Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for the Secretary of Education slot, speaks at the Grand Rapids, Michigan stop of his USA Thank You Tour last December. (Photo: Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images)
For years after my release, I couldn’t find the right words to describe what it was like to be a five-year-old war refugee from Latvia forced to spend her formative years in the most stifling city in the United States. I thought it would get easier after Gerald Ford, who grew up there, shared the Republican ticket with Richard Nixon and became President once Nixon resigned. I said, “Everyone’s exactly like him there.” But that didn’t work since people kept confusing him with Chevy Chase. Decades later, I insisted it was not by chance that GOP Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin chose to kick off her book tour there. But that didn’t work either since people couldn’t believe such a person could exist and saw her as a Tina Fey impersonator.
Now I’m giving it another go, emboldened by the fact that a hometown gal—which I’m sure is what they still call women back there—is in a position of power as the Secretary of Education, no less. And because it’s the beginning of Banned Books Week. So help me here and imagine emerging me surrounded by a bevy of Betsys. And a bunch of books. And a family where no one even remotely resembles a Jerry or Betsy. And, while you’re doing that, allow me to backtrack a bit.
In 1928, when DH Lawrence had Lady Chatterley’s Lover privately printed in Italy and Alfred A. Knopf published a censored abridgement in the States, my father was an undergrad studying the likes of philosophy and theology at the University of Latvia.
In 1930, when Lawrence died and US Senator Bronson M Cutting proposed amending the Smoot–Hawley Tariff Act to end US Customs censorship of imported books and Senator Reed Smoot opposed that, threatening to read obscene passages from Lady Chatterley and such on the Senate floor, my father was starting what he believed was the best job in the world, or at least Latvia: reading books by day–at the beach, if he chose–and screening films by night. If he had to ban one now and then, well, that was simply how it went in most civilized countries.
In 1959, when my father was 52 and I was 15 and we lived in Grand Rapids, Grove Press published an unexpurgated edition of Lady Chatterley and the post office promptly confiscated copies. Owner Barney Rosset sued the New York City postmaster and won. And won again on federal appeal. My father then legally bought the book, probably for 50 cents, curious to see if he would still ban it as a more circumspect middle-aged man. I don’t recall his conclusion or whether he even cared to share it with me.
What I do remember is him stashing the controversial novel in a small bookcase, one of several unused pieces of furniture brought over from our previous house and stored in the basement. Soon, Lady Chatterley was joined by John Cleland’s Fanny Hill and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, the remainder of the trio whose ban Rosset’s attorney Charles Rembar had managed to get overturned. Other tantalizing titles subsequently appeared, most notably Justine, or The Misfortunes of Virtue, written by the notorious Marquis de Sade.
Our conservative, Christian-Reformed neighbors, I’m sure, would have been appalled had they known that a seemingly decent man was leaving smut out where a teenaged girl could find it, but—even at the time—his actions seemed reasonable to me. My father had always drawn a clear distinction between what one chooses to read and how one chooses to behave. And left no doubt about the latter.
Still, I approached the basement books hesitantly, not sure whether reading would be right or wrong. On the one hand, their location suggested that they weren’t fit for the coffee table; on the other, the fact that they weren’t under lock and key suggested that this merely meant caveat lector. In the end, the inherent demand characteristics of all books—Open! Read!—prevailed. And I had access to more than a dictionary to explain the titillating terms that I had overheard.
Naturally, I focused on the raunchiest parts first. But—ever the critic—it wasn’t long before I became distracted by elements of context and style. What modern girl wouldn’t roll her eyes while reading something similar to, say, the following from Lady Chatterley’s Lover?
Whilst all her womb was open and soft, and softly clamoring, like a sea-anemone under the tide, clamoring for him to come in again and make a fulfillment for her.
And whilst the tone of Tropic of Cancer was far more modern, what girl who occasionally read Seventeen and Glamour, as well, would want her sex scenes served up with some seriously repulsive stuff?
“You’re cancer and delirium,” she said over the phone the other day. She’s got it now, the cancer and delirium, and soon you’ll have to pick the scabs.
In 1964, I left conservative, Christian-Reformed Gand Rapids for The University of Michigan, which put me smack in the middle of a full-blown socio-political and sexual revolution. There, I read Anaïs Nin’s Delta of Venus and other erotica, but that was immaterial. With the invasion of Vietnam underway and the Roe v. Wade ruling nine years in the future, the obscenities concerning me were those related to war and a woman’s right to control her own body. I wonder whether that wasn’t so with my father, as well. Salacious literature mattered less in light of the wholesale slaughter of civilians and annihilation of nations Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin had undertaken,
Given that reasoning, I could expect that those who would like to restrict what today’s youth reads would also be focused on more pressing matters. After all, we are only one careless tweet away from nuclear war with North Korea. But, as Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has said, the current administration can “walk and chew gum” at the same time. And one never knows what will attract our president’s attention. So it’s not that hard to imagine a man who hardly ever reads suddenly coming out in support of the reinstatement of censorship. With Betsy DeVos standing at his side. After all, one previous education secretary of a similar mindset—Terrel Bell during Ronald Reagan’s administration—tried to ban “controversial” books that had come to be considered classics. Books like The Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies and Slaughterhouse-Five.
So, even though—or perhaps precisely because—I am deeply concerned about the current geopolitical crisis, I must speak out during Banned Books Week. Because I believe that we would be far better off if we had people in positions of power who were well-read men capable of rationally reconsidering previous positions and literate women who had been allowed to grow up thinking for themselves.
Note: Parts of this piece first appeared in “Lady Chatterley, My Father and Me,” posted in 2012 while I was Online Editor at Little Patuxent Review. It also suggests various ways to celebrate Banned Books Week.