Suffer the Children

Better ideas.
June 17 1998 3:30 AM

Suffer the Children

Why can't we shut up about child abuse?

Erotic Innocence: The Culture of Child Molesting
By James R. Kincaid
Duke University Press; 352 pages; $24.95

49000_49080_jetter_childlead

Having considered child abuse and its attendant ills from all sorts of angles--alleged Satanists, celebrity molesters, recovered memories, day-care witch trials--James Kincaid, a professor of English at the University of Southern California, has concluded that at its root the problem is a matter of genre. The thing is, child abuse as currently conceived is hopelessly Gothic. Stories about child molesting are populated by evil monsters and helpless innocents (rather than flawed or unfortunate humans), and they languish in a miasma of sinister eroticism. Child molesting is thought to be so evil, so far outside the bounds of civilization, that no means of exorcism can be considered too harsh or prone to error.

At the same time, though, the evil is elusive and invincible. How can we prevent molesters from molesting? We can't--molesters are monsters, and they'll continue to molest, no matter what the penalty. (Never mind that the recidivism rate for child molesting is less than half the reported burglary rate and lower than that of many major felonies.) How can we catch them before they start? We can't--anyone could be a molester. How can we be sure children are telling the truth about abuse? We can't--children are imaginative and easily influenced by suggestion. How can we tell whether "recovered memories" are accurate? We can't. How can we make sure trials convict molesters and acquit the falsely accused? We can't. Child abuse is horrible; child abuse is inevitable. Molesters are monsters; monsters are everywhere.

The consequence of this conceptual impasse, according to Kincaid, is endless, repetitive talking. Both sides of the recovered memory debate--those who "believe the children" and those who are skeptical--rehearse the same script over and over again, claiming all the while to be "breaking the silence." Their monsters differ (Satanic pornographers and incestuous rapists on the one hand, megalomaniac therapists on the other), as do their helpless innocents (wounded children vs. day-care Dreyfuses). Both make demons out of Freud and the media, but neither steps outside the demonology to question why we're so obsessed with child abuse in the first place. The story line--the threat, the urgency, the need to expose, the extremist language--is the same.

Strangely, though--and this is the second half of Kincaid's thesis--this repetitiveness is in some nasty little way exactly what we want. It's pleasurable. The more we exclaim how horrified we are by child molestation, the more we can permit ourselves to linger, in a way that's not far from lascivious, over images of childish bodies. (Little tummies! Little bottoms! Little feet!) The more we condemn the perversity of child beauty pageants, the more we get to watch luscious little JonBenet Ramsey bat her baby eyelashes and to imagine her gory death. But there's more. Talking about abuse not only permits guiltless voyeurism--it also gives shape to inchoate feelings of childhood hurt, it tells us why we are the way we are and gives us someone to blame, and it deflects a sense of cultural or moral decline onto a group of particular individuals. In short, Kincaid concludes, not without a certain glee, "Eroticizing exists in symbiotic relation with sanitizing, and the veiling and the exposing exist in an encircling doublespeak."

This particular brand of sexual doublespeak has been remarked upon before, most famously by the late French historian Michel Foucault, who, in his History of Sexuality (published in English in 1978), put forth his unexpected "repressive hypothesis": Those supposedly tight-lipped Victorians, in the course of devising rules to regulate sex and the sciences that investigate its perversions, in fact talked and wrote more about sex than anyone before them.

49000_49081_jetter_childspot

The people enmeshed in this culture of sex could no more escape or stand outside it, Foucault held, than they could stand outside their own language. Kincaid is nothing if not an optimist, though, and he believes that if what's wrong with the way we talk about child molesting is genre--we're telling the wrong kinds of stories--well, then we should just start telling different ones. How? First of all by acknowledging, rather than suppressing in a panic, the erotic feelings we have about children: We should realize that finding children seductive does not compel us to fondle them "in a yucky way," as the day-care prosecutors so nicely put it. And then we should follow the series of steps that Kincaid lays out--steps such as "1. Stop looking for monsters and their victims"; "2. Stop listening to simpleminded stories"; and "6. Stop tracing everything backward, looking always to the past for sources, explanations, and excuses." Those who have trouble with the first stage of the process, Kincaid advises thus: "If you find yourself getting too excited, going too far, wanting to incite or not to stop--then stop."

It's possible to dismiss such prescriptions as naive, but in the context of the quasideterministic Foucauldianism from which Kincaid's brand of cultural criticism emerges, they're refreshing--even startling. When was the last time a Foucauldian offered a step-by-step cure for cultural malaise? Kincaid's eccentric combination of suspicious narrative analysis and self-help, can-do enthusiasm may be just the Dale Carnegie twist these old ideas need. No, the problem with his analysis is not the prescriptions, nor is it his occasional failure to restrain himself in the silly jokes department ("Innocence is a lot like the air in your tires: There's not a lot you can do with it but lose it"). It's that Kincaid can't help himself. He's starry-eyed about children, too.

According to Kincaid, the real problem with our obsession with child sexual abuse is that it distracts us from other kinds of abuse that affect far more children than molesting does: boring, unsensational kinds of abuse such as poverty, neglect, and bad schools. The question, though, is why these things should be considered child abuse--why they should be considered more evil when visited upon children than upon adults. Kincaid believes we should hold on to the sweet, nonerotic dimensions of the Romantic child cult. We should still adore the child as the angelic innocent Blake and Wordsworth wrote about. But it's precisely this sacred little creature that generates the Manichaean stories he's complaining about.

After all, as long as abusing children is considered somehow much worse than abusing adults, child abusers--sexual or otherwise--will be thought of as monsters. Idealized children short-circuit politics, because where they are concerned, people tend to say things like "even one child abused (or hurt or hungry or killed) is unacceptable"; whereas politics needs to be able to weigh risks to some people against risks to others. Ian Hacking, a philosopher who has written acutely about child abuse, has observed that America seems to be the only country with abuse legislation specific to children. Our zeal in defending children is not universal and not to be taken for granted. Why do we have special charities devoted to children? Why do we consider the Oklahoma bombing especially vile because it killed children? Why do we decide custody cases according to the best interests of the child, as opposed to the parents' interests? This is the stuff Gothic narratives are made of.

Larissa MacFarquhar is a contributing editor to the Paris Review and Lingua Franca.