Having sex with children is taboo. But while people recognize the importance of protecting children from child molesters, their will to do so is often undermined by another taboo, one that regards the sanctity of the family as inviolable. This leads to a paradox. On the one hand, if child molestation occurs within a family, then it is also incest, which makes it worse; on the other hand, it is something people don’t like to think about, which makes them more likely to “forgive” it, not because it deserves to be forgiven, but as a way of putting it out of their thoughts. To put it differently, the greater the punishment for incestuous child molestation, however much it is actually deserved, the more people are forced to accept that there can be evil within a family, which should therefore be broken up.
The form of child molestation that people are most comfortable with is that which involves a stranger, sometimes referred to as stranger danger: comfortable in the sense that they are willing to warn their children to be distrustful of strangers that approach them; comfortable in the sense that people are willing to condemn it in the harshest terms and mete out severe punishment for the perpetrator. And yet, child molestation at the hands of a stranger is relatively rare. A child is more likely to molested by a family member, but that is something a lot of people don’t like to think about, and they are far less likely to warn children about that danger.
Many states now have restrictions on abortion that do not allow exceptions for rape or incest. I have recently heard commentators on television objecting to these laws, using a hypothetical example in which a girl is impregnated by her uncle. While sex between an uncle and a niece would indeed be incest, it is obvious that the example is intended to avoid the more likely case of a father or a brother being the guilty offender. As a rule, an uncle will not have nearly as much access to a girl as her father or brother. But as the uncle is not part of the immediate family, typically not living in the same house as the girl, the more dreadful idea of the child being impregnated by a close family member living under the same roof is avoided.
When it is a case of a father having sex with his daughter, it is easier to accept if the man is a stepfather rather than her biological father. Though it would still be incest in a legal sense, yet we do not regard it as bad as consanguineous incest. But it is still worse than if the girl is molested by someone who is outside the family. Nevertheless, the willingness to punish the outsider is greater than for the stepfather.
In other words, our dread of incestuous child molestation increases as we move along the following categories: outsider < stepfather < father. That is, there is no incest with the outsider, only legal incest for the stepfather, and biological incest for the father. So, in one sense, the situation is worse as we move from left to right. And yet, our willingness to contemplate the possibility of child molestation increases in the opposite direction: father < stepfather < outsider. That is, it is easier for people to think about a man molesting his stepdaughter than his biological daughter, and easiest of all to think about a man molesting a girl to whom he is unrelated. And this is reflected in our increasing willingness to punish the offender as we move from left to right.
An example of this is the movie Lolita (1962). Humbert Humbert (James Mason) has sex with his stepdaughter Lolita (Sue Lyon), who is fourteen. But Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers) is the man Lolita is in love with, eventually leaving Humbert to be with Quilty permanently. When things do not work out between them, however, she leaves Quilty, meets a nice guy, and marries him.
To get revenge, Humbert tracks down Quilty and shoots him to death. Humbert is arrested and dies in prison of coronary thrombosis while awaiting his trial for murder. In other words, he dies of a natural cause, one that might have happened anyway, even if he had never seen Lolita. Though Humbert’s crime of child molestation is worse than that of Quilty, owing to the fact that it also involved incest, yet his punishment is much less than that of Quilty, who was completely unrelated to her. Furthermore, while there is actually a scene where Quilty is shot to death, we only read about the death of Humbert. Words having less force than images, what little punishment Humbert gets for his sin is diminished in its effect on the audience by merely being described.
Something About Amelia (1984)
Something About Amelia, a television movie that aired in 1984, takes this principle to the next level. In this movie, a man has sex with a child that is his own biological daughter. And yet, owing to the taboo of violating the family, he is not punished for his crime. At most, he is inconvenienced. In this movie, the Bennett family consists of married couple Steven (Ted Danson) and Gail (Glenn Close), and their two daughters, Amelia and Beth, ages thirteen and ten respectively. In the first scene of the movie, Steven becomes upset when he finds out from Gail that Amelia is going to a dance with a boy named Robert. You can feel the anger seething through him, saying that she is only thirteen, too young to be going on dates. Later, when talking to Amelia, Steven can just barely contain his irritation about her going out on a date. As we can already guess, he is possessively jealous of her.
When talking to Steven, Gail said she was glad that Amelia was finally taking an interest in boys. At the dance, while other couples are dancing cheek to cheek, Amelia pushes Robert back when he tries to do the same. It is clear from Gail’s remark and from Amelia’s refusal to dance close that she is sexually disturbed, so much so that she breaks away from Robert and leaves the dance floor.
After the dance, Amelia gets more pressure from her father about not going out with Robert again. Later, when Steven and Gail are alone in their bedroom, Gail makes reference to the fact that they haven’t had sex in a month.
The next day, Steven becomes angry that Amelia is not going to watch the football game with him because she is going to see a friend of hers. As Amelia is leaving, she sees Steven with his arm around Beth, watching the game on the couch. Later, in an argument with her mother about doing the ironing, Amelia says that not only is Beth old enough to do her own ironing, but also that ironing isn’t the only thing Beth is old enough for. Gail and Beth don’t know what she means, but Amelia is thinking that Steven will soon be having sex with Beth too.
Mrs. Hall, the school guidance counselor, who noticed Amelia’s behavior at the dance, calls her into her office. She notes that Amelia used to be on the honor roll, but lately her grades have been falling, and she thinks it has something to do with the fact that Amelia is obviously depressed. After much coaxing, Amelia admits that her father has been “messing around” with her. Mrs. Hall tells Gail what has been going on, but Gail doesn’t believe her, becoming furious with Amelia instead.
The police take Amelia away, and she ends up at the Hollowell Center, “a place for kids with trouble.” When Steven finds out what happened, he goes to the police station, where a detective tells him that if he were some guy that lived down the street, he’d be in jail already. But since Steven is Amelia’s father, they book him on suspicion of child abuse and release him on his own recognizance. This is the first indication we have in this movie that a father that molests his daughter will get better treatment and more consideration than a man who has had sex with a girl to whom he is unrelated. No explanation is offered as to why this is the case, but it is in accordance with the taboo against messing around with the sanctity of the family.
Through an interview with a social worker, Amelia says, in so many words, that her father began touching her when she was eleven, and he had sex with her shortly after that. Steven is forced to move out and get an apartment, allowing Amelia to return home. When Beth finds out what is going on, she calls Amelia a liar. But once the facts have become undeniable, Gail becomes angry that Amelia let her father have sex with her, implying that it’s all her fault, and Beth says Amelia shouldn’t have told anyone about it.
Gail ends up going to see Dr. Farley, a family-guidance counselor. He explains to her that Steven needs sympathy and understanding:
Because, like the other men who did what he did, he probably had an enormous need that he was unable to fulfill in any other way…. You’re going to find this almost impossible to believe, very difficult to understand. But incest has relatively little to do with sex. What these men yearn for, most of them, is comfort and warmth. Security, intimacy, love.
Remember that hypothetical guy down the street, who the detective said would already be in jail if he had been the one having sex with Amelia? Try to imagine Dr. Farley saying something similar about him, that he simply yearned for “comfort and warmth,” for “security, intimacy, love.”
It would be unthinkable to characterize that guy’s molestation of an eleven-year-old girl in such endearing terms. So, what’s the difference? Had it been that guy down the street, it would not have been incest. No sympathy and understanding would be vouchsafed that perpetrator, someone completely outside Amelia’s family. Instead, he would be on his way to prison, and after serving his sentence, he would have to register as a sex offender. But since it was incest between a father and his daughter, which is actually much worse, the attitude of this movie is that it warrants compassion and empathy.
Farley also says that men like Steven “can’t control their impulses.” This is also intended to make Gail (and us) sympathetic, since we should not blame a man for what he does, if he is unable to control his impulses. But that undermines the whole point of providing Steven with counseling, with the ultimate goal of bringing the family back together. If Steven can’t control his impulses, counseling will not change that, and there is no way he should be allowed to live in the same house with Amelia and Beth. But Dr. Farley is blind to this contradiction.
Gail picks up on the part about “an enormous need that he was unable to fulfill in any other way,” from which she infers that Dr. Farley is saying it is her fault. But instead of simply saying, “Oh, no, you’re not to blame,” Farley says, “Blame is not what we’re about here,” which means he is implying that it is her fault.
Later, in a conversation Gail has with Steven, she says she doesn’t understand why he did it. It’s easy to see why she is perplexed. There is no behavior so bizarre that it cannot be explained to everyone’s satisfaction once sex is known to be the motive. But now that she has accepted Farley’s assertion that incest is not about sex, what Steven did has become a mystery. Farley has apparently told Steven too that it wasn’t about sex, and now he doesn’t know why he did it either.
Gail decides not to divorce Steven, admitting that she would be afraid to be alone. She says:
I remember when Jack and Elaine had been divorced for, you know, six months. And Elaine said, “It was a bad marriage, but anything’s better than this.”
In other words, the taboo against violating the sanctity of the family implies that divorce is unacceptable, and any woman who does divorce her child-molesting husband will be miserable.
Everyone agrees to go in for counseling, and we are left with the impression that one day they will all be one big happy family again. This is supposed to be a nice, uplifting movie, assuring us that fathers that molest their daughters don’t have to go to prison. Instead, they can be rehabilitated by talking it out and having some sensitivity therapy. Those who produced this movie clearly felt that while incestuous child molestation is unfortunate, there is no need to let something like that break up a family.
In the final scene, we see Amelia remembering when she was little, and how Steven held her and sang a lullaby to her. It makes her smile to think how much he loved her. After all, a girl needs her father.
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