by James R. Kincaid
Duke University Press, 2000
Review by Heather C. Liston on Apr 24th 2002
James Kincaid, a thorough researcher
and an engaging writer, has produced a baffling book about child abuse and
pedophilia, Erotic Innocence: The Culture
of Child Molesting. Reading the
book is sometimes interesting, sometimes even entertaining, but always at least
a little disturbing. It is like walking
in on the private tirade of a tormented man and wanting to help but being
unable to pinpoint just exactly what is bothering him.
I searched in vain for a thesis
sentence. Even when he claims to be
offering it to us directly, it is hard to find. Now for a blunt statement of my argument: he says. (p. 13)
What follows, though, is not a blunt statement but a rather lengthy
paragraph. Some of the highlights: Our culture has enthusiastically sexualized
the child while denying just as enthusiastically that it was doing any such
thing. . . .We allow so much power to the childs sexual appeal that we no
longer question whether adults are drawn to children. And the point is . . . ? Should
we question this assumption? Later in
the same introduction Kincaid says, I believe most adults in our culture feel
some measure of erotic attraction to children and the childlike; I do not know
how it could be otherwise. Whether
this statement is true or not, it does not answer the question of what his
If the statement of point cannot be
found in the beginning, I thought, lets try the end. His concluding chapter does have a few statements that may be
taken as summaries of his argument.
Heres one, in relation to his plea that we tell new stories: . . .
tell about child sexuality and our response to it as if the issue were of some
importance and considerable interest but not terribly special, certainly not a
cause for panic. And another:
Political and legal action should begin to consider all the dilemmas that
touch the lives of children, not just those transgressions (abductions, incest,
sexual abuse generally) we enjoy talking about. Probably true. And heres
one more: Well be better off armed with good sense (a sense of decorum, a
sense of humor) and native kindness than with all the police and horror tales
and harum-scarum tactics in the world.
So will the children. OK . . .
now how does his book contribute to the solution?
In the ten chapters following the
introduction and preceding that final section, Kincaid retells, describes, and
interprets many recent scandals involving children and sexuality. He writes about the (now largely
discredited) rash of recovered memories which were used to accuse adults of
long-ago sexual abuse of children. He
tells the plots of movies; he reviews myths, legends, folktales, and lies
(the title of chapter six); he shows photographs of child stars and analyzes
their cuteness; he laments Hollywoods abandonment of child stars when they hit
puberty; and he recounts some horrible cases of kidnapping, molestation, and
other kinds of abuse.
Thanks to this book, I now have a
better idea what Michael Jackson and Woody Allen were accused of; I had a
chance to review the sensational (in both senses) New Yorker article from 1993 about a bizarre satanic ritual abuse
case; I learned exhaustive details of a case I never even heard of before,
about a female teacher whose teenage male student put her on trial for sexual
molestation. Did I need to know all
this? I skipped the coverage of the
Menendez brothers murder trial the first time around because I figured I did
not need to know. After being
thoroughly filled in by Kincaid, I now believe my original judgment was
This is a disturbing conclusion to
come to, but . . . I always ask myself, after reading a book, to whom should I
recommend this? What sort of person
would be educated, entertained, or enlightened by this? . . . and in Kincaids case I can only think
that the best audience for his book is those who are intrigued by scandals
regarding sex with children.
read Time and People and watched Hard Copy and
summarized a lot of it for those of us who dont make time for such
things. He has watched everything from
Forrest Gump to Flipper and analyzed for us their pedophiliac content. He tells us the entire plot of a 1996 film
called Sleepers, right down to saying
I hope Ive spoiled the ending for you.
Kincaids writing style is
creative, imagistic, direct, even funny.
He intersperses his telling of the tales with strong expressions of
opinion, often well-written and refreshing in their biased clarity. What he was trying to achieve with this
book, though, remains a mystery. He
seems to be on some personal crusade, which costs him endless, countless hours
of research. How could a respected
professor (Kincaid is the Aerol Arnold Professor of English at the University
of Southern California) possibly have spent so much time studying Ann Landers
and Roseanne? Where does all this
research and analysis lead? To a
general suspicion of everyone, maybe.
Kincaids penultimate chapter is called The Backlash, the
Counterbacklash, the Reaction, the Resurgence, the Return, the Reform, the
Restating the Whole Thing for Clarity.
Presumably, the people covered by every one of those labels have bad,
ulterior motives. In this chapter, he
says, I hope to show that all camps find such echo chambers useful: the
conservatives, backlashers, counterbacklashers, and those imagining they are
above the fray. In the margin,
naturally, I wrote What about HIM?
and then I checked the footnote.
Kincaid has anticipated my reactionnobody said he wasnt brightbut he
does not explain it. And by me too,
youre thinking I should be saying; but youll follow the argument better if
you repress such cynicism for now; recover it later if you feel you must. It pains me to say this, Mr. KincaidI wanted to get itbut Im afraid I must:
I must bring my cynicism out of the closet and admit I do not understand how
you are different from everybody else and why you are right and everybody else
He is angry
at children who accuse adults of abuse; at adults who write books about their
abuse; at people who focus more on sexual abuse than on caning and
psychological abuse; at lawyers, therapists, and the media; at people who blame
lawyers, therapists, and the media. .
. In chapter nine, he ridicules those
who blame past sexual abuse for their current problems. In chapter ten, he ridicules Alan Dershowitz
(mercilessly) for criticizing those who blame past sexual abuse for their
Everyone except Kincaid himself, it
seems, is exploiting the idea of child abuse and sexual molestation for his own
ends. It is impossible not to imagine
this book as part of an endless regression of criticisms of criticisms. Whoever writes the next work on the
exploitation of children and the sensationalizing of sexual abuse by the media
will no doubt include Kincaid as an example in his or her list. As part of the debate, as a moment in the
stream of discussion, this book is interesting. As the last word, it fails.
© 2002 Heather C. Liston
C. Liston studied Religion at Princeton University and earned a Masters degree
from the NYU Graduate School of Business Administration. She is the Director of
Development for The Santa Fe Children's Museum, and writes extensively on a
variety of topics. Her book reviews and other work have appeared in Self,
Women Outside, The Princeton Alumni Weekly, Appalachia, Your
Health and elsewhere.