A case of libri interruptus

Robert Cox reports on a curious outbreak of missing pages from a New Rochelle High School library.  The same pages disappeared from every copy of the book Girl, Interrupted, which explores author Susan Kaysen’s experiences in the 1960s as a young woman self-committed to a mental health hospital.  Vandalism?  Only of an official kind:

Students at New Rochelle School High School are going to find it difficult to complete their next assignment: comparing the film adaptation of “Girl, Interrupted” to the best-selling book. In the book, Kaysen recounts her confinement at a Massachussets mental hospital in the 1960’s.

Pages from the middle of the book have been torn out by the school district after having been deemed “inappropriate” by school officials due to sexual content and strong language. Removed is a scene where the rebellious Lisa (played by Angela Jolie in the movie) encourages Susanna (played by Winona Ryder) to circumvent hospital rules against sexual intercourse by engaging in oral sex instead.

“The material was of a sexual nature that we deemed inappropriate for teachers to present to their students,” said English Department Chariperson Leslie Altschul, “since the book has other redeeming features, we took the liberty of bowdlerizing.”

At issue are pages 64-70 of the book, a chapter called “Checkmate”.  It deals with a dialog between the girls in the facility about having sex with visitors and avoiding getting caught by the nurses during their five-minute room checks.  The language is frank and realistic, and anyone with an Internet connection can read the first three pages of the section by using Amazon’s search function.  New Rochelle High School apparently didn’t realize this or the curiosity their crude censorship would create, nor did they consider the strange message their actions would send to the students.

We had a similar issue when my son attended high school.  We often read the books assigned to him first to help him through his homework, and one book was Walking the Rez Road by Jim Northrup.  While I thought the book was an excellent recounting of Northrup’s life on and off the reservation in Minnesota — and I’d recommend it to anyone — I thought that some of the language in the book was inappropriate for high school.   I called the principal to tell him this, and he eventually found out that only part of the book had been assigned, and not the objectionable passages, which I found satisfactory.

I would not have demanded that the book be removed from the shelves, nor would never have approved of tearing out the pages of it.  I only questioned the wisdom of making it required reading while sanctioning students who used the same language in class.

If New Rochelle High and the school board found this book inappropriate for its students, they could simply have found another book to use in its lesson plan.  Requiring students to read the book, and then ripping pages out of it, doesn’t just justify vandalism but also sends a message of incompetence and confusion.  They had to have students return the books to get the pages torn out personally by the chair of the English department only after parents complained.

Did the school actually read the book before putting it on the lesson plan?  If so, why didn’t they defend it from the complaints?  And if they weren’t interested in doing that, why did they not just pull the book out of their library altogether?  The same language persists throughout the book, and not just on the excised pages, as a search of the F-word returns more than 70 hits in the Amazon search.

New Rochelle High went too far in this case.  Bowdlerizing books is a practice that went out of fashion decades ago, and for good reasons.  It’s a poor substitute for proper consideration and preparation of reading and teaching material.