My dad often told a story from his days as a mail carrier where he confronted a little boy no more than five perched up in a tree in a yard severely marked by poverty and neglect. The kid looked down with dirty face and clothes and said, “Whatcha want, you old son of a bitch?” We laughed at his aggressive assertion, but there was something sad and tender in it, too. There was the recognition of his own reality and the hope that his anger and toughness might in time lead him to a better place.
One day when my son was eight, he came into the kitchen while I was cooking and said: “You put bad words in your books, don’t you?” No doubt he had overheard my mother, who often tells people who ask about my work: “Well you’ll never find her books in the Christian bookstore.”
I said that sometimes—when character and situation called for it—I did use strong language, that I couldn’t imagine a realistic portrait of human nature, particularly in our contemporary society, without it.
“So can I do that?” he asked, and of course I told him absolutely—that when he writes a short story or novel, he will have all the freedom in the world to do so.
He pulled a ripped sheet of notebook paper from behind his back. “Would you like to hear the first of my book?”
This was when I stopped what I was doing and gave him my full attention, boy in Red Sox shirt and baggy jeans—his uniform of many years. “Now,” he said. “Keep in mind that this is a 14-year-old girl who is being made to marry a guy she’s never even met and she’s mad.” I could only assume he had read or heard something in school to inspire this—stories of another culture used to enlighten and remind us of our basic rights and freedoms and how important they are. He paused, giving a very serious look before clearing his throat, shaking the paper, and beginning.
“Goddamnit why would I want to marry that piece of shit boy? I’m damn mad as hell.”
He stopped and looked at me, waiting for my response. It was one of those important parental moments, recognized as it is happening, so I took a few seconds. “Well,” I said. “You certainly have captured her anger and frustration.” He nodded, a look of great satisfaction on his face, and wandered back to where he was playing video games. Needless to say I confiscated that piece of paper and carefully placed it in the box of treasured writings I have saved. It is right in there with a letter he wrote his sister claiming he had “Shitey conselars” at a camp he was unhappily attending.
A year or so before this took place, I had given him permission to have what we called “cuss time.” It began when I realized that he was silently mouthing a lot of new vocabulary while riding in the car or drawing. He saw me see him one day and he was embarrassed, so I told him I knew that urge to test a word and how important it is to do so. Thus the origin of cuss time. Every day for five minutes, usually right after school, he could say anything he wanted. He liked to bounce on the already beaten up leather sofa while saying the words, sounds emitted as his feet left the cushion. It was a kind of Trampoline Tourette’s—hell, bitch, doo-doo—and I’ll confess I was always happy that we were never interrupted by ups or a friend stopping by. What I found particularly endearing is that in his world, all words that were considered inappropriate for public voice weighed exactly the same. Fart and fuck and fanny were equals. Shit and ass. When the kitchen timer rang, all cussing ended until the next day.
I found it liberating to watch his liberation. I was a kid who had gotten my mouth washed out with soap regularly, and all that ever did—other than leave me foaming and gagging—was to make me furious and determined to say everything even more. It’s one of the most basic laws of human nature, isn’t it? The more we are denied something, the more we want it? The more silence given to this or that topic, the more power. All you need do is look to the binge-drinking or eating-disorder cases that surround us, the multitudes of church sex scandals, to show that the demand for abstinence or any kind of total denial of thought or expression or action can often lead to dangerous consequences. When we know we can choose to do this or that, we don’t feel as frantic to do so, to make a sudden move or decision that might be the worst thing for us.
When our words and actions are filled with possibilities and potential, we are more likely to weigh out the options. I am convinced that the anticipation of cuss time—the freedom of cuss time—kept my son from being overheard by some person in authority who might have had no choice but to reprimand him and assign punishment.
Potential is a powerful word. I remember feeling so sad when my children turned a year old and I knew, from reading about human development, that they had forever lost the potential they were born with to emulate the languages of other cultures, clicks and hums and throat sounds foreign to me. For that short period of time, a mere 12 months, they could have been dropped anywhere in the world and fully adapted accordingly. But beyond this linguistic loss, we are at risk of losing something far greater each and every time we’re confronted with censorship and denial. Perfectly good words are taken from our vocabulary, limiting the expression of a thought or an opinion. I recently read about high schoolers who are not allowed to use the word vagina. And what should they say instead? When you read about something like this (just one recent example of many), you really have to stop and wonder. Is this restriction because someone in charge thinks vaginas are bad? I once had a story editor ask me not to use the word placenta. I wanted to say: “Now tell me again how you got here?” Oh, right, an angel of God placed you into the bill of the stork.
Word by single word, our history will be rewritten if we don’t guard and protect it, truth lost to some individual’s idea about what is right or wrong. These speech monitors—the Word Gestapo (speaking of words some would have us deny and forget)—attempt to define and dictate what is acceptable and what is not.
Lenny Bruce, while pushing the First Amendment as far as it can go, famously said, “Take away the right to say fuck and you take away the right to say fuck the government.” And maybe that’s really what all the rules are about—power and control—someone else’s over you. Though I felt the impulse to tell my son cuss time was a secret of sorts, “our own little game,” I stifled the urge, knowing what a dangerous and manipulative thing the use of a “secret” can be. Besides, any suggestion of denial of the act would have worked against everything I was trying to give him. Of course, it wasn’t any time at all before several little boys started asking to ride the bus home with him. “Can I do cuss time?” they pleaded. I sadly had to tell them the truth: they were not of legal age and so cuss time was something only their own parents could give them.
I have often thought what a better, more confident person I would have been if only I had grown up with cuss time instead of soap licking.
My first public reading from my work was when I was 25 years old. At the end, as I stood at the podium speaking to people, I noticed an elderly woman slowly making her way down the aisle. I waited for her to reach me only to have her shake a finger in my face and say, “And you look like such a nice girl!” Unfortunately, I was still conditioned to want her to believe that I was a nice girl, conditioned to care more about what other people thought of me than what I thought of myself. It was only after the fact that I felt angry, that I wanted to go back and ask if she was even paying attention to what I was reading about—a situation of hurt humans expressing their feelings. I wanted to say, you have every right to your opinions and thoughts but that doesn’t make you right. I wanted to say fuck you, and even knowing it would have been completely out of character for me to do so, I like knowing that I could have.
By limiting or denying freedom of speech and expression, we take away a lot of potential. We take away thoughts and ideas before they even have the opportunity to hatch. We build a world around negatives—you can’t say, think, or do this or that. We teach that if you are safely camouflaged in what is acceptable and walk that narrow road—benign or neutral words, membership in institutions where we are told what to think and believe—then you can get away with a lot of things. You can deny who you are and all that came before you and still be thought of as a good person. And what can be positive in that? In fact, what is more positive than a child with an individual mind full of thoughts and sounds and the need to express them who has the freedom to discover under safe and accommodating conditions the best way to communicate something? In other words, you old son of a bitch, I say Let freedom ring!