It was racy, they said. It made them uncomfortable, they said. And they said it was anti-religion.
“I feel as if I would have to compromise my personal Christian moral beliefs to read it,” Grasso wrote in the post, as the Duke Chronicle reported.
Released in 2006, the graphic novel, a New York Times bestseller that spawned a Tony Award winning Broadway musical, was showered with high praise.
“A comic book for lovers of words!” the New York Times wrote in 2006. “Bechdel’s rich language and precise images combine to create a lush piece of work — a memoir where concision and detail are melded for maximum, obsessive density. She has obviously spent years getting this memoir right, and it shows.”
The book’s stellar reputation is perhaps what led it to be taken up by Duke’s “Common Experience” selection committee, which chose “Fun Home” over tamer fare such as Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains.”
“’Fun Home’ is a book like no other,” Ibanca Anand, a student member of the Duke Common Experience selection committee, said at the time the book was chosen. “The author uses the unique graphic medium to tell a story that sheds a lot of light on important and weighted issues like mental health, interpersonal relationships and human rights, all critical issues that students will become acquainted with in college.”
Some weren’t impressed.
“I thought to myself, ‘What kind of school am I going to?’” freshman Elizabeth Snyder-Mounts told the Chronicle.
The rejection of “Fun Home” by some in Durham, N.C., comes amid an ongoing debate about trigger warnings on college campus. Trigger warnings, often championed by groups perceived as liberal, caution students that material may be considered offensive or traumatizing for those who have experienced, for example, racism or sexual abuse. Some have said that trigger warnings be attached to texts previously thought uncontroversial such as Greek mythology and “The Great Gatsby.”
“It seems that mostly conservative sites and writers are concerned with the increasingly draconian suppression of free speech on college campuses,” Kathleen Parker, a conservative columnist for The Washington Post, wrote earlier this year. “But then, it is mostly conservative writers and speakers who are treated as though they’re bringing the Ebola virus rather than contrarian ideas to the sensitive ears of what we may as well name the ‘Swaddled Generation.’”
Yet at Duke, it was conservative Christian readers who refused to take up an allegedly offensive text — one written not by an author on the margins, but one praised even by the Wall Street Journal. No, the reading wasn’t required — it wasn’t even part of a course. But could readers simply dismiss Bechdel’s work not because they had read it and disliked it, but because they deemed the work too offensive to consider in the first place?
Some seemed to think so.
“Duke did not seem to have people like me in mind,” Grasso said, as the Chronicle noted. “It was like Duke didn’t know we existed, which surprises me.”
The selection committee, it should be noted, was aware that “Fun Home” might make waves.
“Because of its treatment of sexual identity, the book is likely to be controversial among students, parents and alumni,” selection committee member Simon Partner, a professor of history and director of the Asian/Pacific Studies Institute at Duke, said when the book was chosen. “I think this, in turn, will stimulate interesting and useful discussion about what it means, as a young adult, to take a position on a controversial topic.”
Moreover, the selection of “Fun Home” as reading for incoming freshman has been criticized before — in 2013, at the College of Charleston in South Carolina.
The book was also criticized after it was used in a course at Crafton Hills College in California in earlier this year.
“It was shocking,” student Tara Shultz said. “I didn’t expect to open the book and see that graphic material within. I expected ‘Batman and Robin,’ not pornography.” She added: “At least get a warning on the books.”
Some criticism of “Fun Home” in schools and elsewhere has focused on the fact that it is not a novel, but a graphic novel.
“The nature of ‘Fun Home’ means that content that I might have consented to read in print now violates my conscience due to its pornographic nature,” Duke freshman Jeffrey Wubbenhorst told the Chronicle.
Though not immediately available to comment on this story, Bechdel has defended her book against similar detractors in the past.
“Fun Home” “takes family secrets and drags them into the light of day,” Bechdel said two years ago as the Charleston controversy unfolded. “… Most families have secrets of one kind or another, and I think we start to become curious about them when we reach young adulthood and are trying to figure ourselves out in relation to our parents.”