Zoe Heller, What Was She Thinking? [Notes on a Scandal] (Henry Holt, 258 pages, $33, 2003)
Heather Ingram, Risking It All: My Student, My Lover, My Story (Greystone, 228 pages, $33, 2003)
Germaine Greer, The Boy (Thames & Hudson, 256 pages, $65, 2003)
Given that men have been desiring boys for about 2,500 recorded years now, I don’t see why anyone would complain about women who feel similar stirrings for youthful males. But hell hath no fury like a society scorned by women who know what they want in bed. If there’s any doubt about social wrath, consider three recent books about women in love …with boys.
“Boy” is one of those fatally delicate words that require us to define our terms. “A boy is a male person who is no longer a child but not yet a man,” says a helpful Germaine Greer at the outset of her coffee-table art book, The Boy (which is titled, for arcane marketing reasons, The Beautiful Boy in its U.S. edition, published by Rizzoli). “A boy is a boy for only a very brief space,” Greer observes. “He has to be old enough to be capable of sexual response but not yet old enough to shave. This window of opportunity is not only narrow, it is mostly illegal,” she adds. That means the age range extends from early teens, 14 or so, to 18 or 19, although there are lots of boys-on-the-verge-of-manhood who can make their salad days last into their mid-20s. In case any readers remain confused by Greer’s peach-fuzz definition of terms, on the facing page to her remarks there’s an equally helpful nude pic by renowned boy photographer Will McBride that provides a langourous full frontal example of the object of desire. The long-haired late-teen boy in the 1978 picture is named Markus and “the focus of interest” of the photo, says art critic Greer, “is not his slightly averted face, or even his elongated torso and arms, but his penis.” The latter is a still-flaccid, but nonetheless considerable 12-15 centimetres of tubular, foreskin-covered flesh and appears to be, as required, “capable of sexual response,” while Markus’ “slightly-averted,” square-jawed, lush-lipped, pensive face seems, also as required, yet to be shaven.
But rather than getting snagged on the fine points, let’s just say that we’re not in Michael Jackson territory when pondering the boys who inspire the jottings of Ms.’s Heller, Ingram and Greer. That it is mandatory these days to engage in these sorts of exculpatory preliminaries when discussing boys is simply a sign of the histrionic level of sex-and-moral-panic that attends the contemplation of sexually attractive mid-to-late adolescent males in Anglo-America. In an era of ever-expanding boundaries of “child sexual abuse” definitions, it’s a good idea to stick to the maxim: never try to explain to a lynch mob or a radio talk show host the subtle distinctions between a pedophile and a pederast. Come to think of it, don’t try to explain the difference to anyone else either, except maybe to a pedophile or a pederast.
Nor is it just legal niceties around which one must tippy-toe in boy discourse. As Greer also remarks, “Though the sexual drive of young males has now been recognized, it is expected to be expressed in masturbation rather than in non-reproductive sex with others, which has been to a large extent criminalized. Age limits for consent to sexual activity may be gradually coming down but at the same time it is more likely than ever before in our history that intimacy between individuals of disparate ages will be stigmatized as perverted.” By the way, on the page facing that remark (since we’ve recently become interested in facing pages), there’s a multi-mirror photo by filmmaker and photographer Larry Clark of a naked teenager whose semi-tumid cock is emerging from its sheath. Art critic Greer coolly observes that “the boy’s excitement at the sight of himself with his pants down may be a deliberate recollection of Narcissus.” Well, I suppose so, assuming that the boy has ever heard of Narcissus.
Alright already, enough fooling around. It is the aforementioned “intimacy between individuals of disparate ages,” as Greer puts it in her faux-Victorian diction, that brings us to Zoe Heller’s novel and Heather Ingram’s memoir. There’s only one relevant bit of legalese to apply to these two inter-generational dramas, namely, that while it is perfectly legal (at least in Canada) for adults to have consenting sex with persons 14-17 years-of-age inclusive, it is a crime for adults in a position of trust or authority vis-à-vis someone 14-17 to have sex with that person.
Sheba Hart, the protagonist of Heller’s Booker Prize-nominated novel, is in exactly such a position of trust and authority vis-à-vis “the Connolly boy.” Whoops. Wait a sec. It just ocurred to me that mentioning that a novel is “Booker Prize-nominated” means absolutely nothing these days, given the nutty, idiosyncratic, pop-tart tastes of the Booker prize-givers. So, as legal critics say, the jury is instructed to disregard mention of the Booker jury’s nominations. Let’s try again. Heller’s novel was more accurately titled Notes on a Scandal when it was first published in England, but as in the case of Greer’s American publisher retitling The Boy by unnecessarily inserting the adjective “beautiful,” Heller’s U.S. publisher, Henry Holt, also felt the need to sex up the package for equally arcane marketing reasons. It doesn’t really work, since the publisher hasn’t bothered to italicize the was in What Was She Thinking? to capture the intended archness of tone.
Although the American title is a clunker, Notes on a Scandal starts off promisingly enough, and author Heller has sufficient archness of tone to satisfy everybody. The novel is presented as a corrective memoir written by Sheba’s older friend and schoolteacher colleague, Barbara Covett, to give “the other side of the story” of the tabloid-sensationalized scandal involving Hart, an art teacher at an English high school, and a stereotypically taciturn but sexy 15-year-old student, Steven Connolly. Unreliable narrator Covett wonders if there had been anything in the first embrace between woman and boy that had surprised Sheba. Yes, the smell of the whole thing had been surprising, Sheba reports to Barbara, who writes: “She hadn’t anticipated his personal odour, and if she had, she would probably have guessed at something teenagey: bubble gum, cola, feet. When the moment arrived, what I actually inhaled was soap, tumble-dried laundry. He smelled of scrupulous self-maintenance. You know the washing machine vapour that envelops you sometimes, walking past the basement vents of buildings? Like that. So clean, Barbara.”
I’m not sure why I found that early passage heartening. I think because of Heller’s invocation of the underrated olfactory sense. It made me think that a) the author knew what she was talking about when it comes to sex with teens, and b) since the gritty details are about as interesting as anything is likely to be in such an affair, the initial gritty bits seemed to promise lots more to come. And—confession time—because of the memory of an incident many years/centuries ago, when I was a teenager myself. I was nosing around in the nether regions of a teenage bedmate, with whom, I hasten to add, I was not in a position of trust or authority. “What does it smell like?” he asked, with boyish innocence. “Like bubblegum,” I dutifully reported to him.
Well, the scent of the Connolly boy turns out to be a false clue. It’s true that Heller’s novel is predicated on the affair between a 40ish, slightly ditzy woman teacher, married and the mother of children, and her working-class teen charge, but that’s not at all what the book is about. It’s also true that Notes on a Scandal provides a corruscating portrait of the horrors of urban working-class secondary schools in contemporary England. But titillating premise and grim sociological observations apart, what Heller’s novel is all about is her very unreliable, in the end positively whacko narrator. Barbara Covett—naming pun fully intended—is an elderly, lonely, desiccated, repressed lesbian villain intent on snaring Sheba Hart in her spider’s web. Since poor, otherwise friendless Sheba has been turned out of home, job, and society, who else to turn to other than Barbara, whom one can almost hear murmuring in Golem-like hisses, “Precious, my precious.” Barbara’s lesbianism is so repressed that she’s aware that some on the school staff maliciously regard her as a repressed Sapphic without for a moment being aware that it might be true.
What the reader is supposed to admire here is Heller’s literary creation of the malevolent, mad voice of narrator Babs, as she unwittingly reveals her pivotal role in Sheba’s downfall, and the further revelation that the real kinkiness of the story is not the illicit teacher-student tryst but the elderly storyteller’s desperate and destructive search for affection. I suppose the literary feat is admirable enough if you like novels as entertainment. But since the perspective through which we’re shown these scenes from a scandal is so intentionally distorted by Barbara’s obsessions, it means that there isn’t an interesting or redeemable character in the whole book, including poor Sheba. Since I don’t much like novels as entertainment, I hung around to learn something about relationships between women and boys. Unfortunately, Heller doesn’t have, or isn’t planning to impart, much information beyond the initial gushes of enthusiasm for the Connolly boy.
There’s a lot more to be learned from former British Columbia teacher Heather Ingram’s all-too-true memoir than there is from Heller’s acidic fiction. Apart from a superficial resemblance of subject matter, about the only connection between the two books is the coincidental similarity between the designs of their book jackets. Heller’s cover features a pristine Granny Smith apple, topped by a cherry whose stem looks like an unlit fuse. Ingram’s cover is also illustrated by an apple. Apples from the tree of knowledge, apples for the teacher—clearly, the book designers are shopping at the same iconography supermarket. Ingram’s apple is a red MacIntosh and has a big bite taken out of its side.
Ingram was the main figure in a local scandal on B.C.’s rural Sunshine Coast some 3 or 4 years ago. The then 30-year-old math and accounting teacher was charged with and pleaded guilty to one count of sexually exploiting a young person. The young person, called Troy in Ingram’s Risking It All, was a then 17-year-old student at the high school in Sechelt where Ingram taught. The Vancouver tabloid press, predictably, foamed and drooled over the incident in obscene-sized headlines for the full 72-hour wonder. Ingram was sentenced to 10 months of house arrest, lost her job and teacher’s certificate, but got the boy, at least for a while. By the time the pot smoke cleared, Ingram was no longer his teacher, the boy was no longer a minor, and the rest of their rather rocky relationship was, if nothing else, legal.
Risking It All is hardly a work of literature, but it’s at least plausible, and even poignant. Unlike Heller’s misanthropic collection of characters, the people Ingram writes about, including herself, enlist our sympathies. At each step in the doomed drama, even the really stupid steps, the reader is able to say, Yeah, I can see how that might have happened. For instance, one can see how, out of the ruin of Ingram’s family—rigid father, mentally ill and institutionalized mother—Heather might aspire to be daddy’s perfect little girl, shepherding younger siblings and substituting for absent mom. One can also see how bright but sheltered Heather, now a math student at Simon Fraser University, might fall in with Mark, a future B.C. Hydro engineer. And, finally, one can see how—with Heather and Mark settled/trapped in the small town of Gibson’s, and with dour and demanding Mark frequently out of town on distant engineering jobs—Heather might hanker for a taste of freedom. Ingram is good at conveying the claustrophobia of life in rural towns, with its mix of rough-edged, trailer-park-raised, working-class kids; aspiring lower-middle-class young professionals ensconced in perpetually-under-construction houses; and a fringe of leftover dope-growing ex-hippies. She’s also persuasive about the claustrophobia of hemmed-in relationships where, after a decade, roles have become ruts, and sex is about as exciting as a wet firecracker.
Along comes Troy, turning up in Heather’s Accounting 11 class. “He is wearing a black V-necked jersey and loose-fitting black pants, belted low on his hips. His sandy brown hair looks as if it will go instantly blond in the summer. With his good looks and long, slim body, he could be a Calvin Klein model. But he sits with the underachievers… I am attracted to him in a detached way, as if I am watching James Dean in a movie. I remember my sponsor teacher during my teaching practicum telling me that he doesn’t fall in love with students much anymore. I was shocked at the time, but at this moment I can understand how easy it would be.” When Troy responds to her teacherly comments with something sexually edgy, Heather pays more attention. “By his casual posture, his chair pushed far away from his desk, and his black clothes, I guess that Troy is a tough guy, admired by other students for his audacity and attitude… I look at him directly, taking in his long eyelashes, the black jacket casually thrown on the desk in front of him, the cigarette-pack bulge in his shirt pocket. He is stunningly beautiful in an almost feminine way, but there is also vulnerability combined with cocky self-confidence. He looks at me with an air of conspiratorial good humour. He seems to be saying, ‘You and I both know that this teacher-student thing is all a big game.’” Aw-oh, Ms. Ingram is on the verge of feasting with vulnerable-looking panthers.
Once she “crosses the line,” as she puts it, Ingram doesn’t tell us much about sex with Troy. Perhaps because she’s writing a non-fiction narrative, or because of the middlebrow readership her publishers are aiming at, a kind of bourgeois discretion kicks in at this point, and that’s a problem. One learns more about the details of adolescent-adult intimacy from novels like Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader or Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, Gus van Sant’s film To Die For, even Nabokov’s Lolita, a fact that may provide a clue about what fiction is better at than true stories. What we get instead of gritty details in Risking It All is one dumb, doomed step after another, along with the inevitable running pop-psychology commentary.
Heather fesses up about her teen lover to her live-in partner Mark, and unsurprisingly—what could be a more direct assault on his stodgy notion of manhood than wifey taking up with a randy colt?—he wants out. Then, as Heather is heading for independent digs and Troy is off on a summer fishing job, Heather gets lonely and has a one-night fling with Troy’s best friend, another highschool teen. You begin to cringe in anticipation of the next load of bricks about to fall on our heroine. And, yes, in what is perhaps her truly dumbest move, upon Troy’s return from the briny deep, she tells him that she bedded his pal. This leads to its own string of calamities—Troy pounding out the pal, Troy seducing an under-14 hitchhiker, Troy getting suspended from school, etc. Meanwhile, back at the scene of the crime, the school is thick with rumours of the miscreant couple’s affair—Heather’s hanging out with Troy’s peer group and mastering the rudiments of dope-smoking doesn’t contribute to either discretion or kool.
Finally, Heather confides all to a Barbara Covett-like colleague. The tight-assed colleague—Heather’s judgment about how to pick friends is dismally consistent—feels morally required to inform the school principal, the principal… etc., and the jig’s up. What follows is a slow-motion disaster of lawyers, cops, courtrooms, and the cannibal media. That’s where our public memories kick in. I remember a passing news clip—small town parking lot outside the courtroom, blurry shot of young woman with younger man at her side, news anchor’s remark that boy’s mother approves of the affair, fade to the next car crash. In real life, strangely enough, there was also a brief idyll. Troy quit school, turned 18, found a working-class job, moved in for a while with house-arrested Heather and the course of true love proved to be as bumpy and shortlived as expected. At last sighting, Troy was shacked-up with a 15-year-old playmate, making life on the Sunshine Coast sound like something from the backwoods of inbred Appalachia. Three years after the nightmare of lust and law, Heather is a love-survivor, has an office job, and is writing this book.
The book is readable, despite its irritating use of the historical present tense (e.g., “I do not think about leaving Mark”), too many appeals to God for guidance (I seem to recall two such theological invocations, which is one too many), and the requisite psychologizing mea culpas, designed to demonstrate that Heather is a responsible adult who is at least half-sorry for what she did. No, what’s impressive here is being, even indirectly, in the presence of Eros. While one might wish that Heather had a better sense of decorum, her headlong plunge is believable. Personally, in terms of the narrative, I’d prefer a slightly more complete report on what it’s like sleeping with a deity, and a little less about the seeming psychological vulnerability of the studly being whose body the god is temporarily inhabiting.
If Ingram’s awkward tale held my attention, I have to confess that my interest in Germaine Greer’s glossy art book rather quickly—pun intended—petered out, in favour of watching the reception of her quixotic text. Nothing against Greer’s writing; she’s certainly as interesting and engaging an art critic as many others, and some reviewers have praised her “energetic, honest way of seeing… evident on every page.” More typical, though, are reviews like Peter Conrad’s snortings in the pages of The Observer: “Greer can always be relied on to shout down the received wisdom… Why, she demands, has our society criminalised ‘intimacy between individuals of disparate ages’? If nature didn’t intend boys to be seduced by older men and women, why did it make them so damnably fetching, so downy-cheeked, rangy-limbed and pert-buttocked? And what harm, she asks, can be done by romps that are ‘irresponsible, spontaneous and principally self-pleasuring’? …I expect that the guardians of public probity have already taken up her cheeky challenge to fisticuffs,” sniffs Conrad. His final, anatomically baffling, verdict: “The female eunuch now sings the praises of undescended testicles.” By that point, reviewer Conrad has become so fevered with phrase-making as to abandon sense. All the relevant testicles on view in Greer’s artsy collection are, as far as I can tell, adequately descended, and her iconoclasm is rather less challenging than her critics make it out to be.
Even admirers of the famously eccentric feminist concede that “saying boys are beautiful hardly amounts to ‘demolishing one of the last great western taboos,’ as the jacket copy excitedly has it.” However, like the fictional and real boy-lovers in Heller’s and Ingram’s books, Greer too is chastised for declaring her desire. The treatment of Greer is more ginger—she’s treated as endearingly dotty rather than dangerously criminal—but the social disapprobation is similar. Still, there’s something winning about Greer’s cheek. According to one bit of press apocrypha, when asked, Why boys? Why teenage boys?, Greer had the wit to reply, “Buckets of sperm.” Her book, however, is less winning. It’s the sort of erotic art book that semi-closeted homosexuals might purchase twenty years ago, and casually display on their coffee tables without fear of offending straight friends. If one—whether male or female—wants to look at beautiful boys these days, it’s far easier to click on your computer to Kazaa.com and download the latest boy-next-door porn, which also has the virtue of being graphic about the gritty details.
In a sense, the above books would be hardly worth mentioning were it not for the existence of one authentic, delicious, minor literary masterpiece that treats the subject of women who fall in love with boys. I’m referring, of course, to Colette’s Cheri (1920), which I couldn’t resist re-reading while thinking about Greer et al., just to remind myself what an artist can do with the desire for boyish beauty.
Cheri begins (and ends) in the bedroom of 49-year-old Lea de Lonval, “nearing the end of a successful career as a richly kept courtesan,” with her eponymous young lover Cheri demanding to put on her pearl necklace which, he points out, “looks every bit as well on me as on you—even better!” Naturally, one must accede to the pitiless beauty in the eye of the beholder. “He was standing in front of a full-length mirror framed in the space between two windows, gazing at the reflection of a very youthful, very good-looking young man, neither too short nor too tall, hair with the blue sheen of blackbird’s plumage. He unbuttoned his pajamas, displaying a hard, tanned chest, curved like a shield; and the whites of his dark eyes, his teeth, and the pearls of the necklace gleamed in the over-all rosy glow of the room,” goes the clunky mid-century translation. More important than Cheri’s self-regard, Lea is gazing at that reflection, and so are we.
What’s interesting about Colette’s pre-World War I world is that it’s one in which the recognition of the beauty of Cheri and the desire for him, on the part of the women of a well-heeled sub-set of the broader demi-monde, are treated as thoroughly natural, even while that beauty and desire retain the ability to continually astonish if not to shock. Of course, Colette’s Cheri has the advantage of being a direct descendent of Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Liaisons dangereuses (1782), which is to say, it is afforded a cultural context that is missing in the constricted puritanical settings inhabited by the characters in Heller’s and Ingram’s books. Yet, Colette too, recounts a doomed love. Lea had snagged Cheri when he was 19 and now, six years later, it’s time for his mother—one of Lea’s best friends/enemies—to marry him off to the adult world, a fate he’s prepared to embrace with insouciance. The painful and permanent separation, for Cheri as much as for Lea, provides the subject matter for Colette’s homage to desire. What’s memorable is not so much Lea’s pain, which is inevitable and therefore belongs to time, but Cheri’s, which is unexpected, and belongs to love. Even though we adult readers identify with Lea’s loss, it is the surprise of Cheri’s fatal wounding by Eros that is the point of Colette’s arrow-tipped novel. That the arrows’ target is beauty itself is Colette’s triumphant artistic vengeance on desire.
After one’s imagination is temporarily exhausted by the images on offer, reason returns for a few brief conclusions. Can we make any sense of desiring boys? If so, the axiom we’re operating under is: the meaning of the desire for boys is always relative to the historical/social context in which it occurs, despite desire seeming timeless. So, the Greeks not only had a word for it, more importantly, they had a place for it. As Plato explains in The Symposium, and Michel Foucault re-explains in The Use of Pleasure, for Greek men, boys were not only obviously desirable, they were also future citizens. Hence, the elaborate codes of behaviour that governed the relationships between men and boys, relations that tempered animal pleasure with civilized tutelage for citizenship. By the way, the notion of “Platonic friendship” as an asexual romantic relation is thoroughly misleading. It comes from Alcibiades’ drunken account, in The Symposium, of crawling into bed with the adult Socrates and being rejected, despite being the most beautiful boy in Athens, because wise Socrates thought Alcibiades wanted sex for the wrong reasons. In my reading of Plato’s text, it’s always seemed obvious to me that Alcibiades is talking about the first time they were in bed together, and that on subsequent occasions, which there surely were, they no doubt had sex. The story is conventionally read as Socrates’ self-restraint providing a non-sexual model of tutelary relationships, but it should be more properly read as Socrates’ insistence on appropriate motivations for sex.
Certainly, contemporary relations between men and young men in many western societies seem anti-social, in the sense of running counter to the approved institutions by which societies are bound together today. There is always a tinge of outlawry associated with such relations, which derives from the disapproval of homosexuality itself, compounded by the generational difference in age. In other western societies that are less censorious, both about intimate relations of all sorts and about age differences between partners, such relations are viewed with a shrug that favours privacy, and regarded, when brought to public attention, as amusant. Still, even today, man-young man relations, a minority preference among male homosexuals, retain a pale semblance of the original filial/political ties. The boys, often enough, are drifting in a disordered, drug-dazed, fatherless demimonde; the men, if the boys are lucky, are frequently the first reliable adult the boy has encountered.
Second, when it comes to desiring boys, gender poses all sorts of crosscutting confusions. In a residually sexist society, men who have relations with girls, especially girls who become “trophy wives,” can get away with it. (By residually sexist society, I mean one where there may be legal equality between men and women, and even significant “progress” against inequality, but where fundamental institutional structures and traditions that advantage men remain in place.) Such a man may be despised by women agemates, but his fellows tend to admire his apparent virility. The old political quip, however, still applies: if you’re a man running for office, never get caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy.
While girls seduced by men are seen as victims, boys who have sex with women are viewed by their male friends, and themselves, as having achieved the ultimate conquest. Conversely, boys seduced by men are encouraged by psychologists to see themselves as future claimants in child sexual abuse cases who need to boost their self-esteem. In a residually sexist society, where power generally accrues to men, much of women’s sexuality is rendered invisible and, in any case, bedding boys is not seen as a serious threat to the arrangements of power, though any act of sexual independence by women is generally frowned upon. Of course, people in positions of authority or trust who sleep with boys are condemned regardless of gender. It seems obvious that this should be so, yet in the case of Heather Ingram, one wants to urge her to be more socially discreet rather than to charge her with grievous moral failings. The affair wasn’t going to last, the sex was probably good for both of them, and no one, until the authorities stepped in to quash it, was really hurt. An amusant shrug seems more appropriate than the heavy hand of the law.
Finally, boys, by definition, become someone else, namely, men. The continuity between the two, like the identity of fictional characters, often seems purely coincidental. Yeats’ sentiment, which roughly goes, Man is in love, And loves what vanishes, What more is there to say?, remains the last word.
Vancouver, Dec. 12, 2003