Books, Libraries, & Freedom: a Personal Account
A Post For Banned Books Week
Currently I mostly write and post poetry. But in the world beyond this blog, there is now open and intense hostility in major political, cultural, and religious groups toward books, libraries, and librarians themselves.
Because of my background, I decided to write briefly about my own experience and my own gratitude for books and librarians. I’m sure my words will further explain why many of these right-wing groups do indeed see books as their enemies, something to be feared and hated. They have reason. And the rest of us have even more reason to protect books and all that goes with them.
Trigger warning: this article contains discussions of child and adult abuse.
As I write this, we are observing Banned Books Week. This post is my own personal statement and a love letter of sorts to libraries, librarians, and, above all, to books.
I was raised in a brutally abusive far-right family. I am not going into details here, but isolation and indoctrination were only part of the abuse. They were, however, critically important elements in my parents’ arrangements to keep me under their control indefinitely.
Television was not allowed in our home. Period. Popular music was eliminated from our lives by the time I was seven or eight. The only movies I watched were at church or in my church-run elementary schools. I was not allowed to have friends unless they were handpicked for me by my parents. And they mostly did not want to be bothered by my having friends at all.
I was allowed to attend school through fifth grade, after which I was removed and ostensibly homeschooled. For about three years, some semblance of education continued; then my mother’s interest or sense of legal obligation apparently ceased altogether.
She was still required by state law to fill out a log of my daily “classes”, so she would take me to the library, where I was allowed to check out and read books mostly at my own discretion, and she would keep notes of the titles and the pages I read each day. I knew anything overtly left-of-center was forbidden, as was anything too “modern”. Arts and culture after about 1910 were “evil”. Looking back, though, I had a fair amount of leeway as she seldom really knew what most of my books were about.
So while I was high school age I was checking out college-level material in my areas of interest, which were primarily literature and history. I also read my father’s Physics Today and Scientific American periodicals to some extent, but I never was able to educate myself very much in science or math.
I did my best, though, to read the literary classics; I tried to be widely read, at least up to the beginning of the twentieth century, beyond which I knew I would be on dangerous ground with my parents, very seriously.
But there was so much even without modern and contemporary material. I read Shakespeare’s plays for pleasure; the Victorian poets became my mother tongue. I read American history, and British history, and histories of the medieval period, including the Islamic empires. My own tastes necessarily did some damage to my high aspirations; for instance, I have always been (and still am) woefully bored by the history of the Roman Empire, and I never did get a firm grasp of its details. But I did plow through a great many books, and they secured for me the idea that different people at different times thought much differently about all sorts of things. They allowed my mind to open and to remain open.
Eventually, for reasons I still don’t entirely understand, my father arranged for me to take the GED at the end of what would have been my sophomore year of high school. He bought me a single study guide and left me to wade through it, which I did. He dropped me off at the testing place (I was not allowed to drive anywhere by myself even after I had a full driver’s license) and I took the test. I passed, so apparently my self-education wasn’t too horrible.
Of course, I had no understanding of what the test was really for or about. In my life it certainly had nothing whatever to do with growing up, leaving home, making my own way in the world. None of that was to be allowed in practice. There were no celebrations at home when the envelope arrived that announced I had earned my certificate.
In fact, I suspect that my parents’ only positive feeling was relief that they had some defense if the state ever caught on that they weren’t really educating me at all. They hemmed and hawed over the next year as to whether I was legally required to attend school anymore. I struggled on with my reading, but by that time the malaise was severe even for me. Once I was seventeen, there was no more legal pressure and there were no more classes.
Now, I remained a voracious reader, and I still had a library card. Through various periods in the succeeding years I went to the library more or less often. Remember I said I was not allowed to drive anywhere by myself? The assumption that I would only ever go out anywhere with one or both of my parents continued. So my library access was controlled mainly by my mother’s willingness to go there, which varied a good deal over time.
For a little while in my early twenties, we went fairly frequently. I taught myself flower gardening from library books. I learned about antique roses from the esteemed British gardener Graham Stuart Thomas. I learned about growing modern roses from the classic German rose breeder Wilhelm Kordes. I continued to read the great novelists and poets.
Then there were years–whole long sets of years–when my mother decided that there was something indefinably wrong with the library. She never determined what exactly it was, but that didn’t matter. It prevented me from going. (Much of the abuse in my family was perpetrated by suggestion, assumptions, and vague threats. These things are extremely powerful over people who have no means of escape.)
Fortunately for me, a fellow “homeschooler” had somehow obtained a set of the old Harvard “Five Foot Shelf of Books”, that set of classics compiled as a source for the home reader and the self-educated. That other mother kept a selection of books from it, then gave the rest to my mother. Now, my mother was a bit of a hoarder and in any case she never did understand the peril of books to her miniature cult. So my sister and I now had a significant supply of additional reading material to see us through our family’s ever-increasing isolation.
By this time we were not even attending church anymore. Concerts had long since ceased. Even our traveling, which had always been quite limited, stopped for over twenty years.
I dreamed of being a writer. Is it any wonder? I dreamed through books and the classical music I managed to also discover and hold onto. I learned to emote through books and music and, later, through interacting with my beloved animals. (My mother seems to have determined that they could help keep us isolated further; they were her given excuse for no longer traveling even to see her family). The animals were my other lifeline.
Those were bitter years. All of my life has been bitter, but I fought through intense depression during that time. And in the middle of it, a new discovery gave me a little respite. That discovery was library book sales.
Although my mother no longer was willing to accompany me so that I could go to the library on a check-out basis, here was another outlet for obtaining books. I found that many libraries sell off donated or discarded volumes at minimal costs. For them, it’s a form of fundraising. For me it was a bit of heaven that I could still access from hell. For my father, it was a very inexpensive way to keep me occupied and quiet and acquiescent. And after all, they only took place once a year. It wasn’t that much of an effort. My mother actually did resent these annual trips, but he was willing to override her toxicity regarding them, for awhile at least.
On one of our first trips my sister and I picked upwards of one hundred books because by that time we were starved for reading material.
God, they were lifesaving. There were old friends there: fiction classics I hadn’t been able to read or reread since the old glory days of once-a-month library trips. There were biographies; there were histories of science that let me get a little closer to understanding that “other” subject. There were English literature textbooks and anthologies.
I remember once sitting up till nearly dawn reading a history of the Exodus, the ship that began life ferrying locals and tourists across the Chesapeake Bay and ended transporting Jewish Holocaust refugees to a newly-created Israel under the guns of the British Navy. I was trying to survive the stress of having to go to a “friend’s” ultra-religious wedding next day… and I had nothing to wear. I mean, I really had no clothes suitable for a wedding guest because my parents deeply resented ever having to pay for my clothes. I had tried to make a dress in a hurry from old fabric and an old pattern, and I had failed.
Reading that book that night kept me stable somehow. In the end the January day proved to be unusually warm, and I wore a sleeveless dress I had made years before. It wasn’t entirely suitable, but I got by… My main memory is the feeling of relief at being in my own space as I read the book, hiding in the basement, unsure what I would do next, but it didn’t matter yet, it wouldn’t matter until I had to stop reading…
For all this, some of the books that were most critical for us were simply books my parents still had lying around from their own college days. (They were both college graduates. My mother was a credentialed secondary school teacher, and my father had a PhD in physics. There is no excuse for what they did to me and my sister. They knew it was criminal.)
Among these, there was a volume of quotes, compiled sometime in the sixties, I believe, that gave me my first full glimpse of the direct correlation between the philosophies and politics I was still being actively indoctrinated in and the statements of Mussolini and Hitler. I had the current manifestos by prominent right-wing pundits, and I had the quotes from Mein Kampf. I could read each in black and white print, and there was frighteningly little difference.
I had swerved away from my family’s religious teachings in my early twenties; I made a similar maneuver away from their politics in my thirties. It was all about hate and the power to abuse. It was only ever about hate and the power to abuse.
Oh, I argued with them a little. I presented what I had found in good faith, not yet understanding the reality of my situation. My mother acted vaguely interested, gave my “discoveries” some lipservice, and promptly continued all her systems of hatred and abuse. As for my father, I found that more and more it was not wise or safe to keep attempting to discuss things with him.
I was in a situation of constant danger. I mentally filed the things I learned, and I kept on thinking. My sister and I held long discussions in secret. And life and suffering continued.
There came a time when the doors opened, just a little. Just enough to get a glimpse beyond the isolation. My father died, and my mother was not sufficiently aware of the potential dangers of social media to block it. My sister and I managed to make contact online, contacts we were amazed could enter our lives. I have the tech revolution to thank for much of my freedom today. But it would never have happened if it had not been for the old technology of the printed word, of books, which have brought freedom to so many people before me and will, I don’t doubt, bring it to many more long after our digital technology has ceased to act.
In the end, we did the unthinkable. We left the “family” in the middle of a Saturday morning and cut all ties. Life is still difficult and often bitter, but I no longer have to mask my thoughts and make alternate memories about how good it all was, and so I am writing some of the reality here. Just a little of it, but perhaps an important little bit at this time.
To conclude, I’ve still never gone to college. I’ve never attained anything tangible by means of having that GED certificate. I remain self-taught, and my current health difficulties mean I am struggling in my attempt to build the small pottery studio I dreamed of for so many years. (Did I mention that I learned how to throw ceramic pots on a potter’s wheel from… books?! And practice, of course.)
But for all that, I am alive, and I am free. I can think for myself. I managed to keep my mind free enough to fight back against many forms of manipulation. This ranged from pressure to remain in the family’s control, to remain in their hard-line religious world, even suggestive pressure encouraging me to commit suicide. Eventually, thanks to social media, I was able to make contact with people outside my family, and those new friends were able to tell me I had to get away. Some were able to tell me how to protect myself in the process. I may be struggling still in many ways, but, yes, I am living my own life now.
That is what books have done for me. It’s not small. I owe my independence to them. I owe them my capacity to look at extremely difficult situations and come up with actions and solutions.
Frankly, I owe my life to them.
So this is a love letter to books. It’s also a love letter of sorts to librarians, to the volunteers at library sales, to sellers of old books in used book stores and online. But, yes, especially to librarians who kept a flow of good books available whenever I could actually make it through your doors. I can’t thank you enough.
Thanks for reading ACM Weekly! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Wow. What a life story. I hope you and your sister are very proud of yourselves. It is an amazing feat you have done, to educate yourselves with books and discussion, while under this inhumane pressure and isolation. And what a beautiful ode to books and libraries and librarians. It is indeed evdence of how important they are.
I'm proud to know you.