Dark Places: Readers' Notes

Back in 1985 I published my first novel, Lilian's Story. It's about a young middle-class woman born in 1900 who's sexually abused by her father. She survives but becomes eccentric, ending her life as a street person, busking with quotations from Shakespeare and jumping into other people's taxis. She does more than survive her father's rape. She thrives, and ends her life saying cheerfully "I am ready for whatever comes next."

Writing Lilian's Story was deeply satisfying, but when I'd finished that book I realised that I'd only told half the story. To complete it, I'd have to tell the story of that abusing father. The real mystery about child sexual abuse is not the ones who survive it, but the ones who inflict it.

Dark Places is the mirror image of Lilian's Story: the story of her abusing father, told from his point of view. Albion Gidley Singer is a respectable Edwardian gentleman who, convinced that every woman is a "lustful minx", abuses many women. Finally he rapes his daughter, telling himself that, like every other woman, she may pretend to say no, but she really wants it.

Why venture into such dark territory? I came to realise that child sexual abuse is only the extreme end of a spectrum of behaviour that's unfortunately familiar to all of us: workplace harassment and schoolyard bullying are on that spectrum too. Whether mild or extreme, this behaviour is about a more powerful person dominating a less powerful one.

It seemed worth trying to explore where that urge comes from.

The events and characters in Lilian's Story had already given me a world in which this issue could be explored at its most extreme. So, although the idea of exploring child sexual abuse repelled me in some ways, I went with it. The fact that Lilian's Story, and therefore Dark Places, were set in the past was a help - it gave some distance for me as a writer, and I thought it might have the same effect for a reader.

I did some reading about child sexual abuse, specifically incest.

The most frightening thing I learned was that it often isn't committed by raving nut-cases or "evil" people, but by ordinary people who in every other way seem upright pillars of the community.

While I was musing on all this, a colleague at my place of work was defending the sexual "initiation" of children by an adult. He made quite a plausible-sounding case. It was a form of teaching, knowledge adults should pass on to children. To be initiated by a caring adult was a better way to experience first-time sex than with a fumbling and perhaps uncaring peer. There was a long and noble tradition of this (ancient Greeks and Romans were brought into the argument).

The man who was making this case was a good and kindly person (and as far as I knew didn't practise what he preached), and I could see that he believed what he was saying.

I thought he was wrong, but what struck me about the discussion was his sincere conviction that there was nothing wrong with an adult having sex with a child.

This finally made sense of that research. Many child sexual offenders can't be "reformed" or "cured" because they don't think they're doing wrong. We might regard them as monsters, but in their own minds they're telling themselves a story that makes it perfectly acceptable to do what they're doing.

Now I could see how I might approach the book - I would try to tell that story, the one Lilian's father was telling himself as he raped her.

But how was a woman living in the 1990s going to get into the head of a man born in the 1870s?

As well as targeted research for books, I've come to have faith in "random" research, and in the course of general reading I came across the autobiography of Charles Darwin, of natural selection fame. This is Dr Darwin trying to make up his mind whether to get married. On the "for" side he says:

"constant companion, who will feel interest in one, object to be beloved and played with - better than a dog anyhow . . . Only picture to yourself a nice soft wife on a sofa. . . these things are good for one's health."

On the "against" side he lists:

"loss of time every day - how should I manage all my business if I were obliged to go every day walking with my wife . . . I should never know French, or see the Continent, or go to America, or go up in a balloon."

(Source: The Oxford Book of Marriage)

This gave me the way in to the book. Like Darwin, Albion would take himself completely seriously and without any kind of self-awareness, and his very seriousness would make him a figure of black humour.

Darwin might be a relatively benign misogynist, but Albion is a savage one. So where does misogyny come from?

As the mother of a son, I'd watched what happens to little boys as they grow up: even in a progressive society, there's still a lot of subtle and unconscious pressure on them to "act like a man" (as there's a huge pressure on little girls to be sugar and spice and all things nice).

What those gender roles do is force full human beings to leave half of themselves behind. Little boys have to turn their backs on the parts of themselves that are "girlie" (anything soft, nurturing, non-competitive, compliant). The pressure is on little girls to abandon the parts of themselves that are assertive, tough, competitive etc.

Since the days of Albion Gidley Singer, there's been a revolution in awareness of all this. Progressive mothers ( such as myself) give their boys dolls to play with and give their girls Lego. But at the coal-face, in primary school playgrounds, a "soft" boy will still be called a faggot and a "tough" girl will still be dismissed as a tomboy or a bitch.

So what happens to those cut-off parts of the full human? They don't just disappear, they can turn septic. In Albion's case, there's a kind of envy of women, and a feeling of being excluded. So when he has a daughter - a mirror of himself, but in female form - it seems to him the most natural and desirable thing in the world to join himself with her - literally.

As I wrote Dark Places, I gradually realised that something rather alarming was happening: it was proving surprisingly effortless to find Albion's misogynistic voice. This was unsettling for a woman and a feminist. Eventually - after abandoning the book several times - I came to see that misogyny is in the air we breathe, part of our culture. A constant stream of sleazy ads, news stories of attacks on women etc has the effect of normalising a certain level of misogyny - is it any wonder that even women can readily tap into it? Women are, as it were, bilingual - misogyny isn't our native tongue, but we understand it and can even speak it because it's all around us.

Dark Places took me ten years to write, and I gave up several times. It was just too difficult, too dark. Looking back, I'm pleased I kept going. The urge to dominate and hurt others - including child sexual abuse - is never going to go away, I don't think. But the better we understand it - rather than just dismiss it as "evil" - the better equipped we are to deal with it.

Issues for discussion:

1. Is Albion the victim of his life circumstances ( family background, upbringing etc), or is he responsible for the way he is? Could the childhood events that made him mistrust women justify his misogyny?

2. Why are facts so important to Albion?

3. The image of emptiness or hollowness recurs in the book - but what is Albion really lacking beneath his worldly success? Do you think he ever recognises his emotional poverty?

4. Does Albion learn anything, or change in his views of women or himself, over the course of the book?

5. The book is written in the first person, which can have the effect of forcing the reader to identify with that person to some extent. Did you find you experienced any empathy for Albion?

6.Is this just a period piece, or is this story relevant to today? The women in Dark Places are unable to stand up to Albion - do women still find it hard to stand up to this kind of abuse of power?

7. Should novels deal with dark or confronting ideas? Or is it just adding to the amount of darkness in the world? Are certain kinds of subjects not appropriate to be written about as novels? Does a novel about this subject run the risk of normalising things that should stay in the realm of the taboo?

8. The author describes this book as a "black comedy". Was this your experience of reading, or was it simply a tragedy - or did it have elements of both?

9. Do you feel that reading the book extended your understanding about some of the "dark places" in the human psyche? 

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