Susan’s Inside Writing: The Banned Book


I really shouldn’t be surprised at the demand to find out what the banned book in the previous outtake was.

And okay, you caught me. There is a book in mind. The book that inspired this whole outtake, in fact.

I don’t remember the entire story, as I’ve done my best to block out most of my high school years (despite running into a former classmate yesterday on her way to her wedding), but here’s what I do recall:

It was senior year. One of the most popular teachers was the wrestling coach, who taught two classes for seniors: government, which was for the higher-thinking students, and survival skills, which was for the kids who weren’t going to college. It was a class about how to get a car loan, how to manage a credit card… you know. Survival skills.

I took government and loved the teacher. Loved his style: energetic, demanding, and never ever humiliating. If you fell asleep in his class, he didn’t make a big deal of it. He just handed you a detention slip on your way out the door. (although I remember him giving one to Gorgeous Jimmy during class. Woke the poor guy up, too, when that paper slid under his arm.)

So I took survival skills the next semester, even though it was “beneath” me, everyone said. Like learning how to be financially responsible is beneath ANYone? (Nope, not going to get all political here. Sorry.)

Anyway, it was this teacher who told me that our school district had banned ONE book in district history. ONE. And he had a copy of it. If I didn’t tell anyone, he’d slip it to me and let me read it on the QT, at home. I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone where I’d gotten it, how I’d heard of it, or anything.

I should feel bad about breaking this confidence, but it’s been almost 20 years. (Yep, I’m that old) It’s also something I’ve — clearly — never forgotten. The whole experience had this much impact on me. It’s one of my few good memories of high school.

The book was Johnny Got His Gun. Here’s how describes it:

Johnny Got His Gun holds a place as one of the classic antiwar novels. First published in 1939, Dalton Trumbo’s story of a young American soldier terribly maimed in World War I — he “survives” armless, legless, and faceless, but with mind intact — was an immediate bestseller. This fiercely moving novel was a rallying point for many Americans who came of age during World War II, and it became perhaps the most popular novel of protest during the Vietnam era.

Let me tell you, if I hadn’t been anti-war before reading this book, there’s no way you can put it down and still be anti-war. It WAS disturbing, and that was the reason it had been banned (I believe that the school actually used to teach it, which is something I think SHOULD be done with controversial books. Informed minds and all…). It was also excruciating to read. I mean, there’s little dialogue ’cause the main character has no face. There’s no action ’cause the guy can’t exactly walk around with no legs.

This story doesn’t end here, though. You music fans may recognize the book title. It inspired a rather famous song (and a band’s first music video, which set the entire world of videos on its ear and ushered in the Golden Era of Hetfield.). Yup, around the time I was reading Johnny Got His Gun, so were a couple of guys who played in a band you might have heard of: Metallica. The song? One.

You know, I’ve never been able to listen to One comfortably. It brings back memories of sitting on my mom’s couch with that book, thinking all these angry thoughts about how stupid war is, and how powerless I was to change the world and get rid of war. It brings back memories of that excruciating reading experience.

Hard as it was, it changed me.

And for that, I’d like to thank that wrestling coach-cum-teacher.



  1. Robin

    October 5, 2008 10:02 am

    Everyone should have one teacher in high school who blows their teenage complacency right out of the water. Mine was Mr. Perell and the legend of the Nacirema.BR/BR/(And you bumped into her when she was on the way to her wedding? What are the odds of that…)

  2. Susan Helene Gottfried

    October 5, 2008 10:04 am

    I know! She was leaving the salon after having the boys (well, I think it was one of the women, but the salon is owned by two men) put her veil in. BR/BR/Oddly, I think we both recognized each other. After she left, I scurried over to Tomas and asked if the bride was who I thought. And she was!

  3. Theresa

    October 5, 2008 10:34 am

    Susan, thanks for revealing the book. The intensity of your explanation makes the story come alive even more.BR/BR/I had a 10th grade English teacher by the name of Kathy Bragg that was the one who lit my fire for writing. Her first assignment of the year was to write an autobiographical description of one event within the past year, and I wrote about my dog getting hit by a car while I was riding my horse. She became a good friend for several years after my school days.BR/BR/But, even though I grew up during the Vietnam War era and was part of the flower child culture, I don’t remember Johnny Got His Gun, and I don’t believe any books were banned – except Fear of Flying, maybe. I’m a hoarder of books, still have the books I read as a teenager, and I reread them too. I come away with very different reactions to them than I did way back in the 1970s.BR/BR/Susan, I am very glad to have found your blog. It is a joy!

  4. bunnygirl

    October 5, 2008 10:36 am

    I’ve never read that book but I’ll have to add it to my reading list.BR/BR/It’s so amazing what kind of influence a really remarkable teacher can have on us. I guess that’s why people who are afraid of new ideas go on to ban books. Crazy stuff, since after a certain age, a strong moral foundation and critical thinking skills work a lot better than ignorance. But that requires work on the part of the parent when the kids are still quite young and I guess a lot of people don’t have confidence that they’ve done that part right. Or something.BR/BR/As for the survival skills class, that sounds like the sort of thing that should’ve been required for everyone. It should be required today, too, given how many kids get out of college with tens of thousands of dollars of credit card debt.BR/BR/In my school district we learned some of those things in eighth grade, like writing checks and basic budgeting, but when I got out on my own at nineteen, I was baffled by things like what to look for in a lease agreement and how to get electricity turned on. Car loans? Oh, thank goodness I could take my father along or I’d still be riding a bicycle!BR/BR/Yep, we all need survival skills. Government? Not so much now that our “elected” officials think the Constitution can simply be ignored. The Constitution *I* learned in school said spending bills had to originate in the House! But hey, the thieving bankers reallyreallyreally needed that $700 billion, so let’s just forget the Constitution! And yippee–the stock market went down again ANYWAY!BR/BR/Okay, I’m ranting now. Excuse me while I slink away and do something more productive.

  5. Granny Smith

    October 5, 2008 10:47 am

    I’m glad that I followed the link to this true story. I had a teacher in eighth grade, Mr. Brown, who introduced us to ideas that were way beyond what a “normal” social studies class would include. He wasn’t fired, but he wasn’t rehired the next year. I have said, at times, that all I’ve ever learned I learned in Mr. Brown’s class. Certainly it made me into the raging pacifist that I have been ever since.

  6. Thomma Lyn

    October 5, 2008 1:19 pm

    I’m hear hear-ing your post, Susan, and Bunnygirl’s comment. BR/BR/IJohnny Got His Gun/I is now on my absolutely gotta read ASAP list. That’s higher up in priority than the regular TBR list. BR/BR/I loathed high school, too, and I’m afraid I didn’t have any teachers there who stand out in my mind. But one teacher who stands out was my eighth grade social studies teacher. He encouraged students to Ithink/I, not just memorize facts. And my very favorite teacher was Carl Sagan, whose books I read growing up. BR/BR/I simply cannot overstate the importance of critical thinking, especially in these crazy times where gullibility and credulity seem to be running rampant. Seems many people will believe anything that panders to and manipulates their emotions, even without the slightest shred of evidence. And when you give them something to fact-check with, Ithey don’t want to read it!/I They just wanna believe. I find that astounding.BR/BR/And survival skills — YES! As important as critical thinking in my book. Self-reliance is so important — I loathe it when rural people are railed against for being “anti-intellectual.” Not all of us are for one thing, not by any stretch, and for another thing, plenty of rural people place great importance on self-reliance, being able to take care of themselves, do things for themselves. If something breaks, instead of “Oh, NOOOO! (insert hand-wringing) Who am I gonna CALL?!”, it’s “Time for me to fix this.” BR/BR/A big part of being free is Inot/I being at the mercy of those who might not have your best interests at heart, whether by lacking practical skills Ior/I critical thinking skills.BR/BR/Whew, I went off on a tangent, didn’t I? 🙂

  7. Wylie Kinson

    October 5, 2008 4:06 pm

    Bravo to that wrestling/gov’t/survival skills teacher!! BR/I don’t ever remember being told that there were books we couldn’t read, back in the day. I took Catcher in the Rye out of my high school library, and read Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret when given to me by my grade six teacher. BR/The book about war SHOULD be in the curriculum. Too often war is glamorized and your young people don’t realize the absolute horrors at the core.

  8. Tilly Greene

    October 5, 2008 4:33 pm

    A new one for me and I thank you for it. Without a doubt, he handed the book to the right person! I also agree that its the tough subjects/reads that should be taught…informed minds and all.BR/BR/Hugs darlin’ – I knew it would be a great title!

  9. jupitersinclair

    October 5, 2008 5:22 pm

    Ok, I just got goosebumps…BR/I’ve stumbled here quite randomly .I was just lackadaisically clicking on someone’s blog sidebar links.BR/IJohnny Got His Gun/I is sitting right here on my desk. My left arm was actually resting on it as I was reading this post. Just…a little strange. I don’t know. Maybe it’s the cold meds talking :PBR/BR/I have a very hard time listening to any Metallica. One, because of those connotations…but then recetnly, Metallica gave their “blessing” and said they felt honored to have their music on the Torture Playlist (music that is used for torture purposed at Guantanamo Bay and other detainment facilities). I find it ironic that such an anti-war book inspired them to write One…yet now they’re supporting often unethical and horrific military tactics. It’s maddening to me…

  10. Breeni Books

    October 5, 2008 7:39 pm

    Straight to my wish list! BR/BR/Unfortunately, the teacher who had the most impact on me in high school was killed by a car jacker a few years after I graduated. Brilliant man…worked on his Ph.D. while teaching full-time. Drove an old clunker for years and as soon as he got his doctorate and bought a new car (still nothing incredibly fancy–a VW something, I believe), he gets jacked. Very sad.BR/BR/And I’ll probably be revisiting those high school friends this month. Halloween party coming up with lots of old faces.

  11. A Valdese Blogger

    October 5, 2008 7:46 pm

    I read “Johnny Got His Gun” as a teenager, on my own. I didnt read it in school, but I don’t remember it being banned. I don’t remember how I got a copy of it, but it was just a cheap paper back. Frightening stuff.

  12. ann

    October 5, 2008 8:26 pm

    It’s a shame that more teachers don’t know how to connect with their students.

  13. Jennifer

    October 5, 2008 11:23 pm

    Very interesting backstory! I have never heard of this book. I have a hard time reading anything war-related (dark stuff I can take; dark violent stuff does me in. This goes for movies, too.), but I will keep it in mind.

  14. Alice Audrey

    October 6, 2008 12:34 am

    Oh, so that’s the book. I’d never heard of it before.

  15. Julia Smith

    October 6, 2008 11:50 am

    Great back-to-back posts, Susan. I’d never heard of this book before today, but I can see why a military machine would want the book banned. How ever could they get more fresh faces to sign up for duty, having read that? Strangely, they never seem to consider that people have many reasons to serve in the armed forces – some who may actually have read ‘Johnny Got His Gun’.BR/BR/I personally think it’s bizarre in the extreme that a country which cherishes personal freedom so much has a banned-books list at all, let alone one with such ridiculous entries. Thanks for these two posts, Susan. I urge everyone to keep this list in mind when casting your vote in November. Which candidate would add more books to the list?

  16. Amy

    October 6, 2008 3:32 pm

    Banning books is wrong. I totally shake my head when I see what books are forbidden by school.BR/BR/My recent head shake is seeing Little House on the Prairie there.BR/BR/It’s ridiculous.BR/BR/Good on your teacher.

  17. FRIGGA

    October 7, 2008 2:57 pm

    Wow, how awesome of a teacher was that?!! I’ve never heard of the book, and I have no idea what books were banned or not banned at my school. I basically did my homework and read tons of fiction back then.

  18. karen!

    October 23, 2008 9:23 am

    What a great story.

  19. Lex Valentine

    October 29, 2008 2:25 am

    Rott doesn’t like to read unless it’s gun, computer or boat magazines. He loved that book though and One is his all time favorite song and video.

  20. West of Mars » Blog Archive » Fiction Outtake: Banned Books (The Early Years)

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