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The Banned Books of Guantánamo

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 Frank and her family were in hiding. It must be so surreal for detainees in Gitmo to know that the whole world knows they're there.

by Ariel Levy
Nov 10 2014, 10:00am

Image by Marta Parszeniew

At the beginning of The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank has 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." We can tell from her sparkling personality that people must like her, but she tells us that she doesn't have a real friend to confide in. She's lonely. Anne has Kitty in the way that others have God. Kitty is always there for her. She doesn't turn to God, she turns to the page, her confidante, which allows her to make sense of the world.

Because the book is an historical artifact so connected to World War II, one could be forgiven for thinking it's all a contemplation on anti-Semitism and the Nazis. Very little of the book, however, is about that. Most of it is about a 13-year-old girl railing against her mother and the injustices of adults having more power than she does. What teenager doesn't know that experience?

It's also 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 while inside; they talk about how they got through the hours. I imagine detainees at Guantánamo Bay face similar challenges—they're not allowed to kill themselves, so they have to find a way to exist, a way to keep going.  

Frank is very detail-orientated, which helps her cope with the passage of time. Even before they were in captivity, when they were preparing to go, she made lists of things she wanted and how much they cost, so that when the war was over and she got out she would know what to spend her 20 guilders on. When you're deprived of mundane, everyday activities like grocery shopping, daydreaming about it 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 a part where you're underground, or in a tree, or have to get your store of nuts for the winter. Frank takes the reader through where she's hiding and it does feel like a warren. There's something very pleasing about the way she presents the situation. The reader will eventually feel her struggle, of course, but in the beginning it's almost like a cozy adventure.

As well as adventure, there is 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, and she brings the reader onto her side. 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.

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 Gitmo to know that the whole world knows they're there. We all know and it doesn't seem to matter.

Anne and her family's whole plight is to remain invisible, to remain secret. In that sense it's confounding that the book is banned at  Guantánamo—the family couldn't be making any less trouble. What more could 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 doubt the censors thought about it in those terms.

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

As told to Oscar Rickett by Ariel Levy, an author and staff writer at 'The New Yorker.' 

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