Essays Fiction Issue

“The Love Between the Two Women is Not Normal”

Are good books bad for you?

“This is a very good group of kids,” my escort assured me. “Only one of them refused to read the book on the grounds that it was morally offensive.”

I wondered if, as a student, I could have opted out of French or math on similar grounds.

The honors students were easy. Perhaps that was because their numbers were small, or because the room was open and bright, or because they were served cookies, or because they were simply smarter than the other kids. I didn’t know. They asked straightforward questions about the difference between writing fiction and nonfiction, the reliability of memory, how I felt about the protests. They lingered at the door to shake my hand and have me sign their books.

Maybe my visit wasn’t going to be so bad. That’s what I believed. The voice of an unpleasant minority had taken center stage. After all, who ever took out a full-page ad to say how thrilled they were about a freshman summer-reading program?

Next we were off to a luncheon at the president’s house. The faculty and trustees who were in attendance, as well as the president himself, were in full support of my visit. They had spent the last six weeks on the front line of criticism serving as my tireless defenders. At the long dining-room table, everyone seemed more than pleased that I was there to fight the good fight for higher education.

“If any problem develops during your speech,” the president told me, “just step away from the podium. Someone will be there to take you off the stage.”

“A problem?” I asked.

Over a salad of sliced chicken and fat berries, I was assured that problems were unlikely. Parents and protesters would be watching my speech as it was broadcast to them in an auditorium across campus. Only students would be allowed in the coliseum. And if a problem arose, I’d have a bodyguard.

I was to address the incoming freshman class of nearly 3,000 in the Littlejohn Coliseum. When I arrived, the place had the bristling energy of a rock concert waiting to happen. Littlejohn had been cut in half by a series of high black drapes so that the students would fill every seat, shoulder to shoulder, all the way to the nosebleed section, four stories up. In the middle of the basketball court, near the toe pads of the giant orange tiger’s paw print that marked the floor, was a boxlike stage, a temporary affair decked out with a few potted palms and a podium with a microphone. Behind it was a projection screen that would have been a reasonable size in any suburban cineplex. The screen would show a giant movie of my face that could be clearly seen by both the children in the rafters and the angry mob on the other side of campus.

After the president had made his remarks about all the wonderful things the next four years of a Clemson education would bring, I walked through the pitch-black darkness, climbed the stairs, and stepped into the klieg lights. I received a very healthy round of applause. After all, only seven of the nearly 3,000 students present had bothered to show up at the protest. I never thought that Mr. Wingate and his people spoke for Clemson. I only believed they spoke loudly enough to drown out all the voices around them.

I put a ridiculous amount of effort into that speech. I made an impassioned plea for the right to read, for the importance of going to the primary source to form one’s opinion and not relying on secondary sources to make the decision for you. These students were, for the most part, old enough to vote and go to war. They had seen cable television, visited MySpace, listened to rap music. To say that a book could be so potentially corrupting was to say we had no faith in their ability to make decisions for themselves.

“The people who oppose the assignment of Truth & Beauty, and oppose my presence here on campus today, do not do so for themselves,” I called out into the blinding light. “After all, nobody’s making them read my book. They are opposing on your behalf. They want to protect you from me. And since you’re just starting out as freshmen, let’s take a minute to think of all the other things you’re going to need to be protected from. Now, I used all possible restraint in making this list, because the fact is I could go on for the whole four years that you have to spend in college. You don’t want to pay good money to read about immoral behavior, friends, so Anna Karenina is out. It’s about adultery, a married woman’s affair with another man, and there’s a suicide. It’s scandalous, but you know, it’s also really long. Now, The Great Gatsby is going to have to go because it has more adultery and more scandal, in addition to alcoholism and murder, so that definitely has to go. It might be harder to let go of that one though, because it’s short and you may have already read it in high school. In One Hundred Years of Solitude you’ve got incest, which is a shame, because it is a spectacular novel. My personal uncontested pick for the best novel of the 20th century is Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, and I want to tell you, if I start talking about Lolita I feel certain the National Guard will come and remove me from this stage. Faulkner is gone. Hemingway is gone. Toni Morrison, John Updike, and Philip Roth, our three greatest living American authors, are strictly off-limits to you. Their books contain so much sex and filthy language it’s amazing I have mentioned their names on this stage.

“Or maybe those books aren’t the problem. Those are all fiction. Maybe what’s upsetting about my book is that it’s true, it really happened. So let’s make a pact today not to read any nonfiction that could be upsetting. If stories about girls who are disfigured by cancer, humiliated by strangers, and turn to sex and drugs to escape from their enormous pain are too disgusting, too pornographic, then I have to tell you, friends, the Holocaust is off-limits. The Russian Revolution, the killing fields of Cambodia, the war in Vietnam, the Crusades, all represent such staggering acts of human depravity and perversion that I could see the virtue of never looking at them at all.”

I went on, a marvel of civility and common sense, while behind me the giant projection of my head kept pace. There in that blackened arena I raised a mighty cry for the right to read, and implored the students to never let anyone take their books away from them.

At the basketball court, we were experiencing technical difficulties. The question-and-answer portion of the event was falling apart. The microphones weren’t initially working, and soon students were shouting out questions in the dark: Was there anything I regretted about my friendship with Miss Grealy? Did I feel differently about other friends because they’d never measure up to Lucy? Some of the questions had a nasty edge: Lots of people have friends and lots of people have cancer, so why should we care about what you have to say? Some of the questions were sweetly goofy: Did I have any advice for finding true love? One kid found a microphone that was working. He wanted to know how long I’d known my husband.

“Twelve years,” I told him.

“Well, after reading your book and hearing you talk, I just wanted to ask you, how many times have you cheated on him?”

I raised my hands up against the blinding lights. I had no idea where the voice was coming from. What 18-year-old asks this kind of question when the lights are up, when you can see him and know his name? I asked what made him think I would cheat on my husband.

“Well, you seem to be OK with all that after writing your book.”

I gave some decent enough answer about compassion and not judging other people, the kind of answer you rescript a thousand times later in your head, but I didn’t actually understand what he was talking about, not while I was leaving the stage, not during the ridiculous press conference that followed. I didn’t understand him when my bodyguard put my sister and me in a van that had been driven up under the coliseum to speed us to the other side of campus and to my car so that we could get away before anyone figured out where we had gone. The rain, which had started at some point during my talk, was coming down in blinding sheets now, rendering the campus a muddy pit as we made our mad dash for the car. In three steps we were soaked through. We drove away as fast as the weather would allow, and still I didn’t understand him. Not until the middle of the night, when I was back safely in my sister’s guest bed, did I realize that he wasn’t saying I was immoral for not judging Lucy, he was saying I was immoral for the things I had done myself.

Clemson was kind to provide me with all the documents I needed. They not only sent me copies of all the newspaper articles but they also sent me letters that had been written to the president, cries of outrage and revulsion at the thought of my work and my person:

■ If Clemson continues to offer pornographic material such as Patchett’s book, my daughter, and my money, will go elsewhere … I cannot fathom what led Clemson to build a class around this drivel.
■ For reasons I know you are aware of, it was an inappropriate selection. I’ve not read the book, nor do I intend to.
■ I guess I have grown accustomed to hearing about cases like this at liberal havens like Harvard, or even Chapel Hill, but I am shocked that Clemson has now stooped to this. No matter what the supposed motive behind this assignment, it is nothing more than another attempt by liberal academicians, given over to depraved minds, to force a deviant sexual agenda on young students.
■ In 2002, right after 9/11, the University of North Carolina assigned a book composed of selections (or suras) from the Koran for its incoming freshmen to read. UNC followed several years later with a socialist tome (Nickel and Dimed, by Barbara Ehrenreich). Now Clemson is getting into the act. But instead of religion or politics, Clemson has chosen sex.

It was this last letter that made me realize the extent to which I had never understood the rules of engagement: If Nickel and Dimed was a socialist tome (albeit a slim one) then Truth & Beauty was pornography. Like beauty itself, pornography turned out to be in the eye of the beholder.

The letter I kept was one written in pencil on a sheet of notebook paper. A student had slipped it to my bodyguard, who had given it to me. “Dear Mrs. Patchett, On behalf of the entire state of South Carolina, I am sorry for what happened.”

In my better moments, I tell myself what happened was a noble battle between freedom and oppression, but I know it is equally possible that nothing so lofty occurred. Some people find sex and suffering and deep friendship between women an unpalatable subject matter, and seeing this book bearing down on their children, they no doubt felt they had to try to stop it. They didn’t succeed, but I seriously doubt that anyone was harmed by completing the assignment. If I am the worst thing the students of Clemson have to fear, then their lives will be very beautiful indeed.

Ann Patchett was the editor of The Best American Short Stories 2006. Her new novel, Run, will be published by HarperCollins in September.
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