Friday, March 20, 2015

Friday reading assignment: books that are traumatic

Last semester, Grace's English teacher distributed a list of books from which each student was supposed to pick one for an assignment.  Grace asked me to help her make a selection.  From the list, I gave her three or four choices which I thought she would like the best.  Of these, she chose Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy.  I haven't read Blood Meridian, (or, obviously, seen or read much about the movie) but I have read All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing, which I liked, so I figured Cormac McCarthy would be a good choice.  Blood Meridian turned out to be disturbingly violent: murdered babies and drowned puppies and the like. I feel like an ignorant ass for recommending it. I don't remember being upset by All the Pretty Horses or The Crossing, although I do remember that those novels are violent.  There's violence and violence--some kinds are disturbing, others are less so.  Over the years, my children have been assigned some very disturbing literature at school.  Night by Elie Wiesel comes to mind.  I don't want to be THAT parent, and I would never get up a censorship campaign, so I've said nothing to the schools and just advised my kids to talk to their teachers about the disturbing content.

When I was ten, I checked Julie of the Wolves out of my school library and I absolutely loved it until I got to the attempted rape scene, which was such a shock, I could hardly process it.  I actually felt betrayed.  My mother didn't believe in censoring our reading, and I certainly would have resented any attempt to restrict my reading, but that freedom led me to believe that any book I chose would be "safe."  To this day, I can barely look at the cover of Julie of the Wolves, and, while I don't censor my children's reading, I never went out of my way to introduce them to Julie of the Wolves.

This was the cover art of the copy at my school library

Since starting to think about this, I've realized that ever since the Julie of the Wolves incident, I've avoided any book that I thought might upset me.  I won't ever read Lord of the Flies, or A Clockwork Orange or The Lovely Bones, for example.  (In college, just listening to a classmate's presentation about A Clockwork Orange upset me.)  And yet, Lord of the Flies and Clockwork Orange were the very books that Seamus wanted to read last summer.  I had to stand by my no-censorship principles, but I did warn Seamus that they might upset him.  So he read them and was fine.  (He liked A Clockwork Orange so much, we gave him a tee shirt with a screen print of the cover for Christmas.)

And then, browsing in a book shop for a Christmas present for Seamus, All the Pretty Horses caught my eye.  So I bought it, and he loved it.  Loved it so much, that he's been reading through all of McCarthy's novels.  He hasn't gotten to Blood Meridian yet, but he did read The Road, which sounds GRIM.  I'm not sure if I could handle reading The Road.  It just goes to show, we all have a different level of tolerance for disturbing material.

Have you ever been traumatized by a book?  Do you try to shelter your children from disturbing material or do you take a hands-off approach when your kids are choosing books?


  1. Hmm. Yes, I suppose different levels of tolerance. I remember loving Julie of the Wolves when I was about 12 or so. I haven't read Blood Meridian, but my husband has. He loves McCarthy, and he says he doesn't think he'll ever read that one again so...I've stayed away. I don't remember being particularly upset by Lord of the Flies (though it's probably been 15 years since I last read it). I read The Lovely Bones maybe 5 years ago, and I thought it was interesting, but I'm kind of a crime and mystery junkie and it has that element to it. Interestingly, since becoming a parent, I've learned that reading about seriously ill or murdered or abducted or assaulted children makes me want to throw a book across the room and vomit and cry, all at the same time, whereas I never had such a visceral reaction before parenthood. I gather that I'm not alone in this change.

    My kid is only 2, so I haven't had to think much about censorship for her yet, but I think I agree with your principles. My reading was never censored either - I don't think my mom knew what I was reading half the time - and I was never really traumatized by anything, though some books certainly affected me deeply.

  2. I wouldn't censor my kids' reading but, much to my dismay, neither of them have ever been big readers.

    Jen A, I have the same reaction to many books now that I'm a parent. I loved The Lovely Bones but it broke my heart. I recently read Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson and it was relentlessly bleak and realistic. I'd recommend it to anyone but it's definitely a disturbing read.

    The most disturbing book I have ever read is Going to the Sun by James McManus. I wouldn't say it's a great book, but something happens at the start that is so horrifying that I can't ever forget it. I'm being vague to avoid spoilers.

  3. I didn't find Lord of the Flies upsetting, but A Separate Peace shook me up. I haven't read any Cormac McCarthy, because he sounds grim, but I read lots of Stephen King - and any hints of IT in his books (and there is inevitably some mention of IT), totally creep me out. I cannot walk anywhere near a storm drain - a former coworker once watched me walk through a wet, muddy mess in my efforts to avoid walking near a storm drain.
    I was reading a book about the abduction and murder of young women when Hannah Graham disappeared - it was excruciating to finish. I needed to see if they got to the last girl in time - and they didn't.
    I don't censor what Edie reads, but I do try to steer her towards things I think she can handle. She has been asking to read Stephen King, knowing I have been reading him since I was 9. I finally let her read "The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon" which she found disappointing. So I gave her a collection of his short stories with some super creepy ones, of which the first one freaked her out and she has since put the book down. She also wants to read "Catcher in the Rye", but I don't think she's there yet. She also had a hard time getting past the orphanage school in Jane Eyre, although she's since seen the movie and knows it gets better.

  4. I definitely think people have different levels of tolerance. My parents didn't censor my reading either, but I don't think I was traumatized by a violent scene . I do remember reading some Jackie Collins or Danielle Steele-type novel when I was about 11 or 12 and being horrified by a sex scene in which expensive jewels got put in a woman's vagina. I was thoroughly skeeved out. I put the book down immediately (and have never cared that much for explicit sex scenes ever after).

    I too have never read The Lord of the Flies, A Clockwork Orange, or Blood Meridian because of the violence. I figure I know all I need to know about those books. As for The Lovely Bones, thank goodness I read it before becoming a parent.


  5. Oh, and I don't exactly censor my kids' reading, either, although I do recommend waiting sometimes. I like your approach!

  6. I can't read extreme mystery (riles me up and gives me a tension headache... I'm weird) and I definitely stay away from violence for the same reason. Until I was nearly 40, I still had bad dreams from seeing "Alien" as a young teen.
    I was an avid reader and was never censored, so I haven't ever censored my boys. Their dad reads the same fantasy books they like to read and he has discussed with them his concerns about one that had gotten rather dark. (Two sons put the series aside; one continued anyway.)

  7. I personally don't read anything with graphic violence and avoid books of that genre. I've never understood the appeal of Stephen King and won't read his stuff.

    I find it hard to read books in which children or teens are in danger, sick, etc. That, plus my massive hatred of the whole post-apocalyptic/dystopian society genre, means that I have no intention of reading the Hunger Games books or seeing the movies.

    Surprisingly, I did willingly read "The Fault in Our Stars" and enjoyed it, in spite of everything. My girls hated the movie, so I doubt I'll see it.

  8. Yes, I have been traumatized by books and it's funny that you mentioned the very two at the top of my list: Lord of the Flies and Clockwork Orange. I would also add Sophie's Choice to that list. Not sure which was worse, in terms of being traumatized, the books or the film versions of those books. I agree with you in not censoring books for our kids, but warning them that the books may be disturbing. Speaking of Cormac McCarthy I very much enjoyed his book No Country for Old Men, but thought the film version of it was very disturbing. And The Road is very grim, you are right...
    Funny, how just thinking about all this puts me in the mood to read "Emma"! No disturbances there!

  9. I've never been traumatized by a book, but I remember being so upset when reading Bridge to Terabithia. I guess I steer clear of books that I think would be too graphic for my taste.
    I'd have made the same recommendation you did because I read only those books by McCarthy. I never read The Road.