Marginalization and book bans protect abusers, warns Iowa writer Lyz Lenz: ‘Silence always benefits power’

Students protest University of Iowa’s Phi Gamma Delta fraternity on Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021, in Iowa City. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

Growing up in a conservative evangelical family, Lyz Lenz internalized Old Testament proverbs, like, “It is better to live in a corner of the housetop than in a house shared with a quarrelsome wife.” She was conditioned to believe that anger was a bad emotion, especially if you were a girl or a woman.

As an adult, Lenz came to realize that it was OK to get mad, and she used her anger as a cocoon when she decided to walk away from an oppressive marriage.

These events inspired her to write “All the Angry Women,” an essay included in Roxane Gay’s 2018 edited collection Not That Bad. The essay chronicles Lenz’s gradual escape from the shackles of a faith that required forgiveness for abusers and which ostracized women who wore their frustration and rage on their sleeves. Embracing anger also gave her the courage to speak out about the sexual abuse that one of her sisters endured as a child. After years of being a people pleaser, and with her sister’s permission, she poured those feelings into her contribution to Gay’s book.

“My family was furious at me for years because of that essay,” Lenz said. “But it helped me reclaim my voice and my story. And it helped my sister, too. It helped a lot of my sisters. And I’ve heard from so many other people that it’s helped them too. I think being able to be furious is the first step in naming injustice and taking action. Even if that action is just reclaiming your narrative and your rights over your own body.”

Sadly, Not That Bad is one of many books banned in Iowa schools after Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a sweeping bill (Senate File 496) into law earlier this year. “Our kids and our teachers deserve better,” Reynolds claimed during an October press conference, “they deserve the tools to help these kids succeed, not a damn distraction on a nasty pornographic book that should never, ever be in a classroom.”

Much of the political messaging around the book-banning legislation revolves around the trope of “protecting children,” a position that is undermined by the cold, hard outcomes of the policies enacted by Reynolds and the state GOP.

Lenz has spent the past couple years researching and writing about the inadequacies of Iowa’s civil and criminal statute of limitations on child sex abuse cases. She has also studied the ways that the privatization of Medicaid has led to the closure of maternity wards and how the rollback of SNAP benefits negatively impacts children and mothers.

“I know that if this state was actually serious about protecting children, it would feed them, give them and their mothers reproductive care and pass laws that protect them from abusers,” Lenz said. “This state is doing nothing of the sort. Instead, it’s banning books that are designed to give people the tools to have a voice and name their abuse. Not That Bad is a book that at its core is about human beings finding a way to talk about abuse and injustice. Taking away a book like that doesn’t protect children, it protects abusers. It perpetuates harmful silences.”

Lenz pointed out that evidence-based studies have demonstrated that when kids are given access to material that talks honestly about sex and abuse, they are less likely to be abused. It is also true that if they are exposed to readings about gender identity and sexuality, it gives them a better framework for understanding themselves and the world around them.

“Silence always benefits power, because power relies on our compliance, our laziness, our complacency, our exhaustion, to continue to oppress. The challenge to power is to be loud. To tell your story. To share stories. To give those stories to children. To give language to children. It’s powerful to read a study that says if children can name their genitalia they are less likely to be abused. To me that says, ‘When you have the language you can fight abuse.’ You can talk about what happened to you.

“Queer kids, marginalized kids, are already at a structural disadvantage in a cis-heterosexual world that views them as deviant,” Lenz continued. “To further criminalize and pathologize those identities doesn’t make them go away, it simply invites violence and oppression. It makes kids feel unwanted. But I’ve met these kids and it’s gonna take more than a few book bans to get them to shut up. These kids have more guts and language than most of our elected officials, Republican or Democrat.”

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When Lenz learned that Not That Bad made the list of titles banned in the Iowa City and West Des Moines school districts, she didn’t actually feel anger. It was more a feeling of quiet resignation in the face of what she characterizes as the cruel capriciousness of Iowa politics.

Lyz Lenz, photo by Pilsen Photo Co-op

“What makes me angry isn’t really the book ban,” she said. “What makes me furious is when I read news outlets in the state and other politicians from the opposite party framing the book bans as ‘ways to protect children’ — that is what I find morally vacuous and unconscionable.”

While these book bans are not surprising for Lenz, what disappoints her is the behavior of those who use mealy mouthed language to appease a power structure that takes knowledge away from children in the name of benevolence. So, in the face of what feels like insurmountable odds, how can we find our way out of this dystopia?

“GO REGISTER PEOPLE TO VOTE, I SWEAR TO GOD, IOWANS,” Lenz exclaimed. “Stop sitting around hoping that some white male politician will save you with his tweets. No one is coming to save you. Get out there. Register people to vote. Join organizations that advocate for trans Iowans and reproductive justice. Stop playing ‘Iowa Nice’ games and shout. Get loud. Get mean. Because if you haven’t already noticed, it’s nasty out there. And we are playing for keeps.

“OK,” Lenz added, “I guess I am a little mad.”

Kembrew McLeod is angry af, too. This article was originally published in Little Village’s November 2023 issue.