyfriend. Her self-esteem was destroyed and as I sat with her that evening listening to her tell me what had happened I grew insanely angry. Later, when I was home and had time to think I began to feel a painful guilt.

And my guilt still lingers. Why? I'm still not sure. Part of me feels like I abandoned her when I left. I know I couldn't have taken her away from the world we were sequestered in but I often wonder if there wasn't something I could have done to make sure she wasn't left in the dark about what is and isn't okay. I know her family didn't want her to be hurt by keeping her naive but did they (and my own parents) really believe the lack of knowledge would protect us from a world filled with immorality?

Mr. Scroggins talks about books with immoral content. But where was he when my friend was being sexually abused? Who spoke out against my preacher step-father who would wake me up in the morning by laying on top of me and kissing me on the mouth? I couldn't even tell me own mother what my good Christian step-father had done for over a year. Then my good Christian mother had me talk to the teacher at church about it. They agreed I was lying to get attention. No good Christian man would do that. But I was known for refusing to just sit quietly and accept everything they taught at face value.

Christians talk about morality. Preach against acts they feel are immoral. But many keep their children from having the knowledge to protect themselves outside of the church walls, to think for themselves. When I read men like Mr. Scroggins speaking out against books I can't help but think of my abusive step-father screaming through the phone lines that I didn't want to come home because I was fornicating. I didn't want to come home because I was scared his wake-up kiss would one day be more than a kiss and I couldn't tell anyone the truth.

I wish that Speak had been published that year. I wish that someone had given it to me. Maybe I would have stayed away and lived with my real father since I was almost 18. Up until a couple of years ago when my mother divorced my step-father I was still angry at her for staying with him and choosing her relationship with him over my safety. I only visited her home once in those years since I left and only because my husband threatened that if he touched me or even looked at me wrong he would kill him.

A few months ago the film version of Speak was on Lifetime. I stumbled upon it as I was flipping channels. I had no idea it was a book at the time and I can't recall what kept me from finishing it (kids interrupting most likely) but the story really resonated with me. Melinda was made out to be the villain. I was so angry at her for not telling someone what happened. For letting herself be treated so poorly. For not speaking up. For not demanding justice.

Now that I know this is a book and that it is being suggested it be removed from schools' curriculum I am downright pissed. I have a step-daughter who will be 12 soon. Our son is almost 11. Someday my baby daughter will be a young woman. I would protect them from the world's evils if I could. I hope they never have to know some of the painful, scary, ugly things I have in my life. But I also know that kids grow up and we have to let them out into the world. A world where teenagers drink, drive and die. Where they give into hormones and societal pressure and sometimes end up with diseases and unwanted babies. Where they are tempted to try drugs and begin cycles of addiction. If I don't give them the armor—knowledge—to protect themselves then I am the one who is being naive.

I don't want my kids being sexually active, doing drugs and drinking or disrespecting the cultural and religious traditions of others. But I hope that when and if those topics enter their worlds they will know I will not judge them. I will answer their questions and help them understand the world that we live in. All of it. The sweet and beautiful as well as the grisly and violent. May they have a voice when I was not allowed one.

I don't want my voice to go unheard today. As much as I did not want to write this post for fear of backlash or being judged for my experiences and opinion I am forcing myself to do it. We Americans are blessed with the right to speak freely and I am glad that both Mr. Scroggins and those who disagree with his opinion have that right. I commend his taking a stand for what he feels is right. For wanting to protect young minds from what he sees as bad things. I cannot write about the other two books in question since I know nothing of them. But I will not let him get away with calling rape "soft pornography". Ask any rape survivor, of which I have more than one in my family, if they feel that such an act is pornographic and I believe the answer will be no. Rape isn't about the sex at all, it's about control.

If our school district would teach Speak I would be glad to have my children read it and discuss it. Mr. Scroggins speaks out in his article about the middle school sexual education curriculum introducing concepts such as homosexuality, oral and anal sex and how to have sex. Guess what dude... kids are going to learn these things no matter what. Instead of being a closed minded religious wing nut demanding the course be changed keep your children out of it. Last year when I was pregnant I took the time to answer all of my 10-year-old's questions about where babies come from. Some of them were ones I was not very comfortable talking about... like the two men who lived downstairs. He now knows how we feel about both the morality issues AND that sometimes same-sex couples have children too. He will have to form his own opinions as he grows older and is exposed to more of the world but now he knows he can always talk to us about sex. It isn't a dirty or bad thing, but he also knows it isn't something to take lightly or do until you're old enough to make an informed and safe decision about it. And every so often a new question pops up because let's face it... kids talk about it. Even elementary schoolers.

Mr. Scroggins says: "it is time parents and taxpayers in this school district are informed about this material" and I could not agree more. Parents SHOULD know what their children are reading. They should be involved in educating their children, answering questions and be aware of what their children are being taught. How can that ever be a bad thing? But first parents have to give a damn. No disrespect meant but many just simply don't. May I never be apathetic about what my kids are learning and being exposed to. Not so I can keep them from being informed or maybe reading something objectionable but so that the lines of communication will always be open. So my children will know they are that important to me. That I give a damn. That I will protect them from harm with knowledge, understanding and compassion.

And so dear readers, please forgive me if I have offended anyone in putting my own voice out there to be heard. I know this is a tough and touchy topic. I've written things here I never wanted to share publicly. Exposed a part of who I am I prefer not be seen. Let secrets out that I will forever struggle with. But if what I shared could save one young woman (or young man) from being afraid to speak out when something wrong is being done to them it will all be worth it. I told someone what happened and they said I lied. That was my greatest fear. It was painful, humiliating and I was even told that because I was never actually molested or raped I wasn't being abused. Ya know what? I refused to shut up. When my mother and church counselor said I was lying I went to my aunts. I told the rest of my family what had happened. And they didn't for a moment suggest I was looking for attention or trying to ruin my mother's marriage.

Don't give up. Keep talking. Be heard.

In closing this post I wanted to share this poem Laurie Halse Anderson, author of Speak, put together. When I heard it I was moved to tears. I hope you will be too.

It was this poem that finally convinced me to put aside my discomfort and write about this.

Want to get involved and help spread the word about Speak? The ALA hosts Banned Books Week every September. I suggest that be your first stop. Learn what books have been challenged and banned this year. Then go out and buy them! Read them! Blog them! Tweet them! Make yourself heard in the fight against censorship. Exercise your right to free speech. You'll be surprised at some of the books that have been banned and challenged, I know I sure was.

Then I suggest you check out posts and GIVEAWAYS from some of my fellow bloggers!

Eleni from La Femme Readers - Post and Giveaway
Jo from Once Upon a Bookcase - Post
Jan from Eating Y.A. Books - Post and Giveaway
Natalie from Mindful Musings - Post
mavie from The Bookologist - Post
Jenny from Supernatural Snark - Post
KB from Babbling About Books, and More - Post

Thank you so much to everyone who is spreading the word, sharing their experiences and not letting this man's opinion go unchallenged. I want to have the right to choose what my children are ready to read and are not... not some Christian man who won't even let his own children attend the schools where he is challenging the curriculum.



Image Credit: vermillion

3 comments:

iceprincessreviews said...

Yeah... This is also a problem when kids check out things from the library, and the parents complain to the librarians about not putting it in the right order.

Something like that happened a couple of years ago. A kid checked out the manga Peach Girl from the library, and the parents didn't know about it until they actually looked in the manga. And then the parents complained to the library about not stopping a kid from checking out such material, even though it is the parents' job to watch their kids' reading habits.

Anyways, I think they should read whatever they want. I mean they see worst things on the TV now than what they can read in books. >.>" As long as the parents explain the things that the things they watch on TV or read in books are things shouldn't do, it should be fine.

I'm not a parent, so I can't say what I would let my kids read. Though, when I was a teenager, my parents let me read whatever as long as I didn't follow the bad examples that are in the book. I mostly agree with you... it's up to each child's own parents to establish the limits, not the government, librarians, or someone else's parents.

Though, parents should remember that the more they limit, the more the kid will find somewhere else to read and watch whatever they want. >.<

Anyways, nice post.

Jo said...

Thank you so much for such a brilliant post and being brave enough to share your experience with us. I know talking about such things is never easy, so I appreciate your courage. This whole thing has made me so mad, but you know my thoughts already - thank you for linking to my post.
I also love your idea that us bloggers are like bees. Too true :)

Rhianna said...

Thank you both so much for commenting! It is scary to share stuff like this and yet not getting any response would have made me even more uncomfortable.

You are 110% right though iceprincess. Kids will do the exact thing you don't want them to do. I was a very good example of that. I tried to be "good" but was definitely not always going to stay away from things my parents said were bad. Which is why I feel it is important to limit within reason and don't ever make your children afraid to come to you when they do get into something you wouldn't like.

To tack on a little more to my story... when I left I moved in with my new boyfriend who broke up with me 3 days later to go back to his ex. When she dumped him again a few weeks later he came right back to me and I ended up pregnant. I was only 19, had never lived without someone or really knew what I wanted from life. I ended up being a married mom before my 20th birthday. It worked out just fine (we'll be married 11 years next month) for me in the long run but it could have gone badly.

I was so sick of my step-father calling me a whore for wanting to wear blue nailpolish. Sick of people saying that sex was evil. Sick of the stigma put behind it all to the point I just wanted to "do it" already and see what all the fuss was about.

I hope my kids will wait until they're ready physically, emotionally and financially but I know that's not an easy thing. I wish schools didn't have an abstinence only policy to be honest. I think it's naive and doesn't benefit anyone to insist it is the only way. I'd rather teach my children how to use protection and at the same time respect their bodies and minds... please let them at least have an emotional connection that is positive to the person they are a sexually active with.

The best advice I ever got about sex was to wait until I was in love. Which is what I did... but later realized love isn't quite as simple as the movies and romance novels would have ya believe. lol

I think your parents did well in allowing you to read whatever as long as you didn't follow any bad examples in them. In fact I think that is exactly what I want to do with my kids. Honestly, at the moment I would be lucky if I could get my son to read anything without a fight so maybe some bad examples would be good if it at least made him like books. :P

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