Episode 47: Eleanor and Park (And All… “Difficult” Books)


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            I think this might end up being one of my more… needless episodes. (Pause). Insert joke about this entire show being largely pointless. Yeah, if I’m going to walk into something like that that, I’m going to take the wind out of your sails and own it. Sorry not sorry.

            But basically, today I need to talk about something that really irritates me despite the fact that the people who share my opinion and the people who would listen to a podcast like this are largely one in the same. Now, it’s not a guarantee, granted, but on the other hand, a thirty minute episode of an amateur podcast is not going to be all the persuasive when it comes to hot button issues like this one.

            And by this one, I mean book banning.

            But not, like an authoritarian regime trying to hold onto power and banning critical reading material. Well, not explicitly. The connection is probably there if any student needs a dissertation topic. But that’s neither here nor there.

            Also, I’m not going to be talking about every manifestation or justification for banning reading material. I mean, maybe I should, but think about the turnaround time for these episodes, that’s not going to be in any way possible without figuratively but still actually (somehow) frying my brain.

            Finally, full disclosure, for a while, I thought about doing a series of special episodes released every day during national banned books week, and this episode would have been one of them, but genuinely, I have no business making that type of a commitment, even in the low level of accountability that would be in my own head or notes.

            So… you get this episode now. Aren’t you happy? (Pause) Look, you were the one to hit play, so I don’t know why you’d be complaining.

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            Hi. It’s M. Welcome to Episode 47.

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            And today, I promise I’m going to do everything in my power to refrain from this turning into a rant. I mean, I’m scripting, recording, and editing this episode. There’s a lot of steps to this process, which means there’s a lot of points where I could catch myself, and still, I’m reluctant to make any guarantees. Yeah, welcome to the chaos of my mind. It’s great.

            It probably doesn’t help that this particular amalgamation of my thoughts has been sitting in my head for far too long. Here’s the thing, this argument really came into itself when Rainbow Rowell tweeted a while back that her book Eleanor and Park was being challenged or outright banned in schools and school libraries, I can’t remember which one nor could I easily find the tweet to clarify but that also further cements how much time has passed. And the reason for this banning? It had difficult subject matter.

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            Which is really just code for, it showed teenagers who were suffering greatly through no fault of their own, which would remind young people that life occasionally sucks.

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            Okay, if you aren’t familiar with Eleanor and Park, then it might seem like I’m grossly simplifying the issue or outright strawman-ing it just to give my point the appearance of being stronger relative to its opponent. But really… I’m not. This books is the story of two misfits in Nebraska during the 1980s. Eleanor is a chubby 16-year-old with an abusive stepfather and a mother trying to make the most out of situation that is very difficult to escape from, which leaves Eleanor without things a teenager needs in order to be considered normal. I mean, clothes that fit properly regardless of the style type necessities. And young people, being as inexperienced and naïve as they can be don’t contextualize these things as being the product of someone else’s terrible nature. So Eleanor’s classmates lash out and ostracize her.

            Then there’s Park who has a great home life, but because he’s half Korean and it very much shows, he feels like he’s pushed towards the outer ring of misfits, even if he gets along with the popular kids at school. In some ways, it’s mostly about his dad. Who’s a good dad but who’s very much nothing like him.

            And that’s it. Eleanor’s stepfather is physically violent and crude, but if you’re expecting a certain thing to happen that would give the argument to ban it a tooth. Well, no. It’s not here. And you can read the book for yourself if you don’t believe me. Eleanor’s life legitimately sucks, and Park is doing his best to help her manage it.

            And somehow that’s a ban-able offense.

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            To be generous, perhaps overly so, let me flesh out the argument for banning books like this in a way that is generous and empathetic. It might not be deserved, but I promise that’s the last snarky aside I’m going to make in this section.

            The first premise is that childhood is sacred because, in part it’s foundational. So a pleasant childhood is an investment in that person’s future, which would be undercut by exposure to books depicting abusive or troubled circumstances. On the other hand, some kids just can’t handle books on these topics. That instead of properly absorbing these alternative experiences or perspectives, they’d come to develop certain neuroses or disorders that genuinely could have been avoided had these books been omitted from the school curriculum and kept out of libraries where kids could get their hands on them.

            Second—though related—these matters are things that we, in the real world, actively work to shield children from. We actively work as a society to minimize things like child so why expose children to that all, even in a book.

            Third and finally, that reading material containing sensitive subject matter like this doesn’t offer any sort of benefit capable of offsetting the aforementioned risks and drawbacks.

            In short, children are vulnerable beings who are going to have to pay for our choices the entirety of their lives. The pressure is on us to guarantee them a good life, and removing books from libraries and reimaging school syllabi are a small price to pay for our children.

            In fact, we probably should be doing a lot more. But no one ever carries the conversation that far.

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            Okay, okay, I said I wouldn’t be snarky. So let’s go back  and actually talk about the argument.

To that first premise in particular, I would say that you aren’t wrong, but I would also ask that we take a step farther back to the premise to your premise with the assurance that once we do that, we’ll find out why the entirety of your argument is built on shaky ground. Or a pillar of salt built in your image when a rain storm is appearing over the horizon.

            There’s a book by Elisabeth Young-Bruehl (forgive the pronunciation) called Childism that I thought was going to be a bigger part of my college thesis, but it ended up going in a different direction. The book’s central argument concerns the way we treat children as being that don’t have any autonomy and in fact have taken on an instrumental purpose in our lives. And if you recoiled at that thought—or the alternative you think she might be a proponent of, let me flush out this argument a bit more.

            Yes, an infant doesn’t have agency or the capability to act, and children can’t be trusted to do whatever they want. But at some point, the infant ceases becoming an infant and develops the capacity and right to autonomy. And—like the argument for book banning helpfully pointed out—they are the ones who have to incorporate all these choices and experiences in to the life they lead for better or worse. They are the ones who pay for the choices we make now.

            And here’s the hiccup, which isn’t so flushed out because of Young-Bruehl’s academic discipline, but we’re in my podcast now, so I’m going to expand this point because I don’t have those boundaries.

            The way modern society has come to develop and understand legal society neutrality has a consequence for children. Namely, any intervening actions from the state need to be few and far between. Children are left in the unchecked care of their parents. They are wards of the people that bore them, left to be taught that family’s tradition and world view, so that it could be carried on unhindered. And the hope was that children were going to be exposed to conflicting viewpoints in schools and when they interacted with other children, so any sort of negative impact was going to be mitigated. But consider the way communities actually work, largely still being bound to physical spaces and largely send their children to private schools that reflect their values.

            There is way out. There is no easy way to expose a child to an alternative viewpoint. It’s easy to see that at some point that a child just becomes just another piece of a parent’s world. And that’s not even pointing out the way some children are accessorized by their parents. At some point, familial instruction may start to look like possession.

For one, faulty instruction may mean that alternative options are never presented. And options that aren’t known about can never be taken. So even when someone ages out of their parents care, they can still very much be control by them.

            Now I should be quick to add that some things aren’t options, and I’m not arguing that everything is, but I’m trying to point out the way we treat children as pieces in a schema that parents control and define, which isn’t fair for the child. Even if their capacities are greatly reduced, children aren’t objects owned or otherwise, partially because of that future existence. But at the very least because they are their own beings on their own life trajectories.

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            And it’s that critical fact that the problem lies. Children are their own beings with their own life story. So let’s say you are a well-meaning parent and not one who treats their kid like a toy. You might want to protect your child and genuinely do everything in your power to do so, but your plans may not go perfectly. Certainly not all the time.

            And that’s one part of why I think this argument is nonsense. Because—you know—I was the child of those sorts of parents. It’s why my parents tried to lie to me about where my dad was during his second heart attack in my life time. Would have been great if it had worked, but as a six year old, I understood what his brief case was for and how it shouldn’t be by the front door if he went on a business trip.

            Case in point, I guess. You can try to lie to a kid about what life is like, but they may find out regardless because of some detail you didn’t plan for.

            And that’s a more innocent or easy to dismiss example. In reality, a lot of terrible things can happen to and around children. And there are certain books that can better illustrate this. I’m talking specifically all the written by Lurlene McDaniel. Have you heard of that author? I hadn’t until my dad was a few months shy of his death bed, and I had retreated to the school library as a means of coping. There, McDaniel had almost a full shelf of books. All of which had a lot to do with death and terminal illness, but she’s written so many that it doesn’t seem like that gives her enough credit. But I guess you know what I mean.

            I don’t know if the presence her books was challenged like Eleanor and Park is, though I’d like to bet they were. It makes sense. On the other hand, her books never fell into the framework of adolescence the same way. I don’t know how often they were taught or how often some tried to teach them. Also, I wouldn’t have been as aware of these matters at that point in my life.

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            At this point in my life, bad things that were happening. I knew and understand that my father was going to die. Because like I’ve said before, after my father had a massive heart attack when I was an infant, he was on borrowed time, and it was a fact we couldn’t really deny. Inevitability, I was going to lose him. And I was going to fairly young when it happened. That was going to be part of my life that my mother couldn’t control. Though they both fought for his life tooth and nail, it likely gave him a couple more years at most.

In those books, I found assurance, proof that I wasn’t alone and that these things could be overcome in time. Things that nobody could really verbalize to me; I had to see them for myself.

            So explain to me how I could have been shielded from these issues? From my father’s death. Genuinely curious.

            To go back to the story of both children in Eleanor and Park, if you can’t explain how my circumstance could be avoided, fair enough? How does a child with body issues—the product of what they see with their own eyes, avoid this part of their reality? How does the child of an alcoholic parent suddenly not have an alcoholic parent? How can you deny what they know to be true from experience?

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            You see, storytelling has been largely established to have therapeutic potential. And that comes from a lot of academic literature I don’t have time or the ability to unpack. Here’s the short hand, though, stories gives us the ability to relay events with full control of the how and what happens. Suddenly we are the master of the fates and destinies that claimed dominion over us. Admittedly, this is in an artificial control, but that artificial nature allows us to explore various elements within the larger the narrative.

For example, when I relate my father’s illness and death. As a child, I initially wanted to somehow lay the blame at my own feet as a kneejerk reaction to the trauma I was experiencing, but as an adult, I can better include his long history of health concerns into that final moment. I can also include his attempts to convey his love for me that preceded that day even though he wasn’t fully awake in those final moments. Certainly not enough to say it himself.

            But that’s just the moment. I greatly struggled with the aftermath, and McDaniel’s books helped me through it.

            Hearing a story—or reading as story as I argued in my master’s thesis—even if it isn’t your story, is still an important part of what could be called a healing process. It gives you the vocabulary you need to compose your own narrative and have all the benefits. And yeah, I can confirm I was truly left speechless after his death.

            Now, take Eleanor’s story. Take the story of a child whose home life is in shambles who may be led to think it is her fault or that she is the source of discontent she is being convinced that she is. Don’t you think a child in that predicament should be able to see from a removed perspective how these things sometimes play out? And how faultless they really are? Don’t you think they should learn to articulate what is ACTUALLY happening to them, with the proper words and context? Especially when it to getting help with their problems.

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            And here’s where I explain why I have such a knee jerk reaction when the argument is made that this is a valid reason to ban a book from not just a classroom but from a school library. Essentially, any young adult—not even child, mind you but a genuine adult who happens to be young and in training—that goes through these experiences without resources are left without a key part in their recovery because other adults want to maintain the illusion of their control over their own children. We become sacrifices to their, at time, malicious delusions, and in my opinion, that’s the more charitable reading of this outcome. You could also say that the implicit argument here is that children who suffer are lost causes already. That they are destroyed by their consequences, and as a society, it is better to focus our resources on maintaining the purity of those cosmically untouched.

            But what about those who overcome and then are exulted, you might be asking. Think the stories you see played during the Olympics or people who are brought onto talk shows? I think that’s an irrelevant point. I think that’s more about the way we objectify certain narratives, a component of this is that it exonerates us from guilt over not doing more. My episode on a passage of Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution tangentially hits at this as does my episode on Mob Psycho 100, but there’s a lot more to unpack there. It’s just not relevant, is my actual point.

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            On the other hand, you might also be saying, this is not going to be the case for every student. And you are right. But let’s take this back to Eleanor and Park, the reason why I wanted to (somewhat) frame this argument around this book. Take Eleanor as a great example. A child who is the stepdaughter of an alcoholic isn’t at fault for her situation. She’s not even the literal heir to his mistakes. Her mother just married the guy.

            As an adult, the visual manifestations of a child’s misfortunate are met with sympathy and concern. In fact, the expectation would be outright intervention. But that’s because we know what is happening. Well, on some level we know. I mean to say we understand how things actually work. That some people can be cruel, and if they have children, they might be cruel to those children only because those children make for convenient victims. The child didn’t do anything wrong, so don’t attack or criticize the child.

            But this belief is not instinctive. In fact, I’d make the counter argument. I do think we are inclined to believe in the goodness of the world—accurate or not—because it makes our security assured or more assured. And it’s particularly easy to believe if that’s what our parents—our first instructors—told us about the world. It could very well end up being that our first exposure to the realities and cruelty of life comes in a classmate with a disheveled appearance. And we are not going to understand what is happening. Because it’s not something that is going to naturally come to us.

            We will learn about it in time, though. In time, we will learn more about the world. Or that’s the idea. We will come to understand concepts of innocence and victimization. We will come to understand the way circumstances can manifest themselves in appearance, particularly when it comes to the children of terrible people.

            But by then, maybe, we have already caused a fair bit of damage, damage that we won’t remember causing, but damage someone else will never forget.

            So why can’t we explain how the world really works to someone who is already living in it, who is already influencing it?

            Because that’s another important aspect of Eleanor and Park that made it worth discussing in this context. Once you’ve read the book, you’ll understand what I mean, but the point is, if you think childhood bullies are just naturally mean-spirited, this book shows that it isn’t true. It shows a clear disconnect between how the students treat one person and another. Because—to keep it simple and spoiler-free—if they were jerks in training, they would have turned on Park as quickly as they did Eleanor.

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            In so far as there are subjects kids can’t handle. Fair enough, I have to say that because I had some pretty absurd nightmares from things I learned in school. But not to take the cop out, that’s what parents and guardians are there for: to help children walk over difficult patches of turf as a child learns to become a proper human being.

            Is it easy? No. But I have yet to find one thing in life that actually is.

            And if you are wondering if I would ever support the banning of any book, let me explain to you the one context that I would.

            Let’s say someone manages to completely rid the world of childhood ills. No more abusive parents. No more illnesses. No more untimely death. Don’t worry about the how in this context. Let me just say that if it could be done and it was done. And that person then wanted to ban a singular book, I wouldn’t care why they want to ban it; they would have my support wholeheartedly. But it’s not because their argument would have any sort of merit.

            But because, my word, that had to have been a lot of work.

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            This has been a production of Miscellany Media Studios. Thank you for listening. If you like what you heard, check out our other shows. You can find more information on our website: miscellanymedia.online.  That’s miscellanymedia.online. Or on twitter @miscellanymedia for real time updates.