Wednesday, September 2, 2009

From the vault: Teen sex, incest and other things I was too young to read about



As I approach my second blogiversary on Sept. 13, I am dusting off some of my favorite posts from What Tami Said's early days. This post originally appeared in December 2007.]




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 freed 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 smart 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?

10 comments:

livinonfaith said...

This sounds exactly like my childhood! I, too, was that kid who carried around a book everywhere I went. I read all of the Judy Blume books and the "Flowers in the Attic series" as well, apparently at the same ages as you. I can also distinctly remember reading Salem's Lot by Stephen King when I was nine, cringing at the night sounds outside my window.
I was also the kid reading my mom's six hundred page historical romance novels in fourth grade. After my best friend's mom found us engrossed in some of the juicier bits of one of said novels, she started confiscating my books when I entered her house and putting them on top of the fridge until it was time for me to leave!

Good times!

Rebecca said...

You have to read the book, "Everything I Needed to Know About Being a Girl I Learned from Judy Blume". It's an interesting collection of essays from women writers that were influenced by Judy Blume. The essays about "Forever" are really hilarious and interesting. Maybe you could write a response essay for us all to enjoy!!! I'm working on mine right now.

S3XinthePantry said...

Over the w/e I posted about explaining sexy song lyrics to my son. They aren't teens yet, but I don't limit what they read.
HIS DARK MATERIALS was a big hit in our house. My parents were the same way, they encouraged us all to read everything.

Mimi said...

Hearing those songs and watching the videos is different than reading. Reading is inside your own mind to come up with the visuals and at 10 years old I bet what you visualized is a lot more like soap operas than the current videos.

It is not hypocritical to limit or block the music and videos. Now I do think the kids should be allowed to read whatever books that they want including the Golden Compass series like we all did.

ThirstyDancer said...

Me too!! I was reading way ahead of my age too, sometimes understanding the adult themes and content, other times oblivious to what was actually happening in the story. I think it's important to distinguish between the text of a story (what's happening in the narrative) and the subtext (what sort of world and what kinds of relationships and characters is the story affirming as "good") when making a call about whether a program or book is "appropriate" for a young person. I think it's important to give children an opportunity to explore content that allows them to ask questions about the more adult or problematic side of human experience. I have a problem with exposing children or young adults to a steady flow of messages that seduce them into valuing relationships and behaviors that will degrade or harm them. And those messages are usually found in the sub-text. Just my opinion. I read a lot of "racy" romance novels (my grandmother (!) would pass them along to me from the time I was 11) and I think the relationship dynamics portrayed in the novels were far more problematic for me than the descriptions of sex.

Tami said...

Rebecca,

OMG, this book sounds awesome!I just downloaded it to my Kindle. Let me know when you write yout review. I'd be happy to share with readers here.

cycads said...

Sounds like my childhood too. Having a mum who was an avid reader, but of books on crime (particularly gruesome murder) meant that these books were all over the house. Reading them kind of shaped my girlhood - thankfully in a good way. As a young person growing up and understanding that humanity is unpredictable and oftentimes cruel made me a bit more "adult" in a way (I can't describe using a better word because it's all a little weird).

Ouyangdan said...

Wow! (wandered over here from Rene's blog)

I was/am an avid reader. I was allowed to read almost whatever I wanted (it was a lot of hand me down books, like Bobsy Twins, Nancy Drew and Babysitters' Club). I eat fiction for breakfast, in many genres. I am especially prone to fantasy. I read a lot of juvenile fantasy because it makes me feel like a responsible parent. It was what turned me to my first Harry Potter book after evading the hype for years (on which I was quickly hooked). I wanted, and still want to be informed on what kids are reading. So, if it is popular I will try to read it. One of the most popular series at my blog is my critique of Twilight, and I get a lot of commenters asking me why I waste my time reading it.

Because I know that one of these days, and probably sooner than I realize, my daughter is going to want to read them. Though I find a lot of the content objectionable I want to be able to allow her to read them and I will want to discuss it with her.

It is the same thing that led me to read The Golden Compass, which has captivated my daughter since the movie, and Gaiman's Stardust, for the same reason. She wants to read them, I want to encourage her to read, and i want to know what they are all about so that we can talk about it.

Kristen {RAGE against the MINIVAN} said...

Oh, this post brings back some memories! I was also an avid reader as a child, and remember both Judy Blume and VC Andrews giving me a serious education! There was a Judy Blume book about masturbation and I remember being so young that I had NO CLUE where this "special place" was that she was talking about. I also recall reading through the Flowers in the Attic series, unbeknownst to my mom, and then through the subsequent Heaven series, which focused on incest between a dad & daughter. Ewww!!

My kids aren't reading yet, but I will be more careful when they are that age. I felt like I was exposed to too much, too early by reading some of what I did. Like Mimi said, though, reading is one thing, and imagery is another. I will be much more strict with what they watch/see vs what they read. I agree with what you are saying - it was much less prevalent there. When I think of all our kids will have access to via the internet . . . . Lordy!! Makes our Judy Blume novels look pretty innocent.

BluTopaz said...

I am late to this post, but have to comment because I identify with this so much. I did not read Judy Blume and the Attic books. But in my early teens I stayed reading Bronze Thrills and its sister urban smut mag, can't remember the name right now. These stories featured forced sexual encounters with the always cute, hunk captain of the football/basketball team (i don't remember the word rape being used), young women who found themselves in all kinds of exploratory scenarios-man all i can say it was scandalous. I don't know if my mother knew about the content, but she never banned them from the house. And like the point of your essay, I am well adjusted. But i think about that garbage now and shudder-just like the Luke & Laura rape as fantasy scene on All My Children eons ago.

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