By Estelle Tang

Pitying the Monster?: Abuse and Empathy in Fiction

Children are legally protected from sexual abuse at state, national and international levels – and rightfully so. It’s essential that their developing psyches and bodies not be tampered with; society recognises this by constantly reaffirming the innocence of children as a desirable norm.

While most criminals can expect to be punished and censured, we reserve a particular narrative of condemnation for paedophiles. Newspaper headlines, for example, would have it that all such offenders are ‘notorious’ or ‘infamous’. There’s little wrong with these designations apart from their one-dimensionality. Paedophilia is universally abhorred, and we have made our everyday vocabulary for it slim with righteous certainty.

Novelists have the luxury of the hypothetical, and as such are able to explore these adults’ actions – and their consequences – without knee-jerk recourse to such adjectives. It is beyond this pale of moral certitude that revered Australian writer Gillian Mears directs her enquiry. The long-awaited Foal’s Bread (2011), her first novel in 16 years, opens with Noah Childs – at 14, almost as young as her name – giving birth by the river to a ‘little mister’ of a baby. Her thoughts as she brings the child forth teem with memories of her family: Cecil, her father, shooting a gored stallion between the eyes; Aunt Lal, who once made little Noey a rag doll; and the baby’s father, her Uncle Nipper, almost 80 years old:

At the memory of her uncle she went all tingly with a hope she couldn’t understand. She felt the way you do lining a horse up for something impossibly big. The chance of victory inside the likelihood of an almighty fall.

Foal’s Bread is a masterwork of many virtues. It thunders with an all-consuming love of horses and high-jump, wrenches the sponge of family relationships dry, and perfectly speaks the language of small-town suffocation. But one of its significant achievements is its portrait of a girl irrevocably changed by sexual experiences early in her life – though not in the way portrayed by the news media.

Of course, there’s the baby. His mother, hair unravelling from her plait, sends him off in a butter-box down Flaggy Creek. It’s a decision worthy of a drover-farmer’s daughter: a practical putting-down. Still, Noah will remember him for the rest of her life: ‘Never buried. Bleached in the sun. Little bits and pieces of him all over the place.’

Contrary to expectations, Noah recalls rheumy-eyed Uncle Nip often, usually with tenderness. At the beginning of her acquaintance with her future husband, champion high-jumper Rowley (or Roley) Nancarrow, Noah feels a spark she doesn’t quite comprehend. Yet it brings to mind a memory of her now-dead uncle showing her precious things in the wilderness: a red-capped robin, a bird’s nest. This cherished recollection is complicated by a strange wash of feelings, ‘desire co-mingled with shame and sadness’. Her uncle’s touch has marked her, and Noah’s cross-references her adult sexual experiences against that early relationship. At times it is even a benchmark. When Noah and Roley’s marriage begins to sour, at night she wishes Roley would move his hand to ‘somewhere softer still. What had been Uncle Nip’s favourite spot.’

For all that Uncle Nipper has shown Noah what it is to feel ‘special’, Mears doesn’t allow that this septuagenarian, lonely and seduced by the ease of it – ‘a ha’penny’s worth of Milk Kisses’ – was in the right. Noah’s memories of him burn brightly for the lack of joy in her meagre life, and at the end of the novel there’s a shocking scene that leaves the reader in no doubt of the old man’s fateful legacy. Yet Noah’s unfailing ability to give Uncle Nipper ‘his glory’ reminds her of the only thing that gives her ease: her incredible skill when jumping a horse. It’s not that there’s sympathy for this old devil, but rather that the young girl, defined by his actions, survives them – and in so doing, leaves innocence behind.

Esteemed literary critic Michael Wood, revisiting Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955) for the New York Review of Books, wrote: ‘People reading Nabokov’s Lolita for the first time are often baffled by their own reactions.’ Another slant on the book’s strange power is Irish novelist John Banville’s claim that ‘Nabokov is the only great writer I know of (I suspect Dostoyevsky is another, but I do not read Russian) whose work it is perfectly possible to find at once repulsive and captivating.’ Martin Amis described Lolita’s duality thus: ‘In common with its narrator, it is both irresistible and unforgivable.’

Lolita barely needs an introduction. The novel’s title has wormed its way into common parlance, meaning (unfairly or not) a sexually precocious young girl. Every one of its readers has grappled with the troubling phenomenon of Humbert Humbert’s love for the prepubescent Dolores Haze, set against the fact that Humbert is a more articulate and charming narrator than almost any in Anglophone literature. But rarely are we asked to empathise with an adult man who desires young girls to the extent that he is willing to kidnap them and enact his passions. Still, diligent and accustomed readers, we do the usual fossicking in Humbert’s words: for character, for morality – for ourselves. And it is a supremely uncomfortable experience, for there is a lot to find.

In a way, these contradictory reactions are about the author, dedicating themselves to work in which aesthetic and moral challenges intertwine. But they are also about us, the readers, who turn to fiction to inhabit other minds and other lives. A great part of fiction’s allure is that we become immersed in the world of the story, in the mind of the narrator. How, then, do we explain our wish to reconstitute in our own minds the ruminations of a child molester, kidnapper and murderer?

‘For empathy you need interiority,’ Robert Dessaix once wrote. And not just that. Lolita is a concentrated whack of first-person Humbert. Nabokov’s prose style is divisive: laden with allusions and neologisms, and sometimes indulgently overwrought. Many agree that this is also what makes Humbert a uniquely captivating companion. It is impossible to think of him as one-dimensional, merely print on a page. His utterances disclose an easy erudition and a superhuman agility with language. His erotic thoughts and desires rattle along with an almost audible clatter and urgency. They are lucidly expressed, and impassioned; we can recognise the degree and quality of his emotion, even if we do not tolerate his choice of subject. He loves words as much as we do. ‘You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style,’ says Humbert.

And he loves Lolita. Lolita, taking the form of a deposition-cum-novel-manuscript written while Humbert is in jail, explicitly invites us to understand this love: ‘I want my learned readers to participate in the scene I am about to replay,’ he says, before detailing a scene in which he furtively engages in frottage while Lolita, possibly unaware, disports herself on his lap. The first half of the novel contains many such scenes. Alfred A. Appel notes in Penguin’s The Annotated Lolita that those ‘who complain that the second half of Lolita is less interesting are not aware of the possible significance of their admission’. Again, we might be disgusted by his pursuit of Lolita, but we are drawn into the danger and frisson of it.

So we are compelled through the story, with fond, fondling Humbert as our guide. Though there is little that is actually obscene in Lolita, there is much that can unsettle us, and because we see only as Humbert’s rapt vision allows, a horrified reader cannot avert their eyes. As Humbert sighs, ‘My Lolita’, she becomes our Lolita. Not exactly, as Elizabeth Janeway wrote in the New York Times, because ‘Humbert is all of us’, but because Lolita becomes the focus of our gaze. Humbert plays the emotional ventriloquist while we read silently on. We become invested in Lolita’s trauma, powerless as we are to separate her from its perpetrator.

According to Nabokov, there’s no moral why to Lolita: it was just a story he had to get down. But it would be a mistake to consider Lolita an amoral novel. Wood recognised that ‘one of the important things Nabokov’s novel does is help us understand better just what an offense against a child is, and understand this morally, not merely technically’. Humbert not only raped Lolita and curtailed her freedom, but also robbed her of a childhood. Humbert’s fleeting moral revelations, though expressed in achingly beautiful prose, reveal that he does not fully understand this. Even Humbert’s lyric ‘confession’ at the end of the novel betrays his essential intractability:

it struck me, as my automaton knees went up and down, that I simply did not know a thing about my darling’s mind and that quite possibly, behind the awful juvenile clichés, there was in her a garden and a twilight, and a palace gate – dim and adorable regions which happened to be lucidly and absolutely forbidden to me…

Here is everything we know about Humbert squared: his high romantic tone; his insight; his solipsist’s lack of interest in Lolita as a real person. The gap between his understanding of the crime and ours is substantial: while we can’t read Lolita’s mind either, we can and do readily hazard that therein was contained pain, despair and a wish for any life other than the one she was living.

Lolita is a story of paedophilia from the perpetrator’s point of view. Yet the few instances where the girl’s real self is visible through Humbert’s worshipful abstractions are shockingly telling: Lolita’s small, hideously pitiable bursts of words or action remind us what manner of man is whispering into our ear.

As in Foal’s Bread, most fictional accounts from the other side of abuse employ empathy in the familiar way: imagining the young person affected by the crime, and what kind of a life might be had thereafter.

Kate Grenville’s beloved Lilian’s Story (1985) now almost 30 years old, was written when Grenville found herself thinking about the Sydney eccentric Bea Miles. Known for her wanderings on Sydney’s streets, her large body and her unusual behaviour – she refused to pay taxi fares and would recite passages from Shakespeare for a fee – Miles was once committed to the Hospital for the Insane in Gladesville, by her own father.

Lilian Singer, or Lil, is the daughter of Norah, a ‘woman of pale colours’ whose relationship with reality is polite, but distant: a woman who, smiling, not paying attention, lets her baby slip from her breast onto the floor. Lil’s father, Albion, is a choleric man whose self-importance manifests in assertions of his own cleverness and cruel jabs at his disappointing children.

Growing up, Lil comes to know that she is loony and a big girl. Her ‘fat forearms’ are a stark contrast to the golden glow and sharp little faces of other children. She likes to ask questions and be given the real answers, not just reassuring pap. Of course, Lil, without ringlets or peach-like cheeks, is a non-starter in the husband-scouting games of her middle-class peers.

Determined to go her own way, Lil takes to escaping up trees at scones-and-tea gatherings with a gawky beef heir named Duncan, an impropriety that affronts and repulses her father. ‘Lilian, you disgust me … Has someone told you that this is the way to catch a husband, showing him your vile drawers?’ Later, Albion’s scolding turns to bullying, spiteful sarcasm; ‘How are your beaux, Lilian?’ he asks, ‘When will they start beating a path to the door?’ His fixation develops an undertone that the reader, if not Lil, can grasp. While he rants, Albion’s smile is disturbingly fixed between ‘rosy, turgid’ lips; as he warns Lilian that ‘The world is full of forward men who will try anything,’ he presses her body against his, running his tongue over his teeth.

Grenville shapes her prose into short sections that recall the eddies of the ocean, Lil’s favourite place. Lilian’s voice is one that seems to have developed in response to years of simultaneously shrinking away from attention and yearning for life in all its fullness. Bold, matter-of-fact, it is at its most lyrical and unrestrained when Lil contrives to be alone one day, in a house empty of Albion’s oppressive presence. In front of a full-length mirror, Lilian explores her naked body, so maligned by others. She is fascinated by what she sees, and is stunned to discover pleasure: ‘Was this ecstasy? I filled the room with sounds like a storm in treetops.’

But this, her most liberated and self-affirming moment, is violently interrupted by Albion’s arrival. The sole witness to the familial horror that follows is the house itself, which ‘stood shocked, repelling the sounds we made’. Though not a child, Lilian is Albion’s child, rendering this rape one that breaches not only law but also a basic, primal trust.

Lilian’s Story is a monumentally sad novel, a mutated bildungsroman in which the protagonist can forge past tragedy only with the aid of forgetting and madness. Despite this, it is not a tale of victimhood, but rather one of unique agency. Even after her early sorrows, Lilian is possessed of an indomitable desire to experience and embrace life: ‘How I loved it, coming out of a hell of silence!’

Despite having completed a novel about the tragedy that befell Lil, Grenville found herself with ‘a deep need to come to grips with why it happened’. The result of this is Dark Places (1994) – titled Albion’s Story in the US – an extraordinary act of artistic empathy, published almost ten years later. Could we ever understand, and even embrace, the inner life of a man who raped his own daughter?

Dark Places

Like Humbert, Albion Singer is a solipsist, and his self-regard comes from a constitutional inability to comprehend others. It’s not that he doesn’t try; it’s that he always fails. Consequently, Albion blunders through early social relationships. In particular, he finds women unfathomable, with their elaborate hair and dress and their secrets. Instead, he clings to facts, which comfort him with their definitiveness, their solidity.

It is not until his first sexual encounter with a woman that Albion feels reconciled with the world of men – and with himself. What drives the confidence of men, he discovers, is ‘feeling a female body writhe like a skewered beetle under one’s own’. But there is no room for the woman in this coupling: in the act of sex, he ‘expanded within the shell of Singer and filled all the space so that he and I were truly joined, and there was no hollowness left’.

Late in the novel, we revisit the day when Lilian finds herself at home alone. But, this time, we see Lilian through her father’s eyes. What he sees surprises him: her breasts, her belly are ‘solid and undeniable’, the opposite to the void inside him. And so he sees Lilian’s body as a necessary complement to his. For the reader who knows what is coming, the next pages seem as heavy as stone. Albion, pinning his daughter to the ground, rapes her and finally feels complete: ‘I and myself were blissfully joined, and for once there was no voice judging, chiding, doubting, fearing.’

Albion is no Humbert. He lacks Humbert’s silver tongue and cosmopolitan genius. Whereas Humbert is cunning and almost sociopathically aware of how society might view his sin, Albion is pompous, single-minded in his ludicrous belief that all women desire him. Nevertheless, his story is compelling too: like Grenville, we thirst to know why a man might act with such hatred.

But it is not only this forensic investigation we wish to pursue. Is Albion unforgivable? He also differs from Humbert in that, despite his monstrous act, it is possible to pity him. While Lil finds her own way through the world, Albion sticks to the tracks, having never loved or understood a fellow human being.

Earlier this year, producer Kirsti Melville spoke to Christabel Chamarette, the clinical director of Perth’s SafeCare program, for the ABC Radio National documentary, The Age of Attraction. Chamarette had worked with child sex offenders in prisons and was shocked at how appalling the childhoods of many of the offenders had been; she wanted to try to help perpetrators as well as victims.

Before meeting two of SafeCare’s clients, ‘Bill’ and ‘Tom’, Melville had doubts: ‘The first time I go to meet “Tom”, I’m very nervous. I’m nervous about meeting someone who’s attracted to children the same age as my own. I’m nervous about meeting someone who would like to do things to them that I and the rest of society find abhorrent.’

Examining her own reasons, Melville concluded that she interviewed the men not ‘to excuse or condone, but rather to understand. To gain insight into an offender’s mind. And it’s an attempt to cut through the hatred and hysteria; to explore ideas about ways to keep kids safe.’ I wept listening to the accounts of these two men, tormented by universally condemned desires. One of them had himself been abused as a child. My emotion encompassed grief at what the men had endured, but also shock at realising I had previously shut my eyes to the humanity of men like these.

There is nothing clinical about these novels. In no guise do they claim to proffer accurate psychological portraits or attempt to pave a path to practical action. Like Melville’s documentary, however, these fictional accounts do embody moral inquiry. Not only this, but they do it in a familiar way: the use of fiction as a window, a lens, a door into the souls of others. Applied with heightened skill in portraying repulsive and unforgivable subjects, this well-known technique evokes an unmediated, radical empathy.

We abominate the abuse of children, but to diminish or occlude the personhood of those who abuse them would be to edge closer to a different, but still dangerous kind of solipsism – which would indeed make us more like Humbert than we might care to be. Perhaps it is a modest thing, to try to learn our way out of unthinking hatred. But that is all we ask of literature: that it change us as people.

Portrait of Estelle Tang

Estelle Tang

Previously, Estelle worked as a literary scout and a staff writer for Rookie, Tavi Gevinson's website for teenage girls. Her writing has been published in the Guardian, the Age, the Australian, Salon, Pitchfork, Monthly and several other publications. She has been online editor at Kill Your Darlings and a board member of the Small Press Network; a member of the programming advisory committee of the Melbourne Writers’ Festival and the editorial advisory committee of the Paper Radio podcast.

Further reading

Gillian Mears and Foal’s Bread

Carmen Calill reviews Foal’s Bread in the Monthly

Owen Richardson reviews Foal’s Bread in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Gillian Mears discusses Foal’s Bread on ABC Radio National’s The Book Show.

Foal’s Bread reviewed in the Guardian.

Kate Grenville’s Lilian’s Story

Readers' notes for Lilian’s Story.

Extract of Lilian’s Story.

Kate Grenville’s Dark Places

Readers' notes for Dark Places.

Extract of Dark Places.

The Independent reviews Dark Places.

Kirsti Melville

Listen to Kirsti Melville’s radio feature, ‘The Age of Attraction’.