I’ve had an awful head cold, so I’m a little off schedule this week. I hope it gets righted soon. Anyway, I wanted to share this with you.
Beloved physicist, Carl Sagan said:
What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles….
Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.
And that’s the trouble with magic, isn’t it? It can be used for good or ill, for wholesome deeds or just plain sullying.
Today I’m going to tell you about the most damaging book I ever read – not the most poorly constructed or most derivative, the most typographical error riddled or most offensive, but the one that made a scar on my psyche.
The thing is – it’s an innocuous title. The problem was, I read it at too young of an age, though it would seem that was the intent of the author.
The most damaging book I read is a classic. The heroine* is a southern belle and like the Confederate Flag, it’s time to be remembered in its historical context without putting it on a pedestal.
Now I’ll tell you what the book was, the problem with it, and how I hope to avoid it with my daughter.
Don’t we all want to fit in? There was a girl whose life I envied at nine years old. Her life seemed so perfect, like Samantha from the “American Girls” series or Sarah from The Little Princess but with no conflict. Her house was huge and immaculate, her backyard pastoral and expansive. Speaking of expansive, there was a library with sumptuous volumes stretching from one wall to the far other and ceiling to floor. Perched at the top, in a place of honor, was the entire series of Elsie Dinsmore.
The girl’s mother was reading the series aloud to her and her sister. They all seemed perfect and cellophane, so different from my life. I knew I would never be like them, though I wanted to be them – meaning the other girl and Elsie herself – the persecuted heiresses. Not that I wanted to be persecuted, but who doesn’t read a book and identify with the hero? Especially as a child.
So much of my life was lacquered to a high enough gloss that it covered flaws until you looked straight on – kind of like the Hollywood starlets who insist on incredible, unnatural lighting. This book seemed like that wisp of a wish that could have made the pretense real, at least to my nine year old self. It advocated self discipline, which seems like a good thing. It can be, but I believe our strengths are intertwined with our weaknesses. Such is the case for me.
The strange magic of my life echoed with the choking ideals the books exuded: it is wrong to stand up for yourself. It is wrong to be proud of yourself. It is wrong to be angry. It is even wrong to have low self esteem, for then you are still focusing on yourself and it’s a form of pride and centeredness. You must turn the other cheek to those who would hurt you – it’ll be alright. You must not follow your dreams but listen to your elders.
Does it say any of these things verbatim? No. But it starts out with Elsie praying for forgiveness for being angry that she’s being bullied. Anger is not a sin. (And I could really care less now what constitutes a sin.) Bad behavior should be punished. Bad feelings should be worked through.
For several formative years, these books haunted me. The themes of sacrifice weighed heavily on my mind. To this day, I still struggle with expressing anger. Sometimes I hold it in out of guilt until it’s too much. This year I’m actively working on better conflict resolution.
Turning the other cheek is (sometimes) a problem. Sometimes we have to be firm about boundaries. I struggle with this. Sometimes I’m a doormat when I should be a wall. Today I stood up for myself in a small way. Someone was wasting my time. I told the person who was wasting my time that they could research the options and make a decision but didn’t need to involve me.
Being proud of yourself is important. Too much self-deprecation colors not only your self worth but how others esteem you. I struggle with this too. My sense of humor is self-deprecating. I have a difficult time accepting compliments – I tend to rebut them, being unintentionally rude.
My husband told me that he read a Ladders article saying one of the worst things you can do for your career is not ask for advancement. You can’t assume those over you will know or remember what your goals are.
If you don’t ask, the answer is always no.
This is something my advisor in college said frequently. Sometimes we have to take risks and evaluate what we have to lose.
The most offensive part for me, the straw that broke my back, was when Elsie’s crush kills himself because of her. She has an age appropriate love interest *but* he has a limp. Her father convinced Elsie to turn down his marriage proposal. The young man never gets out of bed again. He wastes away in bed and starves himself to death.
This is sugar coated, and while they feel sad that he departed them, they have no remorse.
The young man probably wasn’t incredibly mentally stable, but after the level of humiliation over his minor handicap, I can’t say I would fare better than he did. Any humiliation over a handicap is uncalled for. This was just plain hateful.
It gets worse. Elsie’s father gives his blessing for her to marry one of his friends. This teenaged girl marries a much older man who has been in her life since she was a very small child. This casts a creepy light on all their previous interactions. Where once the man seemed only kind and supportive, now he seems self-serving and after the fortune of Elsie’s mother’s estate at the least, if not an outright pervert. I had identified with Elsie. It seemed like the young man was good to her and sincerely loved her. She had a huge fortune, so why did it matter that he wasn’t as able as some of the other people in her life. They had people (pre-civil war, so let’s be honest: they had slaves) that took care of him. Why did it matter?
This was the first time I ever rage quit a series. When my kid sister was about the right age to read Elsie Dinsmore, I suggested to my mom that they avoid it.
This leads me to …
Avoiding this with My Daughter
It would be easy to say that I’ll just forbid her from reading this. That’s not a good solution, though. There’s bound to be a different book just as bad.
Carefully shielding her from all bad ideas won’t prepare her for how to recognize fallacies and unhealthy ideas. I’m very much against banning books. Someone said that the banned books are the ones that make us feel anything. I tend to despise censorship.
Instead, I want to help her work out what’s worthwhile to accept as valid ideas and what’s not as she explores books and movies and the world.
While we were watching The Orville we heard Dr. Finn reading Peter Rabbit (okay, really it was Isaac using her voice). I suppose my husband had never heard the book before. He jokingly asked me what kind of books I was reading our daughter, to which I reminded him that his parents bought her the books.
By today’s standards, they’re a little morbid at times. There is death and there are consequences. Some of the characters are foolish (I’m thinking of you, Jemima Puddle-Duck). These negative aspects can spark conversations. The stories are just stories. They aren’t bogged down with allegory, which actually frees them to be more meaningful in my opinion: then they can touch on anagogy (at least as framed by L’Engle in A Circle of Quiet).
In Brittany Poulton’s interview of Jessica Alexander titled, “How Danish Parents Raise the Happiest Kids in the World”, Jessica talks about parenting differences between Americans and Danes:
Reading books that deal with hard topics helps parents cover a wide range of emotions with their children and this has been proven to improve their empathy skills.
I hope that by discussing openly the ills of this world, we’ll foster emotional resilience. I also hope we’ll focus as much as we can on books that are much more inspiring.
Do your worst! Tell me what the most damaging book you ever read was. I’ll send you a virtual hug.
* I’m starring heroine here because I don’t typically use this word.
The Guardian released a style guide in 2011 stating that words like comedienne and actress, “and similar obsolete terms that date from a time when professions were largely the preserve of one sex (usually men)” were not to be used. In college my textbook had a similar sentiment that I was delighted to see: it was something I had felt but not seen done.
In this article by The Stage, Director Matthew Xia is quoted saying, “I don’t use gender-specific job terms if the job is the same no matter who is doing it. This language reinforces a patriarchal hierarchy.”
I chose the word heroine to describe Elsie because that is the word the authoress would have used and in full support of “patriarchal hierarchy”.