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Bruce Friedman’s Book Club

'Imaginary Friend' by Stephen Chbosky

Posted 2/13/24

“Imaginary Friend” is an adult psychological horror novel by Stephen Chbosky, although you may know Chbosky better for his previous novel “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.”

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Bruce Friedman’s Book Club

'Imaginary Friend' by Stephen Chbosky


Posted

Bruce Friedman is a leader in the nation for submitting book challenges. At a school board meeting in January, he brought forth a challenge of a new kind.

"If you don’t address (the most egregious books still in circulation) promptly, I’m going to do them one book (at) a time by calling the press. And I’ll put all of your names in the story, and the title, and the author, and we’ll let the community decide,” Friedman said.

This edition discusses the content of “Imaginary Friend,” the trajectory of the proposed media policy in Clay County and the current lawsuit in Escambia County.

 

“Imaginary Friend” is an adult psychological horror novel by Stephen Chbosky, although you may know Chbosky better for his previous novel “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.”

In any case, “Imaginary Friend” follows the experience of Christopher, a middle schooler on the run from an abusive household. In his new home in a small town, he forms a relationship with an imaginary friend, who turns out not merely to be so imaginary after all.

“Imaginary Friend” tops the stack of Bruce Friedman’s newest wave of book challenges. According to Destiny, the database for books in Clay County District Schools, “Imaginary Friend” is offered at Ridgeview High, and it is currently unavailable (either checked out or removed).

In this edition of Bruce Friedman’s Book Club, we will walk the challenge process together based on the newly proposed media policy presented by School Board Member Michele Hanson on Jan. 23.

Cracking the book open, I was immediately absorbed by the unsettling allure of “the nice man,” Christopher’s imaginary friend. I’m pretty sure I flew through the first 200 pages in a single sitting. There were plenty of wonderfully unnerving scenes. The Bad Cat cartoon talking to Christopher from the TV. The crying baby carriage left by the front door in the middle of the night. Most especially, the deer (which I now have a phobia of).

It felt like Chbosky tried making this generation’s “It” by Steven King, with apocryphal apocalyptic religious fantasy sprinkled in.

Sprinkled in too much, in my opinion. Unfortunately, the narrative of “Imaginary Friend” spirals out of control completely following the plot twist, and the pacing becomes arrhythmic. The last act is a sludge of repetitive plot points, gratuitous violence and unanswered questions (similar to this editorial series, ha-ha).

“Imaginary Friend” is a thrilling rollercoaster ride that, by the last page, crawls to a stop.

There was a lot of angsty, Nietzsche-esque commentary that was bold in some moments and bland in others. “God is a murderer” was such a jarring acquisition, and I was compelled to keep reading. But comparing the Eucharist to Styrofoam was such a blatantly shallow comment. I had to roll my eyes.

Like the previous entry in Bruce Friedman’s Book Club, “Imaginary Friend” shared some criticisms of the Catholic Church. (I should be flattered that there are so many Catholic perspectives in contemporary literature, but is the caricature of “Catholic guilt” really how my religion is perceived by others?)

But poor pacing is not the reason why Friedman has submitted his challenge:

2024_012024_Imaginary Friend by Stephen Chbosky_complete challenge.pdf - Google Drive

Friedman cites clear, vividly descriptive sexual content in his challenge form. Mary Katherine is swayed by temptation and overwhelmed by a supernatural force. She is unable to stop herself from escalating her sexual advances toward her boyfriend, Doug. This is explicit, not implicit, sexual content.

The challenge form also provides a screenshot from the Destiny Library Catalog, specifically a summary provided by the publisher. The summary lists the novel as “adult” and shares its themes and setting, but it does not warn of the sexual content or gratuitous violence contained in the pages.

“No mention of sex content whatsoever,” Friedman writes. “Ergo, don’t trust the publisher!”

The challenge form Friedman filled out asked a question:

“Is there any value in this material?”

“Not to me,” was Friedman’s response.

Really? None? Listen, I have my qualms with the text, but I can appreciate a horror story, albeit flawed. I can understand why Friedman was disturbed by the passage he cited and why he is objectionable to it. But I had to know if that was extended for the entirety of the novel. I asked Friedman if he truly meant what he said or if it was said to make a point that art depicting explicit sex or violence is valueless.

“NO VALUE – unless you are one of Satan's minions. You and I have both read MUCH better books in our lives. I would not lower the bar for America's children. If I found and browsed this book on my seat on an airplane – I'd throw it away,” he said.

This demonstrates the difference between Friedman’s viewpoint and the viewpoint held by myself and from what I believe the author tries to make – actually, there is an ontological difference between “thinking” and “doing” something. Ideas hold weight, but they are only as powerful as the actions that follow.

Similarly, there is a difference between “reading” and “approving” of what is written.

We will see if Clay County District Schools “approves” the book or not, since this is a recent, ongoing book challenge. In the meantime, I wanted to use “Imaginary Friend” to test-run School Board Member Michele Hanson’s proposed media policy.

Step one – is it pornographic?

If “Imaginary Friend” violates FS 847, it is pulled immediately, and the debate ends there.

Is “Imaginary Friend” disturbing? Yes. Is there sexual content? Yes. Is “Imaginary Friend” pornographic? Friedman says yes. Does it violate FS 847? I say no, based on terms we defined during a previous Bruce Friedman Book Club:

pornography: printed or visual material containing the explicit description or display of sexual organs or activity intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic or emotional feelings.

FS 847: Sexual content is harmful to minors when taken as a whole, it is without serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

The passage Friedman cited is central to Mary Katherine’s character arc, and she spends the rest of the novel reconciling that act. Her act, which she is remorseful for, is used as an avenue for religious and interpersonal reflection throughout the narrative.

Not to discount the sexual content in the book – because it’s there – but to say it’s there without literary purpose is misleading. “Imaginary Friend” is an “adult book” because it analyzes and discusses mature topics, not because the book itself is pornographic.

Step two – the principal’s desk.

Since “Imaginary Friend” is offered at Ridgeview High, the challenge would be delivered here and Principal Becky Murphy would review the challenge, meet with Friedman and make a decision.

Step three – the School Curriculum Council.

If the book is kept, the principal meets with the School Curriculum Council. Friedman is allowed to make a statement. The council must make a decision within 30 days.

Step four – the District Curriculum Council.

If the book is kept, Friedman has 10 days to make an appeal to the district level. The District Curriculum Council has 20 days to schedule a meeting. If it is a close vote, “Imaginary Friend” is placed in “Parental Advisory.” If the council is adamant the book does not violate policy, the challenge form moves down to the Supervisor of Instructional Resource.

Step five – the School Board

The recommendation goes to the School Board within 14 days. The buck stops here. The Board will review all sides and evidence of “Imaginary Friend,” and the decision made at the public School Board meeting is final.

Obviously, I simplified the process, and the proposal is subject to change. But I do find it interesting – all these walls erected to stop the will of one man. I asked Friedman if he felt like he was being targeted, or if this actually was a good compromise. He shared some thoughts.

“I used to share your optimism. Twelve years in this fight has tempered me. Like a waitress that has been pinched too many times. Proof is to be found rarely in the pudding. Status quo is harder to change than stupid people. We shall see,” he said.

“Good should not compromise with evil,” he concluded.

Overshadowing all of this is a federal lawsuit in Escambia County, the newest front-runner in book challenges and removals. Escambia County has been cited as an example during the last School Board Workshop of what to do and what not to do in designing a media policy. PEN America and Penguin Random House filed the lawsuit in May 2023, but it picked up traction in the courtroom in January 2024 when Judge Wetherell allowed the lawsuit to continue.

Unsurprisingly, Escambia County Public Schools had no comment for me, but I was able to reach out to PEN America.

“The lawsuit says the Escambia County School District and School Board violated the First Amendment rights by removing books based on ideological objections… The books targeted for removal disproportionately addressed themes and messages related to race and LGBTQ+ identity,” said Katie Blankenship from PEN.

“We hope to secure an injunction from the court returning these books to the shelves and we hope for a declaratory judgment clarifying how Escambia County School Board’s actions violated the First Amendment for viewpoint discrimination. We also hope that this lawsuit will pave the way for other Floridians to seek redress and fight against the ongoing educational censorship we see across the state, especially the book bans occurring under HB 1069,” she said.

I asked Blankenship if the proposed decentralized book challenge process is a good comprise.

“No. PEN America has tracked that way in which vague language is ill-applied in censoring certain types of books, histories, identities, and stories. Our concern is that this will happen here too.”

I asked Blankenship if PEN has ever considered bringing forth litigation against Clay County District Schools.

“PEN America is considering other options for litigation in Florida and elsewhere but cannot disclose more at this time.”

So how does this pertain to “Imaginary Friend” by Stephen Chbosky? Based on the proposed policy, I believe it will likely end up in the “Parental Advisory” section, which is a decision I can agree with. The book is not pornographic but is decidedly written for a mature audience. I think a parental advisory section is a good compromise to keep mature narratives in circulation while reducing the legal liability of the school district.

In the last edition of Bruce Friedman’s Book Club, I was against doing so for “At the End of Everything,” and I explained my reasoning. I am against doing so for “Heroine” as well. However, there is a noticeable step up in content and subject matter in “Imaginary Friend,” which should be acknowledged.  

My concern is keeping this book accessible in a way that absolves the school district of legal liability.

On next month’s Bruce Friedman’s Book Club, we will examine a novel that would be hard to place even in a parental advisory section. It would be “NC-17,” although I disagree with using movie-style ratings for books. The author is well known for his previous novel “Fight Club.” The book has been challenged and removed from circulation without much fanfare. Just glancing at Friedman’s challenge form, it is easy to see why. The book is “Choke” by Chuck Palahniuk.