Heleen Debruyne – Friend of the Family
My grandmother has been in the garden shed for three years now. In a stainless-steel urn – the cheapest model. We were planning to organize a funeral and we rang each other endlessly about whom to invite and what to read out. I would write something, my father would play a recording of Bach’s first cello suite, performed by Pieter Wispelwey – my grandmother preferred Strauss, but she no longer had any say in the matter, my father felt. A small gathering, with a buffet of finger food from the Middle East, even though grandmother had never ventured beyond the heavy butter sauces of French cuisine. Two seasons later we planned a garden party, but then another winter came. And so on.
‘Is this her then?’ my partner asks. I’m pregnant – the time to reveal all hidden defects. He goes over to the rusty storage shelves and reaches between a pot of paint and a bottle of weedkiller to pick up the dust by the name of grandmother. The gleaming canister is lighter than expected. He wants to know why there wasn’t a funeral.
‘My mother tells me she’s there as a punishment,’ I say. I shake the urn and wonder what I can hear rattling. A fragment of bone, perhaps.
There she stands, flanked by two men, radiant in a silk cocktail dress with red, white and blue stripes, costly couture from the late 1960s. ‘She never won any beauty contests,’ I say, handing my partner the photo. ‘Mwoh,’ he says. ‘Not a bad figure. Bit of a snub nose, and a big jawbone. But she looks vivacious enough. And that’s your grandfather?’ He points to the man at my grandmother’s right; the expensive wool suit, the floral silk tie and the white carnation in his buttonhole fail to distract from an overly round face, a too small chin, thin lips and a high forehead. A boy of about seven is sitting trapped in his fervent gesture of embrace. The boy – my father – has tightly hunched shoulders and he’s turned his strikingly big, dark eyes towards the other man, standing to my grandmother’s left in a sober dark-grey suit. ‘No, no,’ I say. ‘That’s the friend of the family.’ My grandfather is the other man, in the dark suit. He stands stiffly to attention, looking away from the photographer, smiling over the heads of everyone else, a man who is somewhere he doesn’t want to be.
Every Saturday my grandparents went to a large house in the centre of our small town where people have lots of money and little taste. It was the home of the friend of the family, Albert, Bertie to his friends. My parents regularly drove over to visit. In the hall of the nineteenth-century building was a silver umbrella stand, as tall as I was then, and next to it a bronze statue of a heron, a little bit bigger than me. The hall gave access to a dark interior full of navy blue and deep red oriental carpets, heavy oak furniture bought in the 1970s – expensive at the time, but hulking antiques were fashionable in certain middle-class circles in West Flanders. The toilet was lined with mirrors and I was deeply impressed by the endless reflection of my bare arse. During such visits I would usually sit in a corner on one of the carpets, reading a book, or plaiting the fringes. I could tell that my mother would prefer to leave again as quickly as possible; she kept looking at her watch, an expensive, gold thing that my father had bought and that I once saw the friend of the family give a look of approval. With much exposed gum and many gestures, my grandmother did most of the talking. Grandfather was quieter, as usual, but when he did speak he listened to the others, even my mother, even if she sometimes rolled her eyes. Albert served his guests complicated cocktails and dishes with French names. He didn’t prepare them himself; his cleaner had been promoted to cook and taken cookery lessons.
The most peculiar stories were told about the friend of the family. He’d grown up in New York as the son of poor Flemish immigrants and made a fortune there with a stall selling Belgian sugared waffles, unheard of in the America of the 1940s. With the money he took the boat back to West Flanders, settled in his parents’ native town and became the director of a bank. I found that incomprehensible – who wouldn’t want to cut a dash in New York? Later I saw through him: with his bald head, nondescript face and short stature he had a better chance of being exceptional in Roeselare. Consistently wearing a Stetson (a black one in winter, straw in summer) was enough to mark him out as an interesting eccentric.
My father often says he has the friend of the family to thank for his good taste. In his teens the big, dark house was a refuge; he hid there every afternoon from the priests who were his teachers and from the cruelty of teenage boys. Together they ate whatever the cleaner had cooked and listened to an aria by Maria Callas. Sometimes they might leaf through an art catalogue – the friend of the family’s taste stopped at about 1910, when the trend towards abstraction destroyed everything he found beautiful. Only years later, under my mother’s influence, did my father become able to appreciate non-figurative art. From time to time I caught conversations between my parents in which they mentioned Albert’s name. Sometimes there was shouting and usually it ended with my mother shutting herself in the bedroom. Then my father and I would eat an omelette on the carpet in front of the television and watch the news.
When I was about eleven, I was sitting next to my father in his car with its beige leather upholstery, where a rich, fatty smell hung in the air. (He was an importer of olive oil from 1996 to 2004. Many other jobs were to follow.) As ever, he’d turned on the classical music channel. I recognized Vivaldi. This was in the 1990s, but in my parents’ universe you wouldn’t have been able to tell, except by the broad face of Bill Clinton who appeared on TV so often. Our house was timeless in its modernism, the furniture designed between the wars, the eggshell white walls hung with reproductions of Picasso and Frida Kahlo. I pretended to my parents that I found the Spice Girls just as vulgar as they did, but in the playground I danced along fanatically to ‘Wannabe’. I hadn’t been to Albert’s house for a long time. I didn’t miss him, but the reflection of my arse… Might it really, as I feared, have got fat? I wanted to know when we’d be visiting again. ‘We’re not going to do that anymore,’ said my father. And then, a non sequitur: ‘Your mother is my first and she’ll be my last.’ I heard a slight tremble in his voice and didn’t pursue the matter. I’d learned early on to choose the path of least resistance, strewn though it was with riddles.
In his stiffly ironed shorts, my father sits on the friend of the family’s lap, his feet dangling. He can feel the coarse fabric of Bertie’s trousers chafing his bare thighs, the clammy hand on his knee; he knows what’s coming because it has happened so often and afterwards he’s always allowed to choose a toy from the big antique cupboard in Bertie’s bedroom.
A fantasy I often have but don’t want to explore any further.
‘I am very conscious that you can’t condemn people of an earlier era by the standards of ours,’ wrote scientist Richard Dawkins. In an interview he described how a schoolmaster would pull him and his classmates onto his knee and touch their private parts. ‘I don’t think he did any of us any lasting damage,’ Dawkins said. ‘Those were simply different times.’
Initially I found what Richard Dawkins said shocking. But it’s true; times were different once. Paedophilia too has a history.
Richard von Krafft-Ebing was first to use the term ‘paedophilia’, in his Psychopathia sexualis (1886), where he calls it ‘a rare preference’. He and his colleagues often referred to the concept in the same breath as other ‘sexual deviations’ they were studying: sadism, masochism, homosexuality, voyeurism and so on. Some of those deviations also aroused the interest of criminologists and forensic scientists. But paedophilia remained largely under the radar for the church and the general public. Paedophile acts simply fell into a large category called ‘sodomy’, which covered all ‘unnatural forms of intercourse’: oral sex, bestiality, anal sex and homosexuality, all of which would earn you a ticket straight to hell.
Until the 1970s. The moral climate loosened up a little here and there, and in imitation of the homosexual movement, paedophiles made their voices heard. What could be wrong with their love of children? What was a paedophile other than a loving adult with a special sensitivity, a talent for understanding children? A victim of society, moreover, who was burdened by a perpetual fear of exclusion and imprisonment.
The paedophilia movement also capitalized adroitly on the generational conflict of the time. Children and young people must be allowed to free themselves from the patriarchy and from their suffocating, interfering bourgeois parents who saw them as property. Children, the movement believed, had a fundamental right to self-determination. Children were sexual beings, who also had a right to be told about sex and to enjoy it, with each other and with adults. In France in the 1970s, sex with children under the age of fifteen was a criminal offence. Jean-Paul Sartre, Roland Barthes, Simone de Beauvoir, Gilles Deleuze, Gabriel Matzneff, Michel Foucault and many other intellectuals signed an open letter in 1977 in defence of three men who had been jailed for abusing underage children. ‘Three years in a cell for caresses and kisses: this has to stop!’ They demanded the men’s release and claimed the children had consented to the sexual acts. Later that year a petition was signed, asking for sex with young children to be ‘decriminalized’.
Supporters portrayed paedophiles as loving adults who helped children to learn how to flourish. At the Ghent Festival in the 1970s, supposedly funny badges were handed out: ‘Child molester, take me with you.’ In the Netherlands the musical ‘Snoepjes’ (Sweeties) even received government subsidies. It told the story of a pack of well-meaning child molesters who are ostracized by the community and forced to flee into the forest. The cast was largely made up of children who sang cheery songs about those poor outcast paedophiles. The ultimately rather marginal, self-declared sexual liberators of children attracted the attention of Flemish moral philosopher Etienne Vermeersch. In 1979 he wrote in an essay, ‘I’ve arrived at the conviction that the experience of sexuality, when this happens on a voluntary basis, by people capable of independent decision-making, deserves no moral censure as long as it harms nobody.’
The paedophile movement was gradually forgotten and Etienne Vermeersch rose to become Flanders’ most prominent moral philosopher. His ideas about sexuality and paedophilia were unearthed decades later. Belgium had just been through the Dutroux affair – suddenly the masses knew what paedophiles were, and the masses believed they should be hanged by the neck. My classmates were terrified of white delivery vans and male strangers.
Vermeersch’s essay from 1979 did not sit well, in these new times. But when it comes down to it, the moral philosopher was expressing what in his progressive, urban circles had become bon ton. Nor had he neglected to ask legitimate questions: ‘Is it actually possible that an underage person can authentically give permission for sexual acts? To what extent is later damage inflicted, even if the underage person gives permission?’ More attention would eventually be paid to the vulnerable position of the child, and in 1989 the International Convention on the Rights of the Child was drawn up. In response to the controversy, Vermeersch admitted that ‘with today’s knowledge I might rewrite a few passages’. Gabriel Matzneff has been MeToo-ed in France; he was publicly accused of child abuse. Michel Foucault turns out to have raped very young Tunisian boys, or paid to screw them, depending on how honest the great thinker about sex and power chose to be about his own sexual interactions.
So what about a small town in West Flanders in the late 1960s? ‘Paedophilia’ was not a pressing social issue and most people will not have known the word. Even the concept ‘homosexual’ had yet to become established. We have not been aware for very long that in the prevailing atmosphere of ignorance, Catholic priests were able to fondle, unseen and unpunished, the children placed in their care; their objects of desire were too ashamed and confused to say anything.
And yet. At my father’s school there was a priest and teacher about whom all the pupils knew you didn’t want to be called to his office, even if they didn’t have any words to express why not. Mothers instinctively felt that they must not leave their children alone with Albert. Fathers generally didn’t get involved in such matters; they were too busy being breadwinners.
Yet my grandmother left her child alone with Albert. Before I have a child myself, I need to understand her. Somewhere in her life lies a lesson about motherhood.
Translated by Liz Waters