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On Disturbing Books

At the book festival the other day, a panelist told a story about someone (I can't recall who but I think he later became a comics artist) who as a child got a hold of some underground comic, maybe an old R. Crumb or something similarly subversive and sexual, and he was so disturbed by the comic that he couldn't think of anything to do but bury ithe was so disturbed by the comic that he couldn't think of anything to do but bury it.

Everyone had a good laugh about it, because everyone knows that feeling of being drawn to a book, to a picture, of being desperate to know just what the hell is going on in it, and then feeling so strange and repulsed and implicated by your involvement in it that you just need to disavow it — bury it, hide it, cover it. I think that as kids, we have these kinds of involvements more with sexual content than violent content, unless it's violent sexual content, but I'm guessing.

Anyway, midway through my own laughter at this story, I shut up and remembered something. My freshman year in high school, word went out that a girl named Tisha had a really crazy book and that we should all totally borrow it. I think I waylaid Tisha immediately after study hall and got my hands on it.

It was just a small paperback, with a cover in sunset colors, and I think a photo of a woman's face partially obscured by a lock of blond hair. Something like that. The summary that follows is from memory and is doused in shame and distance, so don't hold me to it, but I recall the heroine is a newscaster, and she meets a man at some party, and I believe he drugs her and then arranges for most of the party to have sex with her while he watches, or records it, or something. I know, it's not funny; it's appalling, and I recall feeling completely gobsmacked when I read it. So then, as you do when someone has taken the time to arrange such a fate for you, she falls in love with him. Well, first they argue. I mean, there has to be some tension, right? But then I think she is kidnapped and he saves her and along the way the reader is supposed to be pretty okay with the love affair.

This book freaked the living hell out of me.This book freaked the living hell out of me. I wouldn't say that growing up in eighties suburban Ohio had left me particularly advanced in my sexual politics, but I did know it was vomitous that I was supposed to be either turned on by a gang rape and then swept away by the ensuing affair, or maybe worse — but what does "worse" even mean in such a context, anyway? — appalled by the gang rape and still swept away by the affair. (Though as I write this, I'm remembering a few other gems the eighties so thoughtfully gave us: a soap opera in which a woman marries her rapist and the whole world watched in delight, the deeply shlocky, unpleasant and thoroughly mesmerizing to children Flowers in the Attic series, in which men were always being driven by their passions to incest, beatings, and rape. But they had inner demons and penetrating eyes, so it was basically okay.) Anyway, I wasn't thinking in terms of cultural norms when I read this book: I just wanted it away from me, and I wanted to forget that I'd read it — and that anyone knew I had read it. I had the book at school with me, and I distinctly recall the trash can near the girls' room where I threw it out. I was supposed to give it back to Tisha, of course, because there was a waiting list and I think she had stolen it from her older sister, but I remember feeling that I couldn't even stand to engage that much with the book as to hand it back to someone and say what I'd thoughtI couldn't even stand to engage that much with the book as to hand it back to someone and say what I'd thought. I was hoping Tisha would feel the same way and would let it go without mentioning it again. She didn't, of course, because I was the one behaving abnormally, and when she asked me about it, I insisted I had already given it back. She was justifiably skeptical.

It's possible that the book was not the pulp I recall, that maybe it was purposefully subversive and was accomplishing something complex and meta by trying to draw the reader in to this story despite the reader's resistance. And the idea of comics like the one that ended up buried in some boy's yard was not just about titillation for titillation's sake but also about the purposeful uncovering of the creepy, sexy ugliness at the heart of that titillation. But maybe trying to parse the book's meaning and intentions and merits and such is just beside the point. Because, really, I just started by thinking about something I had long forgotten, about a moment when I reacted so strongly to printed words on a page that I just wanted to bury it, hide it, cover it.

÷ ÷ ÷

Michelle Wildgen is the author of the novels But Not for Long and You're Not You and editor of the anthology Food and Booze. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, O, the Oprah Magazine, Best New American Voices, Best Food Writing, and various anthologies and journals. A senior editor at Tin House Magazine, she lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. You're Not You: A Novel New Trade Paper $20.00
  2. Food & Booze: A Tin House Literary Feast Used Trade Paper $7.50
  3. Flowers in the Attic (Dollanger Saga)
    Used Mass Market $4.95

Michelle Wildgen is the author of But Not for Long

One Response to "On Disturbing Books"

    lisa October 15th, 2009 at 1:28 pm

    Michelle: I loved what you wrote about disturbing books. I agree. They make us feel dirty. I can't stand VC Andrews books. Or gruesome exploitation movies like The Saw series.

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