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Kids as Sex Objects

Barbara Gowdy on little girls, parents and offenders. A Tyee interview.

By Meghan Nesmith 19 Oct 2007 |

Meghan Nesmith is a Vancouver-based writer.

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'Helpless' gets nods for Governor General and Giller Awards.
  • Helpless
  • Barbara Gowdy
  • Harper Collins (2007)

Barbara Gowdy is something of a paradox. She is by turns an animal rights activist who lovingly plucks the slugs from her rosebushes and deposits them safely out in the wild green yonder, and an author whose vast literary catalogue -- encompassing six novels and one collection of short stories -- contains, by contrast, some of the most fearless and subversive Canadian writing to date. She is an author firmly relegated to the fringes of literary fiction due to her subject matter, but also a mainstay of Canada's literary establishment.

Gowdy is one of Canada's most celebrated writers. A member of the Order of Canada, her work has been nominated for the Governor General's Award several times and for the Giller Prize (Helpless has been given the nod for both this year).

Helpless tells the story of the uncommonly beautiful nine-year-old Rachel who is abducted during a Toronto blackout by Ron, an innocuous vacuum repairman driven to extremes by a desire he is unable to smother.

Helpless is not your typical ripped-from- the-headlines tale of the perversity behind the mind of a potential pedophile. Gowdy's innate ability to delve deeply inside her untouchable characters transforms the book into a delicate steamroller of a story about the terror of a mother, the imagination of a young girl and the struggle of a man painfully aware of the difference between good and evil.

No stranger to the storms of literary controversy, Gowdy's previous work has also touched on tricky subjects -- ranging from necrophilia to transsexuality. Lambasted by many critics, her tenderness towards her protagonist and unfailing defence of his actions are seen by some as an endorsement of pedophilia. In Gowdy's world, however, there is no black and white, and it is the shades of grey that provide the most interest. "I'm not interested in monsters," she says, preferring instead to use her writing to bridge the ever-widening gap between the permissible and the dangerous.

Gowdy spoke to The Tyee about what little girls are doing behind closed doors, the secret life of Lewis Carroll and her plot to bring an end to all war. What follows are excerpts from our conversation.

On blaming young girls and pedophiles

"I see that this is a time when young girls are harrowingly sexualized. But what's, I guess, interesting and disturbing at the same time is that this is coming up against the phenomenon that never before have men been so vilified for having any sexual interest in young girls.

"I think that there are men who have a hard time distinguishing right from wrong anyway, and they can fall on the side of wrong when they are led to believe that little girls understand what they are doing. And that doesn't go on in Helpless. Ron doesn't even think of [Rachel] as being sexualized or highly sexual, he just loves her. The kind of love that, for instance, Lewis Carroll had for little girls, and as far as we know he never acted on his 'unholy thoughts' or 'unholy feelings,' as he referred to them in his diaries. He overcame them.

"And Ron is such a man, and this has made a lot of women mad, but I do say that in one sense he could be considered heroic because we all know how strong desire is."

On blaming computers

"I think that we're just muddling men. The access that men now have to pornographic images on the computer is just dangerous. In my day, and I'm 57, when I was a little girl, men really (unless they had very good connections and knew where to get these magazines abroad) could only find somewhat salacious images of little girls in the Eaton's catalogue.

"I really think that because of the sexualization of little girls today and the fact that it's being hammered into the heads of men that skinny and small is desirable, I would think that only a small percentage of men haven't had feelings for young girls. I think that if you were in a room where there were 200 men and you asked honestly every man who has ever had a fleeting sexual thought for a young girl to put their hand up, I think there would be a lot of hands coming up.

"We can't legislate desire and feeling but we should and we do legislate actions, and if a man surrenders to his feelings of lust for a young girl, I say throw the book at him. You have to protect children over adults."

On blaming parents

"I don't get why parents let their little girls out of the house dressed like they do. I don't get it. I think it's the responsibility of every single individual parent. I don't blame the media for anything. The media couldn't exist if people weren't turning on the channels and watching the films and buying the DVDs. The media just goes wherever the appetite is, that's what it does.

"It's just bad parenting to turn your little girl into a sex object and think it's cute. In my generation, the hippie parents, they've all caved to their kids. They want to be their friends. It was very cool to be your kid's friend, not a militant or authoritarian figure. So lots of children have big old balding friends but they don't have parents.

"Children are very good imposters, so a little girl can seem very sexual in her dance moves, and men who want to believe that she's interested in sex anyway will read that literally. I doubt there are many orgasms going around [with young girls]. I think when they're all giving boys blowjobs, that's just what they think they have to do. And then they seem cool. It was like in my days, smoking a cigarette. Now it's the same thing, it's just a fatter and stinkier cigarette. It's just as nauseating, no doubt, but you're cool if you do it."

On the failure of imagination

"When I was at my sister's the other day, my nieces were screaming -- there was a little spider up in the ceiling of my mother's condo -- "Kill it!" they were saying, "Kill it, Daddy!" And I got so angry. What are you going to kill it for? What, is it going to leap at your throat? It's just up there, hiding, it doesn't want to be noticed, it just wants to live and eat and be safe."

"So I captured it and got it outside, but I thought -- this is at the root of all bad behaviour, I think: a failure of imagination. Failures of imagination cause failures of compassion. And if you really look hard at what bothers you, and frightens you -- if it's not causing damage to yourself or to people you love, if it's not taking away food from you or harming your body or your peace of mind -- then it's none of your business. Live and let live. There are too many real evils in this world for us to invent them. There are men raping babies in the Congo. That's evil. That's a problem."

On why she writes about 'monsters'

"[Controversial subject matter] certainly wasn't examined in the very conservative '50s. It opened up in the '60s, with writers like William S. Burroughs, but Canada lagged behind. It was considered tasteful only to write about people struggling on the Prairies or something: that was fiction. But to write about people living at the margins -- it wasn't part of the Canadian oeuvre, small as it was. And there wasn't much oeuvre. So I don't know, I think that there will probably be some sort of backlash. I am prepared to be burned as a witch at the stake.

"I think if a man had written a book like this, he would have turned Ron into a monster. He would have gotten blown up in the end. Male reviewers, especially in this country, were disappointed that Ron wasn't a monster. Women have expressed gratitude to me that I painted Ron in shades of grey.

"I think that there were some men who wanted the pornographic aspect. They didn't want a man to write it, but if a literary female author -- a Canadian at that -- writes about a man having sex with a little girl, well, they get to read it. And I wasn't going to do that. It's not interesting to me. What's interesting to me is the thwarting of the desire. The acting out of the desire is not interesting. And, as I say, I'm not interested in monsters. I've never written about monsters. Monsters are one-dimensional; they don't have a moral dilemma, so who cares? They're broken machines. Whereas someone like Ron, he's not a monster yet -- he has a big, Shakespearean dilemma as far as he's concerned -- to act, or not act. To surrender to his lust, or not to surrender."

On putting estrogen in the water supply

"I actually think that men need to go to war. There's always going to be some bad guy, some bad country. If you've got the military and the guns, you've got to turn them somewhere. If the United States had had no military, or had a military our size and our military capacity, they wouldn't have gone to war against anyone. But once they built up their military and they have all these troops and all these weapons, they want to try them out. I think it's as strong as a sexual drive in men.

"Until we breed men out of the planet, and there's only a few studs left in a barn somewhere, representing each race, then maybe their testosterone level will get so low ... I can't see women building a military complex and wanting to go shoot each other's heads off. I was thinking if we put estrogen in the water in Iraq -- for both sides, cause both sides are villainous -- I could just see the men in tanks about to blow up the insurgent village, and then one guy says (the estrogens kicking in), 'You know, I was there last week and I met this guy in a hamlet, and he's got a really sweet wife and she's pregnant, and she's having a really hard time...' and they'd start gossiping about people in the town, and then they'd say, 'Well, let's go adopt a puppy!'

"The reason women have a hard time doing any of this is because we do, quite naturally, because of the estrogen in our bodies, think about babies and want to gossip and think about the pain people go through and want to give people hugs. If I were in charge of the world, I would estrogenize the water. Secretly. And just see what happened. Men would be hugging, cleaning their tanks but not shooting them. Wars would just kind of peter out. It wouldn't be worth it. It's not worth killing one baby in a war. It's not worth it. Whatever your ideology is, it's not worth the death of a single baby.

On how the world is

"Things become worse and worse and worse until they can't become worse. And then they change."

Barbara Gowdy will be appearing at this year's Vancouver International Readers and Writers' Festival on Friday October 19th at 8p.m. at "The Literary Cabaret" with Jacqueline Baker, Barry Callaghan, Sal Ferreras, William Gibson, Elizabeth Hay and Benjamin Zephaniah; and on Saturday October 20th at 8pm "An Intimate Evening with Barbara Gowdy."