Go Ahead and Ban My Book

To those who seek to stop young people from reading The Handmaid’s Tale: Good luck with that. It’ll only make them want to read it more.

An illustration featuring library bookshelves seen through an x-mark against a red-cape background.
Tyler Comrie / The Atlantic

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It’s shunning time in Madison County, Virginia, where the school board recently banished my novel The Handmaid’s Tale from the shelves of the high-school library. I have been rendered “unacceptable.” Governor Glenn Youngkin enabled such censorship last year when he signed legislation allowing parents to veto teaching materials they perceive as sexually explicit.

This episode is perplexing to me, in part because my book is much less sexually explicit than the Bible, and I doubt the school board has ordered the expulsion of that. Possibly, the real motive lies elsewhere. The conservative Christian group Focus on the Family generated the list of “unacceptable” books that reportedly inspired the school board’s action, and at least one member of the public felt the school board was trying to “limit what kids can read” based on religious views. Could it be that the board acted under the mistaken belief that The Handmaid’s Tale is anti-Christian?

The truth is that the inspiration for The Handmaid’s Tale is in part biblical: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matthew 7:15). The novel sets an inward faith and core Christian values—which I take to be embodied in the love of neighbor and the forgiveness of sins—against totalitarian control and power-hoarding cloaked in a supposed religiousness that is mostly based on the earlier scriptures in the Bible. The stealing of women for reproductive purposes and the appropriation of their babies appears in Genesis 30, when Rachel and Leah turn their “handmaids” over to Jacob and then claim the children as their own. My novel is also an exploration of the theoretical question “What kind of a totalitarianism might the United States become?” I suggest we’re beginning to see the real-life answer to that query.

Wittingly or otherwise, the Madison County school board has now become part of the centuries-old wrangling over who shall have control of religious texts and authority over what they mean. In its early-modern form, this power struggle goes back to the mid-15th-century appearance of the Gutenberg printing press, which allowed a wider dissemination of printed materials, including Bibles.

The Church had good reason for wanting to limit Bible-reading (in Latin) to the clergy. Limbo and purgatory weren’t in it, nor was the catalog of saints or the notion of marriage as a sacrament, among other key teachings. But John Wycliffe, William Tyndale, and their continental counterparts translated the Bible into vernacular languages and enabled cheap copies of it to be printed. As people learned to read in ever larger numbers, they read the Bible, and the result was a proliferation of different interpretations. Baptists, Lutherans, Calvinists, Presbyterians, Mennonites, and Methodists are all the descendants of this biblical big bang. Approximately three centuries of bitter and destructive religious wars followed, as well as massacres, excommunications, widespread heresy trials, witchcraft panics, and burnings at the stake, with the usual nasty human-warfare raping, looting, and pillaging stuff thrown in.

That’s one reason the authors of the United States Constitution framed the First Amendment as they did. It stipulates that Congress shall not make any law that establishes a state religion or prohibits the free exercise of an individual’s own faith. Who wanted the homicidal uproar that had gone on in Europe for so long?

That uproar resulted from the collision between an old establishment and a new communication technology. All such collisions are disruptive, especially at first, when the new technology bears an aura of magic and revelation. Would Adolf Hitler have had the same impact without radio? As for film, it was such a powerful and potentially bad influence on the masses that it inspired Hollywood’s Hays Code. This list of prohibitions was very long, and included depictions of mixed-race marriages and scenes in which a man and a woman were shown in bed together, even if married. (This last produced a boom in twin-bed sales, because viewers got the idea that this was the norm in a marriage.)

The effort to control lurid comic books came next. Donald Duck was one thing; crime and horror were quite another. The latter included much material that was banned under the Hays Code, and teens of my generation read them avidly. On-screen, Singin’ in the Rain; under the bed, Tales From the Crypt. Series such as Crime Does Not Pay were said to encourage juvenile delinquency, not to mention racism. Some of these comics were certainly traumatizing: Will I ever recover from the slimy, toothy monster rising out of the eerie lagoon? Probably not.

Then along came television. Marshall McLuhan, pioneer of media studies, said that John F. Kennedy won his debates against Richard Nixon thanks to TV: Nixon’s 5 o’clock shadow didn’t transmit well. Then there was Elvis the Pelvis and his Ed Sullivan Show appearance, which encouraged widespread rock and rolling. I was 16 at the time, and therefore right in the middle of that particular frenzy. Later, the televising of anti-Vietnam protest rallies and riots sparked more of them, giving us the ’60s. And today, it’s the internet and social-media platforms—so disruptive!

Add streaming services, which permit written works too long and complex to be squashed easily into a 90-minute film to appear as ongoing series. One of these is The Handmaid’s Tale. So, yes, today’s self-appointed moral gatekeepers can exclude my novel from school libraries, thus making it impossible for students who can’t afford to buy it to read it for free—but as for shutting down the story completely, I’m afraid that horse has left the barn. Has anyone told Madison County about BookTok? That’s the part of TikTok where young people recommend books to one another. Added together, hashtags of my name and The Handmaid’s Tale have about 400 million BookTok mentions. Sorry about that.

I did intend my book for adult readers, who would recognize totalitarianism when they saw it. But it’s very hard to control what young people get their hands on, especially if they’re told something is too old for them, or too evil, or too immoral. What was I doing reading Peyton Place on top of the garage roof when I was 16? Incest! Rape! Varicose veins! The incest and the rape weren’t news to me—they were in the Bible—but varicose veins? The Bible says nothing about them, so that was a shocker.

Here, I would point out that attempts to control media content are as likely to come from the so-called left as from the so-called right, each side claiming to act in the name of the public good. Stalin’s U.S.S.R. and Mao’s China went in for a mind-boggling level of censorship, but it was all for “the people,” and who could be against that? Or against the protection of the innocent? Sometimes, these things get started out of a genuine need and concern, but a takeover by some bureaucratic version of the Inquisition is very likely to follow. Most of us are more easily manipulated by our desire to do good, or to be seen to do good, than by the temptation to do evil, at least in public view. Hence “virtue signaling.”

Freedom of expression is a hot potato—freedom for whom and for what, and who decides? The last English writer before the late 20th century to have totally free rein was Geoffrey Chaucer. Few then could read, and books were hand-lettered and very expensive, so Chaucer could diss the clergy, use four-letter words and religious swearing, and describe salacious and ribald incidents, because his work would have no effect on the body politic. However, by the time of Shakespeare’s theater—an early mass-entertainment medium—a state censor had been installed. That’s why Shakespeare’s characters have to be so inventive with their cursing, and why so many plays are set in the past, and in distant locations such as Venice. This trend continued: The licensing of plays and books in the name of public morality explains much about the 19th-century novel. Sex by implication, but not on the page. Officially, no obscenity, no sedition, no blasphemy. Nothing that would bring a blush to the cheek of an innocent maiden (though there was a great deal of illicit porn).

Which brings us back to Christianity and the supposed bias against it in The Handmaid’s Tale. Christianity is now so broad a term that it means little. Are we talking about Greek Orthodoxy? Antinomianism? Mormonism? Liberation theology? The Salvation Army, dedicated to helping the helpless? Sojourners, a social-fairness movement? A Rocha, an eco-organization that is firmly Christian? (I happen to be a fan of these last two.) Incidentally, Jesus is not particularly pro-family. “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:26). That’s a difficulty for any pro-family Christian group, you must admit. (Should these words of Jesus be censored? Just wondering.)

Should parents have a say in what their kids are taught in public schools? Certainly: a democratic vote on the matter. Should young people—high-school juniors and seniors, for starters—also have a say? Why not? In many states, if they’re over 16, they can be married (with parental approval); if of reproductive age, which might be 10, they can give birth, and may be forced to. So why should they, too, not be allowed an opinion?

The outward view of the Madison County school board is that people ages 16 to 18 are too young to explore such questions. I don’t know what its inner motives may be. Possibly, it has a public-spirited aim. It may have noted the falling birth rate and the surveys showing that young people are losing interest in sex. No sex equals no babies, unless everyone resorts to test tubes. Has sex become too readily available? Banal, even? A boring chore? If so, what better way to make it fascinating again than to prohibit all mention of it? Don’t read about sex! Don’t think about sex! See no sex, hear no sex, speak no sex! Suddenly, the kids want to explore! “Stolen water is sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant” (Proverbs 9:17). If that’s the school board’s game, well played! Virginia may even get more babies out of it.

How dare I question the school board’s motives? I do dare. After all, it has questioned mine.