I am glad I do not live in Cheshire, Connecticut. Townsfolk there want to control what residents can and cannot find on the shelves of the town’s library shelves. The fact that one member of the library board, Marilyn Bartoli, leads the book-banning effort calls into question why she is on a library board at all.
The hooplah involves a new book just published about the 2007 murder of members of the Petit family in Cheshire. Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky are accused of the murders. Despite a dubious gag order banning the accused and their lawyers from speaking about the case, Mr. Komisarjevsky was interviewed in prison numerous times by a reporter and sent the reporter lengthy correspondence about his life and the crime.
Brian McDonald’s "In the Middle of the Night: The Shocking True Story of a Family Killed in Cold Blood" just hit the streets. Ms. Bartoli and hundreds of Cheshire residents want to keep the book off of the shelves of the town library.
I have read the book, and there is not much to like about it: It is not well written. The author engages in the worst sort of reportorial fantasy, ascribing thoughts and emotions to persons now dead. Regular readers of Connecticut newspapers will get a massive case of the ho hum blues turning its pages.
But the book was not written for Connecticut residents.
The Petit murders rapidly became national news, a sort of anti-fairy tale: A doctor and his family assaulted in the dead of night: rape, murder, arson. These horrible crimes all took place in what remains of Eden, a middle and upper-middle class bedroom community of rolling lawns, splendid homes and the sort of mom and pop sensibilities that might appeal to Norman Rockwell. "In the Middle of the Night" stands to literature in the same way the horror film "Halloween" does to art cinema: take the wraps off our unconscious fears and set them loose in the waking world and see what happens. Some folks call it entertainment.
Although in this case, the Petit murders are not fiction. The book falls within the genre called "True Crime," and that, we know, sells. Television is awash with crime shows. Grand theologies may no longer be the preoccupation of our colleges and universities, but we still long for tales of good and evil. Somehow we now satisfy the need for orienting stories by turning to reality. I am not sure what to make of this flirtation with a death wish.
But I want the ability to make the effort. And I do not think that sticking my head in the sand is a solution to anything. Libraries are meant to be places where people can turn for information. Books are an important part of our culture; they are a vehicle through which is expressed the best and worst of what makes us human. Cheshire’s library board won’t make us better human beings by banning a book about a terrifying truth.
Ironically, "In the Middle of the Night" was published during Banned Book Month, recognized annually by the American Library Association. The library association maintains a vigil, watching over the nation’s libraries to combat censorship whenever it occurs. Among works deemed dangerous at one time or another in one library or another are the following: "Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary", John Steinbeck’s "Grapes of Wrath", Anthony Burgess’ "A Clockwork Orange", and Edgar Rice Burroughs, "Tarzan of the Apes".
"In the Middle of the Night" is not a work of literature worthy of occupying the same shelf as those just mentioned. But it is informative, nonetheless. I read the book on the Cheshire killings and came away a greater understanding of what makes a man come to the point of becoming almost indistinguishable from a beast. I say almost, because, brutal as the murders were, McDonald succeeded in rendering Kosimarjevsky in almost sympathetic terms. The book illustrates that the line separating us from the very worst that we can do to one another is exceedingly fine; I know it quivers in me.
I see no point in keeping Cheshire residents from being reminded that a beast is buried within every breast. "In the Middle of the Night" should not be banned in Cheshire, rather, Marilyn Bartoli should be banned from the library board: censorship and libraries simply do not mix.
Reprinted courtesy of the Connecticut Tribune Library.