Fighting Censorship That Affects Women

This site explores censorship, pornography, book banning, and how they affect womens' rights. "Censorship isn't just an just a trendy topic, or something that pits "decent folk" against "different folk". Censorship isn't limited to silencing political prisoners, or controversial artists. Censorship affects ALL women directly, by affecting the flow information that can better women's lives. Censorship affects women by making topics socially or legally taboo - topics that are intregal to women's lives. Are you old enough to remember when the word "pregnancy" couldn't be said on television? Did you know that at one point in American history, marriage counseling was banned?"

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Feature

Cheers and Boos: IPPY Award-Winning Book Gets a No Vote

with comments from IPPY judges and author Brett Paesel
The same week that I received an email that my anthology, Toddler: Real-Life Stories of Those Fickle, Irrational, Urgent, Tiny People We Love (Seal Press, 2003) won the Independent Publisher Book Award 2004 for best book in the Parenting category, I also got an irate phone call. It was dinner time. Etani, my seven-month-old, was chattering away on my back in a carrier while my four-year-old Hesperus and my three-year-old Athena were busy asking the kinds of questions that children ask at 5:30 pm after a long day. “Mommy, where’s my juice!” “How is tofu made? What about apple trees?” “I didn’t want carrots on my plate! I wanted them in a c-u-p.” My husband James wasn’t home yet, which is why I answered the phone. It only took a sentence or two for me to realize that the person on the other end was both a complete stranger and decidedly not a telemarketer.

As she spoke, the baby’s vocalizing became louder, my children whinier, and our dinner overcooked. I can’t remember exactly what she said (I couldn’t hear a lot of it) but it was something like, “I was so happy to get your book as a present from a friend and then I was appalled at one of the stories in it. I am a Christian woman with two toddlers and I couldn’t believe that there was that story that mentioned anal sex in a book like this. The mother is actually fantasizing about committing adultery. That story is disgusting. I threw it right in the trash can, and sent a letter to Dr. Laura, but I decided to call you and tell you that this is an abomination. It should be banned.”

The angry woman was taking issue with a six-page story in Toddler called “Slow to Warm” by Los Angeles based writer Brett Paesel. In the story the mother of a two-year-old son fantasizes about having sexual relationships -— including anal intercourse -— with other men while her mommy friends discuss how to get their children to eat vegetables. She writes of her feelings of alienation around other parents (“talking to the other mommies made me want to bite them”), her profound connection to and love for her son, and her feelings of insecurity for not being able to devil eggs and for forgetting to bring something for Show and Tell to Spencer’s preschool circle time. In one of the most provocative sentences in the story, Paesel writes: “A mommy looks at me and says, ‘What about you? How do you get Spence to eat his vegetables?’ What I want to say is, ‘I don’t know about you ladies, but what I could go for is a big, hairy c--k’”).

Paesel’s story is both hilarious and poignant. She manages to be truthful about the vicissitudes of new motherhood and honest about her own fears. When I first read it, I was struck by how gritty, well-written, and heterodox the story was, and about how it deconstructed many of the common myths about motherhood. After all, why can’t mothers fantasize about sex? What new mother hasn’t found herself bored at some point? And who always has all of the answers all the time, or even -— in the sleep deprivation that comes with having an infant and then a crib-escaping toddler -- the energy to care? Though her story is unique, Paesel speaks for all mothers who have felt insecure and out of place in their role as MOTHER and who have wanted to be able to be a loving mother to their children and maintain something of their own identity at the same time.

Perhaps because of its honesty, “Slow to Warm” has elicited strong reactions from a lot of people. “I could just never give this book to my grandmother,” my husband’s cousin, who has a one-year-old son, said in a hushed voice, after telling me how much she loved the anthology. “What if she read that story?” “I was talking about the book with a girlfriend at work,” said a friend who is a waitress in a busy Italian restaurant in Atlanta. “She just thought that story was too much. And she’s not a prude or anything. But I said to her, ‘well, it certainly got us talking.’”

Paesel’s story is clearly disturbing even for people who do not identify themselves as Christian conservatives, like the angry woman who took the time to track down my number and call me at home. Why is it that so many of us want to hold onto the myth that mommies don’t ever think about sex and are entertained by talking about diapers and vegetables all the time? Parents, like everyone else, often have conflicting thoughts. Paesel manages to bring those conflicts to life in a provocative and literary way. The story breaks down the stereotype of the perfect sex-free mommy. My book, despite its cute cover (one of the many battles I lost with my publisher) and its even cutesier title (another of the aforementioned battles), is a book of real-life stories about parenting toddlers. Real-life with toddlers is full of hugs and hurts, kisses and biting, neologisms and clichés, poop and pee, embarrassment and pride, boredom and fascination, giggles and tears, anger and adoration, and everything in between. There’s a story in the book by Priscilla McKinley, a woman who lost her sight the day her son Jonathon was born. And another by Erika Schickel about saving her best friend’s daughter and her daughter’s best friend from choking on a piece of melon. “I think about that fingernail,” writes Schickel. “A lifelong nail biter, I only recently found the self-restraint to let it grow…It dawns on me that if I were still biting my nails Sophie might have died.” Although we may not have had McKinley’s experience, or Schickel’s, or Paesel’s, we can still understand the fear and love and death and worry and joy and all the other complicated emotions that these writers express. Toddler is a book that recognizes that toddlers see the world with such new vision that they can become great muses if we listen to them.

It’s a raw book and an honest book.

When I hung up the phone and turned my attention back to my family, my hands were shaking. I was upset at the mother who called me for hating my book, for violating my time with my family, and for being unable to see the difference between pornography and honesty. It was my intention that every parent could find a bit of herself or himself on the pages of Toddler, even that woman. Maybe even especially that woman. Now I’m feeling like the book has failed her.

I'm un-listing my phone number but I’m not backing down. 

I will continue to battle for honesty in literature, even when confronting that fine line between pornography and truthfulness. I believe the time has come to be more honest about parenthood, and that’s what my book tries to do.

* * * * * *

Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D.
Editor of TODDLER: Real-Life Stories of Those Fickle, Irrational, Urgent, Tiny People We Love. Seal Press, 2003; $14.95; Available in bookstores nationwide.
www.toddlertruestories.com

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Editor’s comments:

Would Toddler have won the IPPY Award without Brett Paesel’s story and frank writing? Would Margulis have published the book if her editor at Seal refused the story? We’ll never know, but I think we can say that the book – and its readers -- are better for it. As one of the Book Awards (male) judges commented, “This book gets your attention, like a high speed, crotch-level collision with a three-year-old.” A female judge noted, “Finally a parenting book that makes you laugh, and relax, and not feel ashamed of your parenting skills.”

Reviews in the online media seem to concur with the “support group” effect the book has on new parents:

“Margulis has harvested stories that can create a sense of community, by reaching out to parents in what can be an emotionally isolating time and telling the truth,” says Suzanne LaFetra in her review of the book for Literary Mama. “Toddler dishes up the reality of childraising in all its imperfect glory.”

* * * * * *

For her part, we asked author Brett Paesel to comment on the negative reaction to the language in “Slow to Warm:”

“Everybody sees something different in a piece of art, and what I intended with my story and what people have read into it are often very different. Let me explain. When I wrote the pornographic language and images that the mother (me) conjures in her head, I was simply recording the kind of word play that might keep me occupied while I sustained a mind numbingly boring conversation. I thought that the riff was silly, starting with an earlier sentence about ‘c--k’ -- then returning to the word and getting more absurd.”

“In my mind, I wasn't actually thinking about sex. I was thinking about what might shock the hell out of the mothers I was talking to. I don't even know if "dick slap" is a term. It just seemed supremely stupid and it made me laugh. I read a book recently by a mother who said that being a mother made her feel like she had Tourette Syndrome, and she wanted to say horrible, shocking things all the time. I understand this. It is a reaction to the doughy, pastel world full of goos and chubby cheeks that a mother suddenly finds herself in.”

”Now, if some women choose to think that I am actually thinking about sex in the riff, I think that's fine too. Because they are bringing themselves to the piece. I knew that I was leaving it a little open by not explaining myself. But I trusted that the frank language would hit mothers on a visceral level. Which, indeed, it has.”

”When I wrote the riff, I went back and considered softening it. But when I write, the only question I ask myself (other than technical ones) is "Is it true?" And I thought it was. I knew it was because it spilled out of me onto the page and made me laugh the first time I thought of it. When I rewrite pieces, I try to take out anything that sounds (to my ear) like I'm trying too hard or stretching to make a point. Then I work with what's left. I think that whatever is true, sticks.” ”How can I write with such frankness? Why would I do anything else? Look, for some reason, men (and some women) can write about war and sex and death with incredible frankness. These are ‘hard’ subjects, ‘legit’ subjects. For reasons that seem to me deeply sexist, mothers' literature is expected to conform to an extremely boring and predictable template. Mommy lit is largely straight narrative about cute things kids do, and occasionally about how hard it is to juggle the laundry while carrying an infant on one hip. Who cares? I don't. I check out of these stories in the first line. Because, when it comes down to it, I don't care as much about what is being said, as much as I do about how it is said. There's nothing new under the sun. So I'm looking to be surprised.”

* * * * * *

Apparently today’s readers also want to be surprised, and Paelsel’s writing delivers, both with its humor and its honesty. Luckily for us, she’s currently shopping a collection of her essays called "On Vaginal Heroics.” Here’s an excerpt from the book’s proposal:

As Spence grew into toddler-hood, I looked around and saw many women like me. Women who had had careers and were not only stunned by the difference in themselves, but who also did not find themselves accurately portrayed in books, magazines, or on TV. I thumbed through Martha Stewart's Baby Magazine, and found articles on how to make little pom-poms and jiggly jelly pops. Try as I might, I couldn't find any thing out there written about how I could get back to feeling like myself again.

A few books offered some hope. Anne Lamott's Operating Instructions certainly let me know that I was not alone in feeling that my beautiful, but constantly screaming, infant had made of my world a domestic Armageddon. Rachel Cusk wrote in A Life's Work "motherhood is a career in conformity from which no amount of subterfuge can liberate the soul without violence, and pregnancy is its boot camp."

”I read essays by Mothers Who Think on Salon.com and started to subscribe to Brain,Child magazine and Hip Mama. All these publications were well written, smart, popular, and earnest. What I missed was a sense of irony. What I missed was the gut splitting laughs that grew out of the painful truth about parenting that I could share with only a handful of friends. I needed to know that someone, besides me, had seriously called their husbands during the first month of their child's life and demanded that they find a way to give the baby back. I needed to be reassured that I wasn't the only mother who hid in an alley, smoking a cigarette, while my baby slept in a car seat at my feet.”

”Aside from these newer publications, the majority of the literature on motherhood seemed a soft-edged, cloying, pastel pile of goo. I remember reading an article in a mainstream parenting magazine, the title of which was ‘Time for Myself.’ Referring to the half-hour swims she insists on taking daily, this mother wrote, ‘Of course, my boys are number one in my life, and I sustain my devotion to them by taking a daily breather.’ My only response to this is, ‘No shit, where's the cocktail and an evening out with your pals, dancing at the bar down the street?’"

“No wonder the realm of motherhood has been marginalized in the literary world. I began to understand that the pervasive opinion of most serious writers and social commentators is that war and crime are legitimate arenas for hard-hitting literature, art, and media -- motherhood is not.”

“So I started to write about my own experience. And I tended to find that the more embarrassed I felt by what I revealed -- the more frank I became -- the more people responded to it. I read some pieces out loud in Spoken Word venues and the audience seemed both shocked and thrilled. When I told my boys' club of comedy friends that I was writing about motherhood, they looked at me like I'd gone all-cute. That is, until they read it.”

”Good writing is good writing. And funny is funny. And one of the things I know about comedy is that if it makes me laugh, it will make thousands laugh. It will because it's true.”

* * * * * *

Check out more “mommy lit” at:

Brain,Child
www.brainchildmag.com/currentissue.htm

Hip Mama
www.hipmama.com

Literary Mama
www.literarymama.com

Skirt Magazine
www.skirtmag.com

Mothers Who Think (Salon.com)
http://archive.salon.com/archives/mwt


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