Jackson trial underscores unease between adults, kids

In anxious culture, once-normal actions face greater scrutiny

Ideas: Innocence Lost?

June 26, 2005|By Julia Keller | Julia Keller,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

For now, Michael Jackson is off the hook - but society may not be so fortunate.

The entertainer, of course, beat the rap this month in his child molestation trial, yet its tawdriness was just the latest element undermining the once-wistful notion of childhood.

No matter what the jury decided about Jackson, the damage was already done: Childhood has been sullied by suspicion and innuendo. From revelations about child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy to what feels like an increasing number of news accounts of teachers, coaches and parents accused of sexually abusing minors, the world seems awash in imperiled urchins and predatory grown-ups.

"I think we're in an odd time," says Dr. Robert Galaster-Levy, a psychoanalyst who practices at Chicago's Institute for Psychoanalysis.

"There's an atmosphere where children and adults are less at ease with normal relationships," he adds. "People are anxious and uncomfortable in ordinary, tender and positive relationships between adults and children.

"There was a time when touching a child would be an ordinary thing for a teacher to do. Children are forever cuddling up to people. Now, there's the concern - `Well, what will that lead to? Does that mean there's something going on that shouldn't be going on?'"

Gary Fine, sociology professor at Northwestern University, agrees. "The public may be overreacting in the sense of, `Let's be suspicious of everyone.' It creates a real sense of paranoia."

In the newly poisonous atmosphere that behavior like Jackson's - even though jurors didn't find it criminal - helped create, a friendly hand on the shoulder can seem like a come-on. A Boy-Scout or Girl-Scout leader must avoid being alone with a troop member.

The current paranoia over adult-child interactions casts a shadow over the most innocuous encounters, forcing a re-evaluation of even the most familiar ones in film, books and television.

Movies that show passionate, locker-room relationships between coaches and players, such as Hoosiers (1986), Remember the Titans (2000) and Friday Night Lights (2004), have a different ring to them after the Jackson trial and other revelations of questionable adult behavior.

Adults who hang out with kids for apparently innocent reasons - such as James M. Barrie, the Peter Pan author whose affection for young boys was chronicled in last year's film Finding Neverland, and Lewis Carroll, who modeled the title character in Alice in Wonderland after a young girl he adored - suddenly look less than savory.

Even The Cat in the Hat (1957) bristles with sinister implications in the light of recent headlines: The children try to keep the cat out of their house, but he forces his way in and causes them terrible anxiety. It's a nervous-making story, despite its cheerful rhymes and colorful pictures, a story of havoc and dread.

In real life and in the cultural products that reflect that life, adult-child relationships now seem to operate on at least two levels: the superficial and, tucked coyly beneath it, a creepy, subterranean one of exploitation and darkness.

"There's a new hysteria," says Dr. Christine Kieffer, a colleague of Galaster-Levy's at the institute, who specializes in child and adolescent psychoanalysis. "Fathers who spend the day in the park with their children are looked at with suspicion."

But if the world is so threatened by new notions of childhood sexual abuse, if we're newly sensitive to the evil and pervasiveness of such behavior, then how did the Jackson trial become a punch line?

In his monologue on the night of Jackson's acquittal, Jay Leno of NBC's Tonight Show cracked, "Good news for Michael Jackson - not guilty on all 10 counts. The bad news - he's going to Disneyland!"

Can a subject such as child sex abuse be both feared and funny at the same time?

Yes, says Galaster-Levy. "Jokes are one of the ways that people try to master things that are terribly anxiety-arousing. Humor is a way of gaining mastery over things that bother us.

"There are a lot of things going on that shouldn't be. But you don't want that to be the overarching theme of how we think about adults and children."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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