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Students Fight for 'Sophie's Choice'

Education: La Mirada High pulled the novel from its library after a parent complained about sexual content. A lawsuit is threatened.

December 22, 2001|DUKE HELFAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Kat Kosmala calls it censorship, plain and simple.

Her school in La Mirada yanked "Sophie's Choice" from library shelves in September after a parent complained about the novel's sexual content.

The decision set off a prolonged protest by Kosmala and other students at La Mirada High, who want the work about a tormented Holocaust survivor back in the library.

"Sophie's Choice" is still missing from the school. The ACLU is gearing up to sue the Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District if it isn't replaced. And, on Friday, even the literary lion who penned the book 22 years ago weighed in with his contempt.

"I don't believe it's anybody's right to decide what I should read and what I shouldn't read," said Kosmala, 18, who has since found her own copy of the book to read. "If they are offended by the book, they don't have to read it."

La Mirada High was closed Friday for the holiday break and Principal Andrew Huynh could not be reached for comment. But district officials defended the principal's decision to remove the book, if only temporarily. One school board member said Huynh followed a policy that requires schools to review any instructional materials that parents find objectionable.

But author William Styron, reached at his home in Connecticut, expressed outrage at the thought of any book being pulled from a school library.

"I think it's reprehensible. I find it shocking," said Styron, who won the American Book Award for his 1979 novel. "It's improper to allow people to be browbeaten about books in this country."

The brouhaha erupted shortly after school started in September, with the complaint of one parent. Joseph Feres took his 17-year-old daughter to find "Sophie's Choice" at a local public library. The girl had picked the book from a supplemental reading list in her 12th-grade English literature class.

Feres leafed through the book and found passages that used profanity and described a variety of sexual acts. The father quickly fired off letters to La Mirada High administrators, school board members and local church leaders decrying what he saw. He also met with Huynh, voicing concern about the teacher who recommended the book.

"There are ways to teach life lessons without getting into the gutter to teach it. You don't have to use profanity and extreme sexual content," he said in an interview. "What made it hard for me to understand was why a teacher would promote a book like this. I'm not saying the book should be banned. That's not what I'm about. It's just not appropriate for high school kids."

The principal wrote Feres back and informed him that the book had been removed from the library and that his daughter's English teacher had been given a series of directives, including to "immediately remove 'Sophie's Choice' from her approved list of literature."

In his letter to the parent, Huynh also said that a conference was held with the teacher, "informing her of the inappropriateness of allowing 'Sophie's Choice' as a high school reading selection."

Styron's novel explores the themes of evil and morality through three central characters: a Polish survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp, her Jewish lover in New York and a young Southern novelist.

Sophie is saved from emotional and physical despair by Nathan, a psychotic genius who becomes her lover but abuses her mentally and physically.

Styron learned about the school's action from a reporter Friday. He initially seemed surprised, then slightly agitated, saying he applauded the students' fight for freedom of choice.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author defended his use of sexual language and imagery in the novel, saying they helped fill out the nature of the characters.

"I don't believe in writing raw sexuality for sexuality's sake," Styron said. "Even so, I don't think there's anything wrong with it. But artistically explicit sex does illuminate character when it's done well with sincere artistic intent. I certainly don't think that any of the sexuality in the book is gratuitous. There is a purpose for all of it."

Some La Mirada High students who have read the book agreed with its 76-year-old author.

"It's something that's essential to understanding the characters and thus the plot," said Jennifer Christy, 17, who checked the book out of the public library. "It had great relevance to the story."

In the days after the book was removed from the library, Christy and Kosmala passed around a copy of Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451"--another book that once faced condemnation--so students could sign their names in the margins as a sign of protest.

Kosmala talked to students and teachers about her concerns. Some teachers suggested that she call the American Civil Liberties Union.

The organization and a private law firm wrote a letter to the school this week demanding that the book be replaced by the time school resumes. The lawyers threatened a lawsuit if the deadline is not met.

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