I’m not sure what startles me more: the fact that Chicago kids in 2007 are actually climbing trees, or that they’re unaccompanied by adults. I begin to experience a mild form of panic and, as the little girl comes by me yet another time, I ask if she’s alone. “No,” she says, “That’s my sister,” pointing to the tall one. “Stick to her,” I command, wondering what right I have to say that to her. The peaceful scene around me has suddenly morphed into a sinister one. Now, every adult in sight – the man biking down the path, the jogger puffing on steadily, someone sitting at a park bench – is a menacing figure. Any one of them could inflict harm upon any of these kids. Nameless fears crowd my mind, which is also gradually filling up with disbelief at my own paranoid reaction.
I call a friend and ask what I should do. “What’s the problem?” he asks. “There are kids roaming around unescorted,” I tell him. “Really, really little kids. Without any adults. Should I call the cops?” And even as I ask the question, I’m in shock about having done so. Me, the anti-authoritarian who’s marched in protest of police brutality cases. I’m asking about calling the cops. In the distance, a blue and white cop car goes by slowly and I consider running to the street and waving it down. I imagine a conversation. “There’re some kids roaming around. Alone.” “Yeah?” And there the imagined conversation ends. The prospect of calling the cops, when no one is inflicting harm upon anyone else, is too chilling for me. Meanwhile, on my cell, my friend calms me down, telling me they’re just typical urban kids who know how to take care of themselves. I pack up my books, freaked out. The world is upside down. I don’t know what freaks me out more: that I considered calling the cops or that these kids are roaming around unsupervised.
There are several points to make here. The first is that I have no maternal instincts. Some people love all children instinctively; I reserve that kind of instant affection for animals. I only like my friends’ kids, who are all pretty near perfect and in whom I have an actual interest as real humans. The rest are mere blobs. I’m also cynical about our investment in children as precious protection for our future. I don’t think children are our future. I think politicians are our future, and we ought to spend more time actually voting for the right ones instead of blathering on about our children.
I’ve also written about and against fears about random kid-snatching. In “American Home,” I’m critical of the hysteria around sex trafficking and the purported collective impulse to “save children.” Anti-sex-trafficking laws, like sex offender laws, are at best specious and conservative attempts to shore up a system of law and order bent on criminalizing forms of sexual activity. And they create more classes of criminals to lock up in the ever-expanding prison industrial complex. My point here is that neither my deep suspicion of nor my abhorrence for the mechanisms of law and order that unjustly trap people in cases of pedophilia and sex trafficking can prevent me from feeling paranoid on occasion. Which is to say: I understand where the impulse to be afraid for children comes from, but I disagree with the consequences of letting that unmediated fear create the kind of far-reaching and awful laws that we’re faced with today. The kids in the park were far more likely to have been run over by an oncoming car than to be snatched by a nameless trafficker or predator.
The ReformSexOffenderLaws website gives a sense of where our madness lies. Currently, sex offender laws are so broad-ranging that you, yes, you can be labelled one if you urinate in public. Or if you possess a single picture of a naked child. Your own, perhaps. Taken while you bathe them in your tub at home. Imagine that. Naked kids. Bathing. In a tub. Increasingly, minors are targeted under sex offender laws if caught fondling or engaging in any consensual acts defined as sexual.
So now, even children, those bodies we’re so paranoid about protecting from harm, can be classified as sex offenders for kissing each other.
The Salvation Army shelter in my neighbourhood has posted a sign forbidding registered sex offenders from entering the premises. Similar laws across the country place such severe restrictions on where sex offenders can live that we now have floating populations of registered sex offenders wandering from town to town, city to city, desperately seeking housing but faced with the heartlessness of a culture that no longer holds out even the possibility of counselling or change – or even a habitat. Sex offenders are usually labelled as such for life, which means there’s no chance of them returning to anything resembling normalcy.
The rationale behind all this is vaguely Biblical in its punitiveness. Cast out the offender, we insist, and never let him or her darken our doors again. It doesn’t help that most cultural representations further demonise the sex offender – watch any episode of Law and Order and you’ll see what I mean. In Little Children, a film that’s been held up as a “progressive” representation of sex offenders, Jackie Earle Haley plays Ronnie, a sex offender living with his mother after serving a prison sentence for indecent exposure to a minor. When his mother dies, he’s distraught at the possibility that he might commit an offence again without her around to keep him on the straight and narrow. So he castrates himself, an act which redeems him in the eyes of the town bully who’s been harassing him to get out of town. By this logic, the only good sex offender is one who either kills or mutilates himself.
There are, of course, rapists and sex offenders who target and harm both adults and children. But they need to be dealt with within the parameters of a sane justice system, not the virtual medieval torture rack we’ve devised instead. Ronnie’s crime is relatively innocuous: there’s no physical harm inflicted upon anybody. But surely, even in the case of actual rape and assault, our sense of what harm comes about due to sex is overblown. We’ve bound ourselves into a belief that sex –the “wrong” kind, the only kind which seems to abound all around us – can only have long-lasting and harmful effects. In the filmMystic River, Tim Robbins plays Dave who is (somewhat implausibly) kidnapped and raped as a child. The long-term effects, we’re told, are so dreadful that he can never escape the memories. He can only move inexorably towards death.
It’s true that sexual assault can have shattering effects on people, but not always. And it’s not impossible to learn to live with the memories of trauma. In a world increasingly governed by pharmacological solutions, we’re less likely to counsel rape victims and far more likely to pump them full of anti-depressants and send them home. The result is that we’ve lost sight of the prospect that even brutal acts of rape don’t have to determine our lives forever. We’re not all doomed to die like Dave. But we’re faced with such a barrage of stories about sexual assault that we no longer distinguish between the effects of the coercive rape of a child or adult and the inappropriate fondling of the same. (And we can’t accept that anyone is truly “healed” until they go on to get coupled up and have children). None of this is to assert that people don’t suffer from rape. But are the effects always so irremediably damaging? Given our advances in counselling (although health care cutbacks make that less available these days), are we so completely incapable of learning to live? And who, strictly speaking, is an undamaged person? How do we decide that the effects of sexual assault are more damaging than, say, years of living with mentally and/or physically cruel parents or spouses?
The day will soon come when anyone having sex is labelled a sex offender.
My Uptown neighbourhood was among the first to get a surveillance camera, installed as part of the post 9/11 “war on terror.” It’s perched on top of a long pole and emits an unrelenting blue light all day and night: an Orwellian reminder that we are always under watch. I’m about to cross the street at an intersection, when a woman on the other side begins to yell, “Oh, watch out for that man!. He’s a pedophile!” She says it with a laugh on her face, and she’s clearly being malicious, and too drugged out to even stand up straight. She keeps yelling out the words, pointing ineffectively to someone in the distance. It’s early afternoon. I look around to see who else is paying attention, worried that someone is going to be hauled in on the basis of her screaming. People walk on by. Drunken or drugged yelling is not unknown at this particular spot, and no one seems concerned enough to pay attention. Pedophile. The word reverberates around me. As drugged out as she is, she knows the potency of the word.
The light keeps blinking, blue and steady, the camera’s eye imperviously recording us as we walk and yell and stare and point at each other. The light is a needlessly polite reminder that we’re always under surveillance.
But sex offender laws are so pervasive that we no longer require such relatively primitive modes of surveillance to keep track of offenders. Sex offender registries are now mostly online and public, and feature the faces, names, and addresses of those registered. This often leads to deadly forms of vigilantism on the part of disturbed individuals who take it in their hands to “protect” communities. Jim D’Entremont’s July 2006 article on vigilantism and sex offender registries details the case of Stephen Marshall, who shot and killed Joseph Gray and William Elliot. Both men were registered sex offenders, and that seems to have been the only reason that Marshall took the law into his own hands. Such killings are not uncommon but rarely get the kind of press attention given to those deemed “innocent” victims. Sex offenders, even after leaving prison, remain incarcerated in a virtual prison-house and limits on where they can live and work result in a loss of income and mobility. Their lives are endlessly monitored, and they’re fitted out with tracking devices that record their every move. As Bill Andriette writes, “sex-offenders in the West have become guinea pigs for technologies of biometric and electronic surveillance-and-tracking that increasingly, under the guise of fighting terror, are rolled out for everyone.” With all that, who needs cameras?
My fears, our fears, about sex predators and traffickers are a relatively new phenomenon. Remember incest? Which, as a friend notes wryly, used to be really hot in the ’70s and ’80s. Before there was trafficking and online porn and predators, there were cultural narratives and hidden stories about incest.
Our anxiety about children being hurt and raped by strangers is a great shift from the ’70s and ’80s, when it seemed that every home was rife with incest and child abuse. We’ve moved, in a giant pendulum swing, from a conviction that every parent/child-care provider was raping our children, to the conviction that the streets and internet are filled with predators waiting to rape our young: there has never been a middle ground. We’re now coached by the likes of Oprah on how to monitor our children’s behaviour and look out for online predators. The popular NBC show “Dateline: To Catch a Predator,” whose methods have been criticized by Debbie Nathan and others continues to draw large audiences.
Perhaps as a result, queers, who’ve long been unjustly targeted as dangerous child molesters in waiting, are now fearful of showing any interest in youth. The only children we show any interest in are our own. For that and other reasons, most of which have to do with wanting to be seen as belonging to the same economic class structure as middle-class and “stable” straights, we’ve become obsessed with mimicking the kind of family structure that barely exists anymore. As I look around at friends and neighbours, it strikes me that non-queer/straight people are forming the most interesting kinship groups, the kind that are becoming so common that they really can’t be called “unconventional” any more. While gay parents replicate straight families from the 1950s.
I’m reminded of this as I wait for my friend E. at a summer concert. E. has two kids with his female partner, and he shows up with his younger son hanging upside down from his shoulder and holding the hand of another child, C., not his other son. I don’t ask about C.’s exact relationship to E. But whatever it is, the kid’s clearly devoted to him and E. is as affectionate with C. as if he were one of his own. Eventually, both kids are hungry and E. goes to get pizza, with both of them clinging to him like marmosets. Given my own fondness for E., I half wish I could do the same as I watch them leave.
Or there’s K., a straight, single woman who’s raising her son A. with an assortment of people that includes her friend J. I run into the three of them on the El one day as they make their way to Millenium Park. Another time, it’s just J. and A., coming back from the grocery store where K. has dropped them off before taking a day trip outside the city.
As John D’Emilio put it, “Since the early 1960’s, the lives of many, many heterosexuals have become much more like the imagined lives of homosexuals.”
For the most part, despite the exceptions, our community presents such old-fashioned families to the public are so old-fashioned that I sometimes wonder what the children of gays think of families like those of E. and K. I can see the day when a child of two gay men looks at A. and asks, in bemusement, “You mean your mom’s not married to your dad?”
So how do we queers show any concern for kids not our own? One way is to express a lot of sympathy for homeless queer youth, the latest population to evoke our concern. And yet, despite all this public concern, we queers turned our backs on Paul Shanley, a former parish priest at St. Jean l’Évangéliste Church in Newton, Massachusetts. Shanley was once a popular “street priest,” who worked with an underserved population of addicts, prostitutes, and homeless queer and non-queer youth, starting in the ’70s, long before such work became a fashionable cause. He was also among the first in the Catholic Church to speak out openly for gay rights, despite active resistance from the Archdiocese of Boston. In February 2005, the 75-year-old Shanley was convicted on two counts of child rape and two lesser charges. He now serves a 12-15 year sentence. His trial, which had begun in 2002, originally featured four accusers. At the end, only one remained. The conviction rested almost entirely on the basis of “repressed memory syndrome,” with the final accuser, Paul Busa claiming that he had repressed memories of abuse by Shanley until 2002. Several excellent pieces in The Guide, mostly by Jim D’Entremont, provide details of the case as it went to trial. JoAnn Wypijewsky’s article, “The Passion of Paul Shanley” is the most complex and haunting examination of the case so far. Collectively, these reports detail the many flaws in the trial and the accusations made against Shanley. They also clearly show that Shanley’s conviction came about in the midst of public hysteria around clerical sex abuse in Massachusetts and an utterly misplaced belief in the notion of “repressed memory syndrome.”
The theory of “massively repressed memory” holds that victims of trauma blank out their memories of the same, and that these memories can come flooding back without warning. The theory has been widely debunked . To speak of repressed memories of trauma is to articulate a contradiction in terms. Trauma, in short, is not something that humans forget easily – the whole point of trauma is that we use our memory of it to avoid future pain. The simplest and most cited example is that of a child who burns a hand on a hot stove plate – the memory of the pain makes the child avoid the source from then on. Our bodies and minds don’t actively work to forget trauma. Quite the opposite: our active memories of it are part of our protection against physical and psychological wounds.
That’s only one disturbing aspect of the Shanley case. The other is that his work with queer and non-queer teens and runaways was completely ignored, especially by the same community that had once hailed him as a hero. The gay community, at least its vocal majority – the same lot that rush you to tell you about bad representations of gays as on television – was ominously silent.
How can we live with ourselves, with our betrayal of Paul Shanley? Why do we deny ourselves the opportunity to not only defend Shanley against the trumped-up charges, “proven” on the utterly specious nature of “repressed memory syndrome,” but to consider the complexities of sexuality and power raised by his case? In 1978, Shanley made a speech to the Psychological Panel at the Boston/Boise Committee conference on “Legal, Psychological, and Ethical Issues of Intergenerational Relationships.” Reading it, I’m struck by the fact that it is both deeply moving and incredibly brilliant. He is, first and foremost, extraordinarily witty. And he is able to recognise and transmit the ambiguities of sexuality and power. The most poignant section is one where he describes the relationship between a young hustler and the man who eventually got him off the streets. The two had sex once, something that the younger man admitted to. But the complexity of what had transpired was reduced to an act of coercion and the results left both shattered: “The boy eventually went home, eventually confided the incident to his father, and immediately the man was arrested, prosecuted, and convicted and sent to prison. And there began the psychic demise of that kid. He had loved this man, not to the extent that a lot of boys today are going to tell us about, or a lot of men are going to tell us about their relationships with boys. It was only a brief and passing thing as far as the sex was concerned. But the love was deep, and the gratitude to the man was deep. And when he realized that that one indiscretion in the eyes of society and the law had cost this man perhaps twenty years because that's what he was sentenced to, although he didn't serve twenty years, the boy began to fall apart.”
Perhaps that’s why we queers turned our backs on Shanley. We yearn endlessly for the fiction of love without fear and complexity. Our sense of attachment -- that weird connectedness we feel with others, that thing that comes upon us with no warning and no set of instructions – has been reduced to the relatively simple and easy to understand boxes that we call “marriage” and “commitment.” Perhaps Shanley represents for us that difficult terrain of our experience that has often proven to be littered with minefields; we remember too much about wanton accusations of rape and molestation purely on the basis of our sexuality. Perhaps he reminds us too much of the days when we spoke more openly about the relationships between young queers and older adults, of the fact that we spoke much more openly about the vexing issues of power and sexuality without fear of being automatically labelled child molesters. Perhaps Shanley’s case was the turning point for us. Perhaps turning our backs on him was our long-wished-for chance to fully and publicly deny that we were ever like “that,” our chance to assert our mundane normalcy. We retreated behind the long-wished-for picket fences, the respectability we had always craved. We chose to forego a world of attachment.
V. is gone, disappeared from our lives. The ungrateful one, everyone mutters. She left and never came back, and she never calls.
Here is V. at 12, like the rest of us. We’re all at a birthday party and hers is the only unsmiling face in photographs. She is the quiet one in the corner, looking both sad and oddly disoriented. But there are other times when she seems happy, in a manner, cracking dark jokes that make our jaws drop even as we find ourselves laughing. She’s sometimes referred to as “morbidly shy,” unable to walk into a room without someone in tow. If she were a teenager today, she’d be pumped with drugs to perk her up and make it easier to hide the range of conflicting emotions and the fits of rage that sometimes bubble to the surface. She needs to be prodded to mingle; she will not go with us on vacations; she is not allowed out to play when the boys are around. Sometimes she’s just not allowed to play.
V’s family and mine live in the same building. At odd hours, we can hear her primal screams bursting from their flat. Our parents look out, as if watching the screams flutter downwards past the windows, weighted with hopelessness. It’s best not to ask questions, we’re told. It’s really none of our business. We accept that, knowing and wondering, wondering and knowing, but never talking about it. Just as we know not to ask about the marks on her arms that crop up on occasion, and the old scar on her right wrist. Just as we know enough to avoid her charming father with the hands that stray towards us. She’s crazy, her brother tells us, when someone asks him why she screams.
But she never seems crazy to us, only a little needy; only a little sad on occasion; always forgetful; never knowing what the next day should bring. She loves to read and reading takes her away, to college and beyond. We are never to see her again.
V. is gone.
My relationship to Paul Shanley, such as it is, is difficult to describe. I’ve never met the man, but his case affects me on levels that I can barely understand. Only some of it is clear to me. I think of V. often. V., who somehow escaped. V., who might have found some measure of safety and sanity, however we define any of that. And I think often of T. who, at fourteen, ran away with another girl. The news spread like wildfire through our school. We heard updates every day for nearly a fortnight: they’d left town on a train; the police were on the lookout; they’d been found. A term later, only one of them returned and the other had been shipped off to boarding school. T., a smart, funny, and punkish girl, became a ghost of her former self, never talking to anybody and barely going through the motions of daily life.
I think of V. and T. in ways that are connected. I think of Paul Shanley’s work and, as critical as I am of the rescue narratives that characterise so much of social work these days, I know and understand the magnitude of what he was able to do. I see now the signs of V. almost slipping into desperation, trying to see if she could run – how did she survive screaming and knowing that no one would bother to even knock on the door and ask why? How did T. keep from slipping away into madness and despair? Were the rumours true, that she had been subjected to electroshock therapy to cure her of her “condition?” Even as I write this, I’m aware that some will translate hers as a tragic tale of queer and young lesbian love. But that reduces everything to the kind of narrative we’d like to read: a tale of unrequited love. Just as we’d like to condemn relationships between younger and older queers as exploitation and coercion. Shanley’s 1978 words return to me: “That word exploitative has been used. I would like to define that as using without caring. That's my understanding of “exploitative” sex. I think a lot of straight sex is exploitative. I think a lot of sex between parents is exploitative. And I think an awful lot of parents are predators. But whatever criteria you arrive at in deciding what sex between men and boys is exploitative, I think you could balance that against parents. You know, you can't abolish parenthood, and neither should you abolish man-boy sex simply because it might not live up to the highest ideal about the young man and his adult friend.”
Paul Shanley’s words and work represent the last gasp of sanity in terms of our collective will to talk openly about what forms of attachment and kinship develop between “ young” and “old.” And they reveal the complex ties of economics, power, attachment and whatever it is we decide to call “love.” Today, we’re simply attached to the idea that sex and intimacy need to be matched up, or that sex is even about sex.
How do we live with ourselves? How did we turn our backs on this case?
It’s February 2005, and Shanley’s trial is featured on the front page of the New York Times. As I remember, it’s the day his verdict is handed down. There’s a photo of him as he sits in the trial room. For some reason, I focus on one tiny detail: some