Far in the woods they sang their unreal songs,
Secure. It was difficult to sing in face
Of the object. The singers had to avert themselves
Or else avert the object.
– Wallace Stevens, “Credences of Summer”
Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, How I Learned to Drive, the latest American play to move from the stage to the classroom and canon, is a masterful depiction of the relentless wiles of a single-minded pedophile, an acknowledgment of the devastating impact of his assaults on a young girl, and an exploration of the role of alcoholism and gender stereotypes in the sexual abuse of children. It is also, ultimately, a betrayal of children, an affront to adults who have survived such abuse, and a dispiriting moral shrug.
The play, which Vogel has described as her “homage to Lolita,” is constructed in reverse chronology, as a series of flashbacks ending with a couplet of scenes that connect the 34-year-old protagonist, named L’il Bit, with the beginning of her painful alienation 23 years earlier when her Uncle Peck first laid his hands on her budding breasts. “…that day was the last day I lived in my body,” L’il Bit tells us. “I’ve retreated above the neck, and I’ve lived inside the fire in my head ever since.” What Peck gives her, which replaces her body, is her love of the highway, of speed, and he haunts her after his death, grinning at her from the rearview mirror as she drives faster and faster, trying to feel alive.
When I saw the play in a matinee performance at Trinity Rep in Providence, I was prepared to be uncomfortable, not only because as one who was sexually violated as a boy I knew I would find the content disturbing, but also because I’d read reviews that praised the play as a “love story” between a girl and her uncle. However, as Vogel traced, layer by retrospective layer, Li’l Bit’s adult dissociation, joylessness, and alcoholism to the relentless pressure of her uncle’s advances throughout her girlhood, I found myself completely won over. “Yes, this is how it happens,” I said with each manipulation, each carefully constructed double-bind. The 70’s term for such paralyzing sorcery, “mindfuck,” occurred to me for the first time in a long while. It seemed an apt description of Peck’s designs. When finally, as a young woman who has just drunk herself out of college, Li’l Bit gathers the courage to spurn him, I felt satisfied that the critics had got it all wrong.
Then, in a scene that still seems to me tellingly extraneous, L’il Bit suddenly announces that she’s forgiven Uncle Peck and that, appreciative of all he has given her, she hopes that his spirit, which she imagines roaming the highways in his car, will find one young girl who can give herself to him entirely as she could not. Saying that she always wanted to ask him one question, she cries out to the heavens, “Who did it to you, Uncle Peck? Were you eleven when he did it to you?”
I was thunderstruck. As I said to a friend, outside in the merciful clarity of a June afternoon, I felt like an Indian at a John Wayne movie.
Putting aside for the moment complex questions of literary ethics, including the question of who has the right to tell the story (Kipling or R.K. Narayan? Zane Gray or Sherman Alexie?) I have to ask what Vogel thought such a conclusion would accomplish. The play seems to come apart there as surely as if Hamlet had dropped his sword and decided that, after all, his uncle wasn’t such a bad guy either, or Oedipus, choosing to keep his eyes lodged firmly in their sockets, cried out instead ála Rodney King, “Why can’t we all just get along?”
It is hard to know what could be more hurtful and offensive than this demoralizing dramaturgical and ethical collapse; that is, until one reads Vogel’s interview in the bulletin of the American Repertory Theater. “My play dramatizes the gifts we receive from the people who hurt us,” she insists. Elsewhere, in a television interview, she said the play, “is a love story, a story of healing and forgiving, and about moving on.”
It’s as if Vogel cannot properly add up the column of figures she’s set down. Let’s see: scheming to ensnare a child with guilt; playing on a child’s fear of abandonment; rubbing a pubescent girl’s breasts; plying an adolescent with alcohol; shaming another child, a young boy, into a secret liaison; photographing a child in erotic poses; all these things add up to – forgiveness?
And yet, Vogel’s miscalculation is telling and perhaps instructive about the faulty conceptual structure that keeps us from coming to terms with sexual child abuse. In order to arrive at “healing and forgiving,” the playwright resorts to a deus ex machina, provided by L’il Bit’s breakthrough insight: that Peck must also have been abused as a child. This pernicious bit of psychobabble, the falsehood that men who were themselves abused as children are somehow thus fated through no fault of their own to violate children, becomes within the theatre what it is in the larger culture: the machina of disempowerment, the blunting of outrage, the intellectualization of evil, the failure to protect children.
Leaving aside for the moment how personally offensive it is to me as a man sexually violated as a child (imagine calling Elie Weisel a Nazi, Maya Angelou a rapist), it is worth taking the trouble here to examine where this toxic factoid comes from. The U.S. Dept. of Justice claims that 55% of men incarcerated for sexual offenses against children were themselves victimized in boyhood. This means two things. First of all, it means that 45%, nearly half, of child molesters in the prison system were not themselves violated as children. Secondly, the sample consists only of those who are convicted perpetrators, not the exponentially larger universe of those who have been victims. One other bit of arithmetic is in order here, since most people remain unaware of it: it is not uncommon for a single pedophile to have hundreds of victims over a period of decades. (I take Peck’s preying upon the young boy, Bobby, in Vogel’s play as evidence of her understanding of the omnivorous nature of his appetites.) Anyway, let’s add it up – let’s add up the pain, the self-hatred, the lost childhoods, the mental illness, the alcoholism, the suicides. What do you get? Forgiveness?
Does anyone remember in our New Age, no-fault moral universe, that to forgive is a transitive verb? That forgiveness is a transaction? That it involves penitence, not pity? Not to mention “the firm purpose of amendment?” What is forgiveness if no one has acknowledged wrongdoing, nor asked for it, nor changed his conduct? What is forgiveness in the case of a serial offender preying upon the helpless? What if turning the other cheek is, in fact, offering up the next child?
Much has been made of the fact that Vogel did not make Peck a one-dimensional villain in a trenchcoat. Uncle Peck is not a cartoon monster but a charming man with “a fire in his heart.” (Never mind that, absent the lyricism, that boils down to garden variety alcoholism, hardly an excuse for the ongoing violation of Li’l Bit and the serial molestation of other children.) We never believe that Peck is less than human. His smile is infectious, his wit sharp, his manner gentle; in fact, it is his charm and our own response to it that is so chilling. But it remains so only because we are aware, at one and the same time, of the massively evil plundering of a young girl’s sense of herself. That he is a predator and not merely a libidinous uncle with lousy boundaries is borne out by the scene in which he lures a young boy by shaming him, promising him he won’t tell that he’s seen him crying, and offering to exchange secrets with him. Yet we’re supposed to believe that Uncle Peck loves L’il Bit because he manages to believe he does?
Excuse me for a moment, but here I have to break to tell you a story. A true one, rooted in fact, not psychobabble tricked out as art. When my memoir, Half the House, was published, the coach portrayed in the book (and named therein after much wrangling with the publisher’s lawyers) was found to be still coaching boys in my hometown. That’s not all he was still doing, either. Within a short time this serial rapist of prepubescent boys, Tom Feifel, was under arrest, and the District Attorney’s office had nearly two dozen boys who were willing to testify against him. When the story went out on the AP wire, the police began receiving calls, from all over the country, from men in their forties, thirties, twenties, and of course from the parents of young boys who had recently been violated by Feifel. The numbers climbed. “We’re at the tip of the iceberg with this,” said Gerry Procanyn, the detective who arrested Feifel. “Those who have seen articles or who have purchased the book are calling to let us know that this is not something that happened just six months ago, that they were victims years ago. We’ve had calls from as far away as Florida.”
Procanyn had been involved with both of Feifel’s previous arrests. The first took place in 1967, the year I graduated from high school. The charge was sodomy. The mother of the boy Feifel raped, however, chose not to put her child through the further trauma of a trial. The charge was reduced to disorderly conduct.
In 1984, Feifel went before a judge again, this time on charges of “involuntary deviate sexual intercourse and corruption of a minor.” He pleaded guilty to the lesser charge in return for a sentence of eighteen months’ probation. He also agreed to seek counseling for his “problem.”
The District Attorney selected three boys whom she felt were strong enough witnesses. I was there for the trial. Before his sentencing, Feifel told the court – and here’s my point – that he loved the boys, and as evidence he protested that he had bought one of them a bicycle.
Here in Cambridge, ten-year-old Jeffrey Curley was promised a bicycle by two neighborhood men whom he believed were his friends. He never got it. He got a 50-gallon Rubbermaid container, though, in which to hide his raped and broken body at the bottom of a river.
“My play dramatizes the gifts we receive from the people who hurt us,” Vogel says, as if no one else might have taught L’il Bit how to drive, as if the counterfeit joys of excitement, speed, and alcohol were somehow worth her flunking out of college, her inability to form meaningful relationships, and the loss of her sense of herself as a viable person. I believe that Blake, not subject to our zeitgeist of shrugs, smirks, sneers, and evasions, had it more nearly right when he wrote, “And if blight kill not a tree but it still bear fruit; let none say that the fruit was in consequence of the blight.”
Sexual predators require a prodigious level of rationalization to persist in their crimes. But simply because they cannot distinguish between love and hate does not mean that we, who require less denial and fewer untruths to get on with our lives, are similarly incapacitated. I have argued elsewhere that we try to bring our language regarding the sexual abuse of children more in alignment with reality, beginning with the word pedophile.The word comes from Greek and means, literally, “one who loves children.” What an Orwellian inversion. In place of the term pedophile, let me offer an alternative: pedoscele, from the Latin scelus, meaning “evil deed.” Try it. Pedoscele: one who does evil to children.
Pedosceles, of course, prefer the term pedophile. They believe they are being persecuted for the exercise of their sexuality. They further believe that one day society will emerge from this dark age into an enlightenment that will see them, in retrospect, as an unfairly persecuted group. Where, of course, the children of such an enlightened age are to come from remains to be worked out since, when the great day of liberation comes, it is doubtful whether tiny Thailand, so far doing yeoman’s duty as a supplier, will be able to meet the increased demand.
One of the things I learned from the publication of Half the House that writers in this country often forget, is just how much certain literary works can mean to people, just how much strength and reassurance people can draw from them. This power works both ways. But lest you think I exaggerate the extent to which a literary work can provide legitimacy and embolden pedosceles, as I believe Vogel’s “homage to Lolita” does, let me quote here from a letter written by novelist and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, author of Johnny Got His Gun. The letter, written to his son Christopher, is dated November 8, 1958:
I am also, perhaps, still too deeply under the literary and erotic spell of Lolita, which I’ve read four straight times in four straight days. If you don’t know the book, you must get it at once. This chap Nabokov… is a wayshower, one of those spirits who understands that everything under the sun has its time and place and joy in an ordered world. His description of a two-year Saturnalia between an aging pervert and a twelve year old female (a “nymphet,” as Nabokov so charmingly describes young girls in the immediate stages of pre- and post-pubescence) is something to make your mouth water. Now that Lolita has brought nymphetophilia into the world of fashion and made it, thank God, as respectable as ornithology, I’m willing to place it on record that my own sexual taste in young girls runs strongly to larvines, beside whom your average nymphet seems gross and dissolute. A larvine begins to glow at five-and-a-half and generally is quite hagged out before her eighth birthday. Perhaps it’s the very brevity of her flower that so attracts me. The man fortunate enough to catch one of these delightful creatures at the peak of larvineal bloom – provided, of course, no one catches him – will be rewarded indescribably. A pair of them approach even as I pen these words. They live two houses down. I spy on them night and day with a 40-power Stankmeyer-Zeitz. They’re on the point of passing my study door en route to Sunday School. One of them’s already in the third grade. Soon she’ll be too old. Closer and closer they come. My excitement mounts like the fires of Krakatoa. Now (squish squish squish) they draw even with the door. Glowing grandeur of tiny milk-fleshed thigh. Liquiescent breath of gay vulvaginous pearl. (Psst! Speak to the nice old man. Come into my parlor. Ice Cream? Candy? Morphine? Exciting photographs?) They continue down the drive. Patter of footsteps fainting with my heart. Nubescent rumplets winkling their nappled wonder. Scent of loinwine sighing, crying, dying on soft amber-tawny singing little legs. Oh my God –
Emboldened? Bear in mind that not only did Trumbo write this letter to his son, but he allowed it to be published in his collected letters. At least Trumbo isn’t arguing that his “larvines” are trying to seduce him, that they are somehow complicitous in their own victimization. If it doesn’t do too great a violence to the concept of honesty to say so, he is at least honest about who is the responsible party.
Not so Vogel. “There are two forgivenesses in the play.” she tells us in the A.R.T. interview. “One forgiveness for Peck, but the most crucial forgiveness would be L’il Bit’s forgiving L’il Bit. L’il Bit as an adult looking at and understanding her complicity….”
Complicity? Here, quick, what’s your answer – both characters require forgiveness because:
a) Peck says he can’t help it
b) Peck says L’il Bit wanted it too
c) Peck gives L’il Bit gifts and teaches her to drive
d) Peck says he loves L’il Bit
e) All of the above
Extra credit question: whose viewpoint does e) reflect? Research thoroughly. Begin at http://www.nambla.org, website of the North American Man-Boy Love Association, a pedoscele lobbying group dedicated to the decriminalization of sex between adults and children via the repeal of all age-of-consent laws.
Am I suggesting that How I Learned to Drive will spawn new pedosceles? No. But picture a jury who has just seen the play (soon to be released as a film) sitting in judgment on a pedoscele, say Feifel, who is protesting that this is his sexuality, that he loves the boy, or girl, or boys, or girls, or boys and girls – how have their perceptions been influenced? Picture the judge, fresh from the theatre where he and his wife have taken in the most celebrated play of the season; picture the judge at the V.I.P. cocktail party with the producer, director, cast, and playwright. Think of this judge who must sentence this man.
In her A.R.T. interview Vogel says that it was important to give the audience a catharsis because, “Catharsis purges the pity and the terror and enables the audience to transcend them.” Although I think in this case she is confusing catharsis with a happy ending (love, healing, forgiveness), I’m more concerned with the idea that what a playwright dealing with this material intends is for the audience to transcend the pity and the terror. Such transcendence requires of the audience nothing but the shaking of heads, the wringing of hands, and the helpless clucking of tongues which seem to be the usual repertoire of middle-class moral responses to atrocity.
Until rather recently it was impossible to talk about the sexual abuse of children. Today we can talk about it – and talk about it and talk about it! – but only if certain rules are followed, certain shibboleths honored, certain phrases, as if ritual, uttered. We have to talk about “the cycle of abuse” which, of course, places responsibility precisely nowhere. We have to cast the issue as a matter of sexuality, not violence (which, by the way, abets homophobes and erotophobes who would have all sexual relationships heterosexual, married [preferably in their church], and man-on-top.) We have to talk about love, healing, and forgiveness.
That is, unless you prefer outrage, action, and the protection of children. Unless you prefer justice. Unless you would like things to change.
Originally published in FlashMag.