The Kindling of Ignorance: The Motives Behind 5 Banned Memoirs

Maya Angelou

As the bookish world already knows, September 22-28 is Banned Books week, celebrating the books that are most often challenged or outright banned from schools and libraries. It seems groups of parents and "concerned citizens" are capable of objecting to just about anything, from two male penguins jointly adopting an egg in a picture book to the "occult" practices in Harry Potter. The real world, likewise, has no shortage of "objectionable" content. Here are five memoirs that have been notoriously banned.

This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff

Books about the teenage experience are among those most often challenged and banned. After all, coming of age is a rough time, sometimes involving violent altercations as the teen struggles to establish his own identity in a world seeking to conform it. In the case of Tobias Wolff, the violence and struggle took place in his own home as he warred against an abusive stepfather. Wolff writes about his ugly reality in lovely prose, making even the smell of a stinky teen sound interesting. One friend is described as having "an ammoniac hormonal smell, the smell of growth and anxiety." Too interesting for some school districts, apparently. The book is regularly assigned to high school classes, and regularly objected to by parents.

The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls

Darkness in family life is often part of the objection for those who seek to ban a book. The Glass Castle was one of the most challenged books of 2012 for that very reason. Jeanette Walls writes of her dysfunctional family, her alcoholic father, and her own sexual assault. It's too bad the objectors can't see past the darkness and into the light. This is really the story of Walls's tender love for her parents in spite of their weaknesses, and her own strength and determination to make a different, more stable life for herself.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou's classic memoir is one of the most banned books in history. Objections are raised every year, citing the depiction of molestation and rape, the frank treatment of racial discrimination that Angelou experienced and the inclusion of the reality of drug use as cause for removal. Thankfully, the lyrical, fascinating book remains one of the most influential literary memoirs of all time, and is unlikely to disappear from shelves and reading lists, though not for lack of trying.

Always Running by Louis J. Rodriguez

Always Running does not shy away from the grim realities Louis Rodriguez experienced as a Chicano gang member in East L.A. The book has plenty of violent passages, as Rodriguez bore witness to beatings, shootings and the death of family members. However, the reasons most often cited in objections to the book are the sex scenes, both consensual sex and sexual assault. Overall, the book paints a dark  but realistic picture of Rodriguez's experience in gang culture, and his myriad reasons for choosing to leave that life.

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Graphic books are a common target for banning. It's one thing to read about sex and violence, it's another to see it drawn in black and white. Since their release, Marjane Satrapi's graphic memoirs Persepolis and the sequel Persepolis 2 have been regularly challenged. Persepolis was recently removed from the shelves in the greater Chicago school district. The objection here? Depictions of torture. Satrapi's drawing style is cartoonish, but the reality of her relatives treatment during the Iranian revolution is no less disturbing.