Monday, 6 May 2013

Anne Frank

By accident I've come across the Guardian article dated 2 May about the 'full' version of Anne Frank's diary, the latest controversy it has caused, and the implications for girls everywhere.

Anne Frank was a teenage girl who, along with her family, was trapped in the Dutch city of Amsterdam at the start of World War II, and spent most of it in a secret apartment, hiding from the occupying German authorities. Discovery would have meant instant detention and probable death in a concentration camp. The family very nearly survived the war, but in 1944, only months away from the allies' liberation of the Netherlands, they were betrayed with lethal consequences. Only the father survived. Anne herself, still a teenager, ended up in Belsen and died there of typhus in March 1945: the war in Europe ended in May 1945. While in hiding she kept a personal diary that is today reckoned to be one of the most famous of modern diaries, a remarkable document that tells how life goes on - and how girls deal with the facts of puberty - even in a wartime hideaway. Had she lived, there can be little doubt that Anne Frank would have been a remarkable woman. She remains a remarkable girl. Wikipedia has a long article on her at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anne_Frank, which gives some fascinating background. 

So, how did I find the Guardan article? I was researching an unrelated topic. This took me to the Guardian online, and then I noticed a link to an item concerning Anne Frank. I clicked on it, and went on to read what the author, Emer O'Toole, had to say.

The Guardian's website says Emer O'Toole 'is a researcher and visiting lecturer at Royal Holloway, University of London'. Well, I think she knows how to write, and the website features articles from her covering twelve months past. Most of them call attention to topics that women might well be keenly interested in. For instance, on feeling obliged by social pressures to wear a bra: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/apr/12/pros-and-cons-of-bras. Or on the death of a woman who could not get an abortion in Ireland when her life was in such jeopardy from her pregnancy that she died: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/nov/15/ireland-medieval-abortion-law-savita.

And the article she wrote on the Anne Frank controversy is at http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/may/02/anne-franks-diary-pornographic-uncomfortable-truth. I hope she won't mind if I reproduce it here:


Gail Horalek, the mother of a 7th-grade child in Michigan in the US, has made international headlines by complaining that the unabridged version of Anne Frank's diary is pornographic and should not be taught at her daughter's school. At issue for Horalek is a section detailing Anne's exploration of her own genitalia, material originally omitted by Anne's father, Otto Frank, when he prepared the manuscript for publication in the late 40s.

I had to look up what age kids are in the 7th grade. They're 12 to 13! They're only about a year younger than Anne was when she wrote of her vagina: "There are little folds of skin all over the place, you can hardly find it. The little hole underneath is so terribly small that I simply can't imagine how a man can get in there, let alone how a whole baby can get out!" There cannot be a 13-year-old girl on the planet who hasn't had a root around and arrived at this exact stage of bafflement. I mean, I was so distressed by my fanny's apparent minusculeness that I conducted a series of experiments with travel-size Body Shop shampoo bottles (too big) and hairbrush handles (still too big). I eventually came to the conclusion that, in the presence of an actual penis, some pheromonal reaction would kick in and my vagina would magically expand like a lotus blossom (an illusion of which, sadly, experience deflowered me).

Horalek, predictably, has been laughed out of town. Even commenters on the conservative Fox Detroit Facebook page, where the story "broke" last week, are disparaging. They say things like: "lmao ppl get mad about the stupidest shyt its history … maybe we should let our kids really know what happened at thanksgiving to", which, I think you'll agree, is an ideologically impressive, if grammatically troubling, observation. And so it's easy to dismiss the Horalek affair as just another mad utterance by a wacko zealot, who no one even agrees with, being whipped up into a media story so that the internet's eternal feedback loop has something to recycle. However, I think there's something slightly deeper going on.

Horalek is, of course, wrong to call the passages pornographic. Pornography is material intended to arouse sexual excitement, and I very much doubt that was Anne's intention when she wrote to her imaginary confidant Kitty about her journeys of self-discovery. But the reason Horalek gives for complaining in the first place is that the passages made her daughter uncomfortable. I can well believe this. I can imagine that if, age 13, I had been asked to read or discuss the passages in class, I would have felt deeply uncomfortable (my own nocturnal explorations notwithstanding).

Anne is going through puberty, and she describes her changed vagina in honest detail, saying, "until I was 11 or 12, I didn't realise there was a second set of labia on the inside, since you couldn't see them. What's even funnier is that I thought urine came out of the clitoris." (Oh Anne, we've all been there.) She continues: "In the upper part, between the outer labia, there's a fold of skin that, on second thought, looks like a kind of blister. That's the clitoris." It's beautiful, visceral writing, and it's describing something that most young women experience.

And yet I can understand that the junior Ms Horalek would have squirmed and wished herself elsewhere when this was read in class. We live in a society in which young women are taught to be ashamed of the changes that their bodies undergo at puberty – to be secretive about them, and even to pretend that they don't exist. Breasts, the minute they bud, are strapped into harnesses, and the nipples disguised from view. Period paraphernalia must be discreet, with advertisers routinely boasting that their tampons look enough like sweets to circumvent the social horror of discovery.

For my generation, removal of post-pubescent hair on the legs and underarms was mandatory. For Ms Horalek's generation, it is mandatory for pubic hair too. Anne writes: "When you're standing up, all you see from the front is hair. Between your legs there are two soft, cushiony things, also covered with hair, which press together when you're standing, so you can't see what's inside." How must reading this feel for pubescent girls who've already internalised the message that they must spend the rest of their lives maintaining the illusion that their body hair doesn't exist.

This media event should do more than teach us that there are laughably prudish parents out there. It should encourage us to reflect on why, when confronted with the reality of the female body and female sexuality, girls can be made to feel uncomfortable.

Dealing with this discomfort only involves censoring Anne Frank's diary if you're quite, quite odd. For the rest of us, the answer might be a little more free-flowing boob, some brazen Mooncup sterilisation, hairy legs sprinting through the summer grasses and, to use a pun that is intended as the highest compliment, Frankness about masturbation, sexuality and our bodies. Because it isn't just the Horaleks of this world who teach girls to be shameful rather than celebratory.

At the time of writing this post, four days later, her article has prompted 656 comments. I'm not going to add one myself, although I will say here that I prefer unabridged texts, and would never wish to suppress anything that appeared in a person's private diary. To do so would be to conceal what that person was really like. I accept that private thoughts can be excruciatingly embarrassing for others to read, but let those thoughts speak for themselves.

I'm not myself embarrassed by Anne Frank's descriptions of her own bits. But I do feel a poignant sensation that no natal woman can feel.

I so much wanted to discover, when I was in my early teens, that my bits were developing in a female way, so that I could find what Anne Frank had found. But they were not. When young I never had, could never have, her special moment of intense (though puzzled) self-examination. I was instead sick with shame and disappointment, and did my best to ignore what was really there. I'm sure there must be many people like me who must also feel a desperate sadness that we could not, when young, contemplate folds of skin and a thing that resembled a kind of blister.

I don't want to shanghai Anne Frank's story in any way, it's too important for that. So let's gloss over its passing resonances for trans people.

But in a wider context, the context relevant for women in general, I think that the observations, the honesties, of a girl who lived seventy years ago still speak to us today.

If she had lived, Anne Frank would have been young enough to enjoy Rock and Roll in the Fifties, and be a thirtysomething in the Swinging Sixties, when the dam burst and the pre-war world crumbled for good. She could easily still be alive today. I wonder what she would have made of our modern standards and obsessions, our Celebrity Culture, our trendy dietary solutions, our cosmetic surgery, and all the other commercialised pressures on women, and particularly young girls, to conform to an impossible (and not especially attractive) female stereotype?

2 comments:

  1. This is news to me. I read Anne Frank's Diary when I was around the age that she wrote it. I understood how she was feeling, it really spoke to me.

    I wonder what she'd think about us reading her very private words. What a pity I didn't have the chance to read everything. It would have been such a comfort to know that I wasn't strange or different.

    We had diagrams in books about periods but they were rather vague line drawings - not much help at all.

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  2. Thank you for bringing this to your readers Lucy. I do wonder what Anne would make of so many people reading her private notes.

    Your own notes on the subject of growing up disturbed by your sex resonate of course, but more, the whole issue you bring up of shame being attached to the amazing wonder that is our body.

    We still have a long way to go, for yes, we are still unsure whether it is right to be honest about how truly human and normal our heroines are.

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