Re-Covering Childhood

Like many a homily, this one will begin with a heartwarming anecdote of childhood. (Strangely, it took place long before email or Usenet newsgroups were available to the general public.)
At a family reunion deep in America's heartland, I was strolling around the back fence, working off the tuna noodle casserole and cottage cheese Jello salad, when my golden-haired pink-dressed eight-year-old cousin accosted me, accompanied by an only slightly less angelic seven-year-old cousin.

"Uncle Ray," she piped with childish glee, "what does 'fuck' mean?"

"I think you should ask your mother," I replied, and we strolled happily back to the tables.

Authors of classic "children's books" -- the stickily jealous J. M. Barries and Lewis Carrolls who wrote to learn to forgive the boys and girls who whorishly forsook them -- make contemporary flesh creep at least as much as that old GMBLA corruptor of youth, Socrates, does. Unfairly. How could any obsession with children lack a sexual component? Power imbalance, not "innocence," is what defines the relationship between adult and child, and no obsession with the relatively powerless lacks exploitive elements. (And is it necessary to point out that even the most discreet parentage almost always comes about through sexual motives?)

The post-1980 focus on sexual abuse has been used by fiction and mass media to support a collection of repressive and throroughly dangerous lies: danger comes from outside the immediate family, children are innocent passive victims of evil, vague nightmarish memories can be literalized and used to cast away all blame for all failings, The Family and The Child shine holy outside sordid notions of utility, and so on. At best, very occasionally, nightmarish experience attains honest and necessary expression. At worst, which is usually, the self-righteousness seems thoroughly calculated for the gain of despicable ends: profit, media attention, justification of unjustifiable acts....

Innumerable (or at least unreadable) fantasy and horror novels have devoted themselves to abused children who develop superpowers or gain magic kingdoms or take grisly revenge on subhuman victimizers. Childish solutions to a childishly stated problem: There are Bad Men, but we are Good and so we deserve Toys. I see a troubling resemblance between the abusers' romanticizing of childish innocence and the romanticizing practiced by such writers, two avenues of escape from gray reality into sparkly technicolor possession.

In an early story by Jonathan Lethem, "The Happy Man," the unreliability of dream-derived evidence is circumvented by literalizing a recurring nightmare into a "real" purgatory which the hero periodically visits -- the only fantastic element in an otherwise well-worn Wicked Uncle narrative. Instead of using fantasy's resources to explore the complexities hidden by realism, fantasy has been used to circumvent rational objections to the abuse industry's simplifications.

At least that story's surface moves gracefully over its slippery ethics. In a different wish-fulfilling genre, Andrew Vacchs ineptly wraps a clumsy rubber-muscle suit around Raymond Chandler's man-walking-down-these-mean-streets, a figure already as slack with fascistic implications as one would think the mean traffic could possibly bear. But no, all is forgiven the grown-up bully -- as long as we've sufficiently observed the suffering little children first.

All of which seems intended to drive truth further into hiding rather than to "uncover" anything -- and particularly to re-cover the obvious if frightening truths that families are where our sex lives start and that childhood is when we start our sex lives. Freud may have drastically underestimated the extent to which adults literally fucked children, but that doesn't mean he wasn't right about the extent of fantasized, figurative, and generally fuzzy fucking going on.

For myself, I get along well enough with children, but don't fully understand the appeal of the subject. The few examples of "child pornography" I've encountered were purest hippie-dippie virgin-as-whore nonsense. And the widespread exploitation of sexual abuse as an "ultimate evil" leaves me cold as well: once you reach a certain level of evil, competitive rankings seem beside the point. Perhaps I remember my fellow children (better described as inept rather than innocent) too well for them to be invested with sufficient glamor for either openly sexual interest or subliminally sexual sentimentality. Children have it rough, but adults (who, unlike children, have the option of expressing the truth) don't do children any favors by imitating their methods.

Copyright 1996 Ray Davis