The Conversations We Can't Have

I went to a very progressive high school. It was Catholic, yes, but in Utah, and so it served as a counterbalance to the more conservative LDS culture. My Sophomore English teacher taught only banned books, and across my four years there, we didn’t just read the standard Catcher in the Rye variety. We read Lolita. We read (and hated) D.H. Lawrence. The school has always been small with a tight alumni community, and so it wasn’t surprising that they reached out to me shortly after my book sold, a good year before publication. The school had a new community project, a reading and conversation series focused on issues of environmental and social justice.

My novel, Monsters: A Love Story, while it masquerades as a fast, fun beach read, tackles issues of gender disparity and sexual power dynamics. The book specifically questions why women are held accountable for behaviors that don’t seem out-of-bounds for men, whether it’s drinking, or swearing, or promiscuity. The protagonist, Stacey, like all women, has internalized a lot of these judgments, and as the narrator, she brings her own flaws sharply into focus while usually letting her love interest, Tommy, off the hook. It is “button-pushing” as my agent calls it, and in some ways, it’s difficult to find the right readers. It is both fun enough to not always be taken seriously, and dark enough to not be an easily consumed and forgotten read.

And I warned them; I did. I sat with the school principal and a member of the board and told them there was a lot of profanity, that the book was pretty sexy in parts. They were excited though. They thought it sounded fun. “It is fun,” I said, “but it’s also a deeply feminist examination of rape culture. It might be pretty controversial.” But aren’t all conversations worth having controversial in some way? Isn’t the mission of social justice to question the world as everyone blindly accepts it? Yes, yes, yes, they agreed.

But it turns out that there are some issues they’d prefer to turn a blind eye to. When they discovered that the topic of abortion comes up for a total of about a half a dozen pages, I was summarily disinvited. Though, to be fair, this implies a forthright conversation that certainly never occurred. Long after the school-sponsored reading had been supposedly confirmed, it just wasn’t anymore. There was no explanation of who had decided this or why or when. Later, a close friend on the board filled me in. A fellow alum, he was as baffled as I was. He’d fought hard to keep me on the calendar. “It’s a novel,” he’d said. “There are so many conversations to be had,” he’d said. But in the end, the conversation they didn’t want to start was the one about abortion.

“Were they equally offended by the sexual violence?” I asked, but they hadn’t noticed any sexual violence which tells me just how thoroughly enculturated they are. They are the people I’ve written the novel about, rather than the people it’s written for. I’m offended partly as an author who’s been sort of rudely handled, but truly, I’m offended as an alum whose eyes were first opened to questions of feminism and social justice in that very institution. My book is absolutely not for everyone. It pushes a lot of buttons it’s true, but if the most offensive thing to come out of the book is Stacey’s drinking, or the use of profanity, or a three minute conversation about abortion, then frankly, we all have a lot more work to do.