Saturday, January 14, 2017

Libby Purves' "More Lives Than One"

Reviewing a book that is 19 years old may seem strange. But this is not a blog about current events. If there's something important that's not widely known, I figure it's worth writing about it, even if it is 30 years old or 3,000 years old.

Ideally you'd read More Lives Than One with no foreknowledge at all. If you stop reading this post and read the book first I'd be delighted. This review has spoilers.

The central character is the handsome young "Kit" of high social class and educational attainment. He's a banker by day, and a serious outdoorsman in his free time. Girls and women are drawn to him but he gently rebuffs them, until he makes a connection to the beautiful 20-year-old Anna. They marry, and he changes career paths to enter teaching with Anna in a school for a British underclass population. The book has significant similarities to To Sir, With Love. He is a brilliant teacher whose students like him, and they respond with modest improvements -- and some catch a glimpse of a more poetic side of life. But his unorthodox methods annoy the hidebound traditionalists in the school where he teaches.

The plot thickens when the 12-year-old precocious Marianne falls in love with him, arranges to get lost on a school trip so he will find her and they can spend some time alone. She throws herself at him, and he does his best to deftly extricate himself and not humiliate her. Still, she writes in her diary about their love and sexual experiences. Her mother finds the diaries and confronts her daughter, and a full-blown police investigation ensues, spurred on with glee by Kit's hidebound colleagues at the school who hate him. The book shows how an accusation of sexual activity with a student can ruin a man's life. Kids do sometimes lie, but no malice is required, as in this case. Marianne didn't set out to hurt Kit -- she got trapped when her written fantasies fell into her mother's hands. It's not even clear they would have believed her or kept the matter quiet if she had immediately said it was all made up. In any case, to say out loud that they were fiction would require giving up the fantasy that she and Kit really would marry and live happily ever after. So Kit is suspended, and weeks go by when the accusations fester and do their corrosive work. Finally, confronted by a couple of her peers, Marianne is convinced to come clean. But before Kit is notified that the investigation will be closed, the story takes its most dramatic turn.

In his despair, Kit admits to Anna that in fact he has always been attracted to boys on the cusp of puberty. He turns out to be one variety of the textbook Virtuous Pedophile. I can't imagine that Libby Purves could have written this story unless she herself knew a person very much like the fictional Kit. Details seem too perfect to be the product of the writer's imagination. Here's the key passage:


"Nobody with any brains at all could possibly think that you could molest a child."

"Oh, but I could," said Kit, still flat and expressionless. "But that's why it's absurd. It wouldn't have been a girl, though, would it?"

Anna switched on her own bedside lamp, as a motorist will hopelessly flick his lights to full beam in the illogical hope of piercing the advancing wall of fog. She stared at him: pale, dishevelled, unhappy, and with an edge of anger she had never seen.


"I mean that it would be a boy, wouldn't it? Good public-school chap like me. We molest boys, don't we? Not girls."

Anna fell back against her pillow with a wave of relief, not daring even to register it as relief. Not daring to acknowledge what she had momentarily thought.

"Oh, that's rubbish," she said. "People aren't that cliche-minded about public schoolboys any more. Don't be paranoid. I know people gossip, but they'd never say that about you."

Kit shifted, still staring ahead at the uncurtained widow, the marsh and the faint lights of the distant dockyard.

"More fool them," he said. "I'm telling you, if I wanted to kiss a twelve-year-old in a Venetian alleyway, it wouldn't be a girl. You might as well know. Everyone might as well know. Safer that way."

Anna drew her knees up and fought to control her breathing. "Kit, don't joke. Don't make awful jokes. It's been horrible ever since half-term, but it will be over."

"Never," said Kit. "Not till I die. I have to live with it. I always have had to."

For a time neither said anything. Then Anna, with an effort she felt would almost cost her her sanity, asked in a low, steady voice, "Are you telling me that you ARE attracted to children? To little boys? I mean, like that?"

"You mean sexually," said Kit. "Yes. It is a sexual disorder. The only one left these days, really. All the others are sexual orientations, to be proud of. You can have marches and rallies and magazines about them. Paedophilia, on the other hand, is not even to be hinted at without hissing and cursing."

Anna was silent, plucking at the sheet, looking down at her fingers with studied concentration. She could not speak.

Kit continued, flat, unemotional, weary. "If the human creature you instinctively desire is a boy of eleven, you do not deserve to live. Anybody can tell you that. I agree," he added. "I don't deserve to live. But here I am. A paedophile, what they call a fixated preferential paedophile, and not even a sensible one. Sensible ones jump off high buildings or drive into trees as soon as they understand what they are." ...

"Why are you telling me these horrible things? What have I done? Why do you want to upset me?"

"I don't. You've done nothing. I can't live like this any more, that's all. I can't bear all this indignant defending of my purity. You're too good and sweet and decent to be deceived. I want to speak the truth, and when that's done, whatever happens will happen. Anna, I am attracted to boys. Young ones. Physically. I dream about them."

"How long has it been?"

"Probably all my life. I think I first knew at school. But it never mattered. I could pack it away. Sweat it off. This last year has been the worst."


"Because it just came back, that's all. Stronger, worse than ever. More directed. More personal."

Anna did not yet have the strength to ask which child. Blindly, she battled on towards understanding.

"Why did you marry me?"

"Because I loved you. I will always love you."

"Do I -- disgust you? Physically?"

Kit sighed, and pulled aside the duvet for her to return to her place beside him. Cautiously, avoiding touch, she did so.

"No. You know you don't. You're pure warm goodness and I adore you. It's more complicated than that."

She stared at him, her eyes wide, a rabbit in a car's headlights. "When we make love, do you think about -- do you pretend -- "

"No! No, no, no!" He was vehement now, almost angry, and she found this easier to bear than his previous defeated listlessness. "For God's sake, no. Of course not. I never think, or pretend, or indulge, or fantasise. Ever. I fight it off. All day sometimes, every day and half the night."

"Is it because you're ill that you're in trouble with it now?" Anna grasped at straws. "Perhaps it's part of the illness."

"No. It was there before. When I'm ill it's worse in one way because it's harder to fight, and harder to hide from you. But in another way it's better. I don't have the strength or the desire in me to do anybody any harm."

"You know it would be harm, then? You know it's ... impossible?"

"I do."

"Then why do you want it?"

"It doesn't work like that, does it? People don't only want good things. If they did there would be no need for laws. But sweet Anna," he looked at her now more like his old self, "sweet girl, you might not understand that. I really think that it's possible that you only want good things. Just naturally."

Anna sat upright, pulling her hair back with both hands. "No," she said. "I do see the difference." She reached over and switched the lamp off on her side. Directing her gaze into the darkest part of the room she said, "Kit will you tell me the most important thing. Have you ever? Have you ever ... oh God. Have you ever done anything about the feeling? Involving a child?"

"Never. If I had I think I would have killed myself."

A long silence fell between them. ...

Then Anna asked, steadily, "Never? Not even in a small way?"

Kit sighed. "Whenever I have felt confusion about the way I am with a child, I have moved further away. Never a grope, never a leer, never an unchaste brush past in a lift. All in the mind. And I fight my mind, Anna. Like I said, all day, every day, half the night. Never done harm. So far. Does that answer the question?"

"So far?"

"I told you. I'm at the end of my rope. I'm so tired. I don't know what could happen. I've got to the bit where sensible perverts jump off the high building. That's why I'm telling you."

"So that I can help?" said Anna incredulously. "You think I can help?"

"I don't know," said Kit.


We can further specify what subtype of celibate pedophile Kit is.

Some pedophiles are non-exclusive, meaning they also feel an attraction to adults. Kit is one -- barely. The story has made his sexual relationship with Anna clear while at the same time hinting that his sexual appetite is not very strong. And within the above is this insightful exchange:

Question: "Do I -- disgust you? Physically?"
Answer: "No. You know you don't. You're pure warm goodness and I adore you. It's more complicated than that."

She doesn't disgust him, but she doesn't really attract him. He transforms his love and her pure warm goodness into sexual arousal and performance at times, but it's more a construction than the primal lust that most ordinary men would feel with an indisputably sexy woman.

Later the question arises as to why Kit loves teaching. The answer is that he loves children in the socially accepted way and loves helping them grow and learn. It's independent of his attraction to boys -- a sort of complexity and subtlety that very few non-pedophiles can comprehend.

Those are comparatively subtle points. But on the more basic questions, Kit is portrayed as the most sympathetic pedophile imaginable.

He's celibate and has never strayed. He's anti-legalization. He doesn't even entertain the idea that sexual activity might not harm a boy.

He's socially adept. He's against fantasizing and has never given in to a fantasy. It goes without saying that he's never seen any child porn. He also hates himself, or at least hates the part that's attracted to boys.

If you set out to create the most sympathetic pedophile you could, you would get Kit. Libby Purves has brought him to life and he is mostly believable. He lacks a moral blemish, hates his attraction, and never gives in to fantasies that ordinary people find revolting -- even during sex with his wife, when thoughts might arise unbidden.

For ordinary people who struggle so hard to accept pedophilia in any form, Kit is a good "starter pedophile". Real pedophiles -- even celibate ones -- are more complicated. But accepting them is a later step.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for reviewing this book, Ethan. I'll pop it onto my Xmas wish-list.

    I didn't know Libby Purves was a writer - she's best known as a radio presenter - I used to listen to her on the radio before getting off to work.

    Kit really does read like the closest a paedophile could get to being an acceptable character for the norms - I mean, he feels guilty about fantasising! I think that's a bit over the top.