Annie On My Mind, Nancy Garden
Power and Cultural Institutions Why Liza's Sexuality Is Seen as Threatening Censorship Bibliotherapy Language and Subjectivity The Problem Novel The Journey Outside of the Self
While Nancy Garden’s 1982 book Annie on My Mind is not the first young adult novel to deal openly with teen sexuality, it is the first popular YA lesbian novel. It discusses issues of sexuality that are still relevant 25 years later, and not surprisingly, this is one of the reasons it often provokes the ire of censors. Annie on My Mind is another example of the Entwickelungsroman, and has a good deal in common with Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War. Similar to Jerry Renault, Liza Winthrop is trying envision what sort of adult she’ll be. But Liza, a high school senior rather than freshman, has moved beyond the “dare I disturb the universe phase.” Because she is older, her personality is more set. She already knows what college she’d like to attend and what profession she would like to pursue. For Liza, the missing piece of the puzzle of her adult identity is her sexuality.
Power and Cultural Institutions: The novel begins with Liza as a college freshman still not sure about the events during her senior year of high school. As Liza recounts the year she fell in love with Annie and began to understand her sexuality, it is also clear what she has in common with Jerry Renault in The Chocolate War. Both teens are engaged in a struggle with the various institutions tasked with regulating them. In the early chapters, Liza describes her stint as student council president.
Student council, representing the student body, was supposed to run the school, instead of the faculty or administration running it. As far as I was concerned, my main responsibility as council president was to preside at meetings every other week. But Mrs. Poindexter, as headmistress, had other ideas. Back in September, she’d given me an embarrassing lecture about setting and example and being her “good right hand” and making sure everyone followed “both the spirit and the letter” of the school rules, some of which were a little screwy. (20-21)
Already two things are very clear. First, any authority that student council might have to run the school is immediately undermined by school administration. And second, the administration is also attempting to co-opt student council into an auxiliary of the school, yet another arm of this institution tasked with regulating pupils and turning them into the sort of young men and women that the adults who send their children there think they should be. We will see to what degree this institution tries, and fails, to regulate its charges, down to nearly every fiber of their being. Sally Jarrell is a good example of how the school succeeds in this arena. At the beginning of the novel, Liza observes of her that “in a world of people who seem to have come out of duplicating machines, Sally Jarrell was no one’s copy” (19). That will not be the case by the end of the term. When Sally’s piercing clinic gives Jennifer Piccolo an ear infection, she is reprimanded by Mrs. Poindexter in such a way that she is given to believe that she alone could’ve been responsible for causing Foster Academy to close as a result of her irresponsible actions. Sally buys Mrs. Poindexter’s sales pitch and emerges as a penitent, making a very public mea culpa for the error of her ways. And by the end of the novel, Sally has been transformed from someone who was no one’s duplicate to a cheerleader of traditional family values when she insists that Liza’s sexuality is a mental problem that can be addressed by medical science.
But Mrs. Poindexter is not the only one attempting to regulate the behavior of others; she’s merely the most vocal and obnoxious. There are other institutional forces attempting to “conquer” Liza’s soul, as it were. These forces are most clearly seen when Liza is caught by Ms. Baxter with Annie in Ms. Widmer’s and Ms. Stevenson’s house. When Ms. Baxter declares Annie and Liza’s sexual relationship immoral, she is invoking a very narrow and traditional idea of family to condemn them, and her sentiments are echoed and better articulated later by Mrs. Poindexter and Sally Jarrell. Mrs. Poindexter defines Liza’s relationship with Annie as “abnormal sex” (183), rather than a serious relationship, an adolescent crush, experimentation as a prelude to what she sees as normalcy. Sally says of Liza’s relationship with Annie that “it just ruins people—for getting married and having kids, and having a normal, healthy sex life—and for just plain being happy and well-adjusted” (221-22) and offers to give her the name of a good therapist to cure her of her problem. Even Liza’s mother doesn’t see her daughter’s relationship with Annie as anything more serious than an adolescent friendship that gets confused by raging hormones and a lack of knowledge about “real” love. She likens it to her own sexual infatuation with her friend June when she was a teenager. So for these individuals, the only acceptable path to womanhood involves heterosexual marriage and child rearing. Everything else is at best, mere experimentation on the part of children too young to know any better, at worst, immoral self indulgence that blights ones future. There are no other possibilities.
And Mrs. Poindexter, Ms. Baxter, Sally Jarrell and Liza’s mother are correct to some degree. In a world where people can be fired for loving a member of the same sex, denied the same legal rights and protections of heterosexual couples, and rejected by family and friends because of their sexuality, being gay can at least make one’s future happiness more difficult. Liza keeps much of the truth of her feelings for Annie from her parents, and from herself as well, due to this realization. And Annie herself opts not to tell her parents she’s gay due to similar fears.
Mrs. Poindexter, Ms. Baxter and Sally Jarrell are correct on another point. Ms. Widmer and Ms. Stevenson have influenced Liza. Certainly, Ms. Widner and Ms. Stevenson have not “influenced” Liza to be gay. Sexuality, after all, is not like buying a pair of shoes. Instead, what causes someone to be attracted to someone else is due to an extremely complex interplay of biological and cultural factors and occurs at a very deep unconscious level. Instead, Liza’s two teachers have influenced her in a way that Mrs. Poindexter would find far more dangerous if she understood it. They encourage Liza, and all of their students, really to stand up for themselves and to not be led by a mob mentality. It is Ms. Widner who encourages all of her students to love poetry as she does, and introduces Liza to the poem “Invictus” that means so much to her. Doubtless if Ms. Poindexter knew that Ms. Widner were sharing such inflammatory verse with her students she would demand that material like “Invictus” be removed from the school curricula since it could have done things such as encourage what she believes is Liza’s misguided stance against the school’s self reporting rule. And later, when Ms. Widmer and Ms. Stevenson are fired, they make it clear to Liza and Annie that it’s not the end of the world. They’ve been forced to suffer due to their relationship before, and will find new jobs again.
Foster Academy is another of those cultural institutions engaged in a power struggle to form its students into what Foucault would call a docile subject. Foster sets itself apart from public schools as a place that not only offers students a sound academic foundation, but is also a place free of "pernicious" outside influences such as drugs, violence, teen pregnancy, and even gay students. Foster encourages its students and their parents to think of themselves as apart from others, different and special. However, the class background of students who attend Foster has already encouraged this sort of thinking to some extent.
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Why Liza's Sexuality Is Seen as Threatening: When Liza tells Sally that her relationship with Annie has nothing to do with her, Sally objects, saying "oh, yes, it does have to do with me . . . Everything a person does has an effect on others" (194). One can be tempted to see Sally as just a junior version of Mrs. Poindexter, someone who is completely deluded about the degree to which her own actions affect others. But if examined in a wider context, it is possible to see that Sally has a point. Our culture is still set up to encourage heterosexuality: Not only is gay marriage illegal in most places, but heterosexual couples get tax breaks that gay couples don't, particularly if they have children, and in many places, it is only possible to give one's spouse health insurance coverage, or to give a spouse the power of attorney necessary to make medical decisions if the other is incapacitated. So in this sense, governments certainly believe that who someone loves affects us all because they encourage heterosexual marriage. Marriage benefits governments by creating relatively stable units who presumably reproduce more relatively stable units who perpetuate the society. Married people, particularly married people with children, are more likely to own homes and are hostages to fortune--more willing to go to work, obey the law, pay taxes etc. so that they can avoid trouble, maintain their level of material comfort, and care for their loved ones. Of course, gay couples do these very same things, yet ideas about religion and morality combined with negative stereotypes about gay sexuality (gays are sometimes characterized as being universally promiscuous or as pedophiles, for example) cause governments and religious institutions to actively discourage gay unions rather then see them as positive and beneficial. So in this sense, Liza's relationship with Annie is completely threatening to this sort of social order.
Liza's sexuality is further seen as threatening because it means that she rejects having a sexual relationship with a man, and even today, men are still often viewed as heads of the family who not only guide their wives and children, but control them. So her sexuality is necessarily seen as something threatening the hierarchy of gender relations. This hierarchal view of gender also explains why some people insist on seeing gay relationships as always containing a butch and femme member of the couple because they believe that someone (the masculine half) must be the boss, while someone else must be subordinate in this relationship. They cannot understand how any relationship, gay or straight, can be a relationship between equals who don't necessarily embody sexist stereotypes of gender. (Notice how Ms. Widmer and Ms. Stevenson don't conform to the butch/femme stereotype.) These same people are often even more threatened by gay male sexuality since they believe that it must always involve one member of the couple being penetrated by the other, which would make him subordinate and feminine and therefore deprive him of all of his masculinity. If Liza's sexuality is natural, then its existence questions what is popularly viewed as natural and normal.
Finally, gender is also a cultural institution. We shape children into gendered subjects before we shape them into anything else such as members of their family, their community, their culture, or their nation. Gender provides the most basic structure for a division of labor in a household and a culture (who takes care of the children, who does the heavy lifting, who makes the decisions, who cooks the meals, etc.), and jobs that are delegated to women are always lower status tasks than those delegated to men. Of course, all of these subjectivities are rooted in power relationships. To be female is to be subordinate to males. Gay sexuality threatens this normative ideal of gender because in our culture, it cannot easily be incorporated into this power dynamic which ultimately determines a hierarchal division of labor. If it's not clear who is the "man" and who is the "woman" in a couple, then the gendered division of labor is made visible when people must think more openly about things such as who does the dishes and who mows the grass, for example.
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Censorship: Not surprisingly, Annie on My Mind has been the target of censorship as it deals openly with teen sexuality, and gay sexuality at that. Some people are enraged by the novel treating a gay couple with dignity or even permitting them to exist at all within a fictional universe. Others who might not be homophobic are nevertheless disturbed that the novel discusses sexuality, believing that it will influence teens to have sex, as if the thought wouldn’t otherwise cross their minds. This last charge is particularly mystifying given that there is no explicit sex in the novel, and it also ends ambiguously rather than in on a completely upbeat note.
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Bibliotherapy: Bibliotherapy is a term used to describe how literature is often used by primary and secondary school teachers and librarians. Books, particularly ones often described as "problem novels," are given to teens to help them understand their own situations. For example, teens dealing with drug problems might be recommended books such as Go Ask Alice or Alice Childress's A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich. Bibliotherapy operates under the assumption that it is helpful to read stories about people who are in situations similar to your own. Obviously Annie On My Mind would be a good suggestion for bibliotherapy for students struggling with issues about their own or their friends' sexualities. But also notice how Annie uses bibliotherapy with Liza when she gives her the book Patience and Sarah, a lesbian love story set in Colonial New England. This book and others like it help Annie understand that she is not alone. And because Patience and Sarah is a historical novel, it gives her a sense that she as a gay woman is not a historical anomaly, but rather, a part of time. 1 Also note what happens when Liza consults an "authoritative" source about her sexuality. Her father's encyclopedia is no help at all, not telling her anything about what she felt or even mentioning love. (143).
Stories themselves are an important element of human development. We use stories to understand what has happened to us and who we are. The ability to form a coherent narrative of one's own life is an important step in dealing with problems since it allows the individual to put the event into a broader context, which in turn facilitates healing. A good example of the power of narrative is seen in Laurie Halse Anderson's novel Speak, about a girl who is raped and stops speaking for nearly a year while she attempts to sort out what happened to her.
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Language and Subjectivity: The power of these narratives also exhibits the power of language in shaping our subjectivities, our senses of who we are in relation to the world around us. We all know the power of words to define people. Stories are equally powerful in this regard. So when Annie and Liza read about Patience and Sarah, they are able to see possibilities for themselves that were not previously visible. And when gay teens read Annie On My Mind, they are similarly able to see possibilities for themselves. Note how Liza too is shaping her own sense of who she is by actively constructing a narrative of what happened during her senior year, a time that was as much about negotiating power relationships as it was about understanding her sexuality. Also note how both Liza and even Annie are reluctant to call themselves gay at certain points in the novel because in their minds, using this word "fixes" their identity. And note how Liza is offended by the definition of homosexuality she comes across in her father's encyclopedia as the word "love" was not used once in the article (143).
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The Problem Novel: Annie On My Mind is an example of the problem novel, a subgenre of adolescent literature that is often used as bibliotherapy for teens. The problem novel focuses on a problem currently faced by teens and shows its protagonist and others attempting to deal with the situation (think ABC After School special). One particularly important characteristic feature of the problem novel is that while many characters will offer the troubled teen advice, the book itself generally has an ambiguous ending. This is in part due to the novel's didactic function. Because the book is often used as bibliotherapy, it would be counterproductive if the work had a specific ending as doing so might suggest that there is only one possible way to resolve the situation. Of course, that's not the case. While the reader's own problem might be similar to that of the troubled protagonist, that problem is nevertheless embedded in a complex and specific set of circumstances, and so no one solution is the right one. Instead, the problem novel at its best encourages the reader to consider various perspectives and come up with his/her own solution to a particular situation.
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The Journey Outside of the Self: Most characters in YA literature decide to make a journey outside of their comfort zone, and as a result, learn more about their own identities within their cultures. Liza, however, doesn't choose to make such a journey. Instead, it is thrust upon her when she is expelled, twice, from Foster Academy, first for failing to report Sally Jarrell's illegal ear piercing clinic, and second, because she is gay. Both journeys teach her about her relationship with her family and with people she thought were her friends. While the novel doesn't end with her actively deciding that maybe Foster should not be saved, one wonders if she will eventually feel this way. Liza also learns what her parents expect of her, and that it will take some work before they can accept that they have a gay daughter. But most importantly, she learns more about herself, particular when she makes a second journey away from her comfort zone when she leaves for her freshman year at MIT. She stops writing Annie for a while since she is confused about their relationship, and about her own sexuality, which isn't surprising giving the overwhelmingly negative feedback she has received from so many adults in her life. Obviously, Liza wonders if maybe there is something the matter with her if so many adults assure her that what she feels is pathological rather than natural, and so she must take a good time to sort things out. The novel ends with Annie and Liza reuniting. It's not clear if they will become a serious couple along the lines of her old teachers Ms. Stevenson and Ms. Weidner, but Liza does seem at least to be more sure of her own sexuality.
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1. Queer literature in particular is a genre full of historical novels and rewriting of established texts to include gay characters. Some examples include Ellen Galford's Moll Cutpurse, a lesbian rewriting of Daniel DeFoe's Moll Flanders, Sarah Walter's Tipping the Velvet, a lesbian novel set in Victorian England, and Michael Jensen's Firelands, a novel that owes a good deal to James Fennimore Cooper's leatherstocking tales. Novels such as these are attempts to travel back in time and reveal histories of people who have always existed, but have until now been hidden.