Monday, December 10, 2007

Teen sex, incest and other things I was too young to read about

I stumbled upon Her Dark Materials, an article on Slate by Emily Bazelton, and it brought back fond memories of being a young girl and lying across my bed, clutching a book. I was always clutching a book--in the car, at the dinner table, in front of the TV set, in the theatre before a movie. It began in the first grade, when I was among an elite few six-year-olds allowed to graduate early to the "big kids" section of the school library. That meant skipping baby stuff like Hop on Pop to dig into meatier classics like the Nancy Drew, Boxcar Children and Little House series. Then, as now, I lived in my head, and books were the matches that lit my imagination.

Before third grade I left kids books behind. My mom was also a voracious reader and I scavenged the popular titles of the day from her collection. I remember being scared to death by the idea that The Amityville Horror was a true story, and being intrigued by romantic interludes that I didn't quite understand in Sidney Sheldon and Judith Krantz books.

Like Emily Bazelton, I stumbled upon Judy Blume's Forever and V.C. Andrews' Flowers in the Attic series as a child. I believe I was in the fourth grade when I first read Blume's tale of a teenage girl's first sexual experience. I had picked up the book expecting the smart juvenile storylines found in Blume's other books, such as Blubber, Superfudge, or even Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret? I found a little bit more than I bargained for. A worn, dog-eared copy of Forever passed from girl to girl through fourth and fifth grades. We furtively read juicy passages at slumber parties and worked to keep the book away from boys who might reveal the book's frank sexual content to an adult.

Later, in middle school, a friend passed me the first book in V.C. Andrews' Flowers in the Attic series. For the uninitiated, the series tells the story of four children, the product of a secret incestuous relationship, who, after the death of their father, are imprisoned in an attic by their fundamentalist grandmother and oversexed mother. The oldest two children, coming of age confined in close quarters, eventually have a sexual relationship of their own. ...Yeah, I know.

Like the author of the Slate article, I feel a bit of a hypocrite today. Bazelton is shielding her children from Philip Pullman's dark trilogy that contains The Golden Compass for fear of its impact on their fragile young minds. I block BET in my home and drive my stepson and stepdaughter nuts railing against too-racy lyrics in R&B and hip hop. But both Bazelton and I (and most of my friends, I might add) were exposed through reading to topics we were too young to understand...and we survived.

In fact, I recall both Blume's excellent book and Andrews' trashy trilogy fondly. To me they are relics of another place and time--oddly a more innocent place and time when salacious material made barely a blip on a bookish suburban kid's radar. My friends and I were mostly teachers' kids with attentive parents. We never came home to empty houses. Our parents took turns ferrying us to school activities. We were smartypants kids who went to Saturday School and took gifted classes. Our biggest transgression was reading beyond our level and, gasp, sharing books with friends. MTV was just dawning and videos like the Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star" and Duran Duran's "Planet Earth" were quaintly chaste, compared with today's pimp/stripper anthems. Our environments were generally wholesome, so when we read a salacious Sidney Sheldon passage or heard Prince's Darling Nikki, it thrilled us, but it didn't impact our understanding of right and wrong. Even as I scanned for the juicy bits in books, I was clear that their subject matter was forbidden, not something to emulate myself.

I can't quite articulate why reading racy books was okay for me, but hearing Gucci Mane's "Freaky Girl" isn't okay for my stepkids. Today's kids get a steady diet of the sexy and profane in music, in videos, video games and on television. What was shocking to my friends and I is now the norm. And while my environment, and that of my friends, counteracted our reading material, many kids today aren't so fortunate.

Read What About Our Daughters' post about the dirty lyrics your kids are listening to here:

What About Our Daughters: Another Edition of Parenting Tips From the Childless: Do You Know What Your Kiddies are Listening to?#links#links

Were you a precocious reader? Do you forbid things today things that you did as a child? If so, why the double standard?

If we knew our history...

Recent posts here and over at Mes Deaux Cents and The Angry Black Woman clarified something I've been thinking for a while: Learning the history of our country and the world should be a major focus in homes and in schools. I know...I know...this is a techie world, where math and science rule. But here's the thing, all our new gadgets and conveniences won't mean a thing if our society lies in ruin, because we repeat the mistakes of our ancestors again and again.

I love learning about history. I read books about it. (A favorite is Lies my Teacher Taught Me by James W. Loewen. Check it out.) You can always find The History Channel on somewhere in my home. I love American Experience on PBS and the series Pioneer House. I like touring historic homes, especially those that offer a peek into the lives of the former occupants--how they lived, loved and what they believed. (If you're ever down in Louisiana, visit the Laura Plantation, a sugar plantation run by generations of Creole women. You can also look inside a slave cabin and learn how those women exploited the expertise of skilled slave labor.)

I find learning about the past--politics, culture, wars and personalities--empowering. It puts the present in context for me and helps shape my views on modern challenges. It makes me a better citizen of my town, state, country and the world. Knowing the history of my family--what my forefathers and foremothers struggled through to succeed--makes me stand a little taller and not want to let them down.

These days, though, we suffer from a profound case of historus stupidus (that's Tami Latin). If we had learned the lessons of Vietnam, would we be in Iraq today? If we understood the insidious history of fascism in the world, would we be more vigilant about our freedoms? If white Americans knew more about The Tuskegee Experiment , the Indian Removal Act and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, would they understand why so many people of color are mistrustful of the government and the mainstream? If Melyssa Ford knew Sara Baartman's story, could she call exploiting her sexuality for public consumption "just a job." If Sherri Shephard had ever cracked a history book, learned about Constantine I, or, heck, read the Old Testament, would she have embarrassed women, black women and Christians everywhere on national television? Speaking of religion, if we understood what religious fundamentalism does to societies, would we be more concerned about growing fundamentalism in this country?

If we knew our history, I mean really knew it, wouldn't we all be better off?

James Baldwin has a great quote about this country's history that I think can be applied to history as a whole, "American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it."

He's right. Know your history.

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