Saturday, January 15, 2005


I read the piece in The Nation with interest and alarm.

The story was about a child psychologist, an excellent one by all reports, who became fascinated with photography. He loved taking pictures of children, even his patients, and children were his main subject. His interest and absorption grew and grew, and he'd take roll after roll of film, shooting ten to twenty rolls a day, sending them off to get developed, and shooting more and more, compulsively accumulating enormous piles of photos (I cast a nervous glance at the 19 binders of photos on my study floor) until his wife felt his hobby had gotten out of hand and he, himself, was thinking of quitting psychology for a career in photography. Unfortunately, amidst the thousand and thousands of candid and sometimes artistically beautiful photos he'd taken of children in his household, children of friends, and children in play therapy in his office, a few, to some minds, were transgressive. Pornographic. A naked bottom. A child peeing. An accidental glipse up a skirt. An employee in a photo lab notified the authorities about a photo he'd taken of a disturbed client of his, a young boy who, in therapy, had removed his pants and was brandishing a knife at his penis.

The doctor, naively explaining to the FBI why he'd taken the photo, blurted out that he'd been "amazed." The FBI transcribed this as "amused" and proceeded to comb through his masses of photos for other possibly transgressive shots, found 100 of them, claimed the Doctor had been "sexually aroused" by them, and the prosecutors proceeded to build a case.

Despite the fact that absolutely no one came forward and called the "has your child been molested by Dr Craft" hotline (compare that to the various molestation and satanic ritual abuse hysterias of the 1980s), that the doctor had never been previously accused of any impropriety, that the children in the photos were prepared to present ringing defenses of the doctor and were evincing great distress that he was in trouble, that their parents similarly defended him, that expert witnesses had concluded he was not sexually aroused by his images, and that employees of several photo labs had stated they'd never been offended by his pictures, the judge conducting his bench trial was so outraged by the images that he convicted him and sentenced him to 20 years in prison for child pornography. (His attorneys apparantly struck some deal to insure his wife could keep their house that excluded all his defenders from testifying. Which seems desperate and odd and tremendously unfair.)

How many lives have been -- are being -- ruined by ignorant, puritanical, religiously-blinded zealots in positions of power ?

But my dismay at his story was not simply ideological. The image of the doctor's house syllogomaniacally filled with toppling piles of photo packets hit close to home.

I thought of my own photos. Could any be deemed transgressive ?

Probably not. Yet.

Then I thought back to Christmas Eve when my father, seeing my camera, ran upstairs and returned with bindersful of slides from his own, as he put it, "photography phase." "There are plenty more where these come from," he assured me, as I pored through sheet upon sheet upon sheet of slides of flowers, sunsets, landscapes, people -- some quite beautiful, some bearing an eerie, almost familial resemblance to my weed pictures.

I did remember something of his "photography phase," especially the work of that summer in the 1970s when he and our neighbor R. hilariously and drunkenly photographed a series of belly buttons and mustaches, then did their famous portraits of the toilet seat they'd placed in the middle of Lincoln Street. But I'd had no idea he was so passionately and completely into it.

He watched me as I paged through his binders, and waxed philosophical, concluding that his -- and, by genetic extension, my -- "photography phase" was a symptom of complusion, a family trait wherein we take up a pursuit with all-consuming fervor, then drop it as completely as we embraced it. To go on to the next obsessional pursuit.

I thought about my life. My avocational "phases" -- quilting, playing the clarinet, writing and submitting poetry, taking pictures. There was some truth to my father's words. And then there are the less savory familial compulsions. Neither of us drink any more. At all. Him for close to thirty, me twenty years. Both of us had applied ourselves with great passion and dedication to that pastime.

Now we're both vegans, although he's vegan in diet only and, on holidays, he cheats. He calls it "feasting," and tucks into the turkey or ham without guilt. I, on the other hand, fret about the stearates in my toothpaste.

Recently he asked me, "Have you ever had soymilk ice cream ? I just discovered it a few weeks ago."

"Omigod ! Funny you should ask !" I enthused, "I am totally strung out on it. I've been eating it every night for months and months, in increasing amounts, I'm up to nearly half a pint a day ! I'm always buying extra because I worry I'll run out, stashing pints of it behind the frozen vegetables... " He nodded vigorously and headed toward the kitchen.

"Why didn't you tell me about it sooner !" he exclaimed in mock dismay, extracting a quart of Soy Dream from the freezer and brandishing it. "I can eat this whole thing in one sitting !"

We laughed. Uneasily.

The next week DK, who'd overheard our exchange, rented The Stuff.

Are you eating it, or is it eating you ? the movie asks.

Well, what is it ?

No comments: