Category Archives: Essays & Op-Ed

Tipping Point

In every struggle there is a moment that is afterward recognized as the point when the tide began to turn, when success became sure. Those who have struggled, over the past two decades especially, to bring the reality of children’s widespread sexual exploitation to light, can only hope that the present attention to the assault on children by Catholic priests may serve as such a tipping point.

Until now, the spotlight (quite literally, the Boston Globe Spotlight Team) has been on the archdiocese of Boston and its protection of serial child rapists. Perhaps this is as it should be; after all, the only thing worse than a wolf in sheep’s clothing is a wolf in shepherd’s robes. However, in the discussions that have followed, the focus has been on the Church, on the nature of the priesthood, on the psychology of the perpetrators of this recurrent atrocity, and on who knew what and when. But the most important thing for the public to understand is the real scope of this tragedy, and the number of children who were harmed.

For years we have been hearing that incidents of child sexual abuse are few, that wild-eyed fanatics have created social hysteria, that most children pass into adulthood without encountering such psychopaths. But let’s do some simple arithmetic.

As of this writing, the archdiocese has turned over the names of 90 priests to District Attorneys. Does this mean that 90 children were sexually assaulted? Not at all. Therapists who treat sex offenders, law enforcement people, and forensic psychologists all know that most men who violate children are serial offenders. The coach who raped me when I was ten turned out to have had more than four hundred victims over a forty year period. Like most predators, Christopher Reardon, youth minister at St. Agnes parish in Middleton, Massachusetts, kept records of his many victims. When arrested, he had a list describing the private parts of 250 boys. Christopher Reardon had not reached the age of 30 when he was arrested. Many of the priests among the 90, on the other hand, are quite old.

Let’s err on the safe side, though, and say, oh, ten victims per year for ten years or five victims per year for twenty years; in other words, 100 victims each. That’s 9000 children. Oh, and then there’s John Geoghan’s 118. And James Porter’s 70. Let’s not forget Reardon’s 250. That’s nearly 10,000 victims of those predators whom we know of.

So far we have only been talking about abuse within the Catholic church. It would be a grievous mistake, however, to view the sexual exploitation of children as an issue existing only within the Catholic church. We must not be diverted into discussions of celibacy, of the culture of the church, of the ordination of women. A quick survey of news articles during the past year makes it clear that we should also be talking about sexual assault by teachers, by camp counselors, by youth workers, by scout leaders, and by coaches.

The point is that sexual violence, actual and threatened, is a constant feature of children’s’ lives. Are we ready to grasp this reality, or shall we remain a community whose children are forced to bear on their bodies, in their souls, the knowledge that adults, with our state-of-the-art denial systems, refuse? When confronted with an incident of child sexual abuse, most people profess, each time, a shock that only serves to underscore their ignorance. So far we have been acting like good white Jim Crow Southerners minding our own business undisturbed by the occasional “strange fruit” hanging from the nearby trees.

Maybe this is the tipping point in the struggle to end the sexual exploitation and abuse of children. Maybe this is the moment when hesitation and hand-wringing give way to outrage and action, when, having grasped the magnitude and scope of this hidden crime, adults stand together, across whatever political divides, and say, “No more!” on behalf of our children. I surely hope so.

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Keynote on Child Abuse

Keynote: Current THinking / New Directions Conference, Friday 18 June 2004, Sheraton Hyannis Resort, sponsored by Children’s Cove: Cape Cod Child Advocacy Center and Michael O’Keefe, Barnstable County District Attorney.

It is a great honor to address you this morning, to be included in this program with Lucy Berliner, with Dr. Goldberg, with Jim McLaughlin and Terry Thomas and Allison Turkel, and I want to thank Debbie Maier and the other members of the conference committee for giving me this opportunity to speak to you.

Because I am by trade a writer, a poet, I want to begin by reading you a recent poem, one that will make of my address this morning a dedication. This is called ELEGY, and it is written in memory of Patrick McSorley, who fought long and hard to bring the Archdiocese of Boston to justice and who succumbed in the struggle:

This man once,
call him Ash,
he went down.
This time none,
not one man,
not one pill,
not one hope
could stop him.
Not one cry.
Not one hand
could reach him.
Not one lie
could save him.
He went down.

Be kind, Death.
This man lived
where men fear
words, facts, truth;
where ghosts walk,
where men burn.
Call him Ash.
He went down.
We mourn him.

So. Here are my aims this morning:

I want to raise questions, challenge assumptions, and yes, rouse some righteous anger this morning. (Those who fear anger often confuse it with rage and violence. I am talking instead about a powerful ethical faculty we each possess and must never give up. I am talking about the anger that allows us to remain focused on what is wrong in order to do what is right. The alternatives are to create fictions about progress in order to feel better, to minimize the depth and scope of this terrible wrong, or to shrug, give up, and succumb to a depression so pervasive in our society today that few will notice anyway.) So let us not be afraid to be angry. (You may even go away from this talk angry with ME. That’s okay if I have made you think, even if you reject my views entirely.) Children need us, as adults, to be angry on their behalf, and to be angry in an adult way, i.e. to commit ourselves to working together to protect them.

Let me begin by saying that I believe we are being invited, by the “current thinking” to miniaturize the issue of child sexual abuse by seeing it as a kind of local problem that can be solved via local solutions. It is something like addressing homelessness by building more shelters, or hunger by opening soup kitchens, or poverty with clothing drives and food stamps. None of these approaches are wrong, of course, but none of them address root causes. One of the chief ways we miniaturize this issue is by separating a particular kind of child exploitation, child sexual abuse, from others, arguably just as hurtful and harmful — child slavery and sweatshop labor, beatings, the conscription of child soldiers, the trafficking of childrens’ body parts (yes, the UN has called this a growing problem), the cynical seduction of children as practiced by tobacco and alcohol companies, by fast food chains peddling what they know to be poison, by educational institutions teaching what they know to be falsehoods. By doing so, we are failing to do what needs to be done and done now: to build a broad political base that holds leaders accountable FIRST AND FOREMOST for the well-being of today’s children because that is the only reliable measure we have of what is good for the future of our communities, our nation, and indeed the world.

This is, to my mind, the “new direction” we must take, i.e. political action in concert with others on a global scale. The groundwork has already been laid for this effort. The United Nations High Commission on Human Rights has given us the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the first unanimous human rights treaty in the world. This potentially revolutionary document was signed in 1986 by UN ambassadors from 122 nations. Once ratified by the governments of these nations, exploitative offenses against children become, in fact, violations of international law insofar as the convention becomes grounds for extradition. Article 34 of this convention calls for State Parties to take all appropriate measures to prevent the inducement or coercion of a child to engage in unlawful sexual activity, as well as to prevent the exploitative use of children in prostitution, pornography, or other unlawful sexual activities.

And a subsequent amendment, in 2001, rededicates the signatories to committed action, particularly in cases of child sex-trafficking and child pornography. Only two nations, Somalia, and the United States of America, have not ratified this treaty, nor its more recent amendments. What does this mean? Could it be that our government is simply less hypocritical than others? After all, some of the nations who ratified this agreement are ravaged at the moment by civil wars largely waged by child conscripts — Congo comes to mind, and child slavery in Sudan is crying out for international attention. But somehow, I doubt that is the reason we haven’t ratified this treaty. You may have noticed, as I have, that our government, no matter whose administration heads it, has never been reluctant to wrap itself in high-minded rhetoric. Or maybe our government has had its fill of international treaties, called conventions — the Geneva Convention for example — that it seems to be unable to adhere to. In any case, if we’re serious about childrens’ welfare, let’s ask our leaders for an answer about that one — why does the first unanimous human rights treaty in the history of the world remain unratified by our government? It may be the beginning of taking back our power from those who, rather than making the world safe for children, are busy making the world safe for their profits at childrens’ expense.

As you already know, I am a survivor of sexual violence in childhood. I am also a father, a husband, a teacher, and a writer. When my memoir, Half the House, was published in 1995, it became instrumental in the arrest, conviction, and incarceration of the man who raped me when I was ten, a revered youth sports figure who, it turns out, victimized nearly 500 boys over a forty year period. He died in prison. It is likely that he was murdered by other inmates.

The whole experience of the arrest, the court proceedings, the media attention, the meaning my book came to have for others, has been an incredible education for me. Although I haven’t used the word since the sixties, I would have to say it “radicalized’ me; that is, it made me begin to think about the deep roots of sexual violence against children in our culture. This morning I want to try to share some of those thoughts.

Like many of us here, I have been trying to understand the enormity of this evil for a long time now. First as a stunned and reeling young person trying to understand what it MEANT that this had happened to me, and later, and now, as a writer and teacher and father and activist. I feel certain that Lucy Berliner will be addressing aspects of this issue in her workshop, but let me say — as a survivor who remembers how “hit in the head” I felt, how clobbered — to clinicians working with kids in the aftermath of trauma: Please — Deconstruct the MEANING of the event as the child has absorbed it from the perpetrator AND from the culture. Kids are consumers of meaning. They have no other choice because they are not yet capable of critical or analytical thought. So please help keep them from embracing the “junk” meanings of a perpetrator culture that tells them that the significance of their experience is 1. NIL, or 2. that they are bad (“delinquent” is the word,) or 3. that now they are “twisted” in some way, corrupted, damaged.

In any case, I have continued to grapple with the depth and scope of this crime, this human rights violation, and I have come to few conclusions except that we have to begin with a different set of terms if we are to avoid the same fear, helplessness, and despair that have incapacitated us so far and continued to place children at risk.

Rape, we have come to understand, is a crime of power and control; it is NOT simply some other kind of sex. It objectifies a human being and tells the victim that her own will, or his, her own autonomy, or his, is worthless. It robs a victim of dignity. It is humiliating. In fact — as we have seen in conflict after conflict, and recently in the conduct of our own government in the prison at Abu Ghraib — this sexual humiliation is a weapon used to subjugate and control others. Though we are horrified by the bestial nature of this abuse, we understand it for what it is and we call it torture.

Except when the victims are children. Rape is a crime of power and control — except when the victims are children. Then we resort to an entirely different way of conceptualizing it. Then we call it by other names. We study the torturers’ history, psychology, sexual appetite. We locate the violence in the mind, the heart, or even in the phallus, of the perpetrator, not in the politics and power dynamics of the abusive encounter. We make the child victim disappear. This maneuver is worse than even the obvious revictimization it enacts. It keeps us from seeing the true situation of children in our society and in the world. And we end up, despite ourselves, treating a crime of abusive power as if it were, in fact, a different kind of sex.

Just after the news broke of the lawsuits being brought against the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, I was listening to my local NPR station when a Dr. Fred Berlin of the Johns Hopkins University Center for the Study of Sexual Deviancy —and one of the first named to Cardinal Law’s hand-picked Commission — said that the accused priests were good men and good priests who unfortunately had a weakness for children. He said that they ought simply to be reassigned to a place where there are no children, for example as chaplains in nursing homes. That was his expert opinion. Want to hear mine? I’d give you 48 hours before the first Alzheimer’s patient is raped, i.e. before the first vulnerable person who cannot articulate what has happened or whose word can be deemed less than credible is attacked.

I believe we have been misled by the language we use, by the way we talk about those who would harm our children. We speak of them as “sick”. We use names that accept their denial and distortion. Our words are important. Words are how we think. Too often we become tangled in language that does not reflect reality, but hides it until, over and over, child after child, it is too late.

Until we understand that the rape of a child is the most elemental instance of the strong taking advantage of the weak, we are on very shaky ethical ground. Until we understand that the sexual gratification of an adult at a child’s expense is rape, and that a rape is a rape is a rape, we will remain lost in a terminology that is all too often a hall of mirrors.

For example, and for starters, I would like us to retire the word “pedophile.” The word comes from Greek and means, at its root, “one who loves children.” What an Orwellian inversion! To use this word to describe those who violate children, and in many instances kill to silence them, is to help the wolf into his wooly disguise.

This term, pedophile, is more than a poor word choice; a clinical—that is, pseudo-medical—term, it asks us to see such evil as arising from disease or illness, evil in its effect, perhaps, but no more intentional than other natural misfortunes such as diabetes or muscular dystrophy. This makes the violation of children a part of the natural order and the perpetrator one who cannot help himself.

In place of the term pedophile, then, let me offer an alternative: pedoscele, from Latin scelus, meaning “evil deed.” Try it. Pedoscele: one who does evil to children.

Now we have reset the switch. Now we can begin to think about this violence with our feet on the ground and in a way that honors the experience and the hard-won understanding of those who have been victimized.

Okay, watch out — digression comin’ through here…!

One of the reasons I’m especially grateful for the chance to speak to you today is that for far too long survivors of sexual assault, both women and men, have been absent from the discourse — and, frankly, it shows. One of my great heroes was a man whose analysis of abusive power grew from his own experience of institutionalized violence, Frederick Douglass. Douglass was a powerful political thinker, but his thinking was often at odds with the white abolitionist movement who relied on him as a speaker. “Give us the facts” they told him. “We’ll take care of the philosophy.” In the second revised edition of his autobiography (there were three), Douglass wrote of sharing a podium, for the umpteenth time, with the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, “Tell your story, Frederick,” would whisper my revered friend, Mr. Garrison, as I stepped upon the platform. I could not always follow the injunction, for I was now reading and thinking.”

Reading and thinking about what? About abusive power, and about how that power is hidden and disguised by language, and by ritualized ways of speaking and writing.

So maybe that wasn’t such a digression after all.

Here is an example of a ritualized and counterproductive use of language: we use the term “sex offenders,” to describe those who violate others to gratify their need for — again — power and control, as if their crimes had anything to do with sex. Every time those words appear in a headline the public gets exactly the wrong message, has its collective misunderstanding reinforced. If a man assaults me with a baseball bat, we are not playing baseball. If I am stabbed with a bread knife, it is not a”baked goods” crime. (Perhaps we should refer to the cannibals Jeffrey Dahmer and Nathaniel Bar-Jonah as “food offenders.”) As the poet Linda McCarriston once pointed out, “Saying ‘the man had sex with the child’ is like saying, ‘The man had dinner with the pork chop.'”

The rape of a child is a violent act of contempt, not an expression of sexuality or affection. Pedosceles want us to believe otherwise. This is why they talk of “love” between men and boys. This is why, after Nabokov’s Lolita, pubescent girls are called, winkingly, “nymphets.” All too often we fall for it. For example, in a newscast about the man who had devastated the childhoods of several generations in my hometown, including mine, a TV commentator said that the defendant had “admitted that he is overly fond of young boys.” (The word “pedophile” is there, in the shadows.) At that pre-trial hearing, one boy said the man had threatened to cut off his genitals if he told. Another boy testified that the man threatened to shoot his little brother. Clearly he was “overly fond” of these boys.

Not long ago, in 1998 I believe, a pedoscele named Thomas Hamilton massacred a kindergarten class in Dunblane, Scotland. He had been driven, unwelcome, from one community to another for decades, it seems, but police were not able to find parents unashamed to take a case to court. Instead, he was shooed along, referred to as a “misfit,” and became, each time, the next community’s problem. The subsequent slaughter, like the murder of Jeffrey Curley in my home town of Cambridge, unmasks the real nature of sexual child abuse. At its core is a hatred of that naivete and vulnerability we call innocence. Men like Thomas Hamilton, or Jesse Timmendequas who killed Megan Kanka, or Salvatore Sicari and Charles Jaynes, the murderers of Jeffrey Curley, cannot stand that quality and must defile it. Failing that, they must kill the child who represents it.

While we’re at it, let’s retire the word “molest.” Look it up. It means to bother. Excuse me, sir, you’re bothering my child. Just yesterday, in the Boston Globe, there was a story about the army suing the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston for sending them a priest who had a record of abuse allegations which they had suppressed. The language of the church’s memos is revealing. The memos recorded that Rev. Scanlon “fools around with kids” and that he may be “overindulgent with boys.”

Even speaking informally we communicate mostly ignorance, discomfort, and confusion. I have heard the word diddle used to describe (and dismiss) the violation of children, as in “He likes to diddle little boys.” It is a word that seems made to order, silly sounding, sniggering, naughty, childish, innocent: Hey diddle, diddle/ The cat and the fiddle… Diddling, fondling, fooling around—great foggy euphemisms into which real children vanish.

I want to ask a question: if this is the level of adult discourse on the subject — so that even adult survivors are left shaking their heads and feeling as if they are from another planet — HOW IS A CHILD TO ENTER THIS CONVERSATION?

There is language that sheds light, and language that hides reality in fog. Honoring the truth means matching words to things as honestly as we can so the listener or reader sees what we are referring to, not an abstraction that has taken its place. Honoring the truth means not using language to evade responsibility.

Honoring the truth is a political issue, just as it is everywhere else in the world, whether it is in Chile, Cambodia, Guatemala, South Africa, El Salvador, Iraq, orthe Balkans; in fact it is THE political issue of our time since we live in such a mediadrome that reality can be processed, denatured, distorted, polished, and recycled almost as soon as something has happened.

So let’s get this straight: America was not “discovered.” Guatemalan peasants were not “pacified.” Kosovo was not “cleansed.” I was not “fondled.” I was not “loved.” I was also not corrupted. I was hurt. I was injured. I was raped.

Orwell had it right about language. It’s always first of all about language. I think about a time when I was helping a friend lay pipe during a rehab of his bathroom. We started on one side of the room, fitting the lengths of pipe together as we went, and when we got to the other side of the room we were about four or five feet “off” — because we were about 3 degrees “off” when we began. This is precisely what I worry about when I look at the language we are using to describe violence against children. If we do not take care to strip our vocabulary of terms that are inaccurate and inexact, we will become further and further “off”, further and further from where we need to be to be effective, no matter how much well-intentioned effort we expend along the way. This is what it means to “come to terms” with something. Some people use euphemisms to make the intolerable tolerable, others to sow confusion and rationalize their actions. We have to be on guard against these manipulations. I understand that, for many, calling anything evil in our psychocratic age is blasphemy; nevertheless, when language masks reality, instead of revealing it, then we traffic in delusion and create suffering.

As you can see, I am reluctant to talk about the sexual abuse of children as if it were in each case a private tragedy, a kind of accident, something for individuals to survive and “move on” from, tucking themselves tidily back into the world as it is, keeping silent, behaving themselves decorously so as not to upset anyone.

Much of the time, when we talk about recovering from the trauma of childhood sexual abuse, we talk about healing. The metaphor of healing a wound is only so useful, however – the truth is even simpler and more terrible: the sexual violation of a child is a violation of the child’s history, not merely the child’s psyche. It is a lie told to the child about his or her worth, a lie that disrupts the story as it had been unfolding and establishes new premises that engender a different narrative or make a coherent individual story nearly impossible unless it is congruent with the master narrative, the story of power over others.

THIS is the curriculum, this is the training, this is the redefinition of power that must take place in order to maintain institutions of social control. There, I’ve said it: it is the curriculum, the doctrine — with which children are indoctrinated in order to hide the illegitimacy of abusive power, wrapping itself in rhetoric: in flags, uniforms, robes, rituals, and rationalizations. This curriculum must be hidden and must be able to be easily denied, attributed instead, as we have seen over and over, to “a few bad apples.” Institutions that wield abusive power and control REQUIRE the kind of extreme bullying that rapists and torturers provide in order to humiliate and subjugate, shame and silence, those whose helplessness and obedience is needed to preserve that abusive power. What I am saying is that those who perpetrate crimes of abusive power against children — whether that abuse is sexual, physical, or intellectual (call it, pardon me, but the expression is apt: “fucking with their heads”) — are so seldom brought to justice because they are performing a societal function. They are performing an induction ritual into a world of hierarchical abusive power, a world of victors and victims, winners and losers, maintained by shame and fear: THEY ARE DOING THEIR JOB. Only when it becomes impossible to look away — when there are pictures, when the crime is public, or when the child is not only raped but abducted and murdered — do these institutions act, and when they do, they predictably scapegoat the lowest ranking perpetrators as we have seen in both the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and the Roman Catholic Church.

What I’m suggesting is that this induction into a culture of abusive, hierarchical power, a world of winners and losers, victors and victims, is accomplished in large part through sexual violence. It is not necessary that every child experience this violence explicitly and directly for it to be a constant feature of childhood. We are learning, as disclosures mount, that somewhere between a quarter and a third of all children, girls and boys, are explicitly violated by a trusted adult.

Most of us live believing or at least accepting the myth is that our society exists in order to sustain its members and to create health and abundance for coming generations, beginning with our children and grandchildren. This may indeed have been the function of pre-industrial, agrarian cultures, but it is emphatically not the purpose of our late capitalist consumer society. Ask any primary school teacher how much of their time is spent debriefing their charges, trying to countermand the toxic messages about their self-worth that indoctrinate entry-level consumers.

Now consider the corollary myth: that those who prey upon children are different in kind from the good middle-class souls who work hard to keep the wheels of commerce, religion, and politics turning. This myth insists that predators are out of alignment with society’s values regarding children. We’ve been sold the idea that because we are disgusted by the kind of abuse perpetrated by sexual predators their crimes are essentially different from the crimes of others who exploit children for their own gain in other ways. What is the difference between the predator who uses pornography and alcohol to get what he wants from a young boy or girl and the company that uses advertising to market cigarettes, junk foods, and violent behavior to them for profit? What is the difference between, on the one hand, the pedoscele who steals from a child what that child cannot understand until much later and, on the other, a corporate state that, for its own immediate profit, leaves to the next two generations of children a mountain of debt under which they must labor?

This myth, that our society’s values match its rhetoric and that its institutions are essentially benevolent, except for a few rotten apples, sometimes relies for support on the cartoon figure of the wild-eyed deviant in a trenchcoat lurking in the suburban shrubbery. (In the service of this myth, every child abuser who owns a trenchcoat will be photographed in it a thousand times, preferably with playground equipment in the background.)

It was Freud, of course, who helped supply this myth because he gave way to his own quite human need, and that of his colleagues, to make something safely “other” of what he rightly saw as vile and criminal. He decided, under pressure from his colleagues, that of course the good burghers of Vienna couldn’t be exploiting their daughters and nieces in this unconscionable manner (let alone their sons and nephews.) We have been living with the consequences of that evasion for a century now, and we are accustomed to a conceptual framework, or at least a phraseological one, that cannot allow the truth, that in fact reflexively dismisses it whenever it appears. Unless, of course, it involves a guy in a trenchcoat.

With the North American Man-Boy Love Association crying out, wrongly, “we’re gay too, and persecuted for our sexual preference,” and, on the other, right wing homophobes busily scapegoating gay men for crimes against children, it becomes difficult to get anyone to see that these violations are first of all crimes of abusive, oppressive, exploitative power, and that they are a human rights issue. Add to that such psychobabble as “the incest family,” “the cycle of violence,” and statistically inaccurate representations that suggest to the public that those who are violated as children go on to violate children, all that “kiss of the vampire” crap, a canard that the recent novel and film Mystic River deftly exploited for its plot resolution, and you have a paralyzing confusion about who is responsible and what, if anything, can be done.

I believe this is similar to the confusion that reigned in our culture right up to the latter half of the 19th century on the question of slavery. People walked around wringing their hands and saying they were of course against it but what could they do? It was “too complex,” “too politicized;” its opponents were “too fanatical.” Many debates were held to discuss whether in fact slavery was “evil” or just an unfortunate economic and historical development. Some maintained that blacks were better off than they would have been in Africa. Others, saying they shared the same goals, but saw no reason to call good Christian gentlemen of the south “evil,” created “African Colonization societies” that did nothing to interrupt the slave trade, but bought up slaves, mostly the sick and elderly, and resettled them in places like Liberia.

Those who argued on behalf of slaveholders contended that the Greeks had slaves. They argued that not all slaveholders treated their slaves violently. They argued that some slaves were thankful to their masters for educating them. They argued that truly sadistic masters were a tiny minority. I have heard every one of these arguments applied to the latter day “peculiar institution” of child sexual exploitation.

It took William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Frederick Douglass, and others to finally convince people that slavery was evil, and that while a man held slaves, there was nothing that could be placed in the other pan of the moral scale that would balance it out.

Those who violate children are slave-masters, tyrants, especially when the child can make no escape from their sphere of influence. And while a person continues to harm children, there is nothing that can be placed in the other pan of the scale — nothing — that can balance it. It doesn’t matter if you are a winning coach, an inspiring teacher, a great provider for your family, a beloved priest, a pop star, or a poet. And to condemn the actions of tyrants is not hatred, but love.

I suppose that here is the part where I should talk about forgiveness. Over and over again, I am asked if I forgavethe man who raped me. The answer is yes — I forgave him for thirty years; that was the word I used: forgiveness. I knew nothing about denial during those years while it was having its corrosive effect on my life. Forgiveness had a nice virtuous ring to it. And during the thirty years that Feifel enjoyed my virtuous amnesty, over three hundred more little boys were raped.

Those of us who were victimized by this ongoing atrocity, this pervasive secret institution in our culture, have only recently found the strength to claim, understand, and come to terms with what was done to us when we were at our most vulnerable. I am not alone when I say that not only do I refuse to be anesthetized any longer by the culture’s prescribed anodynes of booze, drugs, constant entertainment and distraction, but that I also refuse to be “amnesthetized” by bogus versions of forgiveness based on a no-fault ethical system.

If a man burns down my house, I do not owe him anything — certainly not the chance to do it again after I’ve rebuilt, and least of all forgiveness. On the contrary, he owes me. He owes me a house, along with a great deal more for the trauma and devastating interruption of my life his act has caused. He also owes the community for infecting it with fear and mistrust.

Some days I see hope in the actions of brave truth tellers who refuse to pipe down in the face of sneers and threats. Other days I feel that asking this culture to fight for the protection of children and against their exploitation is like asking a tree to uproot itself, a stone to lift itself, a bomb to defuse itself.

I began by saying I think our new direction is political action. This is the real revolution, and it is a narrow and demanding way. But followed, it can lead not only to real safety for our children, but to the reestablishment and strengthening of a community, a body politic, a nation, torn apart by deep moral divisions in other matters. Surely we all agree, across those divides, that adult sexual exploitation of children is wrong. (By the way, contrary to what some people would like us to believe, there is no nation on this planet where the sexual violation of a child is legally permissible. None.) So why not begin there, where we agree?

If we cannot come together across the barriers of race, class, religion, and politics — including the politics of sexual orientation, abortion, and capital punishment — to search for a way to protect our children from this scourge, then truly all is lost. Then we will have failed as a people no matter what else we may accomplish.

We will have to rethink things, rename things, reconsider positions with which we’ve become comfortable. We will have to be willing to admit ignorance, feel foolish, relinquish worn pieties. We will have to be fearless.

Which of our children doesn’t deserve this? And what kind of society are we if our first goal is not to protect our children — not your children or my children, but our children? Who are we if we turn our backs?

THANK YOU.

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Trust the Experts

Recent articles in the press have discussed the case of an Air Force policeman, Paul Busa, who has come forward to bring charges against the Rev. Paul Shanley. After viewing TV coverage of other allegations against the notorious self-professed proponent of sex with children, Mr. Busa says he broke down and cried, recognizing his own story in the reports he heard. The articles suggested that Mr. Busa’s accusation is the result of a “repressed” or “recovered” memory that may be difficult for prosecutors to corroborate.

But to term Busa’s memories of his abuse at the hands of a trusted priest “repressed,” or “recovered,” is disingenuous and cynical. It heralds the beginning of an attack on the credibility of those whose testimony threatens what we now know is the status quo: the widespread sexual exploitation of minors by men who are sheltered and abetted by institutional authority. To assert that all of our memories, whether traumatic or not, are present to us at all times and continuously is to defy both logic and common sense. It is also grounds to call into question the motives of those who would try to enchant us into believing this assertion.

Think about it. Every day we recall things we never had occasion to remember before. The other day a conversation with a friend about amusement parks suddenly reminded me of my first ride on a wooden roller coaster when I was twelve, including the fear I felt, the pressure to hide that fear from my friends, the ride itself, and the exhilaration afterward — “Let’s do it again!” This event had never presented itself to me before as a memory. Why would it? What would its use or context have been? Is it therefore a “repressed” memory? Is it a “recovered” memory?

Private conversations invite memories. So does public discourse. Until now our public discourse was more likely to demonize whistle-blowers like Greg Ford and Paul Busa. Mr. Busa tells us that Shanley told him, simply, “Nobody will believe you.” In fact, that was an accurate statement of the climate at the time, a state of affairs we must never return to, in which those who disclosed their victimization were sneered at, shamed, and silenced. In the case of men assaulted as boys they were further suspected — via the circular logic of the so-called “cycle of violence” — of being perpetrators or potential perpetrators themselves. Unsurprisingly, the result of such a climate is silence. Paul Busa’s memories, like those of many others who survived such violations, were not repressed, but suppressed.

Please let us not go down the rabbit hole again into the wonderland of psychobabble that suggests that only what goes on inside a person’s head is real. If we cede our thinking about this to the specious expertise of psychiatrists and lawyers we will drown in a sea of abstract neologisms with endlessly elastic definitions. Brownlow Speer, chief appellate lawyer for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, is quoted in the Globe article, “There are psychiatric stars who will want to weigh in on each side.” Indeed. Whole careers arguing jesuitical questions that start from otherworldly premises can be dusted off and jump-started. Just like the good old days when such “experts'” calendars were full of court appearances worth up to $10,000 a pop.

We need to define our terms. The “recovered” memory debate of years past mainly concerned itself with allegations that emerged from hypnotherapy. Whenever such an allegation was unable to be substantiated, it was termed a victory by a well-organized network of people pushing the idea of something called False Memory Syndrome and then featured as if it were proof of innocence. Riding this momentum, defense attorneys and others expanded the definition of a “recovered” memory to mean any memory you hadn’t had before. Never mind whether any conversation, public or private, had ever invited it, never mind the cultural forces arrayed to suppress it: ridicule, machismo, homophobia, and prescriptions for both pharmaceuticals and forgiveness.

There are reasons why these allegations are so old. Children hardly have the means to understand or express what was done to them, and those who attempt to help a child articulate what happened are said to be unfairly “leading the witness.” If a child is silent until adulthod, until he or she has acquired the ability, understanding, and strength to tell the truth, however, then he or she will be distrusted for not having come forward sooner, or vilified for availing himself or herself of the proffered anodyne of alcohol, or dismissed as crazy for having sought help from psychiatry.

The ancient Romans had a saying: Experto credite; from it, we derive our word expert. It means “Trust the one who has had the experience.” What is our motto? “Attack the memories of those who have suffered”? If children are considered unreliable because they are children, and adults have pseudo-scientific adjectives attached to their memories that render them suspect, then we can convene all the committees and commissions we want and nothing will change.

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What’s Love Got to Do With It?

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 –

Goodbye, boy!

DAD
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.

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The Hatred of Innocence

(An edited version of this essay appeared as an op-ed under the title “Changing the language of sex-crimes against children,” Boston Globe, 11/23/98.)

My ten-year-old daughter brought us the news. She told of a little boy across town who had been kidnapped, raped, and killed. She insisted I turn on the TV to find out more. I hesitated, wanting to protect her, as if protecting her from the truth were the same as protecting her from evil. I turned on the news.

Mostly I was concerned for my daughter’s feelings. But as a parent, my heart also ached for the parents of this boy whose name we did not yet know. And as a man who was raped at age ten by a coach who, before he was stopped, went on to devastate the lives of hundreds of children, I felt an old rage surface again. Soon we would learn that the boy’s name was Jeffrey Curley.

Because of my own history, I have been trying to understand the enormity of this evil for a long time now. I have come to few conclusions except that we have to begin with a different set of terms if we are to avoid the same fear, helplessness, and despair that have incapacitated us so far and continued to place children at risk.

I believe we have been misled by the language we use, by the way we talk about those who would harm our children. Our words are important. Words are how we think. We talk of them as “sick.” We use names that accept their denial and distortion. We become tangled in language that does not reflect reality, but hides it until, over and over, child after child, it is too late.

Let’s begin by refusing to use the word “pedophile.” The word comes from Greek and means, literally, “one who loves children.” What an Orwellian inversion! To use this word to describe those who violate children, and in many instances kill to silence them, is to help the wolf into his wooly disguise.

The term pedophile is more than a poor word choice, however; a pseudo-medical term, it asks us to see such evil as arising from disease or illness, evil in its effect, perhaps, but no more intentional than other natural misfortunes like diabetes, say, or muscular dystrophy. This makes the violation of children a part of the natural order and the perpetrator one who cannot help himself.

In place of the term pedophile, then, let me offer an alternative: pedoscele, from Latin “scelus,” meaning “evil deed.” Try it. Ped-o-skeel: one who does evil to children.

And let’s stop calling them “sex offenders,” as if their crimes had anything to do with sex. (Perhaps Jeffrey Dahmer was a “food offender.”) As the poet Linda McCarriston once pointed out, “Saying ‘the man had sex with the child’ is like saying, ‘The man had dinner with the pork chop.'”

The rape of a child is a violent act of contempt, not an expression of sexuality or affection. Pedosceles want us to believe otherwise. This is why they talk of “love” between men and boys. All too often we fall for it. For example, in a newscast about the man who had devastated the childhoods of several generations in my hometown, including mine, a TV commentator said that the defendant had “admitted that he is overly fond of young boys.” (The word “pedophile” is there, in the shadows.) At that pre-trial hearing, one boy said the man had threatened to cut off his genitals if he told. Another boy testified that the man threatened to shoot his little brother. Overly fond indeed.

A couple of years ago a pedoscele named Thomas Hamilton massacred a kindergarten class in Dunblane, Scotland. He had been driven, unwelcome, from one community to another for decades, but police were not able to find parents unashamed to take a case to court. Instead, he was shooed along, referred to as a “misfit,” and became, each time, the next community’s problem. The subsequent slaughter, like the murder of Jeffrey Curley, unmasks the real nature of this type of child abuse. At its core is a hatred of that naivete and vulnerability we call innocence. Men like Thomas Hamilton, or Jesse Timmendequas who killed Megan Kanka, or the murderers of Jeffrey Curley, cannot stand that quality and must defile it. Failing that, they must kill the child who represents it.

While we’re at it, let’s retire the word “molest.” On a family vacation recently, we took a day trip to a bird sanctuary where the signs read: Do Not Molest the Birds. Look it up. It means to bother. Bother? Excuse me, sir, you’re bothering my child.

Even speaking informally we communicate mostly ignorance, discomfort, and confusion. I have heard the word diddle used to describe (and dismiss) the violation of children, as in “He likes to diddle little boys.” It is a word that seems made to order, silly sounding, sniggering, naughty. Diddling, fondling, fooling around – great foggy euphemisms into which real children like Jeffrey Curley vanish.

We need to create safety for our children. But the first step in doing so is to see reality clearly. Using language that reflects the real nature of the crimes committed against children, maybe we can figure out, at long last, how to protect them from people who – make no mistake about it – hate them for being what they are: young, trusting, and innocent.

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Backtalk: Notes Toward an Essay on Memoir

“To employ a textual structure which cracks wide open the whole literary convention of an age seems in more than one case to be the only means by which truth and literature can be reconciled.”

— Richard Coe When the Grass Was Taller, p.85

The act of remembering one’s life and examining it for meaning is the elemental act of anyone on a spiritual quest. The subsequent shaping of that understanding into a work of art or literature is an act of faith in the possibility of communal meaning, the essential work of the artist, no matter what post-modern, atomized, mandarin critics claim. Memory was, is, and shall be mother of all the muses.

It may be that, in our moment, the impulse to write memoir, the marriage of the personal essay with dramatic narrative, stems largely from the overload experienced by writers driven back by the torrent of propaganda that attempts to shape a consensus through the media. These writers can only trust the frail first-person narrator sifting through real, not fictive, experience, in order to establish the existence of a reality beyond the one described so loudly and incessantly not by human beings, but by talking money. Their telling, their honesty and willingness to stand by their words, is the untelling of those pervasive lies that a culture of simulation and propaganda uses to numb and subdue us and trap us into the politically de-fanged and spiritually neutered “virtual reality” of Plato’s video cave.

In other words, the ascendance of memoir may be a kind of backtalk, a cultural corrective to the sheer amount of fictional distortion that has accumulated in a society whose historians include Michael Eisner and Andrew Lloyd Webber. At the end of “the American Century,” what’s been called “the memoir explosion” may be our own “truth and reconciliation hearings,” life by life and book by book. It’s no wonder that this makes some uncomfortable; there can be no account without an accounting, and the desire for a blanket amnesty requires an amnesia that can be soul-destroying. We tend to most want amnesty when we are exhausted and the hope of justice, of setting things right again, is lost. It is because the memoirist refuses this comfortable despair that the genre can be seen as having a political meaning.

“The struggle of the people against power,” wrote Milan Kundera, “is the struggle of memory against forgetting,” and those involved in that work are more than narcissists for sale, licking their wounds in public, as threatened power, wielding a sneer (the saturday night special of American discourse), seeks to portray them. Faced with disinformation, the cynical cultivation of profitable compulsions, history as theme park, and lives increasingly defined by a pop-culture grid and nudged this way and that by market research, the memoirist beats a tactical retreat to real, i.e. subjective experience, as a starting point for reclaiming an authentic relation to the world.

Kundera, in exile, called the communist president of Czechoslovakia “The President of Forgetting”. Here, during the dark advent of the great, empty pseudo-culture of consumerism, brought to us through every tinny speaker in every fast-food restaurant ceiling, through megaplex theatres and cable TV, on the cover of every slick and content-free magazine clogging the shelves, we had an amnesiac actor in the White House. After he left, we were told he had Alzheimers’. As my children would say, “Duh.”

It simply became easier to lie after the second World War, at least in America; what I mean is that the new media made it much easier to repeat a lie over and over until it became the truth. This has always been a fundamental strategem of the propagandist, but it used to take a lot longer to lodge these credible untruths in the public mind. Each new untruth is easier to lodge there because it is congruent with its predecessors. Memoirists, those who take their work in the form seriously, are at the very least grit in the machinery manufacturing mass reality.

As a writer – and more than that, as a reader, since I read much more than I write – I want to know how it is that we have lost the connection between what people write and think and feel and say and the world in which they live. I want to know who sets out the terms by which we try to understand our lives and what strictures and taboos stand in the way of our finding meanings that feel authentic to us.

In the literary realm, particularly in the case of the novel, this disjuncture between what is called serious literature and the struggles of people to free themselves from social conditioning, learned compulsions, and the aftershocks of both public and private trauma is maintained by adherence to the creed of “ironic detachment.” Chief among its tenets is the belief that to pass judgments, to argue passionately, to take a stand of any kind is unsophisticated. To be a sophisticate is to be cool and detached, not heated and engaged. The trouble is that such a view precludes both blessings and curses. It is, simply, an attitude, a certain tone, and by now readers have been miseducated to believe that when they hear this tone they are in the presence of art. Worse, young writers, to be considered serious, seem to feel they must adopt this pose. Shall we be so willing to sacrifice literature’s ability to “praise and dispraise” as the late critic Terrence des Pres put it? If so, we consign our literature to a world apart and deny it any role in our social and political life except to keep alive the idea of the removed observer, an idea that in a world of 24 hour TV newscasts cannot be said to be threatened. A literature that shrinks from the question of meaning is, quite literally, demeaning. A literature that evades moral judgments is ultimately demoralizing.

In a recent issue of Civilization, the magazine of the Library of Congress, David Samuels takes aim at the recent increase in first-person nonfiction in an essay tellingly entitled “Mad About Me”. After acknowledging the genius of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, Samuels begins the pseudo-sophisticated sneering that his title heralds. “Oprah Winfrey and Montel Williams, beware! Stories of alcoholism and recovery, of addiction to sex, of incestuous fathers and other childhood traumas too numerous to mention, have broken free from the talk-show circuit and are arriving by the truckload at a bookstore near you.” In the face of such baiting, a memoirist might ask if Samuels would also agree that novels that tell of interlocking painful relationships, betrayals, indecision, infidelities, struggle, have broken free from the daytime soaps and are headed to a bookstore near you? Novels like Madame Bovary, Anna Karenin, The Wings of the Dove, Absalom, Absalom. Of course he wouldn’t.

Samuels’ essay illustrates the difficulty one encounters beginning from the wrong assumptions. I do not know what a memoir is. I don’t find most definitions very helpful. On the other hand, I don’t know what a novel is, either, and still believe that its very name suggests that it will remain a healthy genre only so long as it eludes the captivity of a definition. I believe, without having a definition for either genre, that memoir is at this moment in literary history best viewed as a sub-genre of the novel. In any case, the difference between the two is certainly not as pat as “fiction lies; autobiography tells the truth,” the straw man Samuels goes on to knock down in his essay. Most memoirists, with the notable exception of one now extremely wealthy liar, are frank in allowing that their works are re-creations and products of what artistry they have been able to bring to bear to give their lives a narrative shape. The larger question has to do with the relation between memory and imagination: in a memoir, the imagination serves memory; in fiction, it is most often the other way around, with memory indentured to imagination. Both can be ways of speaking the truth. Both can be ways of lying. So the issue is — uh-oh, where’s my ironic detachment? — honesty.

Samuels is by no means the only dog barking at the caravan. Articles in The New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, and elsewhere all seemed to agree that memoir is a third rate genre peopled by unseemly victims licking their wounds in public. Mostly this backlash was driven by the media’s unceasing appetite for controversy, for removing complexity and replacing context with contest. For example, on a recent NPR call-in show, The Connection, host Christopher Lydon interviewed his guests, Frank Conroy and James Salter, by way of a factitious argument that somehow memoirists are a threat to novelists. Of course it didn’t come off since Conroy and Salter both hold dual citizenships in the countries of fiction and memoir. In fact, at one point in the program, it appeared the game was over when Lydon lobbed his serve out of bounds by asking Conroy if the memoir was to blame for the death of the novel. Conroy answered, of course, that the novel is not dead.

At another point in that program, Lydon asked his guests about the literary value of unsavory personal details like alcoholism, violence, and perversion. He seemed unaware that one might need to treat those subjects explicitly in order to make sense of the rest of the story. Worse, he seemed unaware that in asking whether such things should be included in a work of literature he had drifted from a discussion of how those subjects might best be treated and was talking instead about what was in fact censorship.

The aesthete and the reactionary both deny the reality that the private and public spheres are twin arenas where the same ethical and political battles take place. Our personal histories are part of history. We are all children not only of our families, but of our communities, our nation, our culture, our historical moment. This is a truism but one, it seems, that the present zeitgeist wants us to forget.

When my father, who had grown up in the depression, returned from the butchery to which he was exposed at the age of nineteen, he was told he was one of the good guys, one of those who had saved the world from tyranny. Like so many others, all he wanted now was a private life, the illusion of an escape from history.

Those of us who grew up during the postwar years (as opposed to the ahistorical fiction called “the 50’s”, a time of peace and plenty which did not include the Korean War, McCarthyism, or the constant terrifying threat of atomic attack) were born into some version of a shell-shock ward. It was a tile and chrome world of survivors who heard, with understandable relief and tragic credulity, the gospel of forgetfulness and were happy to believe it: you must put the past behind you; you mustn’t dwell on the past; that was then, this is now. We, their children, had no history, but we lived in the aftermath of war, in the emotional rubble of our parents’ rages and sorrow. As we came of age in the era of “the balance of terror” and “the missile gap” and learned what had happened in Europe and Asia, we were enjoined to forget it. The gospel of forgetfulness is alive and well today and informs much of the clucking and sneering at recent memoir cited earlier.

If we cannot forget the atrocities of this century, the least we can do is deny we’ve been affected by them: all those pesky wars, mass murders, class inequities, threats of planetary death. In this project we will be abetted by pop psychology and self-help texts that treat the individual as either well- or maladapted, and the family as if it existed under a bell jar. What meanings are encouraged, celebrated, sanctioned as truth will be those expressed in comfortably apolitical psychological terms; i.e. it’s all in your head.

Woody Guthrie: “If you make two words that say, ‘I Haven’t Got a Worry in My Head,’ or ‘The World’s Okie-Dokie It’s Just Me That’s All Wrong,’ they will pay you more money than you can carry off in a big sack. Your two words don’t even have to rhyme or make any sense. They will stretch them into songs, plots, dramas, true confessions, detective stories, and run them in serial form to sell stuff with.

“If you make up two words that tell something that’s wrong about your life and how to fix it, of course, then you are a Communist.”

The aesthete’s nearly theological idea of art for art’s sake depends at least in part on writing for posterity, but it’s hard to sell the concept of posterity to those raised in the shadow of Hiroshima, and the twin state-terrorisms of the Cold War. Those who know we have been and are still only half a step from a real, not mythic Armageddon, aren’t buying it.

I’m reminded of the comic Jimmy Tingle’s story about his agent telling him that he’d blown his chances by doing political humor on the Johnny Carson show. “But Johnny himself does political humor!” says Tingle. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” says his exasperated agent “but Johnny doesn’t MEAN it!” We mean it.

2.

“He who tells the story of his life is the most oppressed of all slaves among storytellers.” — Georges Duhamel

“True stories have no end,” Charles Fish tells us in his masterful memoir, In Good Hands: the Keeping of a Family Farm , “but a storyteller must find boundaries, or else from three small sentences in a diary he could be drawn to the beginning of the world.”

The beginning of the world. In his essay, “My Caedmon: Thinking about Poetic Vocation”, Allen Grossman reminds us that the first poet in English, called upon by his fellows to sing a song, something familiar, as they sat before the fireplace, declined, having no song to sing. Later, “Caedmon was commanded by someone in a dream to sing something. Confessing himself unable to think what or how to sing, he was directed to sing, in his dream, the beginning of the creatures. And he did so. Upon awaking, in the presence of persons of authority in the monastery (Whitby) where he worked, Caedmon remade, again on demand, his poetic text.”

Memoirists, regarded for the time being as poets (and many of them are), can be viewed as singers who found no other song to sing and sang the beginning of the world, this world; i.e. how this world became the particular shape of this consciousness.

Writing a memoir becomes, eventually, like turning over a circuit board and seeing how the connections have been made. Going down below street-level. Checking on the worn-out, maybe dangerous plumbing and wiring, learning how things really work. And finding that little has been “built to code.” This is more than recalling events and stringing them like beads. This is a do or die existential command from deep in a dream. Those who merely “play the market” with a “hot” story are impostors, pretenders, and worse.

The memoirist discovers his destiny, not his destiny hereafter, not some soothsayer’s fortune, but what causes and effects, influences and resistances, circumstances and compulsions have been, often unnoticed, at work. He discovers what subjects, predicates, objects, and modifiers have sentenced him. He comes to understand what the future was.

Maybe this engenders the selfsame process in the reader. Some of these readers are also writers. Maybe that’s enough to explain the “explosion” of memoir. But I suspect the current runs much deeper than that.

According to Plotinus, who enriched and humanized the Rome of his day by re-membering the body of Hellenic knowledge that had been sundered, or dis-membered, by imperialism and war, “Memory is for those who have forgotten.”

Now, you can read that sentence to mean, merely, that you have no need to remember unless you have first forgotten, a reading that seems both obvious and true. It seems so because this is the way we usually understand memory; i.e., that faculty which allows us to recapture something that we once had, or at least almost had, before it slipped into unavailability like a dropped pop-up, or a fish hooked tenuously and lost, or a prisoner escaped before securely in the lock-up.

But I understand that statement a bit differently. I choose to think of this neo-Platonist’s shimmering, ambiguous remark as a description of the artist’s vocation, one that grounds that calling in a social responsibility that grants real power — personal, cultural, political, and spiritual — to the art it produces. In other words, Memory is for the sake of those who have forgotten. For the love of, for the health of, for the sustenance of those who have forgotten.

This way of looking at Plotinus’ statement bears in mind also the fact that Mnemosyne, or Memory, is the mother of all the muses. Hers is the power of continuity that, shaped by the arts, brings forth from the past not monsters but recognizable, unique variations of her pattern. For those who have forgotten.

When a poet looks to the past, he or she does so with a different motive than one who searches merely for a lost fact or artifact. The poet is interested in the past not merely as the antecedent of the present, but as its living source. Poets are animists, however much they may see fit to deny it in such a cynical age; they can’t help knowing that the world, all of it, breathes and lives.

The motive of the memoirist is grief, with its accompanying outrage and incomprehension. The intent is the oldest poetic quest: to interrogate death and win the release of the beloved dead. The method is to dream them alive, both the lords of the dead and their captives, with the help of one or more of Memory’s famous daughters, to enact the Orphic ritual, the descensus inferni, singing with the time- and death-defying passion of the poet. The one who makes this journey cannot bring back the dead, of course, (although if the poet is young and naive enough to be still outraged by loss, he or she may believe it possible.) What the poet does bring back, however, is an understanding of the subterranean structures of the world, the ways that the past reissues in the present, and in his or her work, for those who have forgotten, those structures — existential, psychological, cultural, and political — inhere. In the best work, work that is both truthful and beautiful, the reader comes to assume these structures in his or her own consciousness in order to understand first the work’s shape, and later the solace it gives, the strength it imparts, the change it demands.

Ultimately, a memoir must be about the myriad ways the past and present conjugate to produce the future. This commingling includes the dead as well as the living, our forbears as well as our children. The memoirist’s disciplined practice must include an openness to grief, regret, and remorse in order to see reality clearly. This extrication from lies, shame, and silence, this liberation, is the result of many individual acts of truth-telling performed by choosing this word or phrase over that, by honoring the integrity of each event as opposed to modifying its contours to fit, by the quest to understand how time, along with place, class, and culture, has unfolded character and determined history.

The Greeks (and no doubt others) made distinctions between various kinds of memory. There was anamnesis (lit. the absence of or resistance to amnesia) which we call, inelegantly, “long-term memory.” This can also be used to describe the memory of a community or people, that is, “history.” As Elie Weisel said, in an interview in Bostonia, last Spring: “Memory is not only a victory over time, it is a triumph over injustice.” Anyway, this is different from what the Greeks called mnemne, or recall, i.e. our contemporary “short-term memory.”

Anamnesis, the re-membering of the dismembered past, is a sustained stance toward the world, a political committment as well as a literary and spiritual undertaking. If forgetfulness, amnesis, is a kind of death, then the kind of reunification and reintegration of experience or history is not only life-affirming for the practitioner, but also confers, in the hands of a skillful artist, a kind of immortality on those who would have otherwise disappeared, drowned in the waters of Lethe forever.

Like a novel, a memoir is a dramatic work, one constructed to embody a unity or pattern discovered by means of a sustained and resolute attention to the interplay of characters and events as they happened (without manipulation based on a priori intent.) An honest memoirist can only discern this pattern after he or she has tracked and traced it through fog and despair, driven half-mad by love, grief, and fury.

A memoir is communal history told from the individual’s vantage. Woody Guthrie again:

“A folk song tells a story that really did happen. A pop tune tells a yarn that didn’t really take place.”

A memoir, a good one, is always about more than its subject: it gives voice to suffering, not solipsism. Although it need not always be written against something, fueled by outraged idealism, it must also never have its author’s personal concerns as beginning and end. That is diary, journal, correspondence, of little value except as record.

Yet stories that are read and loved and kept as our own can be extremely personal, containing the kind of knowledge and experience that until now would have been censored by government, or publishers, or, via shame, by the authors themselves (indeed preventing many from authoring their “lives” at all, the internal censor is so strong.) In literature, whether fiction or fact, a story has to be someone’s before it can be anyone’s and anyone’s before it can be everyone’s. Otherwise it is no one’s story. And there are always multiple interests arrayed against the story becoming anyone’s in the first place, and, after that, arrayed against the possibility that the story may be taken up and become read, embraced, loved enough to become, at least potentially, everybody’s. This is what the relationship between writers and readers is about, not book sales, best-seller lists, etc. This is why books are powerful and considered by many governments to be worthy of censorship: they are subversive of silence in that they tell the stories of nobodies, allowing many somebodies to reclaim the truth of their lives, to grieve and feel outrage and make demands, i.e. to wake up, to be reckoned with, to act.

3.

After you publish a memoir, you learn a lot about people, about their frames of reference, about the various provinces of their mental country, the way the world is tendered, sundered, gendered, the way they make themselves safe. It’s sad. And yet it helps you see your own indefensible categorizations. A few identify with you. They are your readers. You, the author, on the other hand, identify as much with the others, especially the ones who show their fear. You know all about fear. These are the people who lead you back to your desk, to the notecards, the questions, the page.

In The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Rilke regrets that no one any longer has an individual death — “One dies the death that belongs to the disease one has,” he writes. Well, we’ve done this with our lives now – a memoir by an incest survivor, a patient turned doctor, a doctor turned patient, a camp survivor, a man with AIDS (ah, Rilke, dear prophet of this insane century!) a parapalegic, a black man with a white mother, a white father with a black daughter, etc. etc. How can we find the humanity so abundantly and variously evident in these books if we have consigned them to one or another cubby-hole like this? If we define them by publishers’ abhorrent sub-titles? So we read about experience that we think may shed light on our own because we have an event or an illness or a place or a trauma in commn, when what we truly have in common is our humanity and, ironically, we might learn more about that from a work that at first seems far from our usual concerns or our own chancy autobiography up until now.

Soon after Half the House was published, I was interviewed by a reporter for Time magazine who was doing a story on memoir. It was clear to me early on in the interview that she already had her angle; she just wanted a quote or two to buttress her thesis, which was that the rise of memoir as a genre was the result of 12-step programs. I disagreed. She insisted that since I mentioned in the memoir that I was a member of a twelve-step program, that that is where the impulse came from. “What influence has your 12-step program had on your work?” she asked. I said that she was missing the point, that there was a long and honorable tradition of “coming of age” memoirs. “But surely 12 step programs…” I said that I thought that a memoir limited to a psychological view of events would not be very interesting to me, and that there were many other layers of anyone’s story that beg to be explored. “Yes, yes, but surely,” she said again, and I finally blurted out, “You want to know how 12-step programs have influenced the memoirists you’re interviewing? I’ll tell you: 12-step programs kept some of us alive long enough to do the work instead of jumping off of bridges, drinking ourselves to death, or sticking our heads in ovens like the previous generation of writers who tried to get in close and work with this kind of material.” Maybe I overstated the case. Forgive me. I was provoked.

What are the obstacles to remembering? What are the kinds of fear?

• the fear that all we have come to hold dear will be seen to have been smoke, so many phrases written on scraps of paper, in a language we can no longer read, and shredded past understanding anyway.

• the fear that all the people whom we have loved will be unmasked as strangers.

• the fear of remorse and its pain, for things both done and undone, for time wasted.

Sometimes I think that because it is so difficult to reconcile the wonder and horror of childhood, people make a choice to remember only one or the other. Thinking of my own boyhood: when it wasn’t horrible it was wonderful; when it wasn’t wonderful, it was horrible. Sometimes, but not often, it was neither wonderful nor horrible, and, particularly as I got older, there were times when although it was horrible it was also wonderful, or when it was wonderful and at the same time horrible.

To balance or offset corruption, violence, ignorance, I was given the smell of greenhouse soil, the wonder of staring fish, the laughter of grownups, the songs of my mother, the cool shade under a wooden bridge, the smell of a baseball mitt, the feel of a nightcrawler as you tug it from the wet ground, the trellises loaded down to crooked near-collapse by roses, the wedding cake rosettes of colored paint on a housepainter’s spattered shoes. It was enough.

Would I go through such a childhood again? The question is academic. I have. I will. Again and again.

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An Op-Ed piece on Curley Family/NAMBLA lawsuit

It’s violence, not sex
Suit should expose indefensible criminality

A jury’s award of 328 million dollars to the Curley family in their wrongful death suit against their son Jeffrey’s killers is a step, a large step, in the right direction. The most significant part of their search for justice, however, has yet to come. It will be their suit against NAMBLA, The North American Man-Boy Love Association.

As the Curley’s lawsuit against NAMBLA, which will be defended by the America Civil Liberties Union, goes forward, we can expect to hear a number of predictable arguments offered to distract us from the horror of what happened to 10 year old Jeffrey and what happens to children all over the world at the hands of their so-called “lovers.” Let’s have a look at these red herrings.

As the Globe reported Thursday, the ACLU will use the argument that the Curleys’ suit against NAMBLA is an attack upon freedom of speech. This strikes a nerve with most of us, as well it should, but a moment’s further consideration reveals this strategem for what it is – a kind of wrapping oneself in the flag. The First Amendment does not ensure that there are no consequences of your speech if someone can demonstrate in civil court that you have done him harm.

The Curleys believe their son was harmed not merely by Charles Jaynes and Salvatore Sicari, but by the propaganda of a group that includes in their materials tips on how to lure and entrap children into what they mistakenly call “consent.” Such materials were found in the possession of Jeffrey’s killer. In just the ways the tobacco industry is now deemed responsible for its cynical campaign to addict children, NAMBLA is vulnerable to the Curleys’ claim.

Be prepared for much talk about “the glory that was Greece,” but do not expect to hear the truth that the consorts of these ancestral “boy-lovers” were slave children, or that their masters were the elite of a phallic hierarchy as misogynist as any that has ever existed. Like propagandists everywhere, NAMBLA plunders the past for anything it can use to forge a ratifying myth. The NAMBLA version of classical Greece is an ideologically driven infomercial.

We will be told that NAMBLA members are gay men who have been abandoned by a movement that has sold out. This piece of sophistry is worse than a red herring – it is apples for oranges. Next those who rape little girls will cry they are being persecuted for their heterosexuality. This bogus claim invites the kind of homophobic and puritanical outbursts we have recently witnessed regarding programs that teach safe sex and provide support for gay and lesbian youth.

NAMBLA claims that it has never advocated violence. Their denial, however, relies on an overly narrow definition. The cognitive and emotional violence done to a child’s psyche has consequences more lasting than the tearing of bodily tissue. To a child, an adult’s wiles can be more coercive than muscular force.

Certainly we have had numerous examples to teach us that sex is the vehicle of violence toward children, not its essence. After all, if a man assaults me with a baseball bat, we are not therefore playing baseball. If a man stabs me with a bread knife, it is not a “baked goods” crime.

What would change if we finally understood that this crime is a human rights violation and not about sex but about violence? Everything, I suspect.

Until recently, according to the United Nations, the center of international trade in childrens’ bodies was post-war Southeast Asia. Child-sex tourism has lately been shifting to the former USSR, the Balkans, and Africa. The pediatric sexual slave trade follows in the wake of war like vermin, continuing the destruction brought about by bombs and guns. Wherever the collapse of civil order has enabled the human rights of the weak to be trampled, traders in children are finding a booming market among “child lovers,” whose self-serving delusions are validated by the kind of propaganda purveyed by NAMBLA.

Those who exploit children for their own genital gratification are slave-masters and tyrants, especially when the child can make no escape from their sphere of influence. And while a person continues to violate children, there is nothing that can be placed in the other pan of the scale – nothing – that can balance it. It doesn’t matter if you are a winning coach, an inspiring teacher, a great provider for your family, an all-pro athlete, a pop star, a priest, or a poet.

The Curley family’s moral victory in this case can lead not only to real safety for our children, but to the reestablishment and strengthening of a community, a body politic, a people, torn apart by deep moral divisions in other matters. Surely the vast majority of us agree, across our many other divides, that adult sexual exploitation of children is wrong. (By the way, contrary to what NAMBLA suggests in its propaganda, there is no nation on this planet where the sexual violation of a child is legally permissible. None. The UN Convention On the Rights of the Child, the first unanimously signed international human rights treaty in history affords all children this protection.) So why not begin there, where – with the exception of those represented by NAMBLA – we all agree?

If we cannot come together across the barriers of race, class, religion, and politics – including the politics of sexual orientation, abortion, and capital punishment – to search for a way to protect our children from this scourge, then truly all is lost. Then we will have failed as a people no matter what else we may accomplish.

We will have to rethink things, rename things, reconsider positions with which we’ve become comfortable. We will have to be willing to admit ignorance, feel foolish, relinquish worn pieties. We will have to be fearless.

Who among our children doesn’t deserve this? And who are we as a society if our first goal is not to protect our children – not your children or my children, but our children? Who are we if we turn our backs?

This article appeared, in slightly edited form, in The Boston Sunday Globe, September 3, 2000.

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