VHS literature curriculum reinforces trauma
By Katherine Kirschner, Contributing Reporter
This article covers issues that could potentially be triggering, such as sexual assault and trauma. Readers are encouraged to stop reading if such topics could potentially be harmful for them. Those in need of support, please reach out to a support system, such as a trusted adult or the Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-HOPE. Vashon DOVE Project is also a fantastic resource, and has a youth advocate; find out more at https://www.vashondoveproject.org.
Almost every year since sixth grade, I have been forced to read text explicitly about the abuse and assault women face, and then expected to analyze it without crying. There are many ways we require children to carry the trauma of their ancestors, and it is time to start dismantling these systems.
Our culture is enthralled by suffering, especially by the atrocities committed against women. This is reflected in our books, movies, and songs. One consequence of this is that our curriculum is steeped in these horrors, and it leads to a system where girls are raised to believe that these destructive stories are their own inescapable fate.
I still remember the first time I was taught my body was not mine, and that some teachers would not believe me enough to punish the boys who hurt me. I remember coming to my teacher, snotty and crying, telling her that two boys had played tug-of-war using my and my friend’s bodies. I remember how my teacher told me I should “pretend like I had not told her,” and she would “watch to see if they did it again.” That was not the last time I would hear those words. I will never forget those moments, but those same lessons are still drilled into me at every opportunity.
We read about women who die not only without names, but without agency or autonomy. Curley’s wife in John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” is the epitome of this, as she is never given a name, and is killed as a result of her control of her body being overridden by a man much larger and stronger than her. But the evidence is not always that obvious. Emphasizing gender over species, as was the case in my English class when we analyzed the murder of the pig in “Lord of the Flies”, is just one more way women’s role in society is reiterated.
I have been taught to accept that my place in society is as plot device and victim. The books we read in class are rarely about women, and when they are, they frequently center around violence and trauma.
Fighting these narratives should not require R-rated descriptions of what women have been through. Yet the discourse around these issues frequently asks women to defend their responses or justify their pain. This is part of the problem because the repetition of these stories continues the practice of handing down trauma like cultural heirlooms; daughters wearing their mother’s suffering like their own scars.
By taking time to argue over what counts as assault, we forget what really matters. Fighting over the facts of the case is less important than the feelings and needs of assault victims. But in a society that contorts itself to blame everything on the victim, this basic morality is frequently lost.
We need to change the way we talk about these issues. We need to believe people when they come forward, rather than wasting time debating the details. And we need to change the stories we tell for the safety of all our students. It is well past time to begin carving these lessons out of our schools for the benefit of everyone involved.