Now The School Censors Have Come For Maus
Content warning: suicide, the Holocaust, small-minded censorship
The school board in McMinn County, Tennessee, voted unanimously earlier this month to ban Art Spiegelman's Maus,a Holocaust memoir in graphic novel form, from its eighth-grade Language Arts classes. The vote took place on January 10, but only started getting media attention yesterday — and the attention blew up immediately.
No surprise there: Maus is a uniquely brilliant work of storytelling in comics form, a memoir of Spiegelman's father's survival of the Holocaust and of the fraught relationship between Spiegelman and his father, Vladek. Spiegelman turns comic-book cliché on its head, depicting Jews as mice and Germans as cats, and telling his father's story with the scrupulous accuracy of a biographer. It was the first graphic novel (although let's be clear; it's nonfiction) to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize, and played a huge role in making clear that comics can be very serious works for grown-ups. Millions of people have been moved by Maus's depictions of the Holocaust and of generational trauma.
The McMinn County School Board banned it because it contained eight curse words and "naked pictures." More about that in a moment.
This One Hurts
Maus is simply one of the best books I've ever read, and part of what makes it so important is its genre-busting use of words and images to tell a very serious story. The cat and mouse imagery isn't simply a riff on cartoon iconography; it's also a very deliberate reference to Nazi propaganda that depicted Jews as vermin. Calling it a graphic novel isn't even quite right: When the second volume came out in 1991 and hit the New York Times bestseller list, Spiegelman successfully lobbied the paper to switch Maus from the "fiction" to the "nonfiction" category.
As the story progresses, Spiegelman also uses the cat/mouse imagery to make us question where we get these ideas of identity anyway. The second volume features a scene outside the book's main narrative, with Spiegelman talking to his therapist about the problems he's having with the work — but both are drawn this time as humans wearing mouse masks, to clearly distinguish that notions of identity can be both absurdly arbitrary and, in the context of Nazi Germany, deadly serious. A fair-use sample of how Spiegelman plays with that theme of identity:
They Don't Know Art, But They Know Dirty Words When They See 'Em
None of that, of course, was involved in the McMinn County School Board's decision to remove Maus. I read the minutes of the school board meeting, and the objections to the book really did come down to some board members' objections to cuss words and nudity, particularly a tiny drawing depicting the naked corpse of Spiegelman's mother, who killed herself by cutting her wrists in the bathtub.
It seems that the board's initial idea to make Maus fit for eighth graders (I'd rather see it used in high school, where students would get more out of it) was to simply use white-out to redact all the bad words, and the image of the dead naked lady. Board member Tony Allman found the language so objectionable that he had to spell out "b-i-t-c-h" in the board meeting. He also complained about Spiegelman's depictions of Nazi atrocities: "It shows people hanging, it shows them killing kids, why does the educational system promote this kind of stuff, it is not wise or healthy."
Allman later acknowledged that the Holocaust was bad, but the cusses and nakeds still bothered him:
I am not denying it was horrible, brutal, and cruel. It’s like when you’re watching tv and a cuss word or nude scene comes on it would be the same movie without it. Well, this would be the same book without it.
He went on to suggest that the book is probably too contaminated anyway, because "this guy that created the artwork used to do the graphics for Playboy." (Fact check: Spiegelman did a few comics for the magazine in the 70s.) Therefore,
You can look at his history, and we’re letting him do graphics in books for students in elementary school. If I had a child in the eighth grade, this ain’t happening. If I had to move him out and homeschool him or put him somewhere else, this is not happening.
Two school district employees, Instructional Supervisor Julie Goodin and Federal Programs Supervisor Melasawn Knight, argued that the book was in fact age-appropriate, because of course a book about the Holocaust will show bad things — that's the point. Goodin said she'd hate to have kids lose the opportunity to read Maus, and said she wanted her own eighth grader to read it, even if it were withdrawn from the curriculum. As for the cusses, Goodin asked, "Are we going to be teaching these words outside of this book as vocabulary words? No, you know me better than that Tony Allman." (Lordy how I wish there was video.)
Much of the meeting veered off into frustration about state reading standards, but the conversation kept coming back to the bad words in Maus, however nonsensically. All the board members said it's important for kids to learn about the Holocaust, but couldn't the children read about genocide in a more seemly text, without eight cuss words and a naked corpse?
The Forever Culture War
Board member Mike Cochran was simply fed up with all the nastiness — he never needed books with cusses when he was in school. And sure, the history in Maus is good, but why did kids have to see the parts about the mother's suicide and all the parts where Spiegelman and his father argue, anyway? He seems to have forgotten Maus is being used in the Language Arts curriculum, as literature, not as a history text.
A lot of the cussing had to do with the son cussing out the father, so I don’t really know how that teaches our kids any kind of ethical stuff. It’s just the opposite, instead of treating his father with some kind of respect, he treated his father like he was the victim.
We don’t need this stuff to teach kids history. We can teach them history and we can teach them graphic history. We can tell them exactly what happened, but we don’t need all the nakedness and all the other stuff.
Cochran also complained that the schools aren't giving kids enough spelling and grammar drills, because that's what matters, not some artsy fartsy comic book with all the nakedness and cursing. Cochran also went on a weird digression about how "the entire curriculum is developed to normalize sexuality, normalize nudity and normalize vulgar language," but others reminded him the meeting was only about Maus.
Another board member, Jonathan Pierce, argued that the book was simply illegal, or at least that "the wording in this book is in direct conflict of some of our policies." As an example, he offered something that isn't in Maus at all: "If I said on the school bus that I was going to kill you, we would be bringing disciplinary action against that child."
Eventually, the board voted unanimously, 10 to zero, to remove Maus from the curriculum.
What's The Matter With Tennessee?
Spiegelman told CNBC that the school board's decision was "Orwellian," and that "I’m kind of baffled by this. [...] It’s leaving me with my jaw open, like, ‘What?’”
Spiegelman added that he suspected the complaints about the language and nudity were less of a motivation for banning the book than a pretext to remove a book about the Holocaust and the ongoing trauma it caused for survivors and their families, as exemplified by the suicide of his mother — also a survivor of the camps — when he was 20.
“I’ve met so many young people who ... have learned things from my book,” said Spiegelman about “Maus.” [...]
“I also understand that Tennessee is obviously demented,” said Spiegelman. “There’s something going on very, very haywire there.”
Also, by way of commenting on the news, Spiegelman sent the Daily Beast a bookmark he'd designed a few years back for Banned Books Week:
The one good thing about this whole stupid mess is that it's sure to drive new sales of Maus, a groundbreaking work that everyone should read or re-read — even if it is too dirty for middle schoolers in McMinn County, Tennessee.
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