The Banned Books of Guantánamo

'The Diary of a Young Girl' by Anne Frank

The starkest difference between the captivity of Anne Frank and those in Guantánamo Bay is that Anne Frank and her family were in hiding. It must be so surreal for those in Guantánamo to know that the whole world knows they're there.

by Ariel Levy
10 November 2014, 10:00am

Image by Marta Parszeniew

At the beginning of The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank is having an elaborate conversation with "Kitty", which is what she calls her journal. She says, "Now I'm back to the point that prompted me to keep a diary in the first place: I don't have a friend." You can tell from her sparkling personality that people like her, but she tells you that she doesn't have a real friend to confide in. She's lonely. Anne has Kitty in the way that religious people have God. Kitty is always there for her. She doesn't turn to God, she turns to the page, which is her confidante, which allows her to try and make sense of the world.

Because of what the book is as an historical artefact, you think you're going to be contemplating anti-Semitism and the Nazis while you read it, but so little of the book, understandably, is about that. She's very poignant and perceptive about those things but most of the book is not about political realities. It's a 13-year old girl railing against her mother and against the injustices of adults seemingly arbitrarily having more power than she does. What teenager doesn't know that experience?

Then, it's about passing the time – doing calisthenics, studying books and fighting with other people. Just getting through the hours. I'm doing a story right now about two guys who were exonerated after spending 18 years in prison. They don't talk about whether they were raped in prison; they talk about how they got through the hours. At Guantánamo Bay, you're not allowed to kill yourself, so you have to find a way to exist, you have to find a way to keep going.  

Anne is very detail-orientated, which helps her do this. Even before they're in captivity, when they're preparing to go, she makes lists of things she wants and how much they cost, so that when the war is over and she gets out she'll know what to spend her 20 guilders on. When you're deprived of that kind of mundane, everyday detail – like grocery shopping – that becomes a great satisfaction.

It's also something kids do. If you're a loner, that's how you play. You practice at adulthood. She does a very persuasive job of presenting the situation with a certain romance. When you think about children's books like The Wind in the Willows, there's always these things where, you're underground, or you're in a tree, or you've got to get your store of nuts for the winter. Anne takes you through where they're hiding and it does feel like a warren. There's something very pleasing about the way she presents the situation. Eventually, you feel her struggle but initially it's almost a cosy adventure.

As well as adventure, you have a surprising amount of time devoted to Anne's seething grievances, which is great. We like conflict and drama and she understands that. She's hilarious in her righteous indignation. You read these things and you think that she sounds right. It is ridiculous that Dussel, one of the adults hiding with them, never lets her use the bathroom at certain hours; her mother is awful.

It's a book that brings back the outrages of childhood. The audacity of parents telling you what to do – to hear her doing that, in captivity, is fascinating and it's one of the things that makes it a page-turner. She's a very harsh critic of her mother; she resents her sister and loves her father.

The starkest difference between the captivity of Anne Frank and those in Guantánamo Bay is that Anne Frank and her family were in hiding. It must be so surreal for those in Guantánamo to know that the whole world knows they're there. We all know they're there and it doesn't seem to matter. In that sense, it's confounding that the book is banned because there couldn't be any less rowdiness to it.

Anne and her family's whole plight is to remain invisible, to remain secret. They couldn't be making any less trouble. What more would you want from a prisoner than invisibility and silence? If you're trying to morally justify incarcerating people for indefinite amounts of time, you don't want, in your own mind, to be equating your prisoners to the Franks, though I don't think it's that blunt a calculation on the part of the censors.

Despite being a model prisoner in her desire to remain invisible and silent, we all know that the publication of her diary ended up making her the opposite of those things. People continue to hear her voice. Who could be less silent than Anne Frank?

Ariel Levy is an author and a Staff Writer at The New Yorker. As told to Oscar Rickett.

Header image by Marta Parszeniew