A school in America has committed a cardinal sin of the literary world by tearing out pages of a classic piece of modern literature because it contained sexually explicit material.
Susanna Kaysen’s bestselling memoir Girl, Interrupted, which was made into a major motion picture starring Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie, was judged inappropriate for students by the senior staff at New Rochelle High School, New York.
The story tells of the writer’s time in a psychiatric hospital. The incriminating scene is believed to be one in which a girl is encouraged to engage in oral sex, thus acting against hospital policy regarding sexual intercourse.
The pages were initially removed from the set texts in 2001. A member of staff teaching a 10th grade course in mental health and conformity decided the sexual content was not appropriate for pupils between 15 and 16 years of age.
The term ‘censorship’ was only used this year when the bowdlerised versions were used to teach 12th grade film students. When the amendments to the literature were made public there was widespread criticism from organisations, which promote and protect the freedom of expression and local residents alike.
Chris Finan, president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression said: “This is a very glaring instance of censorship.”
“No kid reading that book is going to not notice that pages have been pulled out,” said Rebecca Zeidel, programme director of the Kids’ Right to Read project, a joint initiative between the ABFFE and the National Coalition Against Censorship. Zeidel is currently working on a formal response to the school on the issue.
Angry residents of New Rochelle have voiced their concerns on a local message board, describing the school’s actions as ‘a blatant attempt to keep US teenagers in the dark, something US schools appear to be notorious for’, and an act, which ‘takes us back to the Dark Ages’.
The local education board said it had not been told about the alteration and it has since instructed the school to replace the vandalised books.
Cindy Babcock Deutsch, president of the board, told guardian.co.uk: “Censorship is wrong and will not be allowed by the school district.”
In a statement Richard Organisciak, superintendent of schools, said the district would carry out a review of policy and practices on book selection following the upset.
“I certainly understand that the word ‘censorship’ can arouse strong public feelings, and is an issue to which public schools must be sensitive.
“At the same time, I think many people will agree that some material should not be endorsed, or made mandatory, in school curricula. I hope we can all recognise the context, namely, how do we expose students to a wide range of ideas, often provocative or disturbing, without exposing them to materials for which they may not be ready, or which their parents may find highly objectionable?”
The more alarming thing about this story is that it is not a unique occurrence.
“While this is a very glaring instance of censorship, we have hundreds of censorship challenges in schools every year,” said Finan.
Zeidel said the majority of censorship cases were on a local level rather than national: “It’s in red states and blue states [Republican and Democrat] – all over the country. To date there have been 45 titles in 15 states challenged this year, not including Girl, Interrupted… In most cases most books are challenged by a parent or student who will complain about a book.”
But she pointed out that a ban or the distribution of altered texts may have the opposite effect. “Booksellers will frequently see a rise in sales when a book is banned because people want to read it – they want to know why it’s banned.”
A sign of Middle American fear or actual concern for child wealth?
Watch the trailer to the Girl, Interrupted film below:
Should this kind of censorship be accepted? Can you think of any instances where this sort of thing is justified? No? Neither do we.
Words: Dean Samways