Monday, May 12, 2014

The Rewards of Unmonitored Reading

My favorite scene in Lord of the Rings is probably Gandalf confronting the Balrog. More specificially, it is the scene on the bridge. One old, lone man standing on a narrow bridge against a monster two or three times his size. Something he knows he cannot fight, something that he knows will kill him. And to protect his friends--and the whole world--he doesn't run. Each time I watch that movie I become transfixed by the climactic line, You shall not pass. There is an idea there, something that runs much, much deeper than just an old wizard fighting an imaginary demon. It's an idea that gets repeated throughout the entire trilogy. It appears in the form of Helm's Deep, the final retreat of Rohan. It is spoken by Aragorn at the gates to Mordor: This far, no further. It's the idea that, at a certain point, the last stand stops being an option and becomes a necessity. And it's something that is needful to the soul of every human being. For our own protection and well being, we all need something that, when threatened, causes us to rise up in response and fight.

Mine are books.

I've been relatively open about this on the blog, but I'm also pretty sure I've snagged a few new readers since February, so I'm going to head this with a quick bit of backstory. I have a very long, very nasty history with depression and self-injury. This winter (2013/14) it got unmanageable, and I decided to seek help. I am on medication, and I have a WONDERFUL councilor who has managed to help me figure out a few things.

At the same time, my friend Tiger Gray (Hi Tiger!) pointed me to a blog called No Longer Quivering, where the stories of former homeschooled students were posted. I became interested. Not, of course, because there was anything wrong with how I was raised. Oh goodness no. I was one of the lucky homeschooled kiddos. No, I became interested because one of the posts was a story about a family I've been calling the "Matthews." I worked for them nearly ten years ago, and was rather stunned to see that 1. They were still around and famous and 2. had become, if this is possible, even more repressive and IMHO wrong-headed in the years since I'd been their employee.

But the thing about reading is, our brains are smarter than we are. MUCH smarter. And little bits and pieces of whatever we are reading tends to get into the cracks, no matter how carefully we try to keep it out. We are driven, in a way, by a web of subconscious, even unconscious, instincts, thoughts and feelings that our minds do not even allow us to know. Many of these things are things that, if we dared to be aware of them, would change our entire lives. For most of us, I have to assume that internal web is mostly benign. For me, it was toxic, restrictive, and confining. My life has been ruled, not by what I think, but by what I am not allowed to think.

Probably the biggest problem with Conservative Christian homeschool programs is that the programs are built around what they aren't teaching. It starts, not with a basis of inclusion but with one of exclusion. The fabric of the modern curriculum is taken, examined, and the disagreeable portions are amputated wholesale. Evolution. Sex education. Chunks of science, history, the arts. This is done in the belief that by restricting the information given to a child to the "wholesome", you are somehow limiting the damage life will do to said child. The problem, however, is that by basing teaching on the exclusion of ideas, rather than the inclusion, you are teaching the child that there are things they must not think about, things they must not have in their heads. They must not consider the idea of evolution before accepting or dismissing it, but rather must ignore it from the start and reject it wholesale (For the record, I am not a seven-day creation believer. Evolution is too elegant a mechanism, IMHO, for it to be either false or anti-God). Sexuality must be rejected, art that fits certain criteria must be removed. And the underlying message--the thing we weave into the children's mental web--is that our thoughts are something dangerous, something that has to be kept manicured and pruned, and anything distasteful must be hidden, ignored and unacknowledged. The first thing we do when we base teaching in the exclusion of ideas is educate children in the art of being afraid of their own minds.

This was something I did learn, but only halfway. Evolution was vilified, sex was shamed, everything educational must be kept as straight and narrow as possible...but my parents never bothered to monitor my recreational reading. They would sometimes question me to make sure that I knew such-and-such was false--reguardless of actual truth, I must always agree with EVERYTHING they thought--and then allow me to continue reading whatever and whenever I wanted to. It must have seemed like a gift to my mom, who didn't have to stress so much about my education. She was just glad I was reading. And if you wish to teach a child that ideas and learning are something to be afraid of, this is the worst possible thing you can do.

I still grew up ashamed of my reading choices--surely it was against God for me to prefer Lewis, Tolkien, Brooks, Donaldson, et al to the Bible--but this did not matter enough to me to give it up. I couldn't give it up if I wanted to. Every time I tried--praying on my knees for God to take this longing away from me--I was met with silence and a big fat failure. (This lasted until I was sixteen, at which point I think God got sick of it and came in with the clue-by-four to inform me that it was fine, he had made me that way, so would I PLEASE stop trying to amputate parts of my psyche?) And so I'd spend eight hours a day learning bible verses by rote, and studying facts that "disproved" the theory of evolution, and then spend the rest of my time reading McCaffrey, Weber, Verne and Wells. Madeline L'Engle was a very special favorite, though eight-year-old me did not understand that the ant diagrams explaining "wrinkling" were actually concepts and ideas most adults had trouble understanding. (I do think that if I hadn't read A Wrinkle in Time I would not have understood very much of The Time Machine when I finally got my hands on a copy, but fortunately those books were read in that precisely that order)

Naturally, I tried to separate these books from anything resembling actual thought. Not because I disagreed with these ideas, but because I knew if I dared to think, say, that evolution might possibly be a working concept, my parents would be highly displeased. Displeasure meant a withdrawl of love in my mind. My entire purpose was, after all, to support and please my parents. There was also a long-running theme of loss in my young life that I'm only just beginning to understand. Displeasing my parents meant that I would lose more things. I didn't want to lose my books. Books and ideas, and my vibrant internal life, were things no one could take away from me, if I were very careful about shepharding what I did and did not do. What I could permit to be conscious, so to speak, and what had to stay safely tucked away in the very bottom of my mind, had to be very, very carefully regulated. Otherwise I would lose the last defensive wall between myself and the world. I had to protect them. I really couldn't afford to lose anything else.

The thing of it is, books and stories soon became my castle, my very special form of Helm's Deep. The defenses for other parts of my life--my appearance, sexuality, behavior, speech patterns, creativity, spirituality--were minimal. These things could be breeched and broken at will by anyone. But my books had walls around them, had armies guarding them. Spikes and boiling pitch, and archers at every murder hole just waiting for someone to dare, dare try to take one of these books away. It was the one thing in my world that I had been allowed to grow unmolested, that I did not have to answer to. No one got to touch these.

I personally believe that this was a God thing. A big God thing. I started out protecting my books, but very quickly my books became the thing that protected me. If, for example, I had developed knitting or sexuality as my "YOU SHALL NOT PASS" bridge, I probably would have been vulnerable for a lot of nastiness. But the thing about abusive systems is, information is the very first thing they go for. It isn't by choice. One unregulated idea can shatter their whole system. It's like a beam of light in a darkroom: it destroys the picture they are trying to build. If they want to have any hope of controlling a person, they have to regulate the reading habits. And fiction is the biggest Trojan horse, the thing that must, under every circumstance, be fully inspected to ensure there aren't any Greeks hiding in the wings. The introduction of that unwelcome truth to the inner thought-web will set fire to the whole thing. And as I said, the one limit I had, the sole, unshakable boundary, was that NOBODY got to touch my books. If you even dared to try to limit my reading, or suggest that I remove one book from my bookcase, it meant that you were not to be trusted and that I needed to limit my contact with you.

When I worked for the "Matthews", I looked up to them. They were, I thought, everything I'd ever been told I had to be. Perfect, pure, spiritual, responsible, virtuous. I needed to listen to them, accept and internalize their instructions, conform to their model of good, because it looked very good. Much better than my life at the time. But the "Matthews" were not, and are not, good people. They and their teachings are unbelievably toxic. I've heard of very few systems as controlling, ugly, and destructive as the items they've pushed over the years. But at the time, this was not something I would have understood. All I saw was a beautiful family that was together and whole when my own family was not. By all rights, I should have swallowed every part of their world, internalized the whole toxic thing. I came very, very close to doing so.

And then I brought a Stephen King novel into their back room. Needful Things, I think. A story about the Devil dressing junk up to be beautiful, and using that junk to buy people's souls. Not a bad metaphore, I think, for the Matthews and their teachings. But Mrs. Matthews told me with an absolutely straight face that King was influienced by demons, and that I would likely commit suicide from reading him.

It took all my strength not to flat out laugh in her face. I knew this was bullshit. King had introduced an idea (that Divine love and perceived Divine cruelty can sometimes exist side by side, and that just because we're going through awful shit doesn't mean that God is angry with us, or that He has abandoned us) that I absolutely needed to have. My parents divorced shortly after I had processed that idea, and things went from tolerably bad to extremely fucking bad. I probably would have walked away from faith entirely, or else assumed that God hated me, given the events around my parents' divorce. Instead, I had something to hold onto: Yes, God is sometimes cruel, and sometimes he makes us walk through the Valley of Death without our understanding why, but that doesn't mean that you are alone, and that doesn't mean that you are unloved. Your circumstances have nothing to do with how much God loves you.

Looking back, I see how dangerous that idea would have been to the "Matthews" version of theology. One of the underlying ideas is that success means you are Godly, and failure means you have displeased God and are being punished. But even then, I might have still listened to her. I needed, desperately, to have something to explain why our lives had gone so badly wrong. And Mrs. Matthews was, well, Mrs. Matthews, and I was a very fucked up eighteen year old girl. But she had made an assault on my books, and that was unacceptable. Immediate rejection.

Fast forward a few months, and I'd brought another book to work. This time I was told if I brought another book like that to work with me, I'd be fired.

I left their employ not too long after. I would like to say it was because I'd realized their bullshit, but it was because my homelife had gotten unlivable. I was very sad to leave them behind, because I thought that place was a positive place. It was certainly a refuge I was, both then and now, glad to have had. But I was also much, much more careful around Mrs. Matthews than I would have been otherwise. She had made an assault on my books, after all, and might make another. Therefore every message from that quarter had to be regarded as suspect. And so where I'd begun internalizing a lot of VERY unhealthy attitudes and ideas, I now began to examine and reject them. The foundation was the threat to my books...but the benefactor was me as a human being.

Another assault came here recently, about a year ago. I'd developed a friendship with a pair of neighborhood Jehovah's Witnesses. I was very lonely at the time, in a nasty job, and I was just dying to have someone, anyone, give me positive feedback. It was very, very tempting to take the plunge, buy into their theology, and accept the resulting friendship and support my life was so sorely lacking. But they sharply criticized my choices in reading material, in movies, in books, in theology. And the walls went up. Divisions drawn, protections in place, and all input carefully scrutinized for further attacks...and in the process, I figured out a lot of things about the JWs that make me despise most of that organization.

So read, my darlings. Read. Everything. Anything. Good books, trashy books, uplifting books, depressing books, politically correct works and stuff that should be burned because damn. It doesn't matter. These are the bricks in your wall, the lifeline you may need one day. And teach yourself that, whatever else happens, you will stop anyone who tries to take your books away. Our brains are smarter than we are. They are good at sorting the value from the trash. If you have a healthy foundation, you can protect yourself...and if your foundation isn't healthy, books may be the only way you'll ever find that out. But the first thing a potential abuser will reach for will be the books on your nightstand. The best thing we can learn is how to clutch them to our chests and say "No. Not this. This one's mine."


  1. I really needed to read this. Thank you for writing so beautifully and so well about what books and stories can do. Off to go find a book now...

    1. I am glad I gave you what you needed for today. Take care.