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What You Read Can’t Hurt You

Discussing serious fiction – with its complicated characters, heavy themes, and often intricate storylines – is sure to inspire questions like: Is this character believable? Is the character fully developed? Are the relationships between the characters fully realized?

No one can answer these questions without reflecting on personal experience or commenting on humanity in general. If you’re open-minded about people, you will generally approach fiction with an open mind. If not, reading fiction can help you practice open-mindedness, so that when you encounter people unlike you, in real life, you’ll be ready to listen.

For homework, I asked my students to read an excerpt from Selah Saterstrom’s The Meat and Spirit Plan, a coming-of-age novel about a female protagonist who grows up in the “dead-end Southern town of Beau Repose”. The novel is “experimental”, in that each page contains a lot of white space; the story is told in a series of vignettes, organized by section titles that are actually lyrics from heavy metal songs.

I was just completely floored by my students’ reactions to the book. In their reading responses, they judged the main character harshly and were put off by the “adult situations” that the author describes. To summarize, the narrator grows up impoverished, without a mother present.

No one has told the narrator how to behave so she looks to her role models: her similarly misguided female friends and Ginger Rogers, who the narrator believes is the feminine ideal. The narrator is grappling with her sexuality and just happens to be surrounded by men who disrespect her and use her violently. She has no better guide.

Think of what happens to so many girls and young women today – they idolize pop stars and female celebrities. They grow up hypersexualized because they think they need to dress or act a certain way to please men.

The narrator gets caught up in the wrong crowd, abuses drugs and alcohol, and becomes a victim of repeated sexual abuse. Here’s an excerpt:

Hamp Jones pulls down my jeans and gets on top. Stop I say. It hurt Mandy the first time too he says. I do not know Mandy and he does not stop. After, I walk into the room where the others are. Hamp Jones leaves then everyone leaves. I return to bed and pass out.

I wake naked. I have taken off my clothes during the night but do not remember doing so. I get out of bed, stand in front of a full-length mirror that used to hang in the house of a gay movie star’s mother and I look at myself. With the exception of being born, being fucked for the first time, and dying, you generally get another shot at things.

What I like so much about the narrator’s voice is her underlying current of misguided hope. Think about a woman you might refer to as “slutty” – you know exactly who I mean. Why does she behave this way? Don’t you think, in some misguided way, that she’s looking for love, affection, and attention? If you lack a model of healthy love, of course you’ll fumble and search for it in all the wrong places.

The type of sexual violence depicted in the above scene happens again and again, at least throughout the first part of the book. Readers want to know: why doesn’t the narrator speak up against the abuse? Why does she allow it to happen?

I firmly believe in personal responsibility and would never refer to someone as a victim without seriously questioning it first. When you’re 15-years-old, lack stable parents, and live in a community that doesn’t educate its children about safe sex, rape, and sexual harassment, I’m pretty sure that makes you a victim.

What do you think happens in inner cities like Baltimore and Newark? Young men, who grow up without fathers, look to drug dealers and rappers as role models. They think driving around in a blinged-out BMW, bought with money earned by selling coke, is the definition of success. And how can you really blame them?

I asked my students, “If you never had a positive role model, if you never had a parent/parents/another relative who cared about you, if you couldn’t see the benefit of a college education, would you be here in this room right now?”. I know that I probably would never have gone to college if I didn’t have parents who pushed me all my life. How is a 15-year-old supposed to know what’s best for her? She’s not supposed to know.

I like to read and assign literature that really pushes the boundaries. Yes, it’s difficult. Yes, it’s unpleasant. But when you imagine the worst kind of life or circumstances, I can guarantee you that someone, somewhere out there in the world is living a life worse than the one you can imagine. Try not to let something shocking or graphic cloud your ability to see the humanity in any given situation.

When I was a young girl, my Ukrainian-American parents forced me to attend Ukrainian school every Saturday. Instead of watching Saturday morning cartoons, I spent six hours in a classroom with other Ukrainian-American children and a “fresh-off-the-boat” teacher, learning about Ukrainian language, culture, and history.

I hated it. I was constantly looking for reasons to complain about class, and my friends and I were evil troublemakers: we cheated, we pulled pranks on the teacher, and we whispered and passed notes instead of paying attention.

One day, our teacher showed us a movie depicting a violent war that took place in 15th century Ukraine. The Cossacks, members of the Ukrainian military, were riding around on horses and slicing people’s heads off with their swords.

In this live-action movie, the heads snapped neatly off necks and rolled down the hills. I was extremely disgusted, but the best thing about the movie was that it gave me a reason to complain to my parents.

“Can you believe the teacher showed us this movie?” I said. “It was so gross!”

Looking back on that experience, I definitely think the teacher overestimated our maturity – we were pre-teens and obviously couldn’t handle the representation of violence. But I realize that the teacher’s goal was not to offend or disturb us – the goal was to show us just how gruesome that war really was.

Growing up, I was extremely sheltered. I never did drugs or drank. I attended an all-girls Catholic high school, where we got detention for wearing the wrong kind of socks. My experience is completely opposite what the narrator in The Meat and Spirit Plan endures. Yet, The Meat and Spirit Plan is one of my favorite contemporary novels, and it has greatly influenced my own writing. How could that be?

The best books capture universal emotion: suffering, pain, joy, fear, or anger. These things are often uncomfortable to read. Have you ever felt uncomfortable in the presence of someone of the opposite sex? Has anyone made an inappropriate advance toward you? Have you ever felt intense affection for a friend? Have you ever liked someone so much you would do anything to impress them? Have you ever just wanted so badly to fit in that you made an unfortunate decision?

A few of my students noticed that the narrator is like a female version of Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye. In many ways, The Meat and Spirit Plan is a coming-of-age story, just like Catcher. But what makes it different is the underrepresented female perspective. How many coming-of-age tales have female narrators? When I think coming-of-age, I think This Side of Paradise (Amory Blaine), The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Stephen Dedalus), and Catcher (Holden Caulfield) – all male protagonists.

Does anyone bat an eyelash when Holden invites a prostitute to his hotel room? Does anyone criticize Stephen for his loveless affairs? Or when Amory tries to pressure a girl into having sex with him?

This past Sunday, “60 Minutes” ran a story about the Haiti’s most recent cholera outbreak. The reporter mentioned rape and sexual violence, in passing (“With people living on top of each other, the camp has become a breeding ground for domestic violence, gangs and rapes.”).

I’m sure, if any of those Haitian women had the chance to share on a more personal level, their stories would be more violent and heartbreaking than anything Saterstrom has described. Would you dismiss their stories as pornographic? As something written for the “shock value”?

If you don’t want to watch the news, then you can watch The Simpsons or Jersey Shore. You are free to make that choice. If you don’t want to read serious literature, then you can read throw-away fiction in your spare time. You are free to make that choice.

But the goal of a college education is to make a student see that there’s a big world beyond the college campus. If you graduate from college without any natural curiosity about your fellow human beings, then your education has failed you.

When I think back to how much of a fuss I made about that violent Cossack movie, I’m actually embarrassed – those people died because they believed in freedom, in something greater than themselves. They were fighting valiantly. But I could only see the heads rolling down the hill.

(Photo by kevinspencer)


  1. I think this is most telling about how our society judges women. Your students have been trained to become the Puritan village that Hester Prynne lives in, the ones who brand her with the Scarlet Letter. I have not read The Meat and Spirit Plan, and probably won’t- I know people who’ve lived it- but they way they casually dismiss the tragedy of her ignorant life as something she deserves shows a disturbing lack of empathy, and an inability to imagine people not being raising with all the comforts of a sheltered, suburban life. Let them eat cake, indeed.

    Your anecdote about the Cossacks is valid; you said that you and your fellow students probably only felt outrage because you really didn’t want to be in that class, and that is something kids have done for ages. But you’re teaching adults, aren’t you? I wonder if you really are, because they’re behaving like you did as a pre-teen. They’re more angry that you made them read something outside their comfort zone than anything else.

    The problem is that we’re taught that school is no longer about learning. It’s about the diploma. The piece of paper. “Can’t I sit here and do my time, and get my magic paper?” Why do I have to read about Latin Americans? What can a dead Russian named Gogol have to say that matters to ME? It’s terribly depressing. I give you immense credit for teaching. I originally studied to be an English professor. I now work in I.T., because even in college, my fellow students disgusted me. They were there for the ride, the paper that said Rutgers graduate. I wish you the best of luck. Like the ocean, pound the beach of their impenetrable skulls until you wear them down and make an open mind!

  2. This is one of the reasons I’ve turned away from genres. I love this type of raw and unflinchingly honest writing, of real characters who don’t fit the usual predictable boxes. It makes the character so much larger than the plot, and that is my favorite kind of story. If I can’t imagine what it’s like to be that character, I definitely want to imagine it by challenging myself to read it than turn away. I spent most of my life in southern Missouri, and I’ve noticed this trend out here, that people assume everyone else lives the same way. You don’t have to leave this country to realize that this is false … there are so many stories in the Midwest and the South of poverty, domestic violence (especially against women), struggle, and mere brutal survival that seems to be so distant from so many minds out here.

    You know, this blog reminds me of one of my advanced Lit classes at GMU a couple years ago. For many young readers, I see a growing disinterest with classics like Oliver Twist, mostly because it is difficult to get past the “flowery language,” much like how your students are having trouble with the harsh language and adult scenarios of this book. It’s almost like a resistance to fully immerse into a story, because it could hit too close to your own moral principles or understanding of the chaotic world around you. Perhaps the hard part is not wanting to believe that as human beings, we are all similar; that it could be harsh to imagine ourselves in a situation we read about. But as I say, change is always GOOD =)

  3. Samuel Duval Samuel Duval

    By far, your best piece yet! Nothing to add here, nothing needed really. I’ve only read about thirty of your blog posts and your personal growth as a writer, a thinker, and now, a professor is apparent. Freaking bravo!

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