ON A RARE RAINY NIGHT in Los Angeles, my husband lit a fire and our seven-year-old son sat on the couch to do his twenty minutes of requisite reading. On this night, he chose a Frog and Toad book, passing over more recent favorites like Mr. Gum and Captain Underpants, and turned to a story he seemed to know already called “Shivers.” In the story, Frog tells Toad a scary tale, with the explanation that we all like to get the shivers sometimes, when we know that we are safe at home, and when we know that the story is probably not true anyhow. My son read quickly, confidently, and before his reading time was up, he had finished the rest of the stories in the collection. “You’re getting to be quite the reader,” I told him as I tucked him into bed.
“I’m almost ready to read your books, right Mommy?” His reply gave me the shivers, and not in a good way.
I’ve been writing for teenagers for ten years now, and I knew the day would come when my son would be a strong enough reader to pick up one of my books. Most of them are harmless stories about girls who have crushes, or funny books about dates gone wrong, or slumber party planning. Nothing too scandalous or sexy. But two of my books will require some additional explanation before he’s allowed to read them, one a short story collection I edited, the other my memoir.
The short story collection is for young adults, and it’s about first kisses. There’s no sex in the book, just some general longing, crushing, and a few chaste smooches. What caused me to get scads of hate mail (along with some scathing notices on book review websites) was the inclusion of two short stories written by gay authors. In both of those stories, the narrators have that “ah-hah” moment where they realize they are attracted to, and would rather kiss, members of the same sex. As the editor of the collection, I felt the book was chaste and sweet and funny because there was no sex of any kind — straight, queer, or otherwise. It never crossed my mind that people would object to kissing. Almost all of the letters I received complaining about the “gay” stories were from readers who had bought the book to support a Mormon author who wrote a story for the collection. The letters said things like “I bought this book for so-and-so’s story, and not to read smut! How could you publish something like this for children? What’s wrong with you?” The way they phrased their accusations, I felt that I had done something wrong, like I had tricked a bunch of Mormons into reading gay porn. “Would you let your child read this? You should be ashamed of yourself!” one letter said. At the time, my son was only three years old, and had a best friend with gay dads. How would I feel about him reading it? I really wouldn’t mind. There wasn’t anything wrong with the stories in the book. The trickier part would be explaining why people hated his mother for publishing it, something he would certainly not understand at three, and probably won’t understand for a long time.
The book I’m more concerned about is my memoir, co-written with my dad, which tells the true crime events of my childhood, beginning when I was nine with the attempted murder of my police officer father and following our subsequent round-the-clock protection and eventual secret relocation. My son has no knowledge of these events. He knows that Grampie talks funny because he had an accident, but he doesn’t know his injuries were the result of being shot in the head. He has noticed the long scars on his grandfather’s abdomen and throat, but has never asked where they came from. When the CBS TV show, 48 Hours came to film an episode about us, I sent my son away to Disneyland for the day, then to relatives on Martha’s Vineyard, far from the cameras and interviews. I wanted then, and want now, for him to remain innocent about these events for as long as possible. But now that we’re nearing the time when he — and his more advanced friends at school — could actually pick up a copy of our memoir, in which Dad and I give detailed explanations of everything that happened to us, I wonder how long I’ve got.
I remember passing around forbidden books in grade school — Judy Blume’s Wifey and Forever, and of course, Flowers in the Attic, the scandalous sexy passages dog-eared for easy reference. Will my books become those books at my son’s school? The terrible things people said about me and my “smut peddling” now the whispers of fellow parents? Or will stories of murder and mangled bodies in my memoir be the forbidden pages passed around? I’m not ashamed of either book, or of anything I’ve written, but I’m also not sure if I’m ready for my son and his friends to read them just yet.
A friend of mine doesn’t do the Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, or Santa Claus with her two sons because she says she doesn’t believe in lying to children. In my thinking, there is a difference between lying and not telling the whole truth, especially when children are involved. I believe in a happy childhood, maybe because I didn’t have one. I think about my parents and how hard they’d worked to protect my two brothers and me from the horrible things that happened to us and around us. Some things were impossible to hide. That Dad was in the hospital suffering from shotgun wounds. That someone wanted to kill him, and the rest of us. But some of the events from those days — the other murders and missing people that led up to Dad’s shooting — I learned about only as an adult, researching the memoir. My parents never wanted us to know. They would have kept the horrible things hidden from us forever if they could. Learning about these events in my thirties, I’m thankful to my parents that I didn’t have to know everything at age nine.
My son does not know real tragedy, not yet, mostly because it hasn’t happened to him, or because we just haven’t told him. And it’s here that I hope we aren’t doing him a disservice. In my reasoning, soon enough something bad will happen to my son that I can’t control. Someone will break his heart. A trusted friend will turn against him. He will lose a big tennis match. Someone he loves will die. And now that he’s seven, now that he can read, I’m beginning to see that my protection only goes so far. Soon he will read my memoir, and know what happened to his mother, to his uncles, and to his grandparents, just like anyone else who watched us on 48 Hours. Soon he will hear stories at school about the kind of life his mother has had, and about the type of books I write, complete with gay kissing and murdered teenagers. And he will be able to read these books himself. For now, I’m thankful for the mornings when he doesn’t drop my hand the second we enter the schoolyard, the nights when I feel that I still have some say in the bad things that come into his life, and for every moment that I can, as his mother, keep the real-life shivers away.