When I was in my early 20s, I was in an abusive relationship with another woman. Soon after it ended, I did what I always did when I was heartbroken: I looked for art that spoke to my experience. I was surprised to find shockingly few memoirs of domestic violence or verbal, psychological and emotional abuse in queer relationships. So I wrote into that silence: a memoir, “In the Dream House,” which describes that relationship and my struggle to leave it.
This year, a parent in Leander, Texas — livid that “In the Dream House” appeared on high school classes’ recommended reading lists — took a pink strap-on dildo to a school board meeting. Voice trembling with disgust, she read excerpts from my book — including one where I referred to a dildo, inspiring the prop — before arguing that letting a student read my book could be considered child abuse.
She and the other parents like her demanded the removal of my book and several others from district reading lists for high school English class book clubs, from which students were allowed to select one of 15 titles. The school board ultimately decided to remove a number of books, including “V for Vendetta” and a graphic novel version of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and is currently considering whether it should remove more, including mine.
I have teamed up with Margaret Atwood, Jodi Picoult, Jacqueline Woodson and many other authors whose works have been targeted for removal from class reading lists in Leander. In conjunction with PEN America, a group that promotes free literary expression, we wrote a letter to the school district demanding that our books remain available to students. While our books may contain passages that are potentially uncomfortable, challenging or even offensive, exposure to our books is vital to expanding minds, affirming experiences, creating appreciation for the arts and building empathy — in short, respecting the adults that the students in Leander, Texas, will soon become.
Schools rarely provide education about relationships. Teenagers aren’t often taught that extreme jealousy is not romantic but is a sign of an unhealthy relationship. The sections of my book read aloud by the outraged parent in that meeting are part of a larger story, examining what it means to be so head over heels in love, in lust or both that you let someone treat you badly.
It was painful and difficult to recount that experience for my book, to lay plain my vulnerabilities and dark moments. But I’m glad I did it. Now that it’s out in the world, I receive easily a dozen messages a week from readers. They thank me; they open up to me; they describe the life-changing experience of feeling seen. People have told me my book gave them the clarity and strength to leave an unhealthy relationship.
Book bans in America are nothing new. As long as there have been writers, there have been reactionaries at their heels. (Boston held its first book burning in 1650.) Today in the United States, books that feature characters who are Black, Latinx, Indigenous, queer or trans — or are written by authors who identify that way — frequently make up a majority of the American Library Association’s annual list of the top 10 books most often censored in libraries and schools. These book bans deprive students of a better understanding of themselves and one another. As a writer, I believe in the power of words to cross boundaries at a time of deep division. Now more than ever, literature matters.
Those who seek to ban my book and others like it are trying to exploit fear — fear about the realities that books like mine expose, fear about desire and sex and love — and distort it into something ugly, in an attempt to wish away queer experiences.
They do not try to hide their contempt, or their homophobia. They accuse teachers who want to assign my book of “grooming” students, language that’s often used to accuse someone of being a pedophile and a common conservative dog whistle when it comes to queer art. They want to shield their children from anything that suggests a world beyond their narrow perception.
As anyone can tell you — as history can tell you — this is ultimately a fool’s errand. Ideas don’t disappear when they’re challenged; banned books have a funny way of enduring. But that doesn’t mean these efforts are without consequences.
The high school seniors affected by this action are on the cusp of adulthood, if not already there. Soon, they will go into the world. They will date and fall in love and begin relationships, good and bad. I understand that for a parent, it’s almost unthinkable to imagine that your child could experience such trauma. But preventing children from reading my book, or any book, won’t protect them. On the contrary, it may rob them of ways to understand the world they’ll encounter, or even the lives they’re already living. You can’t recognize what you’ve never been taught to see. You can’t put language to something for which you’ve been given no language.
Why do we not see these acts of censorship for what they are: shortsighted, violent and unforgivable?
Carmen Maria Machado (@carmenmmachado) is the author of “Her Body and Other Parties,” a collection of short stories, and “In the Dream House,” a memoir.