Author of 'Marcella’ reads story 23 years after the book was first banned
Published: Monday, October 22, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, October 23, 2012 00:10
It takes a brave woman to write the first book in English using masturbation as one of its main themes. Meet Marilyn June Coffey, 75, a born feminist and currently Omaha based. She’s also the author of the groundbreaking book “Marcella.”
Coffey grew up in a small south central Nebraska town known as Alma. She knew at 11-years-old she wanted to be a writer.
“I began to understand that what I was perceiving as reality was not the same as what my teachers, my parents and church were telling me was reality, so I decided to get a little journal and start sitting down day by day and writing what my reality was,” Coffey said.
Once Coffey graduated from high school in 1955, she left Alma and attended a nearby college known then as Kearney State Teacher’s College. Eventually her dad moved to Lincoln to become a state-purchasing agent and shortly after, she also moved to Lincoln and enrolled in the University of Nebraska to get a journalism degree. She graduated in 1959 and shortly after picked up a book that would change her life forever.
“I read ‘On the Road’ by Jack Kerouac when it was fairly new,” Coffey said. “At the time, I had just graduated from the University of Nebraska and I was working at a newspaper in Lincoln and I had a basement apartment. I was just starting out and then I read this book, and I was like ‘Oh, you can do it differently? You can run all over in a van with some your friends?’ And I decided to strike out on my own.”
Coffey then met a friend at the Denver Greyhound station, according to her official website. They stood staring at a United States map trying to decide where to go. Her friend closed her eyes, and Coffey twirled her around, and she pointed her finger. They visited New Orleans then California, and Portland. Eventually Coffey landed in New York, alone. Here is where she began writing “Marcella.”
“I was in New York and I was in a marriage that wasn’t very good,” Coffey said. “I was complaining a lot, so eventually my friends hooked me up with a psychoanalyst and I started working with him. I had been talking about committing suicide and he didn’t say much until one day he asked, ‘did you ever actually try to commit suicide?’”
“All of a sudden this memory rushed back to me of going down to the church basement, just as Marcella does at the end of the book, and looking for a knife sharp enough to cut my wrists. As soon as I remembered it, I had to write it but I chose to write it as fiction rather than non-fiction because non-fiction would get very complicated.”
“Marcella” was first published in 1973 and received lot of support from the feminist community in New York, Coffey said. The book was reviewed in the New York Times and went on to be published in a full paperback version in England. An excerpt was also published in Australia as well as “bits and pieces” of the book in a Danish newspaper as part of a series.
“It got a lot of interest and of course I learned at that time that it was the first novel written in English to use female masturbation as part of its main theme,” Coffey said.
“Marcella” follows a 13-year-old girl named Marcella Colby. Colby “discovers her body and the pleasure it can give her, but she also discovers that what she is doing and cannot stop doing is a very great sin against God, whom she loves very much—but not so much as the things she does at night in her bed,” according to Coffey’s official website. The story captures the essence of what it's like to be a 13-year-old girl that is blossoming into womanhood. But the same masturbation theme that got Coffey praise for the book also got her into some trouble.
Coffey’s “Marcella” was banned in two separate libraries.
“The organizations that banned me were two libraries in Harlen County, one in Orleans and one in Alma,” Coffey said. “Then [in 1989] the Orleans Chamber of Commerce asked me to read ‘Marcella’ in a marathon, as part of an art festival that they were having, and I agreed to do that but it led to so much friction in the community that I pulled out, I said no, I’m not going to stand up there and read with that many people hating me.”
Luckily, Sally Deskins, founder of the feminist blog, Les Femmes Folles, wanted to honor Coffey during National Banned Books Week that took place Sept. 30 – Oct. 6. Coffey was asked to take part in a marathon reading of “Marcella” on Oct. 6 at the Benson branch library.
“It was delightful,” Coffey said. “About 10 different people altogether had agreed to read portions of it. So I read first then everyone else took turns reading and it made me cheerful because the people that were reading the book obviously were not upset by it. Then other people came in and would sit and listen for a while and then go out. It was very healing.”
Emily Johnson, a recent undergraduate student at UNO, attended the marathon reading.
“To be able to meet Ms. Coffey and be a part of the marathon reading that day was incredible,” Johnson said. “She wrote a book almost 40 years ago that still has so much meaning and importance for women today, especially surrounding what it’s like to come of age in a religious or social environment that ignores, hinders or stifles you. Even 20 years ago, her own hometown pressured her to cancel a reading because the reality of puberty was 'inappropriate,' and many people today still harbor that feeling.”
“Marcella” is being reprinted and will be available in the beginning of next year. Coffey also will be reprinting a “humorous” booklet titled “Masturbation” and a book of sexual poems from the 1960’s titled “Pricksongs.” All three will be available for purchase through marilyncoffey.net.