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2007 03 31
Reviving Pedophilia: Reading Barbara Gowdy’s novel Helpless
When I was in the second grade a little girl named Kimberly Thompson was found murdered, her body discarded in a garbage bag in a city alley. A girl named Kimberly was a student in my class, and so for the entire weekend that followed I was convinced it was her body in that garbage bag. But on Monday there she was, arriving with all the other kids, not murdered but alive and untouched. I have never forgotten that misplaced certainty that a little girl I knew had been murdered. And although my seven year-old self was wrong about the details (a search of newspaper archives reveals, in fact, that the murdered little girl had lived in Calgary) I was right about one thing: in all the street-proofing that preceded and followed this event, I learned without a doubt that we were all prey, objects of someone else's unspeakable desire.

Reading Barbara Gowdy's new novel Helpless (Harper Collins, 2007), I am reminded vividly of that certainty. And yet it is not exactly the novel itself that reinforces the dark reality that little girls are seen as the objects of fetishistic sexuality. Instead, it is the reviews of the novel that perpetuate this notion, tightening it as lovingly but as unrelentingly as a ligature.

Gowdy's novel narrates the story of Ron, a small appliance repairman and collector of vintage vacuum cleaners who abducts a nine-year old Cabbagetown girl. He locks her in a basement room he has built as a fantasy girl's bedroom, with pristine white walls, a lacy canopied bed, and bars on the window and a lock that opens only from the outside. Throughout the novel Ron struggles with his desires, willfully deluding himself and his seemingly addled accomplice Nancy with the fantasy that he is actually protecting Rachel from other men he describes as predators and upon whom he projects his own motives. In this way Ron manages to rationalize a disturbing series of transgressive acts which begin with following Rachel home from school and lurking outside her home just of Parliament Street and progress inexorably toward her abduction, an event planned meticulously in advance even down to the duct tape he uses to bind her limbs and cover her mouth. The bulk of the novel is taken up with Ron's efforts to deal with Rachel's unbearable proximity. To keep it at bay he pockets a pair of the little girl's panties and relies on Nancy (herself apparently the survivor of childhood sexual abuse) to buffer his interactions with the little girl. And yet, Ron cannot keep himself from watching her and fantasizing about touching her, imagining Rachel returning his calculating embrace. He grooms her toward this longed-for eventuality, manipulating her with half-truths about his interest in her well-being. In truth he is interested only in his own, a truth Nancy perceives only belatedly.

Despite the unmistakable trajectory of Gowdy's narrative, many of those who have reviewed Helpless seem to cloak themselves in the same acquiescent illusion Ron's accomplice Nancy clings to throughout much of the novel. Writing in the Toronto Star, reviewer Philip Marchand describes Ron as "the novel's great father figure" and, despite observing the irony in Ron's "love" for the little girl, still turns away from the "something else" in that love he acknowledges must be faced. A Globe and Mail reviewer lauds Gowdy's "commitment to testing and expanding the bounds of empathy" and describes Gowdy's depiction of Ron as a "sympathetic intervention." Writing for the Ottawa Citizen, Novelist Robert Wiersema suggests that in abducting Rachel Ron seeks to "atone, in some way, for events in his past which he is powerless to change." (In the novel Ron's pedophilia is traced to his sexual attraction, at the age of eleven, to an eight year old girl.) Gowdy herself contributes to these responses to her novel. In an interview with CBC, Gowdy describes Ron as "a connoisseur of young female beauty" and compares him to the nineteenth century children's author Lewis Carroll

I do not wish in any way to denigrate Gowdy's intentions in writing Helpless, nor to suggest that the novel is itself pedophiliac in character. Like all of Gowdy's work, Helpless is exceptionally well told, relying on spare but vivid prose to raise disturbing, vital questions about desire and possession. And yet, in reading it I am struck repeatedly by a sense that Gowdy avoids the toughest questions, that perhaps in labouring to suggest that Ron's desires are not so different from our own she normalizes those desires rather than illuminate their monstrous qualities. Robert Wiersma conveys a similar sentiment in his Citizen review, observing that the novel "feels like a pulled punch, like a hesitation on the author's part to fully engage with the violence and horror inherent in her narrative."

And what is this pulled punch? In my view it revolves around the question of the harm done to Rachel, the young girl whose own voice is disturbingly and perhaps deliberately almost completely absent in Helpless. While we are encouraged to understand and perhaps even sympathize with Ron's desire, Rachel is reduced to an object, like the vintage vacuum cleaners Ron collects, preserves, and admires in their restored condition. Inevitably, though, Ron cannot keep himself from using one of his most precious vacuums, even though he knows doing so will tarnish it and destroy much of its value in the eyes of future collectors (this tension a clear metaphor for the response of many molesters who crave children for their purity and then respond with rage once they have destroyed it). Writing in the Star, Philip Marchand asks about Rachel, "Will she be found before harm comes to her?" And yet, I cannot help but think that Rachel has already been harmed, not only by the abduction itself and the milieu of fearful overpretectiveness (of which Rachel cannot help but be aware) but by the ways the novel is perceived by its readers. Almost all of the reviews, for example, zero in on the "suspense" in the novel. Of female reviewers, Gowdy observes, "They’re rapturous. Women say, ‘There was so much tension, I couldn’t bear it." The tension I can understand, but "rapture" is something I cannot identify with at all. Perhaps this is because I do not accept the view that Ron's actions can be explained away as misguided chivalry or expiation of guilt.

I think it is worth acknowledging the character of the novel's tension, not only within Ron but in the hearts of Gowdy's readers, female and male alike. Gowdy describes Ron struggling to keep himself from opening the locked door behind which Rachel cowers and whimpers. She writes, "And yet even as he surrenders to the sensation of consciously abdicating responsibility he knows which side of him will prevail" Gowdy describes him, later, as walking "like an automaton, feeling the great resisting force of his body's machinery". As he moves closer to fulfilling the novel's great unspoken tension, Ron projects his desire upon Rachel, imagining her response to his hand on her knee, his mouth on hers. Deciding that Rachel cannot possibly be "innocent" despite being nine years old, he decides, self-righteously, that he will need to "do the resisting for both of them." In this way Ron rewrites his predation as protection, imagining that the tension emanates not from himself but from the little girl he desires.

And perhaps as readers we risk projecting our own voyeurism upon Gowdy, suggesting that we too are helpless in the grip of her narrative, that it is her novel rather than our own predilection that normalizes the sexual objectification of young children. I cannot accept this. And while I agree with other reviewers that Gowdy is a brave and brilliant writer, I do not share their view that Gowdy's sensitive portrayal of a pedophile is especially innovative. Rather, any special insights into the predator's mind are undone by the ultimately tedious reinforcement of the claim that young girls are appropriate objects of sexual desire, alternately passive and provocateurs, that in some way it is not captive children who are helpless but their abductors who are caught in the grip of forces, (perhaps of nature) larger than themselves.

This review has been enormously difficult to write. I am an admirer of much of Gowdy's work, and appreciate that she brings difficult subjects to light in ways that are often at once probing and witty. And perhaps she accomplishes a similar thing with Helpless, and maybe it is not Gowdy I am responding to as much as her reviewers. Writing about Gowdy for BlogTO, Ryan Oakley discusses the "author's duty ... to reveal the facts so that we can base our opinions upon them." But if an author has this much responsibility, I cannot think that a reader has any less.

In Helpless, nine year old Rachel is narrated as an uncommonly beautiful girl with titanium-coloured hair. Kimberly Thompson, the five year old murder victim I feared was my classmate, had dark hair and an uneven smile showing a missing tooth. This city, like any other, is filled with little girls (and boys) who will wrap their beautiful limbs around father-pretenders as easily as any tree branch. But if we gain satisfaction from imagining their pleasure as they twirl in the sunlight or bend to caress a pet, then we will do well to remember that their desire is theirs alone, and that the greatest danger they encounter may be our own.
[email this story] Posted by Amy Lavender Harris on 03/31 at 09:39 AM

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