Thursday, November 5, 2015

Review of "Pedal" by Chelsea Rooney

This book is not hot off the press -- it was published in 2014. Sometimes keeping up on pedophilia-related books is tedious, but not this one -- this one was fun. She's a real novelist with a quirky style. I will skip over plot elements that are extraneous to the question of pedophilia.

It is a book written with considerable sympathy for pedophiles. This arises from a key autobiographical element. The author like the protagonist Julia was subject to sexual molestation from age 4 to 7 that was not physically painful. Much of society sees molesters as faceless monsters. In my experience online, abuse survivors don't share this view. Their abuser was known to them as a real, complex man with a personality. He had strengths and weaknesses. Survivors may feel justified rage and a clear condemnation, but their abusers were not two-dimensional cardboard cutouts. And sometimes this recognition of the complexity of real-life abuse can lead survivors to places other people will not go.

Julia was sexually abused but did not find it traumatic. She's troubled by the reaction she has gotten in life when she describes this -- people meet her description with disbelief, telling her she isn't seeing the situation correctly. As the book opens, we find Julia in grad school in psychology, determined to find women like her and interview them as the basis of her thesis. But it's not going so well -- her adviser is skeptical and she can't get herself to commit a single word to paper.

Next we meet Julia's longtime girlfriend Lark, and a guy named Smirks who just happens to be staying with Lark. Both Julia and Lark find Smirks hot, but he makes no move towards either of them.

In line with her thesis work, Julia wants to find some real pedophiles. She learns online that on "Alice Day" men in pink shirts in major cities everywhere will be handing out fliers for a local meeting of pedophiles. She grabs one and attends the meeting, and is startled to find Smirks there. This seems wildly unrealistic -- the pink shirts, a coordinated action in multiple cities, the idea of pedophiles getting together, and Smirks happening to attend. A more realistic way for her to discover Smirks's pedophilia might be for her to find a diary of his, or a suggestive drawing, or an email sent to the wrong address. Sometimes I think this straining of credulity at points in this novel is deliberate, but I'm no expert on literature.

This is the basic setting for the rest of the book -- Smirks and Julia. Pedophile and woman intensely curious about pedophilia.

Julia's abuser was her father Dirtbag -- a perfect name for a guy with virtually no redeeming features. The report is that he raped a woman a week before his marriage to Julia's mother, and a picture of the beaten face of the rape victim is what stunned her mother into going through with the wedding. This seems so shocking that I speculate it must be truth and not fiction -- fiction has to make sense. True to his character, Dirtbag beats Julia's mother, and she overhears her mother pretending to be a little girl during sex with her father. Dirtbag also abuses Julia's older sister, and Julia suspects it involved full intercourse and was unquestionably traumatic -- the sister refuses to discuss it at all. The father leaves when Julia is 7 and the immediate emotional trauma in the family stops. As an adult, Julia is portrayed as an angry young woman with an alcohol problem who has trouble keeping her temper in check when she sees sexism in action, even when it is fairly mild. There's no explanation for this, but a person can suspect that a chaotic early life with a father like Dirtbag could explain it. And it's interesting to speculate about what would have happened if he had been the same, well, dirtbag, but did not abuse her sexually.

Smirks's story comes out in bits and pieces, and we never hear the whole thing. There is no mention of him having any involvement with child pornography, even simple possession. He has loved two girls in his life.

In the first case, he married the mother so he could be close to the daughter. He fell in love with the girl, but never abused her. He then left the situation. The book doesn't say why, though based on my knowledge of pedophiles online it would make sense if his feelings got too strong -- much like a guy might leave a job rather than have to keep associating with a coworker who has broken his heart. Most small girls will be good-hearted, yet at one level a celibate pedophile will experience her as rejecting him -- one way or the other, he can't have the intimacy all people crave. Marrying a woman because you're interested in the daughter will horrify most people because of the danger to the daughter. Putting that aside, it's a pretty rotten thing to marry a woman who thinks you are attracted to her when you know you aren't.

In the second case he is emotionally intimate with a girl over the course of a summer, at the end of which she dies of some brain disorder. He says that if she had grown up she would have hated him by now -- which implies that he actually did sexual things with her, probably things that she didn't mind and felt good about at the time. But here is a moment of truth -- Smirks is not a truly virtuous pedophile. He also gives voice to what we might call a pro-contact view -- he thinks what he did with the girl would have been just fine if society hadn't convinced her that she had been harmed. She is conveniently dead, so we do not need to address whether such a transformation would have actually taken place or not. He has abused a girl, even if it was well-meaning and she was willing. I as Ethan would have much preferred a truly celibate pedophile who is entirely blameless in this regard. But that's not the one Rooney has put before us.

In his current life, Smirks is comfortable with children and entirely virtuous. He leads Julia to a nude beach where they discover a mother who is trying ineffectually to teach her small daughter how to throw a Frisbee. Smirks volunteers to show the girl how, hovering close to her, taking her hand to demonstrate. The plot device of the nude beach gives the situation super-clarity. A naked small girl is going to make arousal more likely, but Julia can verify that his dick does not get hard. Later on a long bike trip, Smirks and Julia are at a campground where the proprietor's daughter is at loose ends and convinces Smirks to take her for a rowboat ride. They row some distance away from Julia, and she is constantly looking for signs of Smirks touching the girl inappropriately somehow. She thinks she sees something and takes off swimming to try to intervene, eventually finding that nothing untoward happened at all. Rooney may think this is because of Julia's special experience of being abused -- but large numbers of people in today's society seeing a known pedophile in that situation would be just as upset and anxious.

Smirks is tormented by his pedophilia. Along with his ongoing moody silences, he breaks down in tears back in the driver's seat of his truck after the incident with the girl and the Frisbee. This is an odd mix to me -- the confidence to volunteer to get close to an attractive small girl while they are both naked on the one hand, and on the other torment.

Lark is so interested in getting Smirks to make love to her that she volunteers to act like a small girl. Smirks resists at first, but finally gives in to a passionate bout of sex. However, as soon as it is over, both of them are consumed with guilt and remorse. On the other hand, as Julia continues cycling with him, she thinks he seems noticeably happier. It turns out Lark has gotten pregnant from this encounter, and Smirks gets this news just as he's about to kill himself. He instead joins Lark, desperately hoping she will keep the baby. I assume it's because he loves the idea of being a father and loving a child in an entirely appropriate fatherly way -- but nothing rules out the idea that he might give in and abuse a daughter. Lark ultimately has an abortion, in part because she could never trust Smirks around a child. He disappears again and never returns.

So what does it all mean? We have the author Chelsea Rooney trying to make sense out of pedophilia. Julia's father Dirtbag is the most villainous sort of abuser -- first a rapist, then violent to his wife, then engaging in years-long incest with his prepubescent daughters. To an outsider, the fact that she did not find the abuse physically painful or upsetting at the time doesn't seem so remarkable -- it is encompassed within the work of Susan Clancy's "The Trauma Myth". Dirtbag could very well be Rooney's father in just about every detail.

I sense that Smirks is in contrast a creature of Rooney's imagination, conjured up in part from online discussions with pedophiles. To the general public, it will be shocking that he is portrayed somewhat sympathetically. To a pedophile who has also listened online to brief stories of hundreds of pedophiles, and in-depth stories of dozens, he seems a bit peculiar. It's as if Rooney says, "What is a pretty much decent pedophile like? I don't really know. How about this?"

He's portrayed as very competent, handsome, and a hunk who will attract lots of women. That's not common among pedophiles in my experience, though I'm sure it happens. I also think that when any of us find another person very attractive, we see them less clearly for who they really are. It seems that Rooney has made her task harder than necessary.

Smirks seems full of self-hatred. His anguish is ongoing, and we think suicide may well be his eventual fate. Smirks shows us one pro-contact thought in mentioning that his second girl, the dead one, would only have hated him because society's messages taught her to. It might be just a passing thought he's trying on for size, not one he really believes in.

Despite his anguish, he is confident enough to suggest going to a nude beach, and volunteering to touch a small girl to show her how to throw a Frisbee. He is confident enough to take a girl for a ride alone in a rowboat.

I commend Rooney on asking, "What's a decent pedophile like, anyway?" I approve of her answer, "They do exist, and may be tormented but can live decent lives." She has described a pedophile with detail. This specificity is great in giving us something concrete to react to. The pedophile she has constructed doesn't seem quite right to me, and I'd be fascinated to know what others think.

I've written this review before searching for others to try to keep my perspective independent. But among the top google hits were some good ones:

One review suggested that the sex between Lark and Smirks was disturbing to the point of making him a bad guy -- this I did not see at all.

The main thing that struck me after reading the reviews was that perhaps Rooney herself doesn't view Smirks's sexual activity with the second girl as abuse -- that she is trying to paint a truly virtuous pedophile. This may work from the victim's point of view, but it doesn't work from the virtuous pedophile's. Adult-child sexual activity poses a risk of serious harm, and pedophiles must always avoid it. Yes, there is space for children to not be victimized, but there is no space for pedophiles to think that gives them the right to do sexual things with kids that they perceive to be willing.


  1. Interesting review Ethan - I read Pedal about a year ago but some of the details are quite hazy now...

    I can't say that I found it a great read either in terms of a piece of fiction or as a portrayal of a paedophile. As a story it really sags once Smirks and Julia embark on the their bike trip - this sag was kept from collapsing through the use of interesting incidents such as the 'boat and little girl' one you mention, which is particularly vivid. I wonder why she felt the need for the bike trip at all - to isolate the two principal characters maybe?

    Any evaluation of portrayal of a paedophile depends a lot on one's evaluation of oneself as a paedophile. I was frustrated to once more read a portrait of a paedophile as someone tormented and troubled by his desires. Ok, fiction distills essences and being a paedophile isn't easy, and maybe in order to build an interesting character Rooney chose to go for this slightly easy stereotype since a guilt-free, happy paedophile would have made for a less interesting story. I guess at least Rooney gives us some glimpses of the joys of being a paedophile (the frisbee and the boating incidents).

    I also found none of the characters, well, 'likeable'. Don't get me wrong - I don't think a book should contain likeable characters for it to be good - I can think of many great reads without any likeable characters. But I think the problem is that one senses the author want us to like these characters - Julia has a friend - I forget her name now - who I suspect the author wants to embody a kind of rebellious, insolent 'sassiness'. I just found her irritating.

    I think pedal is a book worth reading because it does build a story round an interesting paedophile. I think that there are one or two books out there that do the job better. Much better.

    A.N. Wilson's 'Dream Children' is one that stands out for me - the central paedophile (Oliver Gold) is more richly drawn, more sympathetic and closer to the truth than Smirks and his relationship with his little girl friend really rings very very true (he wouldn't quite pass a stringent 'Virtuous' test). Wilson does commit a howler or two (he has Oliver being seduced by a woman as a boy - probably in order to explain why he's grown up to be a paedophile) - but the writing is excellent and in one or two places he nails the paedophile sensibility so accurately and profoundly that I thought he was writing about me, and there's an episode involving copious vomit which moved me to tears.

  2. I remember reading and liking "Dream Children" a lot -- it had a lot of subtle realism to it. I didn't like the years of sexual activity, which as I (dimly) recall is only revealed at the end where the grown Bobs is saying it wasn't harmful. I realize that happens sometimes and would never suggest Bobs should feel guilty or bad -- but I don't think it excuses what Oliver did.

  3. My memory (always a bit hazy) is that the sexual activity between Oliver Gold and Bobs only happens towards the end of their relationship - though for a long time before that they are extremely close to each other - sleeping together at night - but nothing sexual.

    Wilson doesn't specify exactly what eventually happens between them sexually but I vaguely remember it is light and playful, involves strawberries and cream and occurs only once.

    As I say - I may be wrong in this impression. I'm planning on rereading it sometime in the next week or two - and am really looking forwards to seeing if it's as good as (or even better than) I remember it to be.