A fallen heroine

James R. Kincaid

July 29, 1993|By James R. Kincaid

ON THE morning of April 2, in the courthouse of the small northern California mining town of Jamestown, a preliminary hearing was under way on charges against Daniel Driver for allegedly molesting several young boys.

During the proceedings, the mother of one of the boys, Ellie Nesler, thought she detected Daniel Driver smirking. So she went and got a gun, walked back into court and stopped the smirks forever.

Now charged with murder, Ellie Nesler, cast by the law as a killer, has made herself available for the role of cultural heroine.

Ellie Nesler took us at our word. Believing that Driver was a pederast, she did what society wants done to pederasts: She plugged him five times, stopping perversion dead in its tracks.

Never mind that Driver had not yet been tried. He was accused, and that is enough, especially when a child is involved.

So she did just what we might assume Harriet Nelson would have done, thus furthering our modern, grisly form of frontier melodrama, in which child-molesters (or anyone we think might be one) can play the part of the cattle-rustling varmint.

Ellie Nesler's story, however, has not sold well. For a while it attracted the best tale-tellers we have: Phil, Oprah, Geraldo, even Charles Kuralt. And Hollywood, of course, with its attendant plot-making flood of agents, producers and ghost writers.

She got the nation's attention, and each of us was able to tell the story in our own way: either "ain't she great!" or "ain't it awful!" She was the heroine in either case: spontaneous eruption of American motherly virtue or vigilante wild woman.

Now, however, the fund-raising spaghetti suppers for Ellie Nesler and the telegrams offering support, love, money and I-know-just-how-you-felt bolstering have stopped. It seems she is not Harriet Nelson after all. She admitted that she had been waiting for an opportunity to shoot Daniel Driver for more than two years.

She has a criminal record for auto theft, and on the morning of the shooting she was loaded with methamphetamine. In place of anguished motherhood pushed to the breaking point by a jeering defendant who was about to be coddled by a soft judicial system, we now have a drug-addled ex-con with a long-term vendetta.

Why does society want one story and shun the other? The original was more dramatic: It can occupy the mind for about 90 exciting minutes, which, allowing for commercials and interviews with the real-life participants, is about what a TV movie would sop up.

Beyond that, we liked her story because we need to think about child sexuality in stark terms with no human complication that could stain the innocence of the story and therefore of the child and, somehow, of ourselves. Alas, Ellie Nesler doesn't fit the tale of righteous mother anymore.

The story our culture feels it deserves would allow us to speak endlessly about child sexuality and the sexual attraction of children (for others) while maintaining our distance from these lurid tales.

The initial attraction of Ellie Nesler was her separation from the eroticism involved. She gave us all an excuse to wash, guilt free, in the details of another trial and another story of a sexual relationship between an adult and a child.

For her to serve as our surrogate, she had to be pure, so we could imagine her (and ourselves) to be so free of any thought of the erotic appeal of children that the very notion of it made her homicidal.

So she should never have medicated herself that morning or have gotten in trouble with the law as a teen-ager. And she should never have admitted that she had thought about killing Driver before that delectable moment when any of us might have been so maddened by the unthinkableness of it all that we would have sprung at the monster to rip his throat out.

But she did, so she has given up her right to represent us. Being complicated, she gets in the way of the view we want: the moving story of how parents affirm the unspeakableness of sexual interest in children by speaking of it frequently and, every now and then, murdering someone just to make the story stick.

James R. Kincaid, professor of English at the University of Southern California, is author of "Child-Loving: The Erotic Child and Victorian Culture."

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