The book Laura Murphy wants removed from Fairfax County classrooms is considered a modern American classic. It is a Pulitzer Prize winner and a masterpiece of fiction whose author’s 1993 Nobel Prize in literature citation said that she, “in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.”
But Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” Murphy said, depicts scenes of bestiality, gang rape and an infant’s gruesome murder, content she believes could be too intense for teenage readers.
“It’s not about the author or the awards,” said Murphy, a mother of four whose eldest son had nightmares after reading “Beloved” for his senior-year Advanced Placement English class. “It’s about the content.”
The Fairfax County School Board voted Thursday against hearing Murphy’s challenge, but she vowed to continue her quest. She said she plans to take her complaint to the Virginia Board of Education, where she will lobby for policies that will give parents more control over what their children read in class.
The Murphy case raises complex questions about constitutional rights, academic freedom and the preservation of childhood innocence. It’s mainly for those reasons that book challenges have been the subject of controversy for decades.
A Lake Braddock Secondary School Parent-Teacher-Student Association member, Murphy, 45, has been seeking for six months to have “Beloved” banned until new policies are adopted for books assigned for class that might have objectionable material.
The odds were stacked against Murphy’s challenge from the beginning, and she knew it.
Fairfax County schools in certain cases have limited books for distribution only to older students, but it has never banned a book outright. According to records, the School Board has reviewed just 19 books since 1983.
If teachers wish to show excerpts from an R-rated movie in class, such as the 1998 film adaptation of “Beloved,” starring Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover, they must notify families two weeks ahead and receive written permission from parents. The school system uses content filters to monitor what students can access on the Internet. But for books, teachers don’t need to give notice.
“I’m not some crazy book burner,” Murphy said. “I have great respect and admiration for our Fairfax County educators. The school system is second to none. But I disagree with the administration at a policy level.”
An epic tale of slavery and survival, “Beloved” is told from the point of view of a mother haunted by the death of her child — a 2-year-old girl she kills to save from a life spent in bondage. The bestseller, published in 1987, is one of the most challenged works in the United States, ranking 26th on the American Library Association’s list of top 100 most frequently banned books of the past decade.
“It’s a painful part of the African American history in parts of this country,” said the ALA’s director, Barbara Jones. “A lot of parents understandably want to protect their children from that. . . . However, we would strongly advise people to read the book as a whole before they make a judgment.”
The number of book challenges across the country has significantly declined in recent years, from about 750 reported challenges in the mid-1990s to about 325 in 2011, according to the ALA, although many cases are unreported.
Book challenges historically have sparked debate in the Washington region. The Loudoun County public school system has never banned a book but has restricted some selections to certain age groups, said Wayde Byard, a schools spokesman. He said that book challenges are infrequent and that appeals rarely reach the county School Board.
In Montgomery County, book challenges also are rare, said Dana Tofig, a schools spokesman. Since 2009, the school system has received seven challenges of instructional texts, Tofig said, and none of challenges reached the county Board of Education.
Murphy’s campaign began last spring after her son, Blake, then a Lake Braddock senior, told her “Beloved” disturbed him.
“I don’t shelter my kids, but I have to be a responsible parent,” said Murphy, who lives in Fairfax Station. “I want to make sure every kid in the county is protected.”
Now a freshman at the University of Florida, Blake Murphy, 19, recalled reading the book before bed and having night terrors after he fell asleep.
“It was disgusting and gross,” he said. “It was hard for me to handle. I gave up on it.”
School officials point out that AP English is a college-level class that often involves discussions of adult topics.
“To me, mature references means slavery or the Holocaust,” Laura Murphy said. “I’m not thinking my kid is going to be reading a book with bestiality.”
In a letter to parents referencing the challenge, Lake Braddock English department officials wrote that society must address troubles the world faces.
“Reading and studying books that expose us, imaginatively and safely, to that trouble steels our souls to pull us through our own hard times and leads us to a greater empathy for the plight of our fellow human beings,” the letter said.
Murphy’s challenge reached the school board in late December. In a 6-2 vote announced Thursday, the board decided against hearing Murphy’s case and upheld Superintendent Jack D. Dale’s decision to retain “Beloved,” in the AP English curriculum.
Currently, students can opt out of books assigned in class that they find uncomfortable to read. But the policy should be stricter for books with mature themes, Murphy argues.
She said she contacted the state Board of Education and is pursuing a policy similar to what is in place for the state’s Family Life Education curriculum, in which topics such as rape and molestation are discussed. In those classes, state policy allows for parents to receive notice of certain class topics. Parents also can remove their children from the program.
“School policies related to sensitive topics should be the same,” regardless of the class subject, Murphy said. “Clearly a double standard exists, and it should be consistent across all academic disciplines.”