The paedophile as hero (well, a basically decent guy at least) isn’t exactly an overworked figure in contemporary commercial fiction, so when one turns up who is kind, wise, witty and moral, and even so handsome and athletic that women fall hopelessly (in every sense) in love with him, it is time to pay attention. Heretic TOC’s guest blogger today, “Dissident”, has done just that, by reviewing Pedal, last year’s debut novel by Canadian writer Chelsea Rooney (Caitlin Press, 2014). Dissident is a freelance editor and professional website administrator who also earns part of his living writing fiction, with a substantial body of published work to his name in several genres, including sci-fi. He is a long-time hebephile activist who has been prominent in GL circles for some 15 years. He has contributed essays on MAP-relevant topics to Newgon wiki and he posts to GirlChat, where he is a moderator. He has also participated regularly at Visions of Alice, Lifeline and here at Heretic TOC.
PEDO TO THE METAL
I’m pleased to say that Chelsea Rooney can well be considered one of an emerging band of writers who have an interest in actually getting to the truth of pedophilia (and its cousin sexual preferences, hebephilia and nepiophilia, both of which get token mention in this novel).
She is concerned neither with popular propaganda nor with looking politically “acceptable” to her fellow progressives and feminists; and she sure as hell isn’t looking to garner approval from the likes of Oprah Winfrey or her trashy imitators. She is simply interested in the truth, which she commendably values above popularity, especially of the kind that springs from ignorance, hatred, and willful lack of understanding.
That being made clear, Pedal can be difficult reading at times, depending on the reader’s stylistic preferences and where their extra-pedophilic interests may lie. Like many brilliant and well-read authors, Rooney is heavy on the vocab and may be thought pedantic. I’m a writer myself, and I found my own lexicon and general knowledge enhanced. The reader will learn more about bike maintenance, Canada’s roads and often spectacular scenery, stellar cartography, botany, and even haute couture than they may have been prepared for. You will also learn what radon daughters are, and the cool metaphorical use Rooney makes of them.
Rooney’s characters are complex, and their lives outside of protagonist Julia Hoop’s therapeutic and sociological interest in adult attraction to minors are probed in great detail. Thus these people feel real, including Smirks, the pedophile. The narrative also wanders “off topic” a fair bit, making it a mixed bag for those focused narrowly on pedophilia over general human drama and interplay, but Rooney clearly put a lot into this tale. Her characters are fully realized human beings – except for a trio of sketchily presented Nordic youths (or are they just children?) whose menacing presence briefly threatens Julia and Smirks for reasons that remain deeply enigmatic.
Julia is a so-called “survivor.” However, she has spotted something that a number of researchers have begun to notice among “victims” of sexual contact with adults as minors: she had not felt traumatized by the contact she had with her father, a drunkard and wannabe poet who fled his family many years prior to the main body of the story. Julia cycles across Canada to track down the fugitive referred to universally among family and friends as “Dirtbag” and confront him with what went on between them in her childhood. She wants closure, to make sense of her confused feelings. The journey is also intended as one of self-understanding and growth as a person.
Julia doesn’t feel traumatized by Dirtbag, despite the contemptuous label he is tagged with, but is made to feel shameful and guilty thanks to a now pervasive but erroneous belief. This “conventional wisdom” insists that every child who has such contact with an adult must be traumatized, because that’s just what happens when such contact occurs, be it consensual or not.
This leads Julia into conducting interviews for her thesis with women who had sexual contact with adults as children who believe they are “survivors” of molestation despite not reporting any trauma. As a feminist of the empowerment variety – the genuine feminists, as far as I’m concerned – Julia perceives the trauma matter to be dubious in many ways. She doesn’t find the idea of being emotionally damaged for life and relentlessly venting about it by lashing out at others as in any way empowering.
Her research and strong convictions about her inherent strength as a woman make her skeptical of therapists who encourage women to remain perpetual victims. She sees this as a condescending form of complicity with an agenda that has nothing to do with helping people heal from genuine abuse, or with making sense out of sexual encounters in which the child was a willing participant. She has strong reservations about being told by therapists, or society at large, how she should feel about certain experiences, rather than how she actually feels about it.
Julia perhaps served as a literary avatar for Rooney herself, as is common in fiction. She acknowledged the help of “My early correspondent, Krissy Darch, whose letters I have saved in my inbox in a folder called Fuck Trauma, and whose questions inspired the research that led to Pedal” (p. 239).
However, the informed reader will see Dirtbag as more likely a situational molester than a pedophile. What we hear of him suggests he made advances on his daughter for reasons other than preferential attraction to minors. The failure of his ambition to become a significant writer is implicated, along with associated alcoholic binges. He was very physically and emotionally abusive to Julia’s mom, and this seems again more indicative of a drunkard than a typical pedophile. This misstep of Rooney’s can largely be forgiven, though, because elsewhere in the book she struggles harder than most other progressives of the past two decades to understand pedophiles as human beings, and to make sense of pedophilia with an objective and compassionate eye.
This leads us to featured pedophile character Smirks. He is no activist, but does attend an MAA meeting in Vancouver in the hope of gaining a better understanding of himself. And, yes, Rooney does use the value-neutral, untainted term MAA (Minor Attracted Adult) to cover all forms of adult attraction to minors. This expression and its accompanying acronym are often used interchangeably with MAP (Minor Attracted Person) in the contemporary lexicon. The latter is more inclusive, taking in minor-attracted adolescents, but I’ll stick with Rooney’s language here.
Like the infamous Humbert Humbert, Smirks is no role model for MAAs. Unlike his literary hebephile predecessor as penned by Nabokov, he is far more restrained, and his life and interests are shown to encompass much more than his preferential attraction to children – girls, in his case, which is a refreshing change from the usual disproportionate attention given to boy-attracted MAAs over the past few decades, in both literature and research.
Smirks is a quirky but basically caring soul seeking his way through life while secretly dealing with his pedophilia. He is never revealed to have crossed the legal line, making him more sympathetic to a broad modern audience as a result. We learn that a ten-year-old girl named Maria was once part of his life, but never does Rooney treat Smirks as a mindless creature of lust. His ability to feel love for other human beings is made clear, and this includes his once-upon-a-time little sweetheart. His flaws are also laid bare, in a fully three-dimensional depiction. Never does Rooney make the common liberal mistake of attempting to canonize an oppressed minority in seeking its emancipation.
Significantly, women fall for Smirks, who is a ruggedly handsome 30-something, articulate, soft-spoken and a writer. But he isn’t sexually attracted to women. So what to do? Actual romantic involvement with an adult at least offers something beyond illicit fantasies, however unsatisfactorily. Rooney confronts this dilemma: Smirk’s sexual services are commandeered, shall we say, by Julia’s best friend, Lark, a fast-moving fashionista.
It is through Lark, indeed, that Julia meets Smirks. Julia, the 25-year-old psychology graduate student is instantly smitten, but she has no idea he is a MAA. When she poses as a female hebephile to gain entrance to the MAA lecture in Vancouver, she runs into Smirks there, and the truth of his actual preferences is laid bare to her in this rather awkward fashion.
In this meeting, we get a look into the famed European MAA organization IPCE, and its policies and mission statement are laid out. Rooney clearly did her research, and she represents the org fairly, with no concession whatever to popular hostility.
Wanting to keep Smirks close, Julia invites him to join her trek across Canada to locate Dirtbag. Quickly growing to love Julia in platonic fashion, and wanting her company and support, he agrees to the trip to provide her with the same. Along the way, she grows to know him better, and gains a first-hand view into the mind and feelings of an artistic pedophile who is struggling to make sense of his place in a society which hates the very idea of his natural feelings. He too has read much of the available literature, but being a newcomer to the organized MAA community – who meet mainly online – he has yet to fully scrutinize and critique the “scientific” research, much of which is not as scientific as one would wish. Among the books Julia mentions, I should add, is Tom O’Carroll’s Paedophilia: The Radical Case.
Some of the more distressing literature that Smirks reads includes the contention that pedophilia is a brain disorder, described by him in this manner:
“It’s a dysfunction. The white matter in my brain is screwy. I don’t have enough of it. Grey matter does the thinking, the information processing. White matter controls the signals between the information, their connections. When you look at a child, your white matter connects the child to a nonsexual being, and sends a signal of nurture. Love. Care. My white matter signals sex. Pedophilia is not a sexual orientation. It’s a birth defect.” (pp. 155-156).
Smirks makes it quite clear what pedophiles who have not fully self-actualized often have to deal with when reading pseudo-science of this nature. The fact that Smirks is left-handed makes him buy into this all the more, considering what researcher James Cantor and his ilk have concluded about left-handedness being particularly prevalent in MAAs.
Not addressed by Smirks is what all of this means for non-MAA adults who do not feel that strong nurturing complex towards children. Do they, too, suffer from a lack of sufficient white matter in their neural make-up? And what about the very clear nurturing feelings towards children that many typical pedophiles have alongside the sexual component of the attraction? Does that signify some sort of brain abnormality? Artistic works throughout human history seem to contradict the notion that “normal” human adult brains are somehow biologically hard-wired to view children as asexual beings. This reeks of culture and a very recent brand of moralism imposed upon scientific research.
But the emotional turmoil that MAAs like Smirks have to deal with due to all of this specious literature posing as objective science causes them to buy into this on many levels. Sadly, some MAAs view degrees of self-hatred or at least condemnation of their natural feelings as a form of catharsis or absolution for their transgression against contemporary cultural propriety.
Rooney attempts to convey the belief that despite her strong sympathy for pedophiles (and MAAs in general) as human beings who are not inherently defective, and even her questioning of common perceptions of childhood “innocence,” there are no easy answers for this conundrum. It’s obvious that Rooney was struggling with these issues as she wrote the book, though I must commend her for doing so in a manner that more or less chose neutral ambiguity over that of “regretful” condemnation.
So do I recommend this book to all who are interested in the subject, including the MAA community itself? Yes, I certainly do. Chelsea Rooney is a courageous woman with a genuine interest in understanding pedophilia that does not rest on a simplistic abuse prevention agenda. She may very well have come close to doing for pedophilia and child sexuality in the realm of fiction what Judith Levine did a decade previous as a non-fiction writer. Even those who cannot fully agree with this conclusion may however concede that she has taken a step in the right direction.