Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

20 May 2011

The End of Childhood Part 2

I finally finished Lorenzo Carcaterra's memoir Sleepers, and I wanted to make sure I talked about something other than the book's inadequacies as enjoyable reading material.

A brief digression while I do go over how ridiculous this book is, again. For example, Carcaterra ends his saga, which is broken into three separate sections – idyllic childhood, sexual abuse, and revenge – with a page of paragraphs no one of which is composed of more than three sentences. The end of the story proper looked like this:

It was our special night and we held it for as long as we could. It was something that belonged to us. A night that would be added to our long list of memories.
It was our happy ending.
And it was the last time we would ever be together again.

"It was something that belonged to us"? What does that even mean?

After this bit, Carcaterra lists a kind of American-Graffiti-style explanation of what has happened to every character since the "happy ending." Each one of these paragraphs ends with the same awkward formulation. Ralph Ferguson is forty-nine years old. Edward Goldenberg "Little Caesar" Rominson is fifty-one years old.

Moving on. What I really think is interesting about this book is its insistence on the "childhoods" that these boys "lose" after they are sexually abused. I am interested in this not because I think sexual abuse is a good thing – obviously not – but because I think this formulation of sexual abuse as the "end of innocence" seems so, well, cheap.

Aren't children supposed to leave their childhoods behind and grow up? Isn't this the entire premise of, say, an important literary work like Peter Pan or Huckleberry Finn or (dear lord, forgive my reference to this) Pride & Prejudice? It seems to me that this innocence or "childhood" is, in fact, projected backward onto children – this is certainly true of the boys in Sleepers, who, indeed, are violent kids long before they endure the sexual abuse to which they are subjected.

But Carcaterra insists on this fiction. "I saw them as often as I could," he says of his friends once they are grown up, "and when we got together, it was easy for me to forget what they had become [killers for hire] and remember only who they were." And on the next page he describes their adult friend Carol as "ha[ving] a special affection for John," always able to "see the boy he once had been."

Not only does Carcaterra clearly not understand his friend Carol, who is having a sexual relationship with John (It seems dubious to me that she is having sex with the boy he once had been), but he refuses to believe that the lives that the men have chosen for themselves might have anything to do with their own choices. What I really object to here, though, is this phony re-reading of childhood as something blissful or innocent or idyllic, while also reading it as something that ought to be protected from the future. Carcaterra seems obsessed with the notion that childhood needs to be preserved, protected from outsiders to the supposed naivety it contains.

Again, this isn't to say that the act of rape which signals the end of Carcaterra's childhood is not a terrible, painful violation, with its attendant psychic and physical trauma. But why is the worst thing that the sexual violation manages to do is end this euphemistic childhood? Further, it seems to me that in ending the childhood, the rape actually creates the childhood, for, of course, Carcaterra doesn't know he lives in an idyllic, magical universe until it is ended by an act of violence on his own body.

I like it a lot better when narratives that include rape spend time speaking about actual consequences of that violation. Narratives like Carcaterra's seem to make rape a kind of magical act, and, indeed, reinforce both the stigma of rape victimage and the psychic power (wielded by rapists) that threats of rape and acts of rape can hold over others.