A review of Sheila van den Heuvel-Collins’ Past the Dark Field
For every minority, one thing is vital: representation.
No matter how much controversy there is over how a minority is represented, being seen – whether in literary fiction, soap opera, documentary or news sources – is critical. If nobody knows you exist, you basically don’t.
But sometimes, as a pedophile, I have wondered how true that is for us. Growing up, the only real mention I saw of what the media call pedophiles was as criminals – abusers on trial; silhouetted anonymous browsers of illegal material; unmasked celebrities or teachers who exploited their power.
Until I was in my twenties, the most sympathetic pedophile (actually hebephile) character I had encountered was the arch, superior, self-deluding Humbert Humbert from Lolita – and to date he remains the predominant literary stereotype of the pedophile for those sophisticates who don’t simply accept the tabloid sketch of the monster.
From the point of view of writers, the most potent pedophile characters are those that represent the ultimate wickedness, the last taboo, the nature and actions that stretch sympathy as far as they can go and thus test readers’ ability to understand. That generally means that to work in fiction, pedophiles must bring the drama by crossing a moral or legal boundary. They must offend or nothing is really at stake, or has happened for us to be challenged by. This applies as much in stories that sensationally demonise pedophiles as it does in the tradition of pedophile writing that sentimentalises and finesses ‘child-love’.
Past the Dark Field, though, takes a mostly new approach to this topic with wholly different motivations and this comes at a moment in history when this shift of perspective is badly needed by me and people like me. The eleven characters we meet are exclusively those pedophiles/minor attracted people who do not offend and who don’t want to; those who may have faced a line they ought not to cross and who (perhaps after a struggle) held back from crossing it.
At one point in each of their lives, they find they experience a sexual attraction toward children or adolescents. They are unable to just wish it away. The consequences of this knowledge silently accrue as they struggle internally with their feelings.
Their drama is not about whether they are worthy of redemption, but whether they are able to make moral sense of their situation in a society that would tend to judge them even if they do not offend. This book, for me, is the first serious attempt to address the experience of such people with a close focus.
As a kind of anthology, it reminds me structurally of the 1980s survey of Gay London, Queens by Pickles. This flitted between short inconclusive tales about different gay men, snapshotting the diversity of their experience in the era immediately pre-AIDS, from the scene queens to the student ingenu to the bitter old man at the bar, turning over kaleidoscopic pre-war memories.
But because there are no ghettos for MAPs, we remain alone and widely distributed. Accordingly, the backdrop here is profoundly different to Queens: a flat, undifferentiated Carverish suburbia, which but for the odd telling forename could be almost anywhere in North America, Europe or Australia – maybe beyond. No detail is heightened and the normalcy is overwhelming. There are dads and moms, bathrooms and sinks, breakfasts and weddings, malls and churches, quarreling siblings and car rides.
The book is unafraid of minutiae. Sensory but domestic moments abound. Meals, washing up, marital sex and the operation of an ipad are all described in fine moment-to-moment detail as if to suggest that however closely you zoom in on the characters – however fine-grained your perspective – you will never find the telling difference that makes these lives categorically dissimilar to yours, or most people’s.
So it is more powerful when these people of relentlessly prosaic experience arrive at moments that “ought” to be impossible in a normal life: tsomeone searches up legal child images on their device; someone confesses in a letter to attraction to the child they once babysat; a man discloses his attraction to young boys to the therapist who thought she was treating depression.
Heuvel-Collins takes us strongly away from the stereotype of pedophilia. Of the eleven principal character MAPs we meet in the sketches, three are (cis) female, while among the males, just three are middle-aged or older. This choice comes from Heuvel-Collins’ time spent in anti-contact MAP online chatrooms finding out the actual profile of real-life MAPs.
Each of the segments showing MAPs’ experiences in ‘real life’ are interpolated with fictional ‘transcripts’ of an anti-contact MAP chatroom, covering off discussions about sensitive topics like fantasy, loli/shota and ‘pedo-hunters’, whether to avoid children entirely and so on.
We are invited to consider, although it is not confirmed, that these anonymous online chatters might be the same people as those whose real life experiences are described in much richer, almost exhaustive detail in the stories.
While there is a great deal of emotion here, Heuvel-Collins avoids manipulative pathos or judgement. A character we are introduced to as Josh is described to us only in the moment when some unseen (presumably vigilante) assailant attacks him on the street. All we are told about him is what the attack feels like, and that it was expected. Other context is held back. He’s there to remind us of the bad way these stories can end.
There are unsympathetic MAPs here, too, such as the creepy ephebophile figure of Paul, on the verge of marrying a fiancée he has chosen for her resemblance to a teenaged girl. He pushes her into shaving her pubic hair and likes sexual games that place her in the role of a much younger girl. The sex scenes between them are uncomfortable in this framing, described anatomically in the voice of conventional erotica – inviting us to consider how dehumanising Paul’s fantasy is.
But the greater damage that he does is not so much in his sexual behaviour as in the way he conceals the root of his desires and his motivation. His fiancée reacts with disgust to his attraction once she sees it for what it is, but it’s his manipulation and concealment that hurts her more.
Deeper still is the tale, told through the medium of his therapist’s notes, of Xavier, a gay man in a relationship who tries to process his attraction to young boys while also dealing with a case of abuse perpetrated by someone else. He cannot make a leap away from self-blame and despair. We have to leave him, like Josh, in a hopeless place from which he cannot be rescued.
There are constructive or hopeful scenarios, too, such as the forward step taken by Andrea, a mother of two children, who takes time out with her husband to tell him honestly about her attractions, and who is not given immediate cause to regret the honesty.
Most of the tales, though, don’t give us anything that resolves in a strong positive or negative direction. Pedophilia is present, it makes things difficult, but life somehow continues, imperfectly, with a heavy question mark over the future.
This is definitely the case for the youngest MAPs we encounter, starting with Karl, just fourteen, and figuring out even how much to tell his private journal, and for Rayanna, fearfully dialling up internet research to help her understand her own attractions, under the shadow of her father’s behaviour toward her. Both hope for a better future but are too young to be able to see a clear forward path toward it.
Those approaching the ends of their lives know that they missed out the chance to acknowledge their attractions to a world ready to hear them, but take what comfort they can for what they managed to make out of non-offending lives. Hugh talks in a letter to his dead lover about his experiences at church, the attractions still present, while Marie looks back on a nonstandard romance she has cherished and gilded into a nostalgic narrative that carries little residual guilt.
Beyond ephebophilia (attraction to teenagers), hebephilia (pre-adolescents) and pedophilia (children) lies an attraction even more controversial, if possible, than other kinds of minor attraction: nepiophilia, sexual desire for toddlers – although from an anti-contact perspective this is and should be seen as no different in moral status to the others.
It is a refreshing choice that Heuvel-Collins selects this for perhaps the most positively moving episode, a never-to-be-sent letter from Aaron to the sometime toddler that he once babysat, explaining the depth of his feelings, and that these were the reason why the relationship quietly ended.
Boundaries of taste are rightly adhered to in this story, told in the first person, with the effect that the emotional, even nurturing, aspect of Aaron’s love of children is brought to the fore, almost entirely sidelining the sexual aspect. This, though, is done in the service of communicating to non-MAP readers the coherence of this kind of love from a nepiophile perspective, and not in aid of sanitising the nature of the attraction, as has been the case before in fiction with different aims.
Unsurprisingly for fiction on this topic, there is much trauma, disappointment and longing for what cannot be, so there is a need to point toward what hope there is. In the final chapters, we find Ivan connecting up to the chatroom that has appeared throughout, about to draw on the support and wisdom – albeit some of it rather mordant and sardonic – that will help him start to make sense of his attractions, then in an epilogue chapter we advance – almost like a science fiction flashforward – to the next stage of anti-contact MAP evolution – the pedophile activist against abuse.
Here we have Ryan, who seemed to me a fictionally extended portrait of my sometime friend, the community leader, Ender Wiggin, imagined as a family man who has come out to his wife and who meets regularly in his family home with a family friend who is also a MAP – wholly with the knowledge and approval of Ryan’s wife.
Together the three adults have an unprecedented kind of conversation – the idea of a pedophile-led internet campaign against “child sex tourism”. This takes us into new territory: the focus for the MAP character has moved from uneasy introspective turning over of unchosen thoughts and now moves outward, beyond guilt-for-even-existing, and toward a place where good can be done for others.
It’s an optimistic vision, tempered somewhat by the reality that Ender found himself driven away from his public persona by a combination of corporate de-platforming (by Twitter, Discord and Medium) and by fake doxxing. He has not yet returned to front up such a campaign. Still, it is nice to get a vision of hope, and other MAPs – notably Todd Nickerson, Timothy N. Fury, “David”, “Elliot”, Murr, Peace and Virpeds – carry on the work. One day we might aspire to running the kind of campaigns envisaged by Ryan, Liza and Robert in the final stages of this book.
It seems to me that there is a sequel to be written to this book which takes this idea further: envisages the kinds of different situations MAPs might be in in another decade or two, when it becomes more possible for us to talk more openly to our immediate real life acquaintances about our attractions.
Until then, however, Heuvel-Collins has crystallised a transitional moment in MAP history – the time when most MAPs’ moral agonising about their attractions is done in secrecy: anonymously online where possible, occasionally in the therapist’s room, but for the most part just ticking away behind the faces of normal people in very normal places, seldom perceived by the people around them.
Hopefully, this book will be read by those in the normal places of the world who discover they have a MAP in their life, and undoubtedly when it is it will lead to quiet revelations.
“Past the Dark Field” by Sheila van den Heuvel-Collins is available now. Visit http://www.salmacispress.ca/ for more information or to buy the book. Half of the author’s proceeds from the book will be donated to Prostasia Foundation, a child protection organization whose approach to sexual abuse prevention includes helping people with a higher risk of offending to avoid doing so.
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