Palmetto Family conservative group concerned about College of Charleston's freshman book selection

The cover of “Fun Home,” required reading for incoming freshmen at College of Charleston. Buy this photo

Caroline Mikulski can't understand why the College of Charleston's freshman book selection “Fun Home” is so controversial that a conservative group is considering taking action.

Some freshman book selections

Charleston Southern University, “Why College Matters to God,” by Rick Ostrander.

Clemson University, “The Iguana Tree,” by Michel Stone.

Coastal Carolina University, “Start Something That Matters,” by Blake Mycoskie

The Citadel, “We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young,” by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore, USA, (Ret.) and Joseph L. Galloway.

University of South Carolina, “The Postmortal,” by Drew Magary.

Winthrop University, “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,” by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer.

Mikulski, an 18-year-old from Summerville, said she has begun reading the book, a graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel, a well-known cartoonist and author of the long-running strip “Dykes to Watch Out For.”

In “Fun Home,” which Bechdel has written and drawn in comic-strip form, she describes her childhood with a closeted gay father, who was an English teacher and owner of a funeral home; the trial he faced over his dealings with young boys; his possible suicide; and her own coming out as a lesbian.

Mikulski said she's found nothing objectionable in the part she has read so far. “If you're going to college, you should be able to read something that has lesbians and gays in it. They are part of the world,” she said.

Her mother, Melissa Mikulski, said she's not concerned about the reading assignment, but she isn't surprised someone is complaining. “There always is,” she said.

Oran Smith, president and chief operating officer of Palmetto Family, which works in association with the national groups Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council, said he has “a strong concern” about the book. “I found it very close to pornography,” he said, “way over the top.”

The book was brought to his attention by an out-of-state parent whose child was assigned the book at a College of Charleston freshman orientation, he said. He subsequently sent an email to about 10,000 supporters on the group's email list with the subject line: A Shocking Summer Reading Assignment!

The email included a description of the College of Charleston's book selection for incoming freshmen along with those of other state colleges and universities, which to some people could seem less controversial. And it asks them how it compares with the other selections.

Smith said he wanted to gather feedback from supporters before taking any action. And so far, most of the feedback he has received about the book is negative.

He's not sure yet what action his group might take. “We don't think this book should be banned in America,” he said. “We don't think it should be burned. It's just not appropriate for college freshmen.”

He also questioned whether a public university should be purchasing this book and paying for a visit by the author with state money.

College of Charleston spokesman Mike Robertson said the college spent about $39,000 on 4,000 books to distribute to freshmen, something it does every year. It also will spend about $13,000 for Bechdel's campus visit in October.

In an email response to questions from The Post and Courier, Bechdel said many colleges, universities and high schools have assigned students her 2006 book. She's not aware of any previous complaints.

And she doesn't think the book is pornographic. Pornography is meant to cause sexual arousal in readers, she said, which is clearly not the intent of her book.

The book, she said, “takes family secrets and drags them into the light of day.” And many people can relate to the power of family secrets, she said. “Most families have secrets of one kind or another, and I think we start to become curious about them when we reach young adulthood and are trying to figure ourselves out in relation to our parents.”

College of Charleston Provost George Hynd said the school isn't considering changing the book selection. The college strives to be a diverse and safe place for all students, and to teach students to listen to each other and engage in respectful conversation. The book is consistent with those goals, he said.

Associate Provost Lynne Ford said the book was selected by a committee made up of faculty members, administrators, staff and students. The group solicits recommendations for books from the campus community and the public.

She thinks the book is especially appropriate for freshmen because it deals with questions of identity, including, “Who am I and how do I fit in?”

“The book,” she said, “will help students to learn that they are not unique. Our experience is shared by millions.”

Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich.

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