The Book

A successful library run to me, whether as a child or an adult, means leaving with a bag full of books after scanning titles and covers to ensure variety. I’ve always loved period pieces, including British dramas, comedies, and closed-door murder mysteries. Better yet if those period pieces included a female friendship and a boarding school or orphanage as the setting rife with misunderstandings and strictures for its heroines to overcome together. Among my favorites were Anne with an “e” and Diana in Anne of Green Gables, Jane Eyre and Helen Burns from Jane Eyre, and Sara Crewe and Becky the scullery maid from A Little Princess.

My baby queer brain expanded these narratives beyond platonic friendship to budding same-sex attraction, whether or not the author intended it. I even shipped Peppermint Patty and Marci from Charles M. Schultz’s Peanuts comic strip into a lesbian relationship, and cast myself as Marci, who dotes with unrequited, unequal dedication on her friend. The attire and styles of the day was also important: high-button shoes, bloomers, petticoats, pinafores, ringlets, and bonnets were my obsession. It might even qualify as a fetish, had I known then what the word met. Not yet out to myself, and without words to name my penchant for intimate relationships between women, I didn’t realize that my love of costumes might indicate something about my sexuality. Nor did I know the power to be found in dressing to emphasize my femme identity. 

In these friendships, the girls held hands, snuggled in matching long white cotton nightgowns with ruffled caps, swore their undying allegiance as bosom friends and soul mates, ice skated linking arms with their hands tucked into fur muffs, whispered secrets by the flickers of candles in brass walking candlestick holders, and wrote long letters when separated. I always wanted a sister, but I also craved feminine intimacy. 

Given the conservative Christian culture in which my parents raised me, they did not yet suspect anything untoward by my fondness for dressing up. My mother dutifully sewed dresses from patterns so I could dress up like these characters, in addition to all the dance costumes for the many performances that studded my elementary and middle school years. 

While my hometown of Portland, Oregon, is now known as a liberal mecca, it has a history of racism and other prejudices just beneath the surface. I hadn’t read more than a few pages of The Book before my parents took it away from me. My lack of exposure to the outside world at the time meant I did not know that the hate emanated from within my own home. 

The windowed front of the Beaverton Public Library let in beams of light throughout the stacks and a circular librarians’ desk. I loved the natural light filtering through the open space and the dust motes dancing in the sunbeams. This is where I remember my father yelled at the librarian. He brought me with him as a “learning experience.”

I couldn’t understand what a librarian could have done that would be so horrible. They seemed to be unremarkable, elderly women capable of arousing only tepid feelings. My father wasn’t the one who yelled, my mother was. He was livid that such a salacious book could be checked out by any underage child, and had been partially read by his daughter. I hadn’t gotten very far in the book, and I hadn’t mentioned anything about the nature of the girls’ friendship to my parents, if I even noticed it myself. 

They must have skimmed my library books to see whether they found them appropriate. This wasn’t unusual; my earliest memories of my parents’ interactions with books, both for myself and gifts to my daughter decades later, were of my mother editing them by crossing out words with thick black felt pens and writing or drawing in her substitutions. Some books were allowed and needed no editing, usually those with overt Christian themes and allegories, such as the Narnia series by C.S. Lewis. They pulled me out of private school after first grade because the Christian workbook curriculum was too liberal for them. Three years of homeschooling followed, so they could censor or approve every line of text put before my eyes.

For decades, the emotional side of my brain held this memory. I scoured used book stores for The Book of my memory, so I could buy it and capture it, a sort of retrospective revenge reading. Only once I started writing about my earliest queer memories did my logical brain kick in. I could research what queer literature existed at the time, look up the covers of various editions, and identify The Book by recognizing the cover that piqued my teen interest decades ago. There it was on eBay, the 1984 edition. It looked like exactly the type of thing I would have grabbed off a library shelf. It must have been Nancy Garden’s groundbreaking book, Annie on My Mind, that I came home with that day in the mid 1980s, because very few tween fiction books representing love between two female-identified characters existed at that time. 

What’s saddest to me in retrospect was that I didn’t even get to discover the plot twist myself. Here was a book that took the girls’ relationship to exactly the place my mind wanted it to go, but I was denied even the possibility of knowing that I wasn’t alone in imagining that outcome. I wouldn’t be able to follow that narrative in a fictional work until I watched Patricia Rozma’s 1995 film, “When Night is Falling,” in college. Representation in life and art matters. For me, it gave me a name to what I imagined and dreamed of through literature. Instead, he my parents wanted to teach me that words and literature are dangerous because they are outlets for the dogmatic influences of liberal authors recruiting for the “gay lifestyle.” Protecting me by keeping me unaware of the existence of queer representation – at least until they decided their indoctrination of me was complete – was more important to them than supporting their daughter in whoever she might become. By removing my access to The Book, my parents taught me that the thing I most wanted in my life was so awful that it did not have a place on a public shelf. It was a thing that should be hidden away and never found. 

As I watched the world evolve to accept LGBTQIA+ perspectives in ways that a closeted queer teen in the 1990s could not imagine – marriage equality! – my cynicism of the cyclical nature of hate never left. Those like my parents would never give up fighting against exposing young minds as they learn to the breadth of human experience. Centering the cis het white male Christian experience is too fundamental to weaving the cocoon of conformity and anodyne culture that does not teach the next generation to question or imagine anything different. That Florida’s “Don’t say gay” law would exist in 2022 felt like the inevitable contraction back to decades earlier.

I wish I knew how that librarian responded to my father. I wish I could go back and tell her what that interaction meant to me. If she had to fight for Annie on My Mind to be on the shelves of the Beaverton Public Library, I want to thank her. Instead, I thank those who continue to fight for the presence of representation, be it in literature or through sharing their authentic lived experience. 

Jennifer Haliski

Jennifer Haliski (she/her) studied creative nonfiction and earned a Bachelor’s in journalism at the University of Oregon, interned at magazines and newspapers in Germany as a Fulbright Scholar, and completed her Master’s at Georgetown University. When not working at her day job in federal government communications, she is writing her memoir. She is a member of The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland.
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