Laura Murphy, a parent from Fairfax County, Virginia, is lobbying her school board to remove Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved from their curriculum. Evidently her high school senior son had nightmares after reading the book, and she decided it wasn’t appropriate reading material for teenagers. She hasn’t been successful to this point, but plans to pursue her complaint to the Virginia Board of Education.
I somehow missed reading Beloved in high school, although I have read Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. From what I understand, it’s a very tough read, and takes as its subject a woman’s killing of her young daughter to prevent her from being captured and returned to slavery. It’s based on the true story of an escaped slave named Margaret Garner. Although the novel contains graphic descriptions of violence and sexual abuse, Murphy appears to object most strongly to its depiction of bestiality. She also lodged complaints about Joy Kogawa’s Obasan, about the internment of Japanese-Canadians during WWII, and Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road.
From The Washington Post:
Murphy’s campaign began last spring after her son, Blake, then a Lake Braddock senior, told her “Beloved” disturbed him.
“I don’t shelter my kids, but I have to be a responsible parent,” said Murphy, who lives in Fairfax Station. “I want to make sure every kid in the county is protected.”
Now a freshman at the University of Florida, Blake Murphy, 19, recalled reading the book before bed and having night terrors after he fell asleep.
“It was disgusting and gross,” he said. “It was hard for me to handle. I gave up on it.”
Oh, you poor thing! If it was hard for you to handle reading the book, imagine how difficult it must be for people actually living through atrocities. Grace takes apart this attitude over at Are Women Human?
Murphy justifies keeping students from grappling with this history in the name of “[making] sure every kid in the county is protected.” In this reckoning, 17 and 18 year olds need protection from a few lost nights of sleep, from realizing that people are capable of doing truly awful things, from the knowledge that some people live with horrific, daily, inescapable violence.
Here’s another question: which 17 and 18 year olds need protection from this? Many teenagers know these things already. Some because it’s an unavoidable part of their history. So many others know these things from direct experience. To be able to assume a blanket right to protection that can be exercised simply by keeping scary books out of kids’ hands is the product of an amazing level of privilege and disconnectedness from reality.
As Prof. David Leonard says, the argument from a white parent living in an affluent suburb that “children” as an undifferentiated class need to be protected from merely reading about such things “speaks to sense of entitlement and notion of whose innocence, security, and personal joy deserves attention [and] protection.”
See, these things really do happen in the world. Slavery. Rape. Genocide. We do our children a grave disservice when we don’t educate them about the violence of our past and present. Unfortunately, as Grace observes, some of those children already know about this reality because it’s been the reality of their own lives. There could be a survivor of sexual assault sitting right there in that classroom, reading Beloved. I do support awareness of topics that would be triggering for students, and I think schools need to grapple with that issue. I don’t want students to be forced to relive their own trauma because of their high school English class. But I also think that those of us who are fortunate enough not to have experienced trauma owe it to our fellow human beings to look it in the face, recognize it, and become more empathetic as a result. Any discomfort we may experience while reading about violence and abuse is nothing compared to actually living it.
Murphy says that she thinks acceptable “mature topics” include slavery and the Holocaust (not the bestiality depicted in Beloved, or presumably its graphic violence). To echo Grace: What do you think happened during slavery and the Holocaust? Would you prefer they stuck to facts and figures? The number of people sent to Auschwitz, or the yearly profits of the Triangle Trade? No, we need to talk about the horror of violence.
If Murphy is concerned about the reading assigned to her 18 year old son, she would be appalled by the books I chose for myself in middle school. I read fiction and non-fiction about slavery, the Holocaust, ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, the Irish Potato Famine, the Trail of Tears, and child abuse. It was disturbing, but I never wanted to turn away from it. I felt these were things I had to understand, and that it would have been disrespectful to ignore them. I decided to study International Relations at university, and I read and wrote about terrible things. It can be emotionally exhausting, but it also made me realize how incredibly privileged I am in my existence.
I had nightmares once, too, when I was writing about sexual violence during the Bosnian War. I learned that I shouldn’t read the material before bed, and I took to mindlessly watching TV until my brain stopped reeling. At a certain point, I decided the TV wasn’t helping, so I reread Harry Potter instead. There were two other women in my class writing about sexual violence in war–during the genocide in Rwanda and the ongoing conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo–and we talked together about our nightmares. Afterward, my classmate gave us these figurines, which she brought back the DRC.
From what I understand, the three monkeys (in this case, gorillas) representing “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” have become an ironic symbol of defiance and survival in the DRC. I keep them on my desk, as a reminder to always look evil in the face.