In 1970, Oberlin College student Cynthia Stewart appeared on the cover of Life beneath the headline “Co-Ed Dorms: An Intimate Revolution on Campus.” Her hair was long, her skirt was longer, and she and her sandal-wearing boyfriend were staring very intensely at each other. Inside the magazine, a two-page spread showed them lolling in his dorm room, barefoot. The accompanying article delicately explained that the two had, after being housed side by side in one of Oberlin’s crazy newfangled co-ed dorms, become “very close.” Stewart instantly if fleeting became a poster child for changing sexual mores, and her college mailbox filled up with piles upon piles of hate mail from all around the country.
That was Stewart’s first 15 minutes of fame. Her second, equally unlikely, equally unwelcome period of notoriety began in 1999. It, too, was set off by a photograph, and it, too, involved charges of sexual impropriety. The stakes the second time round were much higher, though: the threat of imprisonment and the potential removal of Stewart’s only child, Nora, from her home. It’s this second story that’s told in the poet Lynn Powell’s Framing Innocence: A Mother’s Photographs, a Prosecutor’s Zeal, and a Small Town’s Response, which has just come out in paperback.
By 1999, when Powell’s story begins, Cynthia Stewart has settled for good in Oberlin, Ohio. There she and her longtime partner, David; their daughter, Nora; and various pets live together in an eccentric household they call Campeloupe (“Camelot” plus “cantaloupe”). Stewart works as a school bus driver for the Oberlin public schools and spends the rest of her time engaged in amateur photography, most of which involves her fairly obsessive efforts to document every aspect of Nora’s childhood. And then, one day that August, two police officers arrive on Campeloupe’s doorstep. They say that they have some photos of Stewart’s—from film she has recently dropped of at the local Drug Mart for developing—and that, as they put it, they have “serious questions about those pictures, ma’am.”
As we soon learn, “those pictures”—terrible sinking feeling here—show 8-year-old Nora romping naked in the bathtub. Worse, in one shot she has a shower sprayer pointed directly at her genitalia. At which point, the reader of this book wants to find dear Cynthia Stewart, wherever she may be today, and shake her. Had she never watched a local news broadcast? Did she not know that, by 1999, you could not take nude pictures of an 8-year old girl and drop them off at Drug Mart for developing without risking a visit from the police? Well, no, as we learn in Powell’s calm, even retelling, Stewart did not know these things: She did not own a TV, and was oblivious, to her mind blissfully so, of an awful lot of what was going on in the outside world.
Add to this mix the overzealous county prosecutor of the book’s subtitle, and it becomes clear that none of this is going to get resolved easily. It’s a credit to Powell’s storytelling skills that the story that follows manages to be several very different things all at once: a compulsively readable procedural involving prosecutorial overreach; a cautionary tale about the difficulties of raising one’s children unconventionally—and what happens when the outside world peers in; and finally, and maybe most successfully, a meditation on how a single picture can mean such different things to different viewers.