I once belonged to a loose book club where a few co-workers and I would exchange books we loved with each other. I commuted about 90 minutes every morning on the Washington, DC area Metro, and so I went through books frequently.
A friend recommended Peyton Place by Grace Metalious published in 1956. It’s a novel about three women, Constance MacKenzie, her out-of-wedlock daughter Allison and Selena Cross, her employee. Set in the fictional, small New England town, the novel examines some major themes including social class and sexuality.
The book was popular when released and remained on the New York Times bestsellers list for 59 weeks. It was also controversial, and when I told my dad what I was reading, he said, “Catherine! You’re reading Peyton Place? I thought I raised you better”. Then he laughed because compared to modern day sexuality in books and media, Peyton Place is almost a children’s book.
Except it’s not, really. One of the issues examined in the book is incest. Clearly not a modern day phenomena, but something so rarely talked about in 1950’s America that a novel with such a theme included was shameful to read.
I talked to my mom while I was reading the book, too. Far more prudish than my father, my mom once told me I should never let anyone see me naked except, her, my doctor and eventually my husband. Oops.
She lamented that it was sad that Peyton Place was so tame compared to current media. And, in one of the few moments I actually stood up to my parents, I disagreed with her. Because sex is a thing that we do, and most of the time it’s healthy and fun and appropriate.
But when it’s not, when it’s bad and hurtful because of rape or incest or violence, it’s important that people know they can talk about that and get the help they need. Maybe novels like Peyton Place are what help us to get there. Certainly, incest was happening in 1956, and before Peyton Place was even a novel. And before Grace Metalious was even born.
Here’s the thing. When we leave things in the dark, they stay dark and a lot of times, darkness is scary. But when we open the door, and a little light gets in, the thing might still be scary, but at least we can see it, we can warn people about it. We can make its victims feel a little less alone, let them know we know about it and they’re not terrible for having been victimized by the terrible thing.
And sometimes, when you let the light in, you realize the thing you thought was scary isn’t really at all. You just had to take a look at it to see.