by Doctor Science
Last month there was quite a uproar in the sf/fantasy realm over Orson Scott Card's novella Hamlet's Father, a re-working of Hamlet in which Hamlet's father turns out to have been a gay child molester. Rose Fox at Publisher's Weekly has a good summary of the firestorm; as she says,
But this is the thing about offensiveness grenades: they may look entirely inert for so long that you forget they’re dangerous, but sooner or later, they explode.One reason for the uproar is that OSC (as he's often known) is outspokenly anti-homosexual -- yonmei's posts on Dissecting Orson Scott Card go into all the detail you can stomach.
"Hamlet's Father" was originally published in The Ghost Quartet, four sf/horror novellas edited by Marvin Kaye, so I got it out of the library and read it to judge for myself. What I found was that the people objecting to the story (who actually read it, that is) were mostly IMHO reading it wrong. This is not surprising, because IMHO OSC *wrote* it wrong.
William Alexander at Rain Taxi is wrong when he describes the "punch line" as:
"Old King Hamlet was an inadequate king because he was gay, an evil person because he was gay, and, ultimately, a demonic and ghostly father of lies who convinces young Hamlet to exact imaginary revenge on innocent people.And Publisher's Weekly is wrong to say:
the focus is primarily on linking homosexuality with the life-destroying horrors of pedophiliaI disagree. The story is not in any developed way about homosexuality, it is about child abuse. In that respect, it's very much like the rest of OSC's fiction, which focuses on the figure of an abused child with a consistency I can only call compulsive.
So (IMHO, IMHO, it's all just A Theory Which Is Mine) OSC wrote it wrong because he's unable to look clearly at the pictures he himself paints. A basic rule of fiction writing is "Show, Don't Tell" -- and what OSC *shows* is the traditional, patriarchal family as a nightmare of abuse, while what he *tells* is that these are the only "real families" worthy of respect.
I am cutting here for:
TRIGGER WARNING: discussion of fictional and real-life child abuse, emotional and sexual. Survivors take care.
SPOILER WARNING: post and comments may contain spoilers for any work by Orson Scott Card.
PSYCHOBIOGRAPHY WARNING: includes analysis and speculation about the psychological makeup of a living person, verging on Real Person Fic. May contain trace Freudian concepts.
OSC's Muse is an abused child
I am surprised to find, googling about, that it does not appear to be conventional wisdom that all OSC's novels are about child abuse. This surprises me because my friends and I noticed and discussed this back in the 1980s, when OSC first became a well-known SF writer. I remember us talking about the following works:
Songmaster (1979): I never read this one, because the housemates who got the copy before me were fairly traumatized by it. My understanding: the protagonist is a child taken away from home, trained as a singer by adults who praise and teach him, but also use drugs to manipulate him. He's a target for all kinds of adult sexual interest, and ends up in a homosexual relationship that is both one of the best things in his life, but also the most destructive. *Lots* of readers cry for the last few chapters.
Hart's Hope (1983): I did read this one, and it made *me* cry. The POV character is a boy whose cold, distant father is an evil rapist, basically. The person he raped, in public, with the populace cheering, was a 12-year-old girl, whose father (the former king) was *also* plenty evil. She is now magically powerful, and also insane because of the way she was treated. I never felt the story really *resolved*, exactly, because the horrors the children suffered were so very realistic, and the ending so ambiguous.
Ender's Game (1985): This one you've probably read. My memory of it (I haven't re-read it in 15 or 20 years): Ender is raised by a domineering-yet-distant, manipulative father, and a mother I don't remember at all. He hates and loves his brother and sister, who are also (like him) geniuses, though in different ways. He's horribly bullied by his peers, which the adults ignore. He's taken away from home to be raised in military school with other putative future leaders, told he's being brought up to fight the horrible insectoid aliens, the "buggers". He is especially good at the video game the students play to learn strategy & tactics, and when he succeeds in winning the game (as the leader of the group of kids) he finds out that the grownups were lying to him all along: he's actually been really fighting, and really giving orders that kill people, and really coordinating a genocide. Ender is proclaimed a hero, but knows his teachers really made him a monster. Later he meets (or psychically talks to, I don't recall the details) the chief bugger, the Hive Queen (who survived), and he joins with his sister to look for a way for the Hive Queen and humans to mutually co-exist.
Speaker for the Dead (1986): Millennia later, Ender (who dodged history via relativistic time-dilation) is the "Speaker for the Dead", who tells stories to help people reconcile with their dead. He comes to the planet of Lusitania, where a complex plot ensues involving alien species. For me the emotional focus of the book is Novinha, who as a young girl was traumatized when her parents died in a plague for which they'd just found the cure, so everyone else was happy while Novinha was bereaved. Novinha grows up to make horrible, manipulative decisions for herself and for other people (none of whom use birth control, which could have solved *so* many problems), largely because she was so twisted by her grief and fear.
Wyrms (1987): This one was actually my favorite, IIRC. What I remember is how Patience, the heroine, was raised by her cold, manipulative father (do you sense a trend?) to be a ruler but also a slave. She has to escape her upbringing after his death -- and escape him again, since he's become a brain-in-a-jar. Her journey to become the Rightful Ruler involves not only learning to appreciate the usual Motley Crew of Companions™, but also to appreciate and in a twisted way love an inhuman monster, the Enemy -- and to learn that they are *all* inhuman monsters, underneath. And it has a happy ending, where Patience becomes the King as she ought to be.
It was at about this point that one of the friends in my SF-trading circle said, "All his books are about abused children, aren't they?" And we all agreed that yep, that's sure what it looks like. It's not just the POV of an abused child that's consistent, there's also:
- father who manipulates his children as tools for his own ends; usually cold and distant, but may play upon his children's love to get results. Emotional abuse always, verbal or physical abuse frequently.
- mother who is absent or feckless
- frequently though not always, pedophilic sexual abuse by a male authority figure
- no adult can be trusted to notice children's suffering, or to help make it better
- the only hope for abused children is to trust and love each other, to build a new family of choice out of the wreckage
- the monsters adults have taught you to hate -- worms, insects, pigs, bugs, buggers -- are the ones you need to understand and reach out to. They are less monstrous than the adult authority figures.
OSC was a victim of child abuse, but he is not a survivor
Fortunately for myself, I have no personal experience of child abuse. But over the years I've read books by survivors, talked to a number first-hand and encountered many more online -- fora like Making Light's Dysfunctional Families Day can provide much harrowing education.
Generally speaking, I find speculating about the motives or psychology of living writers to be both stupid and tacky. I am making an exception for OSC because he's been willing to say a lot of stupid, tacky, and hurtful things about homosexuals (and open-minded people in general). I have no personal knowledge of his background, family, or psychology, I'm just using some Sherlockian -- or Freudian -- logic.
I assumed, years ago, that since OSC's Muse is an abused child, he was one, too. I don't have the temerity to diagnose what kind of abusive family he grew up in, but emotional abuse seems pretty certain. I wouldn't be surprised if he was sexually abused by a male (relative? Church Elder? teacher?), but I also wouldn't be surprised if it was one of his siblings who was the major abuse target, with him just catching the backwash.
I of course knew that OSC is Mormon, but I only learned from Wikipedia that his great-great-grandfather was Brigham Young, and his great-grandfather Charles Ora Card fled to Canada to keep practicing polygamy. This means that OSC's grandfather certainly grew up in a polygamous household, and may well have been a polygamist himself -- many of the descendents of Young and the other founders of the Church continued to practice plural marriage long after it was officially disavowed.
Even when Mormon-style polygamy isn't inherently abusive, it makes abuse really easy. One of the themes that shows up all the time in the lives of abused children is that "we don't talk to outsiders about what happens in the family." Because polygamy has been illegal, polygamist families habitually lie about basic facts such as how people are related to each other. Lies, secrets and silence about family structure can very easily grow to conceal more brutal dysfunctions.
Mormon beliefs and practices can make it extra-hard to acknowledge and deal with family abuse. The LDS Church is honest enough to call itself patriarchal: every Mormon man potentially has the power of the priesthood, exercising his authority as a "benevolent protectorate" and constrained by the other men in the hierarchy. That trick never works: as you might expect, a study of adult Mormon survivors of child sexual abuse found that most women who had talked about their abuse to church leaders had negative and unhelpful experiences:
One woman reported that a church leader, from whom she sought guidance, told her that if she would forgive the perpetrator, she would forget that the abuse had ever occurred. Others were told that the fact that they remembered their abuse was evidence they had not "forgiven" sufficiently.I'm not saying that Mormonism inevitably leads to child abuse, but that the Church's beliefs and structure make abuse especially hard to detect and deal with.
Five of the women who spoke to church leaders were disciplined by the church ... for behaviors (such as sexual behavior) related to the abuse. Of the 80 Mormon perpetrators, only 3 were disciplined in any way.
When OSC's novel Lost Boys was published (1992), I was initially impressed. "Whoa," thought I, "a Mormon who writes something about the Lost Boys of polygamy, the ones who get tossed out to keep the sex ratio weighted toward women! That takes a lot of guts." I thought too soon. It's actually a very slow-moving horror story about a Mormon family and the horrible outsiders they encounter, most terribly a serial killer who targets boys (though there's also a *different* man who's a pedophile targeting girls). For a Mormon with a polygamous family tree, this smells to me of projection: we don't have Lost Boys, no sirree! That's a problem that comes from the outside! And yet, the serial killer's victims turn out to be buried *under the house* (I haven't read the book, I'm going by the plot summary on Wikipedia -- and I hope for OSC's sake that the summary is making the ending sound more treacley than it actually is), and the killer turns out to be the owner's *father*, IMHO because OSC's Muse and his unconscious keep making sure that we know there's a danger in the house/in the home/in the traditional family, and it wears a fatherly face.
One of the consistent patterns with abusive or other highly dysfunctional families (e.g. alcoholism) is that the children are taught to lie, not just to outsiders, but to themselves. "Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?" The reason I say OSC is a victim, not a survivor, is that he hasn't made that crucial first step: to find and tell the truth about his own life. At least, not in a conscious way: his literary Muse keeps telling the truth, loudly, over and over -- "I was hurt, I was emotionally neglected, he did bad things and the grownups didn't care." But then, the Muses do not lie: you can shut them up or ignore them, but inspiration is too close to the unconscious to *lie*. As Adrienne Rich said in Of Lies, Secrets, and Silence:
To lie habitually, as a way of life, is to lose contact with the unconscious. It is like taking sleeping pills, which confer sleep but blot out dreaming. The unconscious wants truth. It ceases to speak to those who want something else more than truth.I think that's one reason for the anger many SF fans feel toward OSC these days. His books, especially Ender's Game but also many (most?) of the others, have resonated powerfully with other victims of abuse, including gay and gender-noncompliant youth. The message and hope many readers took from the books is that you can walk away from the family that hurt you, and build a more truly loving family outside traditional boundaries. Suffering can make you stronger, and in particular it can help you see the good in the alien, the stranger, the despised. For OSC to come out on the side of the abusers feels like a betrayal. And IMHO it *is* a betrayal, the worst kind an author can commit: he is lying about his own creations, which is also denying the truth of his own soul.
It reminds me of The Sacrifice of Isaac, here depicted by the Caravaggio (Uffizi version). I've been thinking of this especially of late, because this story is one of the Torah readings for Rosh Hashanah.
What good is eternal life if you've sold your soul for it?
I think -- or rather, I've made up a story in my head, embarrassingly close to RPF -- a particular Mormon belief is contributing to OSC's high-profile promotion of "family values". As is well-known, OSC and his wife have had five children, two of whom died untimely. Charles Benjamin was born in 1983 with cerebral palsy; he died in 2000 at the age of 17. Erin Louisa was born in 1997 and lived only a few hours. Speaking as a parent, this is a terrible burden of grief.
One of the crucial facets of Mormon belief is directed specifically at this kind of loss. In the words of the Doctrine and Covenants, Celestial marriage and a continuation of the family unit enable men to become gods. A Mormon man in a "celestial" (authorized and sealed) marriage to a Mormon woman can anticipate being re-united with his family after death.
Sealed for All Eternity, by Mormon painter Sean Hamilton. This is what the LDS church offers: an image of the family as *holy*, as the route to God. In Hamilton's painting the family members are joined together seamlessly, one body with many heads or souls
-- and the only member who is distinguishable is the father with his conventional tie. The "marked" figure in the middle, with the tie and nametag is probably a son, about to go on a mission or just returned.
I bring this up because I was puzzled, in reading OSC's diatribes against homosexual marriage, at how much he stresses that same-sex marriages cannot be "real" marriages and their families can't be "real" families. I mean, wtf? Since I was thinking of concepts like "marriage" as being principally legal, this didn't make any sense.
But then I realized that for OSC the importance of "real marriage" and "real family" is that they give him the hope that he'll see his departed children again. That's how he can say fundamentally crazycakes things like this about same-sex marriage:
... they are attempting to strike a death blow against the well-earned protected status of our, and every other, real marriage.The reason I call this "crazycakes" is because he's flat-out stating that e.g. "making it legally simple and unambiguous for a same-sex couple to hold property in common, make medical decisions, visit each other in the ICU, have custody of children, etc." equals "gain for themselves nothing at all". OSC is a smart guy, how can he possibly believe that gaining more legal rights isn't, in fact, a gain? And what could other people's rights possibly be stealing from him?
They steal from me what I treasure most, and gain for themselves nothing at all. They won't be married. They'll just be playing dress-up in their parents' clothes.
It almost makes sense to me if I think of OSC as like Arthur Conan Doyle, whose grief over his son's death led him to grasp for solace in Spiritualism, so that he believed in the most transparent fakes.
Yes, the creator of Sherlock Holmes thought this was an actual photograph of fairies. Because he *really, really* wanted it to be true.
I can imagine that the deaths of two children may well have led OSC to cling more tightly to Mormon beliefs, for the hope of their postmortem reunion. I can see how that might be what he means by "what I treasure most", and anything that undermines that hope, even indirectly, would be deeply and personally threatening. For the hope of seeing his real children again, he is willing to sacrifice the children of his mind. It's completely appropriate and worthwhile if it *works*, of course. If it doesn't, though, he sold his soul -- and that never ends well.
In a few days I'll post my reading of "Hamlet's Father" as abuse narrative and as fanfiction.