On Purity and Shame


Hetty Johnson from the anti-child abuse group Bravehearts was on TV tonight. She said that the one in five people who have been abused as a child were angry at the Bill Henson exhibition.

I am one such person for whom she claims to speak. I was abused, but I am not angry at Bill Henson. I am saddened by those who would shut him up. If they succeed, they advance one step further, after so many steps in the last decade, in relegating young lives to a "purity" and innocence far removed from reality. It is a false and enforced purity that disempowers the young, but which the spin of modern politics requires that we all support.

It is in the cloistered purity of childhood and family or school that most child abuse takes place. Unknowing of their own position, scared to speak up about it, and shamed by what might be happening to them, children can not speak — they are not supposed to know of these things, and indeed often do not and so can not speak. The message now being sent loud and clear during the controversy over Bill Henson’s art is that their bodies are pornographic: further reason to be quiet.

As I look at Bill Henson’s work from a distance (since it is now hard to find), it would seem to give expression to real experience, and allow things to be said that I wish I had been able to say as a boy.

Hetty Johnson may be a brave heart, but her puritanical campaign has the potential to expand the circle of silence in which child abuse occurs. I know that as a boy becoming a man in the early 1980s I was completely denied the right to speak about my sexuality and in so doing could not bring myself to speak about abuse perpetrated upon me. This is my story.

I was fourteen. It was the day after Anzac Day, which, as a Naval Cadet, I had spent marching and falling into line. Afterwards, I noticed a swelling in my scrotum. I told my mother I was experiencing stomach pains. She wanted to take me to the doctor. I insisted on going alone. She gave in.

I told the doctor that I had drunk too much coke at the RSL function after the ANZAC march and that perhaps I was too bloated. It was the only thing I could imagine causing my testicle to swell.

He asked me to strip. I did so. He fondled the swollen testicle and the normal testicle. In his white overall he looked officious and respectable. He looked like an old man, tall and grey. He then reached for my penis and explained that the swollenness was a result of not releasing the semen inside me. He then proceeded to masturbate me, to help me understand how to do it. I too felt officious.

This task was a medical emergency, or so I thought. I don’t recall ejaculating, and I don’t recall how it ended. What I do know is that on the second day I returned to the clinic, after the swelling and pain had increased, the same thing happened. He played with me. I have no memory of it other than that.

My mother had no idea what was wrong with me because I was too embarrassed to explain it. I told her it was a stomach problem. Genital parts were simply not for the speaking in my adolescence.

The next day the pain spread to my lower abdomen. I sweated that night out. The next morning my mother was exasperated and insisted on taking me to the doctor. I still went without her. But she wouldn’t let me go alone, and instead insisted that my best friend accompany me. She paid for a taxi. Two 14-year-old boys in a taxi in that small town was a rare sight indeed.

I can’t remember much of what happened the third time at the clinic. I saw the same doctor. He prescribed antibiotics. At least it was some medicine. I wanted anything for the unbearable pain. I don’t remember how I got home. I lay on the couch until the next morning, refusing to move to bed. I still remember the street lights streaming in through the curtains. I counted stars in between the passing of clouds to get through the night.

The fourth day my mother again insisted on coming to the clinic with me. She would not listen to my by now weak pleading to go alone. I wanted her to come, but couldn’t say it. And in between that dilemma I wrestled with a pain I have never known again, a stabbing knife that was inside me and which threatened to pierce my outer body from within.

This time I met a different doctor. He had a moustache and tousled hair. The greyness was gone. I told my mother to wait outside. She refused. She came into the examination room, but when I refused to pull down my pants in front of my mother the doctor drew a curtain around me.

By now the swollen testicle felt and looked three times its normal size. He looked at my mother sitting outside the curtain-wrapped bounds and told her that she had to take me to hospital immediately.

My father was summoned from work and drove me 50 kilometres to the hospital. I don’t think my parents had grasped what was happening, they were still of the belief that I had a stomach complaint. When we arrived at the hospital, I hopped towards the reception, and was then put in a wheelchair.

Admitted, I was then subjected to student doctors looking at my monstrously oversized testicle. The pubic area was shaved in preparation for surgery. I was told that I had testicular torsion — a twisting of the spermatic cord — the line upon which half the contract of life depends. It had to be cut out. That suggestion did not horrify me then, it came as an enormous relief. I just needed peace. And so it was taken from me, a by now gangrenous and dead testicle that might, I later learned, have endangered my life.

My parents — in that odd afterglow of surgery consisting of icecream, love, and disinfectant — asked me why I had not told them what was happening. I had nothing I could say. To this day, they do not know about what the doctor did, and I would not wish them to know.

Even now I can not give voice to what led me to being so protective of my mother, to shield her from my body. For that is what I was doing. But now a lapsed Catholic, I know that a lot of it had to do with shame.

I see no shame in Bill Henson’s work.

Some details of this story have been changed.

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