A REVIEW OF UNSPEAKABLE: A LIFE BEYOND SEXUAL MORALITY BY RACHEL HOPE CLEVES
Unspeakable: A Life Beyond Sexual Morality, a biography of the British writer Norman Douglas (1868-1952) was published by the University of Chicago Press in November 2020.
Historical truth vies with contemporary moralism
This is a fascinating, important and well-researched book. In particular, the author has had access to the travel diaries of 'Pino' Orioli held at the New York Public Library, which recount Douglas' sexual encounters with boys during his and Orioli's walking tours of Italy. Besides his many casual encounters with street boys and boy prostitutes, Douglas also had a series of deeper attachments. One of the most important of his love affairs was with a poor London kid, thirteen-year-old Eric Wolton. Later, he was to have a love affair with a fourteen-year-old French lad, René Mari. But he certainly liked younger boys as well, and his last great love was with an Italian lad, Ettore, who was nine when he and Douglas first met. All these affairs included sex, right from the very start. The evidence that Cleves has assembled makes it abundantly clear that Douglas' boys, on the whole, regarded their relationships with him as having been a positive experience. Far from thinking in terms of 'trauma' as they grew up and came of age, they would look back with wistful nostalgia at the times they spent with Douglas.
This is simply a fact, but the author is very well aware that telling the truth can be a rather risky business in today's cultural climate. As she says at the beginning of the volume, “Writing or saying anything that might be taken as expressing sympathy for a pedophile is a surefire way to incinerate a career.” (p. 2) Throughout the book, the author uses the voices of the children themselves to challenge modern assumptions about child sexuality – but will then herself fall into the contemporary discourse of moral disapproval. So, despite her admirable rule, explained in the Introduction, that she will use the neutral term 'sexual encounter' to describe Douglas' sexual liaisons with boys, she doesn't always stick to this rule. This gives the book a strangely schizophrenic quality. It is as though she imagines her reader as someone who is turning the pages with constant and increasing horror, disgust and outrage, and wants to assure them that she shares their disgust.
Thus on page 5 of the book, she describes the study of the history of adult-child sex as 'distasteful'. She has a right to her view, of course, but I don't find it in the least distasteful. I find it fascinating. After describing Eric Wolton's positive evaluation of his own childhood sexual relationship with Douglas, the author writes “Wolton's story provides uncomfortable evidence that there were boys in the early twentieth century who simply did not view sex with adult men as traumatic, even after they had come of age.” (p. 12) But why “uncomfortable”? At the end of the Introduction the author rather presumptuously asserts that “we” regard behaviour like Douglas' as “a transhistorical moral wrong” (p. 14). The fact that Douglas sought sex with children and youths as an adult is said by the author to cast his earlier romances in a “dark” light. (p. 34) The letters of the Russian teenage girl Anyuta Ponomareva to Douglas, which Mark Holloway thought “charming and affecting” in his biography, are characterised as “disturbing” by Cleves. (p. 45) The strange thing is that after expressing this value judgement, Cleves immediately goes on to undermine it: “[H]istorians should be cautious about imposing their own attitudes on their historical subjects. It's possible that Ponomareva's expressions of affection were sincere as well as utilitarian, and that a girl raised in a culture where contractual relations, like the one she had with Douglas, were typical might have positive feelings for her partner, especially when those relations were sanctioned by her family.” (ibid.) The fact that sex between young people and adults fitted into a cultural norm during Douglas' youth is described by Cleves as an “unpleasant truth”. (p. 86) And yet, as the author herself says, “The Douglas archive is extraordinary because it includes the voices of children who described their encounters with Douglas in terms that challenge protectionist discourse and force a reckoning with the history of children's agentic sexuality.” (p. 87) Later, she writes that: “Judging by what they wrote, many of the children who had sexual encounters with Douglas adored him. They adored him because he was old and a mentor and maybe because they enjoyed the sex. They adored him when they were children, and they continued to adore him after they had grown up, when their relationships had transformed into friendship or kinship.” (pp. 103-4)
This peculiar schizophrenia – on the one hand characterising Douglas' activities as disgusting or disturbing, and then immediately suggesting that perhaps we should after all listen to the children who thought otherwise, runs throughout this entire volume. Expatiating on the subject of Douglas' affair with Amitrano, Cleves writes that “It's easy to be sceptical about Douglas's claim to have fallen in love with Amitrano and the boys who followed. Contemporary sexual morality views love as incompatible with child sex abuse.” (p. 100) But again, why “abuse”? Cleves herself notes that “Amitrano, like many of the boys with whom Douglas grew close, remained a friend for long afterward” (ibid.), a fact that would seem inconsistent with the author's language of moral disapproval.
Eric Wolton certainly believed that “Norman Douglas was the best thing that ever happened to him.” (p. 104) Talking about his trips with Eric in Italy, Douglas said they had more fun than seems possible for the present generation. Cleves then writes: “One would expect Wolton to remember the trips differently, as passages of extended abuse.” (p. 115) Again, the author assumes that we all agree with contemporary sexual hysteria. But, as it happens, “Wolton shared Douglas's perspective. Writing from his hospital bed in Dar es Salaam in 1922, while he was recovering from typhoid, Wolton waxed nostalgic about the good times he and Douglas had once shared. 'Doug, I have wanted Italy and you as bad as anything last week. All the old times flash back in my memory.' … 'How I should love St Agata now, the walks and all the happy times,' Wolton reminisced. When Wolton wrote 'all the happy times,' he meant the sex as well as the sightseeing. He knew that his childhood sexual relationship with Douglas was considered immoral, but he refused to condemn their relationship. 'They were happy times too Doug wer'nt they, I have no evil thoughts about them although I am different today than I was then,' he wrote, several weeks later.” (ibid.) He was “different” in that he was now pursuing sexual relations with the opposite sex. Cleves doesn't quote the whole letter, but it continued, “You were my tin god and even now you are. I do really love you as a great friend and even now I know that if I live to be a million never shall I harbour the same feeling that I have for you... I am afraid that I have expressed myself very badly but I want you to understand Doug that you are more to me than ever you were. The difference is now that I am old enough to realise it.” (From 'Norman Douglas Selected Correspondence vol. 2', ed. by Arthur S. Wensinger and Michael Allen, Neugebauer, 2008) As Cleves explains in her volume, “Wolton's positive adult memories of his childhood sexual relationship with Douglas were not that unusual. Sociologist Bruce Rind has argued from his review of the social science literature that many adult men have positive recollections of unforced boyhood sexual experiences with adults. For example, a 1988 study of Dutch male subjects found 69 percent positive memories for 'willing participants'.” (p. 115) Cleves concludes that “Wolton swore to the end that Douglas had been the most important relationship of his life. One must at least consider taking him at his word.” (p. 116)
When, at the end of the first Part, Cleves comes to write about Douglas' divorce from his wife Elsa, she seems almost relieved to uncover evidence of what she regards as villainy on his part. She thinks he was callous in his determination to gain custody of their sons and to separate them from their mother. But Cleves also has another charge to bring against Douglas. According to Elsa, Douglas treated Archie “in an immoral way”, and Cleves quotes a passage that could be interpreted as an admission by Douglas that Elsa had been right. From this, Cleves concludes that he probably “did molest Archie, as Elsa alleged.” (p. 71) The author here translates Elsa's accusation of “immoral” behaviour to the equally pejorative “molest”, but a more neutral characterisation would be to say that Douglas had maybe been physically intimate with his son in a way of which Elsa disapproved. But so what if he had? Provided he did not cause his son any pain or distress (and there is no evidence that he did), why should this be a ground for condemnation? Anyone who has researched the matter will know that contemporary norms about acceptable behaviour between parents and children are as historically contingent and mutable as any other social norms, and there is no reason whatever to suppose that Douglas' behaviour was a source of later trauma for his son. As Cleves herself concedes, both of Douglas' sons “venerated their father, for what it's worth. Archie never mentioned any memory of sexual abuse by his father. As an old man, he refused to condemn his father's proclivities.” (p. 73)
As for the divorce, I am inclined to agree with Constantine FitzGibbon that Douglas and Elsa “were two strong characters, and when the marriage soured they nearly smashed each other to pieces.” (p. 69) His behaviour towards Elsa at the time of the breakdown of his marriage seems to indicate that he was consumed with hatred; and this certainly shows him in an unattractive light – as he himself must have realised subsequently, given that at the end of his life he destroyed all evidence of his relationship to Elsa from among his own papers. Overall, though, Cleves' evidence is hardly sufficient to show Douglas to have been a monster.
Cleves claims that she too rejects the notion that Douglas was a “monster”. She sees his sexual behaviour as very much a product of his time. In a society where males of a certain social class were generally privileged over other groups, the sexual 'exploitation' of children was not necessarily seen as very different from other forms of exploitation. Douglas was what we might now call a 'sex tourist', but, as Cleves says, “In a context where children performed all sorts of dangerous and backbreaking labour, sex work did not stand out as unreasonable.” (p. 208) We learn that “poor boys competed over access to Douglas and Orioli [Douglas' travelling companion].” (p. 209) This competition could get pretty fierce: “When Salvatore [one of the poor boys whom Douglas and Orioli had picked up] accompanied the men on a hike from Nerano to Termini, a couple of scugnizzi, or street boys, began to follow them down the path. Salvatore stoned the smaller boy, who turned back, but the men had to promise the older boy that they would come back another time before he agreed to stop following.” (ibid.) There is no evidence that, in this very different culture, these boys subsequently suffered any sense of trauma. Anyone who has seen Aurelio Grimadli's 1992 film “La discesa di Aclà a Floristella”, which is set at about the same time as Douglas' travels, will be aware that children of poor families had to do far worse than sex work. I suppose modern sex puritans would prefer the kids to have worked in sulphur mines, or to starve, rather than compromise their 'innocence'.
The author of this work, however, continues to assume that her readers will look on Douglas as a monster. So a tale of Douglas' sexual encounter with a thirteen-year-old named 'Bebé' is described as “disturbing” (p. 210). However, we are told that “Bebé didn't raise any objections. The following day he brought his little brother Manizza to meet the men.” (ibid.) When, years later, Douglas and Orioli would meet some of the boys with whom they had earlier enjoyed sexual encounters, “the men and the boys treated each other as old friends. … The fact that the boys, now grown into men, welcomed return visits from Orioli and Douglas suggests that they did not view their earlier sexual encounters as monstrous.” (pp. 210-211) Nevertheless, when recounting a series of occasions when a boy was coaxed or bribed by Douglas or Orioli into a sexual encounter, the author writes “What degree of coercion Orioli or Douglas exercised in these sexual encounters is impossible to know.” (p. 212) But what reason is there for thinking that any coercion was involved at all? Later, she writes, “As upsetting as the endless litany of sexual encounters in Orioli's diaries may be, they took place within established norms.” (p. 213) I personally do not find these accounts in the least “upsetting”, but I do find it irritating that the author is so presumptuous as to think that she knows how I feel. Cleves never seems to consider the possibility that some of her readers, far from being outraged, might think the southern Italy of Douglas' day a more enlightened and civilised place, in certain respects, than the present.
Douglas' last great love affair was with nine-year-old Ettore. Douglas wrote that “When I found him in Naples he was a mere skeleton, and so pale that he seemed to be transparent, or at least translucent.” (p. 243) Douglas fell in love with Ettore and promised to look after the kid's education. The author repeats quite uncritically some gossip that Ettore was “a scheming delinquent who had gotten his hooks into Douglas and wouldn't let go until he'd shaken the last penny from the deluded old man's pockets.” (p. 244) (Presumably these commentators would have preferred Ettore to do the respectable thing and die of starvation in a gutter.) But she soon returns to the “Douglas-as-monster” narrative: “His [Ettore's] ongoing sexual exploitation by Douglas surely compounded his suffering.” (ibid.) But evidence to support this claim there is none, and photos of the two together (included in this volume) suggest warmth and tenderness rather than suffering. The author then writes that, towards the end of Douglas' life, his son Robin would evince “no sympathy or concern for the boys Douglas molested.” (p. 255) Again, why have we all of a sudden dropped 'sexual encounters' for the pejorative 'molested'?
In the last of the author's 'Reflections' (pp. 281-283), we finally get the answer to why the author cannot escape all this moralism: “Throughout the writing of this book, my fear has been that people will judge me for being too sympathetic.” (p. 281) She is obviously terrified of what she imagines will be her readers' outrage. She has chosen, she says, to render Douglas in shades of grey: “How can I cast aside the words of the children who said they loved him? I worry that this sentence will lead to accusations that I have fallen too far on the white side. I have been too sympathetic to a man who deserves no sympathy.” (p. 282) She admits that there might be readers who do not feel the need to “monster” Douglas, but clearly she's not afraid of them, only of the others.
I think the reasons for this are fairly obvious. Judging from the photo of herself on the rear flap, the author is a young woman with a potentially highly promising academic career ahead of her. She is, however, well aware that showing any sympathy for a pederast or a pedophile is a 'career incinerator'. In her Introduction, she writes that “When Yuill was a PhD candidate in sociology at Glasgow University writing his dissertation, 'Male Age-Discrepant Intergenerational Sexualities and Relationships,' he was subjected to multiple investigations by his university, had his research materials reviewed by the police, was attacked repeatedly in the British press, and had his completed dissertation embargoed for five years. Cognitive psychologist Susan Clancy was blacklisted for her dissertation research at Harvard questioning the trauma model of child sexual abuse, and she was forced to find work outside of the country. Journalist Judith Levine couldn't find a publisher for her work on adolescent sexuality for five years, and when the University of Minnesota signed her book, the Republican-led state legislature threatened to cut the press's funding. Literary scholar James Kincaid's work on the fetishization of childhood sexual innocence during the Victorian era was described as 'obscenity' by the British House of Lords, which sought to ban its distribution in the UK. Bruce Rind's interdisciplinary work on pederasty for a special issue of the 'Journal of Homosexuality' was removed following intense pressure from critics and wasn't published until eight years later, in a special volume exploring the controversy. Several editors and agents whom I spoke with about this book expressed doubt that any press would risk publishing it.” (pp. 7-8) In this context, the author's constant genuflections before contemporary puritan moralism are understandable, and she has no doubt done just enough hand-wringing to prevent any campaign against her by the zealots; but this does underline the extent to which civilisation has gone downhill since the 1970s.
It is, perhaps, worth noting that Cleves' book, though it covers the events in Douglas' life in chronological order, is not exactly a 'biography'. Cleves says that she is interested in Douglas' life only for the light it throws on the way attitudes to sexual behaviours have shifted over the last century and a half. Thus, the book concentrates almost exclusively on his sex life. It is, as such, the most revealing book about Douglas' sex life that has yet been published. If, however, one wants a complete biographical portrait of the man, there is still no substitute for Mark Holloway's 1976 study. Holloway's study is also less irritating than Cleves', because it isn't overloaded with contemporary moralism. As Cleves herself says, “Holloway's attempt to understand Douglas's sexual history took place at a critical moment when the relaxation of censorship laws allowed for writing about adult-child sex, and the relaxation of social stigmas allowed for a limited sympathy to be extended to the men who pursued such liaisons.” (p. 275)
Overall, though, and despite the foregoing criticisms, Cleves' volume is very much to be welcomed for the light it shines on Douglas and the epoch in which he lived, and the challenge that this presents to contemporary narratives about child and youth sexuality. Apart from one or two grammatical errors, the author's prose style is quite readable. Her vocabulary sometimes strikes me as a little odd (for instance, on p. 238 she writes that “Douglas refused to disavow children's entitlement to sexualized pleasure.” I have no idea what “sexualized” pleasure is. I know what “sexual pleasure” is, however, and it is possible that this is what the author meant). The volume benefits from the inclusion of some charming, well-selected and well-reproduced photos. A little more historical objectivity and a little less hand-wringing might have made the book a classic; but then it is, I suppose, too much to ask that academic historians should risk jeopardising their careers for the sake of historical truth.
Reviewed by John Hamilton on Amazon.co.uk on 7 January 2021.