Open books: Hedberg to host human library April 15

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Greg Little
Wednesday, April 5, 2017

JANESVILLE—How does it feel to have obsessive-compulsive disorder?

The affliction often is connected to such generalized symptoms as constant hand washing, fixations with symmetry or locking and unlocking doors a predetermined number of times. For many, however, it's not that simple.

“OCD can manifest itself in lots of different ways. My form is one you can't see,” said John Pruitt, an associate professor of English at UW-Rock County in Janesville who was diagnosed 12 years ago.

For Pruitt, the problem stemmed from a need to internally repeat past conversations. If he changed even one sentence, he felt forced to replay the entire conversation in his mind until he could determine how it would end. Eventually, the behavior graduated to him verbalizing the conversations.

When he started voicing his own side of the conversation aloud, he knew it was time to seek help.

Today, Pruitt is open about his condition, and he wants to help others better understand exactly what OCD is and how many forms it can take.

Welcome to the “human library.”

From 1-4 p.m. Saturday, April 15, Pruitt and several other Rock County residents will make themselves available as part of the first-ever human library at Hedberg Public Library, 316 S. Main St., Janesville.

The human library concept, which originated in Denmark in 2000, involves real people with different social and cultural backgrounds and experiences serving as “books.” Each book carries a title to which it identifies.

Human libraries held in other locations have included such titles as homeless, transgender, bipolar, body modified, molested, polyamorous and more.

Library patrons are invited to “check out” the books in 20-minute intervals, during which “readers” take part in conversation and ask respectful questions to learn more about their chosen topics.

“It's an opportunity for people from the community to know other people in the community,” said Hedberg Public Library's Rene Bue, who is organizing the event. “There are so many prejudices and confused or misunderstood ideas of who we each are. This is an opportunity to sit down, have a conversation in a safe place and ask some questions.”

At present, the local human library has about nine books confirmed. Along with Pruitt, Bue offered information on a few others.

“Vlera Gashi is a teenage Muslim poet, so she has a few different things as part of her story,” Bue said. “I think that there could be a lot of people wanting to ask her about what it's like to be a Muslim female going to school in Janesville.

“Another person is Dawn Boyle, who is a pagan,” Bue added. “There are a lot of misconceptions about what that means.”

The thought of people asking her questions rather than making assumptions about her excites Gashi, a junior at Craig High School and author of “Dangerous Danger,” a book of poetry.

“The human library is important because it's good to hear from a person in a certain group about their point of view,” she said. “Sometimes, people are afraid to ask questions … afraid to hear the truth and admit they might be wrong about something. But asking questions is the best thing for curiosity.”

Gashi's parents came to America as refugees after fleeing Kosovo in the late 1990s. Deep tension between the European country's Albanian and Serb populations ethnically divided the nation and led to war.

Most often, Gashi is asked basic questions about her religion.

“I get asked about how we pray and also which holidays we celebrate … usually questions like that,” she said. “But I don't look like your stereotypical Muslim, as the media portrays. I don't wear a hijab, and I tell people I'm not from the Middle East, I'm from Europe. Sometimes that throws them off.”

Bue said human libraries have immense cultural and educational value because getting to know individuals on a personal basis is the key to overcoming negative, and often unwarranted, stereotypes.

“I really wish that people—instead of making judgments and basing opinions on what they hear and read on television, movies, radio, newspapers and online—would make an effort to reach out to someone who fits into their personal prejudice,” she said. “If I have a prejudice against anyone or anything, how am I going to change that other than through social interaction?”

She also believes it won't be just readers who gain knowledge and insight.

“For the people who have expressed interest in being books, I hope this makes them feel more comfortable opening up and talking about themselves,” she said. “I know some of them have not been too willing to talk and have been protective of themselves, and I get that. When you're afraid the world is going to turn on you, it's hard to open up.”

Pruitt understands that feeling firsthand, but he has already taken steps with his students to educate them on his condition and help those facing other disorders feel comfortable in his classroom.

Knowing he's making a difference is the reason he's putting himself out there.

“Something I've been trying to overcome is the misuse of the word 'tolerance,'” Pruitt said. “To me, tolerance means putting up with somebody or something.

“I don't want people to put up with me; I want them to talk to me.”

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