'Little girls know about sex and men’s interests. We did—we got paid in candy for letting this man touch our bums.’
BARBARA GOWDY TALKS TO KENNETH WHYTE ABOUT THE LINE BETWEEN SEXUALIZING CHILDREN AND PEDOPHILIA, AND HER NEW BOOK, ‘HELPLESS’
Q I've heard you say you didn’t want to write a book about a monster, but you’ve written a book about a guy who kidnaps a little girl because he has sexual feelings for her. He is more or less a child molester and a lot of people would consider him a monster, no?
A: I would say a monster is someone who intends harm and does harm. My character, Ron, has a moral dilemma, he hasn’t succumbed in his life yet to his lust. He tells himself that she is being harmed in her home and that he is rescuing her...
Q: Which isn’t really true.
A: Well, the reader knows he’s deluded, but he’s convinced himself she’s being harmed at home. It’s a way of vindicating himself. We all tend to excuse ourselves when we do bad things. So, as I say, I don’t think my character is a monster for having sexual feelings for a little girl, I think a monster is someone who acts on those feelings.
Q: Are you suggesting that having sexual feelings for little girls is normal?
A: I’m suggesting it’s probably more widespread than we know, and there’s a lot of men who control themselves and have decided that, “I can’t help what I feel but I can help how I behave.” Most of us have that dilemma, in some spheres of our lives. I lust after other women or men but just because I have the feeling doesn’t mean I have to have the action. So this dilemma is not uncommon, and I also
think that the present culture encourages men to have sexual feelings for children.
A: Well, TV and movies, the way little girls are encouraged to dress and dance. I don’t have children so I spent some time with various nine-year-olds... and I was startled by the clothes they wear, they show their bellies, they wear makeup, some of them. The music they listen to, they’re very aware of rap, they know way more about sex than I did at that age. While they may not be having sex they say they have a boyfriend...
Q: At nine?
A: Yeah. And all this makes it hard for men. There was a book last year called Afternoon of the Sex Children by Mark Greif. It talks about how men can’t quite discern the line between right and wrong feelings regarding pretty young girls, and how they’re almost encouraged to cross the line. When is it okay to have lustful feelings for a girl? A 16-yearold girl who looks 19, is that okay? A 14-yearold girl who looks 16? Clearly not your own daughter or niece, but how about the girl down the street who’s, you know, going out to clubs and has a boyfriend and you’ve seen her having sex in his car or something?
Q: There’s no doubt kids are more overtly sexualized today, but on the other hand there is a lot more social concern about men acting on sexual interest in young girls today than ever before. We’re firmly against it, there’s almost a hysteria about it.
A: Yes, we believe it’s almost the worst feel-
ing you can have, as a man—sexual interest in a child, girl or boy. It didn’t used to be the case. I mean, when I was a girl in the ’50s there were what we called funny men or gropers—the milkman was one, there was a guy down the street who in exchange for a candy would grope you. And we took advantage of that because we wanted the candy. And we knew these men were creepy, icky, and lost in a way, but we weren’t frightened by them.
Q: But surely they weren’t accepted as upstanding citizens?
A: No, we were just told not to go near them. And I’ve talked to women in their 70s and 80s about what happened to them when they were young—creepy uncles or the farmer next door, and they all seemed to have had an experience, and their mothers all said the same thing, “Just stay away from him if you don’t like it. Don’t go near him, he’s strange.” And I think there’s a tricky argument here for the fact that men being allowed to get away with groping little girls has allowed little girls to live. Nowadays, the minute a man touches a little girl he’d better kill her because his life is over. You know the man who killed that girl Holly Jones in Toronto, he said that he was watching porn and got so revved up he went out and grabbed the first girl he saw, got her inside and realized he was too overwrought to do anything with her, but that he knew he had to kill her. In my day she’d have been let go, and he would have known that that would have been all right. I’m not saying men should be able to grab children off
the streets—I mean, I’d be the first to want to shoot them—but the fact is this guy felt he had no choice.
Q: But can you as a parent say to your daughter, “Look, he groped you, it’s all right, get over it. ” I’d never be able to say that.
A: No, our parents just said, “Don’t do that. Don’t go in the milk truck.” Nobody thought of prosecuting them, they just said, “Leave him alone.”
Q: And you think that’s a healthier attitude, generally speaking?
A: It keeps the child alive. I don’t know whether it’s healthy or not. I don’t think men should grope little girls. I’m questioning all this, too, and I don’t have a hard-and-fast solution, but I think that where parents feel guilty is they can’t say no to their children— about anything, and that includes how they dress and whether or not they get to wear makeup. I wasn’t allowed to wear makeup till I was 18, you know? Of course I did. I put it on in the school washroom. But I think that guilty parenting causes permissive parenting, which causes provocative behaviour from children, which leads to men who don’t really have a whole lot of ballast regarding what is socially acceptable getting completely confused and behaving badly.
Q: We have to be careful, don’t we, not to conflate things like groping with more serious sexual offences like child rape?
A: Sure. You know, any sexual interference with a child in its way is unforgivable, and I don’t have kids but if it were one of my nieces, or if I had kids who were interfered with, I’d want to shoot the guy’s head off. I mean, I’d like to castrate all rapists, not just of little girls but of women, too...
A Yeah. Yeah, that would stop it. Let’s say a repeat offender, because the first time you can’t be so sure, but with a repeat offender, I’d do it myself. Of course, we have to remember there are degrees of wickedness, and I don’t think we should lump in the men who stare with the men who rape, or even the men who say something with the men who rape. And the thing about my character is he’s at the forgivable end of the spectrum, if one could put it that way, in that he hasn’t yet done anything, he looks at girls.
Q: Okay, but he did kidnap a girl and hold her for a period of time, and...
A: Okay, and we know he’s at risk of assaulting her sexually, but he thinks he’s protecting her and giving her a better life, and he’s told her that. Let’s say she really was being sexually molested in her home, then we’re on his side. If you put yourself in his shoes...
Q: Well, not really. Kidnapping is not really
the right response.
A: Let’s say she was from a home where the mother was colluding in her sexual assault. You would think, “Yeah, just get her away from there, protect her.” So, from his point of view, and I was trying to see it from his point of view, he’s not a monster. He surrenders to his covetousness, not his lust.
Q: But how can you separate those two things? He covets her because he lusts for her, doesn’t he?
A: He covets her because she’s beautiful.
A: He sees her beauty. He’s not unlike Lewis Carroll, who took naked pictures of little girls—and girls in quite compromising positions—but he never surrendered to his lust to the degree that he touched them or penetrated them or harmed them physically in anyway, and these women, when they got older, said he was the most lovely man. They had fond memories of him, and we know from his diaries he had unholy thoughts and feelings...
Q: But most of us would draw the line well before taking pictures of naked girls.
A: In those days it was more permissible. It was sort of understood that men get delight in young female beauty. There’s a huge difference between raping a little girl and looking at her. If it was my daughter, or myself as a little girl, I’d prefer to get looked at rather than raped.
Q: But it’s not an either/or, is it?
A: No, but what I’m investigating here is whether we feel sympathy for him because he’s restraining himself from having sex with her. I mean, there’s something to be said for his restraint. I’ve asked myself questions like, “Would I rather have been physically abused once by a stranger as a child but come from a real loving home, or would I prefer to have been psychologically abused at home for years as a child while being left alone sexually?” They’re both awful, but I think I would take my quick hit, you know? Little girls know about sex and they know about men’s interests, and certainly we did when I was a girl because we were getting paid in suckers to let this man touch our bums. It’s known that these feelings exist, and I don’t think little girls are as freaked out or appalled by them as their parents. Their parents know where it could lead, of course, but if it doesn’t lead there...
Q: But isn’t that one of the reasons for zero tolerance: fear as to where it could lead?
A: Well, I think this is all tied into the overprotectiveness of young kids. I think statistically there’s probably less child molestation than there was when I was young, but kids can’t do anything on their own now...
Q: I want to get back to the character in the novel, Ron. He was wrong to kidnap the girl—
we’re clear on that, right?
A: Yes, we’re clear on that. We’re clear that it’s wrong, but if you believe a child is imperilled it’s a little more forgivable than if he just grabbed her out of a safe home.
Q: Yes, but your character is making up instances of abuse in her home in order to rationalize or indulge his attraction to the girl. We don’t really approve ofthat, do we?
A: We don’t approve of that, but I put it to you that most of us make up rationalizations for our actions. And don’t forget, this is a love story. He really loves this girl...
Q: That’s a very broad definition of love.
A: He falls head over heels in love with her at first sight. There’s a very narrow definition of that: you just see somebody so beautiful you don’t even care what her edu-
cation is or what her family’s like or what her beliefs are, you’re just knocked out. Ron thinks this girl is the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen. And the reason I depicted her as beautiful was that I didn’t want him just to be like your typical lover of children, pedophile—a word I never use in the book, by the way—I didn’t want him to be just attracted to smallness and helplessness. He’s attracted to her hair, her eyes, her shoulders, her walk, p you know, the things that men are attracted Q to in women. I never talk about much sexc¿ ually, except I have him fetishizing her pee ^ in the toilet because I couldn’t completely w abdicate his sexual feelings—it wouldn’t be * true and he wouldn’t have a dilemma other¡¡*j wise—but I think men who have the oppor^ tunity to have sex with the female of their Z
dreams and who abstain are pretty heroic.
Q: Even if she happens to be nine?
A: Well, that’s why he’s protective of her.
Q: So we’re to consider Ron a hero... ?
A: I think he’s a type of hero that isn’t addressed much in fiction or in culture or society, the people who are burdened with unsocial desires and feelings who do their best to abstain out of a sense that this is wrong. He really doesn’t want to harm her. He hates pedophiles, he hates those who cross the line, as we often have self-loathing for people who are like what we consider our worst selves.
Q: Can you be honest about him without saying he’s a pedophile?
A: Well, he has pédophilie feelings. He hasn’t actually done anything yet...
Q: Except kidnapping a little girl because he’s attracted to her...
A: Except kidnapping, yeah. But isn’t that on the same spectrum of behaviour as Madonna, who goes to the Third World and just grabs a kid out of its culture because she wants a little black kid? I mean, I can’t really speak for Madonna’s feelings, and I’d like to err on the side of sympathy, but I wonder if this child is just an accessory for her. Sure she’s going to give the boy a whole lot of stuff, but is she going to give him that deep, familial love that children require? She kind of kidnapped him. You tell yourself you’re doing something incredibly honourable, and we all agree that you are, but wouldn’t it maybe be better to just pay whatever it costs to raise a child?
Q: But you’re coming close to rationalizing Ron’s kidnapping...
A: Well, actually, I was denigrating this other kind of kidnapping. I was coming down on the side of just snatching children off the street when they’re imperilled.
Q: Why did you want to understand this sort of character? I mean, as a novelist, you can choose any subject you want.
A: It takes me a long time to come up with an idea for a book. I started asking myself big questions in order to come up with an idea, and I asked myself, “What’s the worst thing that could happen to a person?” And the answer I came up with was losing a child. Just losing a child into the ether, not knowing if she’s dead or alive, waking up everyday wondering—that would be hell on earth. I decided to write part of it from the abductor’s point of view because I was interested in someone with a big Shakespearean moral dilemma, and his is about the biggest dilemma you could have today. I realized that I myself had to have sympathy for Ron but I wasn’t asking the reader to feel sympathy for Ron. I was just trying to make him dimensional.
Q: I think even in the end there will be a lot of people who argue that by treating him as a human being you’re letting him off, that you
are saying that those kinds of feelings and that kind of behaviour is something we should be more understanding of and permissive about.
A: I’m not making that kind of judgment. I’m not saying we should be more understanding.
Q: No, I said that’s how people are going to perceive it.
A: I know, I’m aware that that’s possible. And I could have made him more of a monster, more heartless, but that didn’t seem true enough. I wanted to make him true, and the truth is that even the worst of us has some redeemable or good behaviours. He’s too human for his own lustful good, or he’s too lustful for his human good, and he’s caught between these two places. And what I’m saying is that between the saintly behaviour and evil behaviour, is a place where we all exist, and he’s closer to the bad side than most of us but he’s there amongst us.
Q We’ve got a real tension between the way our culture presents girls and young men, as highly sexualized beings, and what we understand as permissible male behaviour. How do we resolve that?
A: I think it actually comes back down to parenting, saying yes or no to their children. My parents had no problem disciplining their kids. They seemed to have some sort of authority out there in the world. Now, a nine-yearold that wears hip-hugging pants and a top that shows her belly and her incipient cleavage is almost telling her parents to go screw themselves. I mean, it’s not respectful to them. I’m sounding like an old lady...
Q: When we set out to feel sympathy for people with unconventional urges are we more in danger of losing our ability to declare something really bad to be really bad?
A: I would agree with that. I don’t say any of this for the sake of exonerating them. But getting people into a rage in order that they’re capable of punishing bad behaviour might not be the way to go, either. I think the bad behaviour should be punished. But we can’t seem to put anyone to death or fight wars unless we think of the other as absolutely evil. It’s almost as if we have to say, “No-no-no, this isn’t a human being, this person has no feelings of love, or this person can’t love his own children, or he has no understanding of art or anything, he’s just an absolute monster and that gives us the right to kill him.” How about, “He’s partly a monster in ways that the society can’t tolerate, so despite all his other fine qualities we’re going to have to kill him.”
Q: Yes, so there’s an accounting.
A: I actually believe in an accounting. I mean, when Paul Bernardo went to jail, I had
fantasies of sniping him, being a sniper and standing on a nearby building, and I could kill Paul Bernardo because of what he did. I think I could kill him. I do have a real vengeful corner. I’m a real Valkyrie. But even though I do believe in vengeance, to a degree, I also believe in an accounting.
Q: Why is society so interested in stories like Holly Jones or Jon-Benet Ramsay. They rivet us. Is it prurient interest or actual moral outrage?
A: It’s our worst fear. It’s a moral outrage but it’s also a terror. Evil does exist. Innocence in peril is sort of where my passions are. I mean, I try and save animals, and anything that seems innocent, environment. And I am... have... I’m not unlike Ron in that I sort of can fall in love with children, I just don’t have the lust component, but everything else was easy to write, his... the way he feels about children.
‘Our culture encourages sexual feelings for children— look at how girls are encouraged to dress'
And women get to feel that way. I get to go to the park and see a beautiful little kid and say, “Oh, isn’t he gorgeous?” and I get to tickle him and smell his head... and men can’t do that anymore. I remember my father—he’s dead now—he loved little kids, and he liked how their minds worked, and how their heads smelled, and he said—he’d go to the mall with my mom—and he says, “I can’t look at children anymore. Everyone thinks you’re a creep if you even look at them.” M
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