Meet Shakespeare’s hot young boys

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My old friend Mike Teare-Williams kindly gives us his second guest blog today, the first being his review last June of Stiff Upper Lip: Secrets, crimes and the schooling of a ruling class, by Alex Renton. Now he is not quite reviewing, exactly, but giving us a flavour of his own MA thesis on boy actors playing female roles in Shakespeare’s plays in the days when they were brand new – hot off the bard’s dripping quill, as it were – and some of the comedies were as torrid as my lurid imagery suggests, full of bawdy gags and seductive acting by barely teenage boys with still unbroken voices: got up in drag they would “come on” to the adult actors in the male parts. Mike’s thesis on these improbable (to the modern mind) provocations has recently been added to Edmund Marlowe’s splendid website Greek Love Through the Ages. So, over to Mike.

 

AS YOU LIKE IT: A BAWDY, NOT BORING, BARD

Shakespeare, sigh — how boring — so many people say?  Long-winded and obscure?  Of course, English has changed over four hundred years and much of what is said upon the stage now flies straight over our heads.  Yet there is one aspect of Shakespeare’s drama that should be forever young and of primary interest to the people of now — to those especially who love young people.  In the playwright’s day, no women were allowed upon the stage, so Shakespeare’s brilliant heroines were played by boys, since only men and boys could then legally perform.

Historical and textual evidence is overwhelming that these boys had unbroken voices and were very young, in order not only to look feminine, but to sound feminine as well.  A case in point of the gulf between modern performances and the original tradition was played out the other day in my seeing a play-bill for a local performance of Romeo and Juliet.  A rather beautiful colourful photograph of the eponymous lovers appeared as an early adult woman and a fully-grown man.  This was not a surprise.  But this is Shakespeare radically re-written.  One could almost say, it is a travesty of the original drama.  In its original form, Romeo was a stripling youth.  Juliet, according to the text itself, in Act 1 Scene iii, in the words of her mother: “She’s not fourteen” and her Nurse: “On Lammas Eve at night she shall be fourteen”. Which makes the idea of even a late teen girl as Juliet absurd.  Much more to the point, this girl was played by a boy and was the subject of the most pointed sexual references and outright bawdry through several of the scenes that follow.

When you also consider that a thirteen-year-old, in the nexus between the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries, was probably not as physically mature as a thirteen-year-old of now, you may question how such a young and small person could carry such a dramatic role.  We are left with the unavoidable conclusion that the boy of then was actually a much tougher and more mature individual, mentally, than his modern counterpart.  He might have been small, but he must have been a very considerable actor to have been given this role and his relative maturity would not have been in doubt.  Death was everywhere in the streets of London, with dismembered body-parts displayed in prominent places…  Our gentle child would have fought tooth and nail for his place to watch one of the frequent executions.  The bloodier, the better.

Now, established culture has it that to drop the f-word in a child’s presence is to deeply harm that child.  The words ‘attack’, ‘assault’, ‘abuse‘, ‘molest’ and ‘victim’ are used to describe situations and the passive resultants of those situations where no violence is, or ever was, present.  Fathers now no longer go near bathrooms where their own children bathe.  Men are deserting the teaching profession in droves.  Children now are treated like mindless nothings.  Tabula rasa – without intelligence, discernment, curiosity or even the capacity for love.  In all of these things they are deeply denigrated; made less than they truly are?

Very much at odds with these modern views: in the year 2000, I completed an MA thesis at the University of Western Australia.  It was entitled “Representing the Female Character in Three Comedies of William Shakespeare: As You Like It, Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.  A horribly long title for a horribly long and complex thesis.  The basis of the whole work was that no female actors were allowed to take the female parts in the drama of those days.

But why was the thesis so long and complex?  The simple truth is that I was under attack from the police and the justice-system and I was fighting to maintain my place as a graduate-student at my university for the entire time that I was researching my work.  Therefore, I had not only to lay out my own strong ideas about the boy actors who took the parts of the women in these plays, but I had constantly to reference and to justify my own beliefs with the evidence of other established scholars.  Surprisingly, essential aid came to me in the really excellent scholarship of a number of radical feminist authors.  Tirelessly – some might say exhaustively – I gave reference to their research, knowing that no-one with half a brain would dare to argue with them!

Needless to say, the journey to the eventual granting of my Master of Arts degree was part adventure, part nightmare; but it was a point of pride with me that I spent six months of my four and a half years of striving, while resident in prison.  So, it should also be pointed out that I was bravely supported throughout my huge endeavour; firstly, by my thesis-supervisor and secondly by the Academic Council of the University of Western Australia.  Brave people indeed, given the subject matter.

Throughout the eighteen years since, I have been taxing my brain on ways to turn this monstrous prolixity into a readable book.  Without any success!  So, what I have done is to prune as many of the tiresome repetitions as I could find and clear up anomalies along the way.  Then, I coined a new and much more honest title.  This being Shakespeare’s Boy Actors and Forbidden Discourse.

The reference to boy actors rather than the girls they represented is deliberate in establishing that Shakespeare in particular, and many other authors of his time, simply made the best of the situation of having to use boys as comedic girls and even sometimes as tragic heroines.  In the case of the former, they based most of the double-meaning jokes on the fact that the girl seen by audiences on the stage was actually a boy and everyone knew it.  Often – as in As You Like It and Twelfth Night – a girl character is required to dress up as a boy for part of the action.  So, in reality, you have a boy playing a girl who then plays a boy, who then reverts to playing a girl, but who then finally morphs into real boy again as the lights go down!

This androgyny in double-reversal, allows for some very pointed crudity.  Yet, at times, a more ethereal androgyne was proposed, characterised by sexual uncertainty of a Neoplatonic sort (see Chapter 2 for what I mean).  Touches of this philosophical aspect exist in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but it is mainly the schism between the reality of a boy in the first Elizabeth’s reign and a boy of the second Elizabeth’s reign that I meant to highlight. Back then, a boy grew up quickly or he did not grow up at all.  Children who survived infancy and could walk and talk were set to work or were sent to school.  They were protected neither from the knowledge of sex – many of them grew up in one room with their parents – nor from experiencing it.  The point must finally be made that even the most ignorant person in Shakespeare’s age knew that these brilliant young actors were boys.

Most of us now will need Eric Partridge’s Shakespeare’s Bawdy: A Literary & Psychological Essay and a Comprehensive Glossary (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986 [1947]) simply to have any hope of understanding the crudeness of the bawdry that the characters fire off at bewildering speed throughout the texts that I study, among many others.  What was transparent in the lexis to Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences of four centuries ago is almost completely obscure to us now?

Hence my thesis, which is a decoding of the obscurities and, more to the point, an explanation of the second part of my title. That is to say: Forbidden Discourse.  Why is this discourse now forbidden?  Because it seeks to say that the boy of four centuries ago may not realistically be compared with the boy of now. Then, no boy with an unbroken voice – be he born high or low – was thought to have been harmed or ruined or abused by his taking part in comedic bawdry of the kind that was required by Shakespeare’s very young actors of then.  Though it is historically true that some of the boys went on acting female parts into young manhood; the major part of the evidence is overwhelming that the boy actors of the golden age of Shakespeare were truly boys, in both voice and appearance. Yet an essential part of the forbiddenness of this discourse is that, if you were to try and stage a performance of, particularly, As You Like It or Twelfth Night now – using boys with unbroken voices – the theatre would be closed, and the director would be arrested on the first night.  Yet this is only true if the audience were to understand the jokes!  Me, I think that there would be enough blue-noses in those audiences to close the performance down, were it to be done really well.

Tom O’Carroll asked me to write a guest-blog on my thesis and while this sounds most uncomfortably like blowing my own horn: blow it I will.  Simply because I am committed to the idea that most people in the modern world have no idea about the original tradition of Shakespearian drama.

I must record that, paradoxically, it was the outraged protests of the growing Puritan movement in that age which provided some of the best evidence for the separation of the modern boy from his Renaissance counterpart.  Tracts by such writers as William Prynne, Stephen Gosson and Phillip Stubbes inveighed in extreme terms against not only the action upon the stage, but the perceived immorality that occurred after the performances.  Stage-door Johnnies are not a new invention it would seem and the boys were evidently very popular for themselves, as well as their abilities as actors.  Deuteronomy 22:5 was clarion for the Puritans:

The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment,  for all that do so are abomination unto the Lord thy God.

Cross-dressing in any form; indeed any pretension of a man, woman or child to appear to be something that he or she was not, was a grievous sin to the Puritans.  One such was Phillip Stubbes who fulminated dramatically in his The Anatomie of Abuses, F.J. Furnivall, ed. (London: New Shakespeare Society, 1877-1879 [London: Richard Jones, 1583]), pp. 144-145.

what smouching & slabbering one of another, what filthie groping and vncleane handling is not practised euery wher in these dauncings? … But, say they, it induceth looue—so I say also—but what looue?  Truely, lustful looue, a venerous looue, such as proceedeth from the stinking pump and lothsome sink of carnall affection and fleshly appetite, and not such as distilleth from the bowels of the hart ingenerat by the spirit of God.

Purple prose indeed, but the fact is that these performances were hugely popular, despite this invective.  Or perhaps even, because of it?  The texts themselves were written with the several different levels of understanding in the audiences in mind.  The cruder humour was for those who stood among the groundlings and there were many Classical allusions to flatter the educated in the sixpenny seats.  Who had the most fun though?  Probably those boy actors themselves!

But the 1640s were approaching and the total – though thankfully temporary – victory of the puritans who were to close all of the theatres.  Then, after years of sub-fusc misery, the Reformation saw the return of the monarchy. Charles II issued a royal patent in 1662 to one William d’Avenant, allowing him to use real women in women’s parts.

The age of the boy actor was then over. Indeed, the age of Shakespeare as he wrote it, was then over. What we see now is Shakespeare transposed. Re-written. Modified.

As I mentioned earlier, the boy of then was almost certainly smaller than the boy of now.  I believe Shakespeare used this to delight in reversing the usual power relationships.  Take the role of Portia, in The Merchant of Venice.  This boy-girl trounces the powerful male figures who must physically have towered over the small, but brilliant figure upon the stage – and it is he who appears triumphant in the end.  The author himself appears as a man fighting for a place for brilliant young women in a world where men would normally dominate?  Yet, in everyone’s full knowledge, Portia is actually a boy; as was the quicksilver Maria in Twelfth Night and the tragic Juliet in Romeo and Juliet.  While the role of Portia is deadly serious, Maria is a tiny grinning devil as she bounces about the stage, bullying the adult actors and causing huge amounts of laughter. A contrasting juxtaposition in terms of physical size and actual power was the name of the game.  I have a theory that this echoed the tiny, though very real person, the woman, who paradoxically held such awesome power upon the throne for most of Shakespeare’s life.  Praise for role-reversals would certainly not have been missed by that highly intelligent sovereign!

Barbed humour, sometimes couched in double, or even treble meanings, dominated the comedies, in particular.  And when you consider the possible gestures that would have been added to the words, it is possible to imagine the riotous belly-laughs among the groundlings in the original Globe Theatre.

When all is said and done, Shakespeare wrote immensely powerful roles for women, which is why the drama still works so very well now. Androgyny in the original double-shifted parts is now merely single-shifted, but Shakespeare still lives and is well-loved by many people and rightly so.

Finally, I had the great good fortune to make the acquaintance of Edmund Marlowe when I wrote to him to praise his wonderful book, Alexander’s Choice.  We exchanged occasional emails thereafter and then I discovered his equally wonderful website at www.greek-love.com and later he suggested that I should send him my thesis for publication on the site.

After scratching around for months, I sent it off and what I call The Monstrous Prolixity now sits on his magnificent site: Greek Love Through the Ages.  It is hard to describe the sheer range of both serious and even humorous knowledge of boy-love that is contained within Edmund’s shining demesne.  Richly illustrated, it is full of articles, titles, references, pointers to so many of the people of the past and present, many of whom I have never heard.  It is like a kindly light that shines on a very dark and depressing night.

Yet Edmund, in his last message to me, said that he is not yet satisfied with his site!  I’ll let you be the judge, but for me, I am honoured to have a place in what I see as his Golden Compendium of Boy Knowledge.

 

 

 

 

A stage, not an age, underpins BL desire

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Heretic TOC is delighted to present a guest blog today by Edmund, author of the BL novel Alexander’s Choice, set at Eton College and somewhat improbably hailed in the Daily Mail as “the Etonian version of Fifty Shades Of Grey”. The book was being “feverishly read by as many Etonians, past and present, as can get their hands on it”, enthused columnist Richard Kay. And who better to write about hot lust and love between man and boy at Britain’s fabled hothouse for future leaders than an Old Etonian such as Edmund himself? More relevant today, though, as will be seen below, is another observation I once made about the author: “I think he must … be some sort of time traveller, a former citizen of ancient Athens, judging by his amazing evocation of pederasty’s golden age and the ideals of pedogogic eros and mentorship.” Edmund now has his own fledgling website, hatched only a few days ago and in a very preliminary stage of development, called Greek Love Through the Ages.

 

On the lowering of the usual age at which boys have attracted men

A few years ago, when I wrote a novel about a love affair between a fourteen-year-old boy and a young schoolmaster, I was already aware from long study of ancient Greece, the best-known pederastic culture ever, that my protagonist was a little below the average age of boys to which Greek men were attracted.  However, it was only through extensive correspondence resulting from my novel that it was first impressed on me that most men today identifying themselves as boy-lovers are more attracted to younger boys.  Put together, this suggested a serious discrepancy between Greek and modern preferences. This both surprised me and struck me as having important implications, so I have done some investigation which I am now reporting.

I firmly believe that attraction to boys is a natural impulse which has survived millions of years of evolution because of its benefits to the species. The evidence for this was best summed up by Bruce Rind in his Hebephilia as a Mental Disorder? (2011), showing that pederasty has been so widely practised not only throughout recorded human history, but also by other primates, as to indicate that it is an “evolutionary heritage” for which “most mature males have a capacity” (pp. 20-1). Moreover, one indication of its evolutionary function is “that mature male erotic interest in boys, when expressed, is generally coordinated with the ages at which mentorship and enculturation are most useful and efficiently effected, from peripubescence through mid-adolescence” (p. 24).  But how can it be thus co-ordinated if boy-lovers today are drawn to significantly younger boys than were the Greeks?

Much the strongest evidence for the age of boys with whom men chose to become sexually involved in any era comes from Renaissance Florence, thanks to Michael Rocke’s exhaustive study of the copious records of the Office of the Night Watch set up to police pederasty there.  In Statistical Table B.2 of his book Forbidden Friendships (1996), he gives the “ages of partners in the passive role, 1478-1502” in 475 cases recorded by the Office of the Night.  They range from six to twenty-six, but 90% (428) were aged twelve to nineteen, while only 16 were under twelve, and only 31 were aged twenty or more.  At 82 cases, sixteen was the peak as well as the mean.  A smaller sample of 58 passive partners whose ages were found in a tax record of 1480 yielded a mean age of fifteen.

The best evidence for the youngest age at which Greek boys receive amorous attention is poem 205 of Straton of Sardis’s Musa Puerilis:

My neighbour’s quite tender young boy provokes me not a little, and laughs in no novice manner to show me that he is willing. But he is not more than twelve years old. Now the unripe grapes are unguarded; when he ripens there will be watchmen and stakes.

This implies that at twelve or a little less, a boy had not quite reached the expected age.   In his poem 4, Straton says he delights in the prime of a boy in his twelfth year (ie. aged eleven).  I believe this is the sole reference in Greek literature to boys under twelve being sexually attractive.  Plutarch, in his Life of Lycurgus, says that Spartan boys “were introduced to the society of lovers” at twelve.

Straton considered seventeen beyond bounds and there are copious references in Greek literature to boys losing their desirability with the appearance of body and facial hair.  However, an eighteen year-old could still be referred to as a pais (boy) in an amorous context and fully-grown but still unbearded youths are commonly depicted as men’s beloveds on vases.  Aristotle says beard growth occurs some time before twenty-one (History of Animals 582a).

According to P. G. Schalow, translator into English of Ihara Saikaku’s The Great Mirror of Male Love, the most important source of our knowledge of the pederasty ubiquitous in Japan for a thousand years, the age of the passive partners usually corresponded to the age of the wakashu (adolescent boy), defined by hair-shaving ceremonies performed at the ages of eleven or twelve and eighteen or nineteen.

Khaled El-Rouayheb in his Before Homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic World 1500-1800, also describing a society where men’s attraction to boys was taken for granted, quotes the opinions of numerous primary sources on the age of boys’ attractiveness. He concludes that the range was wide, at seven or eight to twenty, but “that the boy’s attractiveness was usually supposed to peak around halfway through, at fourteen or fifteen.”

To determine the ages to which today’s self-identified boy-lovers are attracted, I consulted two of their forums. In a poll held this year on one called boymoment, seventy-six voters replied to the question “What ages do you like?” 8% opted for under eight, 81% for eight to fifteen and 10% for 16+.  The ages brackets of 10-11 and 12-13 were most popular and virtually equal choices, confirming what an old hand there told me that the many polls of this sort conducted in the past had consistently shown 11-12 as the most preferred age, in other words towards the end of Tanner stage two of pubescence.  A poll of 88 voters on a forum called boylandonline ongoing since 2011 showed 10, 11 and 12 as the roughly equal most popular choices.

Based on the foregoing, I think it is fair to postulate twelve to nineteen as the typical age range of boys to whom men were attracted historically, with fifteen the likely average and peak, and eight to fifteen as the age most online boy-lovers are now attracted to, with eleven to twelve the average and most liked.  How can one explain the discrepancy of three or four years?  Here follow three hypotheses in order of importance.

ONE:

Watch a film with boys from the 1930s and look up the actors’ ages. Those who look like today’s 13-year-olds with voices that have not begun to break are more likely to have been 16. The handsome Jürgen Ohlsen in the Nazi propaganda film Hitlerjunge Quex (1933) is a good example of one presumably chosen partly for his pederastic appeal, since the Nazis were not averse to exploiting such imagery.  It has happened again and again that the 14-year-old I thought I was looking at in a Victorian photo turned out to be 18.  Necessarily subjective judgements of this sort are useful as expressions of visual response to a substantial drop in the age of puberty that has been going on for well over a century.  Abundant but complicated evidence and supporting anecdotes have already been discussed in Tom’s blog of 25 September 2014, so I shall only point out the one I think best for accurate comparison over a very long period.  The voices of Bach’s choirboys in the years 1727-48 began breaking on average at 17.25, whereas those of London schoolboys in 1959 did so at 13.25 (studies cited in Politics and Life Sciences 20 (1) p.48).

This has far-reaching implications.  For example, the debate on whether historical individuals like Oscar Wilde were pederasts or gay should end.  Seen in the light of the age at which Victorians started looking like men, Wilde, with his lovers’ age range of 14-21, was unambiguously a pederast in the Greek tradition he claimed.

TWO:

Sexuality is heavily influenced by culture.  I cannot see how else it is possible to explain the wild variations in degree of sexual interest in boys implied by cultures like Renaissance Florence where Rocke found (p. 115) “at least two of every three men were incriminated” over it despite religious denunciation, state persecution and the provision of women in brothels to lure them away.  The antagonism of the Florentine state failed mostly because the culture of pederasty was too strong.  By contrast, fierce opposition to sex between children and anyone significantly older pervades the entire culture of the Anglophone countries and, to some extent,  most countries. It follows then that in a culture such as today’s that is deeply antagonistic to pederasty only those innately least capable of attraction to adults will become boy-lovers, the others either shunning boys in favour of adults or never awakening to their latent capacity for attraction to boys. Tom has said in one of his blogs that hebephiles are far more likely than paedophiles to be capable of attraction to adults. This is bound to cause under-representation of potential hebephiles in boy-love forums.

Also, in several populous countries the age of consent is fourteen, and in most it is no more than sixteen, which must have the effect of disincentivising some men attracted most to boys of fourteen or more from participating in forums defined by longings for the forbidden.

THREE

Much of what is considered sex today was ignored as insignificant by pre-modern societies. Greek men sought intercrural or anal intercourse with boys, and not, as far we know, to be masturbated. Japanese men sought anal intercourse.  Masturbation only interested Florence’s Office of the Night if done with a view to seducing a boy into being sodomized.  If, as has been frequently asserted on this blog, paedophiles are much less inclined to penetrative acts than hebephiles, then more of them will have passed under the radar in pre-modern societies, while being represented in the boy-forum statistics.  However, this is only a minor point.  Excluding masturbation may have raised the mean age of the boys in the Florentine records, but cannot explain why Florentine men preferred to sodomise 15-16 year-olds rather than 14-year-olds.

 

CONCLUSION

In conclusion, I suggest it has been shown that if one were to allow that the age of attraction expressed by online boy-lovers has been skewed a little downwards by my second and third hypotheses, men today can be said to be responsive to roughly the same state of physical development in boys that they always have been, in harmony with their evolutionary heritage.  That the age at which this development is attained has gone down is at the heart of the modern boy-lover’s unhappy predicament.

 

Masters of our fate, captains of our soul

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Power. That’s what it’s all about, insist the bad-mouthers these days. The abuse of power. At one time they would bang on about the “innocence” of childhood, but that doesn’t play too well when talking about kids into a double-figure age or their early teens.

Bullshit. It’s not about power, it’s about the physical dimension of love, which inspires benevolent and nurturant feelings. That’s always been my response, based mainly on my own introspection and knowledge of really nice guys who are attracted to children, and a few women too.

But a few inconvenient realities have been insinuating themselves into my consciousness lately which have obliged me to concede there is an issue for serious discussion. The clincher for this as a blog topic right now is an article in The New Yorker this week called “The Master”. It is one of those enormous feature-length (nay, novella-length) pieces of prestigious reportage in which this journal specializes: around 13,000 words on the fresh and previously unexplored (hardly!) issue of child sexual abuse.

I groaned inwardly, I must admit, at the thought of having to tackle this “must read” saga, but I’m glad I gritted my teeth and got on with it. And to save you the trouble of doing the same (unless you are particularly masochistic!), here’s the gist. The strap-line is as good a start as any: “A charismatic teacher enthralled his students. Was he abusing them?” The teacher in question, now an old man who (sensibly enough) has declined to talk The New Yorker, wasn’t even mentioned last June when the New York Times Magazine published extensive allegations of sexual abuse at the private, expensive, and very highly rated Horace Mann School in the Bronx, New York, by several teachers decades ago, leading to a police investigation. Under state law the offences fell afoul of the time limit for prosecutions, so no charges have been laid. As with the Savile case in Britain, though, publicity resulted in many more “victims” coming forward, armed with lawyers and seeking compensation (what a surprise!) from around a dozen teachers who allegedly perpetrated abuse. The school is said to have agreed terms recently and is ready to offer an apology.

So far, so ordinary. But the career of the “charismatic” teacher on which Marc Fisher’s story for The New Yorker focuses is anything but. Fisher is himself a former student at the school, having been in the Class of 1976, which is when he encountered a teacher of English called Robert Berman, an “odd, secretive man who frightened away many students, yet retired to a house that former students bought for him”. Fisher says, “I talked to more than a hundred alumni, to many teachers who worked with him in the sixties and seventies, and to administrators who dealt with complaints about teachers. Berman stood out for his extraordinary control over boys’ lives…”

What this “extraordinary control” amounted to, as we hear in immense and very convincing detail, is that Berman was a demanding and psychologically domineering teacher. Some boys at what was then an all-boys school, steered clear of the guy: they were allowed to opt out of his class, and Fisher was one of those. But others, the so-called “Bermanites”, were mesmerized by his inspirational teaching: he inspired fear, but also immense respect and loyalty. Berman was unconventional: think Dead Poets Society, a film in which teacher John Keating dangerously urged his students, “Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.” Berman, like Mr Keating in the film, played so memorably by Robin Williams, was looked upon by the boys as a genius and a hero: “O Captain! My Captain!” they called Keating, and Berman inspired just that sort of sentiment.

Fisher’s allegation, of course, is that Berman became sexually involved with some of his boys. No great ethical problem in itself for us heretics, I would have thought: who better to be a boy’s lover, after all, than an inspirational teacher? Isn’t this the very ideal of mentorship in the “Greek love” model of pederasty? Except that Berman allegedly seized not only the day but the boys as well, often quite forcefully and without waiting for any sign of consent. He would make their compliance with his advances a test of loyalty: those who would not submit were deemed unworthy, fit only for disgrace, humiliation and rejection.

The really interesting point here, though, is that many of these boys did choose to submit, and kept going back for more. They might have had misgivings about the sex, but their worship of Berman outweighed any moral reservations or physical distaste. So did these teenagers (not little boys) become consenting participants, or were they truly victims of Berman’s power abuse? They could have chosen to leave Berman’s class, as many did. But many others stayed, including boys who got love and attention from Berman they did not necessarily get from their parents or anyone else, at a time when they needed it. So shouldn’t their choice to “go for it” be respected?

Even those who now, in middle-age, claim they were Berman’s victims seem ambivalent. Berman gave a boy called Gene a small bronze sculpture. Despite everything, Gene holds onto it to this day. “This meant that somebody loved me, and nobody had ever shown me that before,” Gene says. “It’s a conundrum. Why don’t I just drop it in the garbage right now? It’s part of me, part of my life. I guess I’ll be done with it when I don’t need somebody’s love.” Significantly, it is said that Gene only came to “realize” he had been abused after a therapist “helped him understand that he had never had a real relationship with Berman.”

Berman, not surprisingly, has denied that any of this happened. He may be telling the truth, but that not the issue here. The issue for us is what we think is right and good in such a situation. To my mind, by the way, this is not like Penn State, with which the Horace Mann School revelations have been compared. The “charismatic” figure in that case, football coach Jerry Sandusky, turns out not at all to have been the brutal abuser the prosecution sought to portray: he got a long sentence on the back of public outrage, but there was no evidence of rape in a shower room, as originally alleged, and even the “victims” had many good things to say about him.

Berman, by contrast, was plausibly a bit of a bastard; an inspired bastard but a bastard nonetheless. His cult-leader style had arguably produced the sort of fear-based loyalty we associate with Stockholm syndrome. But consider this: Berman and his ilk would be just as sinister even if there had been nothing sexual going on at all! We probably all remember nasty teachers of that sort: bullies, simply. Such people are not considered candidates for jail at all, so let’s keep a sense of proportion.
I do think there is a serious issue here, though, for those who cleave to the elitist Greek love model of the mentor, and the mentor’s unquestioned power: elitist pursuit of pedagogical excellence can be a marvellous thing, and one we have to some extent lost in the more egalitarian atmosphere of modern education, especially in the UK. But perhaps it needs to be blended with another concept borrowed, along with that of the mentor, from the Ancient Greeks: the philosophy of moderation in all things.

An element of leadership, and hero worship, can be tremendously positive, and none the worse for being sexually realized. But no one should monopolize a child’s life; there should be light and air in the classroom, both metaphorically and actually: it is more than coincidental that Berman papered over the windows of his classroom door so that no one could peek through into his exclusive sphere of influence.

Another intense, dark, forcing-house of young minds is relevant here, another example from cinema: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, from the novel by Muriel Spark. The eponymous Miss Brodie, played by Maggie Smith, is an inspirational teacher (motto: “Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life”) in the 1930s, who romanticizes fascist leaders such as Mussolini and Franco, with ultimately disastrous consequences for one of her girls. Miss Brodie is hugely manipulative, and there is lots of sexual intrigue, but not in terms of Miss Brodie’s interest in the girls: she has adult lovers. The point here is that the really dangerous thing is not sex but the excessive influence (the word power misses the mark) of an essentially reckless woman over her young charges. This is a danger for all adults who have close relationships with children, but perhaps it is a particular issue for advocates of intense personal mentorship, whether erotically charged and realized or not.

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