Author, actress ALICE GRECZYN
The title caught my eye between blurs of harried travelers: Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers.
Sacrilege! I thought. Mustn’t look.
But the red and gold cover tempted me like the devil himself. Loudspeakers announced flight numbers in monotone stability while my heart committed vertigo. I stepped closer to the display table. Blasphemy! I glimpsed the name of the author, Thich Nhat Hanh. Liar! I picked up the book with quaking fingers. Damned!
I was 20 years old and had never read nonfiction from anywhere but a Christian bookstore. Hudson Booksellers might as well have been the Tree of Knowledge. The innocuous paperback in my sweaty palms felt like holding the crevice to a canyon of no return, and I imagined demons rubbing their hands like gleeful flies as I read the back cover, giving Satan a foothold. The demon-flies buzzed ecstatic.
Knowing I might be a goner but praying for the protection of angels anyway, I opened the book mid-flight and braced. Nothing bad happened. Not even a bump of turbulence. I read the monk’s meditations on Christlike Buddhism with a pounding heart.
Thich Nhat Hanh did not suggest Jesus and Buddha had been literal brothers. Rather, he presented Christ’s teachings alongside the Buddha’s in a way that made it impossible for me to deny their similarities. My mind exploded with questions above an autumn patchwork of fields. Other religions cared about the teachings of Jesus? I’d been forbidden from even thinking of exploring other faiths. Was it possible reincarnation was real? That the soul didn’t simply reside in heaven or hell when we died but recycled on some cosmic mission? Was it further possible that Jesus was actually Buddha in another body?
My thoughts screeched to a halt. God might allow the plane to crash if I pondered any more blasphemy.
But back in LA, my curiosity only intensified. Going Home was my gateway drug to intellectual sovereignty. Questions I’d never dared to ask drove me to the library in search of other spiritual texts, which led to psychological texts, which led to books on quantum theory and astrophysics and histories of the world. Although I feared the expansion of my mind, my need to know what was real took precedent. I wanted to know the truth. Each book I read in search of answers only left me with more questions.
Thich Nhat Hanh was the first author to open me to the world of theoretical exploration. As a Buddhist monk, he may not have intended for his work to encourage the eventual embrace of nonbelief—of outright atheism, which is where I find myself today. But I like to think that what the Vietnamese monk and I have in common is the courage to question.
Stepping outside the boundaries of my former faith liberated me from its fear-driven clutches. The slope was indeed as slippery as everyone warned it would be, but instead of leading into flames, it led me to freedom.
Journalist, LGBTQ and freethought activist
A book you’ve never heard of changed my life.
In the late sixties, while working as a reporter on The Star newspaper in South Africa, I got a tip-off from a furious librarian. She’d been ordered by the Publications Control Board to remove copies of Black Beauty from her shelves.
At the time, SA had the most draconian censorship laws in the world, but the Board operated under a cloak of semi-secrecy, and items it banned – ranging from the movie Zulu to posters proclaiming “Black is Beautiful” – were listed only in The Government Gazette, a publication few ever read.
The only publication created to encapsulate a full list of all banned items – around 50,000 books, movies and even classical statuettes – was Jacobsen’s Index to Objectionable Literature, which could only be found in libraries.
I had never heard of it until I got that call, and I scurried off to the library where I spent hours extracting examples from Jacobsen’s of lunacies perpetrated by the censors, headed by an antiquated Calvinist called Jannie Kruger, who – please don’t laugh – was later awarded an honorary doctorate in literature!
I was so fired up by Jacobsen’s that I implored my editor to allow me to write a weekly column that would pull no punches in ridiculing the censors’ decisions, and I was given the green light to do just that.
It was a short-lived column. Kruger was livid and was instrumental in having legislation passed that made it a criminal offense to criticize his Board.
However, an entertainment magazine, TimeOut, invited me to restart the column for its readers. Soon after, the magazine was banned outright.
While scouring the pages of Jacobsen’s I learned that The Freethinker magazine I now edit was on the banned list, as were all publications deemed to “promote” atheism.
From that point on, I used Jacobsen’s to point me to publications I desperately wanted to read, and I drew up a list that I sent to friends and relatives abroad, begging them to post them to me. And they dutifully obliged.
In particular, as an ardent science fiction fan, I wanted to read some of the banned novels written by atheist Harry Harrison, especially his virulently anti-Christian The Streets of Ashkelon (1962). It is now available online, and tells of the horrors unleashed by a Christian missionary on a far-off planet.
When I was forced to leave the country for my involvement with the banned African National Congress and the Communist Party – a warrant had been issued for my arrest in 1973 – I sought asylum in the UK.
There, two incredible things inspired by Jacobsen’s happened. I began writing for The Freethinker, and became friends with Harrison, who had left the US and was living a few miles from me. He was a regular at the Mitre Pub in Brighton, where a group of science-fiction fans and writers regularly met.
Jacobsen’s, a book no-one’s ever heard of, had changed the course of my life.
Author, folklorist, sex educator JEANA JORGENSEN
I first read Cunt: A Declaration of Independence by Inga Muscio when I was 16 or 17 years old, and I knew immediately that I would have to wait a couple of years for my younger sister to be old enough to read it. This was the book that cemented my feminism, that had me experimenting with sea sponges and other menstrual contraptions rather than buying tampons and pads, and that taught me to speak of these topics without shame.
I already knew something was wrong with the world; it was one reason I retreated into books as a child, being slow to seek out friends and a social life as a teen. I knew that my life was comparatively comfy, that hardship would take a while to find my middle-class Californian family. But I knew that difficulties and judgments awaited me, and Cunt helped me put a finger on why: because I share the condition, along with roughly half of humanity, of being a woman. My mere existence in certain spaces would be enough to invite disparaging comments about my intellectual or sexual worth, or even to invite assault. My reproductive rights would be constantly embattled. My role in society would be constantly questioned. After all, why would cunt be a bad word, if not to demonize women’s bodies, sexualities, and selves?
As a teenager, I had already settled on some form of agnosticism, so I knew the bullshit most religions peddled about womanhood needn’t apply to me. And yet.
Religion is only one source for misogyny; plenty of other arenas of culture uphold tired gender roles, from the law and medicine to the educational system and entertainment. Even benevolent, humorous forms of sexism are detrimental: anyone who firmly believes in an essential, eternal, universal difference between genders is likely contributing to women’s inequality, and Cunt taught me that. From frank discussion of abortion to masturbation to rape, the book was a revelation. Somehow, I never took a women’s studies class in college, but I arrived at grad school ready for a gender studies PhD minor, and that’s in large part thanks to Cunt.
Rereading Cunt now, I appreciate Muscio’s spunky voice, seeing in it the seeds of my own at-times irreverent blogging voice. I see the unfortunate exclusion of transgender and non-binary people (many of whom are impacted by misogyny) in the 1st edition of the book, which Muscio attempted to remedy in the 2nd edition. I see the ways in which Muscio points readers towards understanding the intersectional oppression of women due to race, social status, and citizenship. All these concepts have become a part of me, have influenced how I walk in the world.
Cunt taught me to question patriarchal authority, to seek common cause with fellow women and other oppressed folk, and to give a giant middle finger to anyone who implies that feminine things are tinged with shame. Cunt was indeed a declaration of independence for my teenage self – and I’ve not looked back.