Saturday, May 17, 2014

Drawing Hanged Men and Other Forbidden Things

It just so happens that there was a curious item in the news recently, about a child in middle school who got in trouble over a doodle of a hanged man. He was suspended from school, but that was the least of his troubles. The principal called the police, and the child was interrogated without legal counsel and without the consent of his parents over the content of his drawing.

This violation of a minor's civil rights seems to be not an isolated incident, but an ongoing process in this country. People are not merely afraid of violence. They are afraid of the representation of violence, no matter how crude. It's as if they fear that just thinking about a hanging will cause a hanging to take place.

When I commissioned the cover of Theodosia and the Pirates: The War against Spain, Colleen Dick and I actually discussed the possibility of having a hanged man in the painting. We eventually decided that would be too distracting, as it would draw the focus away from Jean Laffite and his family and their reactions. So there is only an empty noose in the picture to conjure up the idea of hanging a man. You can read more about that in this interview with Julia Hanna.

I remember once when I was in 5th grade, I drew a picture of a naked woman in my spelling workbook. Spelling was at the time my worst subject, because I had spent third and fourth grade in Israel, writing only in Hebrew, and the English spelling system is rather a mess. Anyway, one day when I was absent, all the children in the class took my spelling notebook out of my desk and passed around the picture. It was not that great as a work of art, but it was representational, and one could clearly tell what it was. They each took a moment to look at the picture, then they put it back. I am sure that the teacher saw it, too. One of them told me about it later, and I was warned by my friend  not to draw things like that on a workbook again. But I never got in trouble.

I am not sure how a naked woman compares to a hanged man in the list of taboo subjects, but I do think things were much better back then, in terms of first amendment rights of small children at school.

In Theodosia and the Pirates, sex and violence do play a role, but they are rarely the focus. The focus is on how people react to those things, not on the things themselves. I enjoy writing about that period in American history, because the issues were so much clearer then, even when the government behaved badly. The question was not whether hanging was a bad or a good thing or whether children were allowed to think about it. The question was more about who deserved to be hanged and who had a right to hang people and why. It was a simpler time.


  1. When I was in elementary school, a lot of the children played "Hanged Man" as a guessing game. The leader would draw some blank lines to represent the letters in a word for the game, and the players would each offer a possible letter to answer the word puzzle. Each wrong answer caused a line to be drawn in the diagram representing the hanged man: first the scaffold, then the legs, then the body, then each arm, and finally the round head at the top of the scaffold. If the game got to the head and completed the "hanged man," the leader of the game won.

    1. Yes, they played that game when I was in school, too. I wonder if it's forbidden now!

  2. I think our society is becoming so hyper-sensitive to anything related to violence that it has gone beyond common sense into the realm of idiocy. I don't understand the catalyst for it - school shootings perhaps and the resulting stupid regulations that the schools developed afterwards. Another good example of bad laws being written at the height of emotion and by people who just want to "do something" to make themselves *feel* better.
    When will it stop? I'm afraid the answer to that is never. Some people are trying to enact every law possible to keep us 100% safe and that is just impossible. Given the recent history of the attempts to make it socially unacceptable to say certain words (ie, "retarded"), pretty soon, we won't even be able to say "hanged man", or execution, etc.
    It's ridiculous. We're becoming a nation of Eloy - as in the movie "The Time Machine", and we'll be eaten alive by the Morlocks. Funny that was written in 1895, yet as in Ayn Rand's novels, it's all coming true today.

    1. Yes, I agree, Kathy, It is hard to see any of this ending well for us as a society.