Academic journal article Journal of Evolutionary Psychology

Keri Hulme's the Bone People: The Problem of Beneficial Child Abuse

Academic journal article Journal of Evolutionary Psychology

Keri Hulme's the Bone People: The Problem of Beneficial Child Abuse

Article excerpt

The term "child abuse" is electric. It produces a visceral response from the general public and screaming headlines about nightmarish day care centers or pedophilic priests. The sexual or physically violent treatment of children seems to conflict with an inherent taboo in civilized society, eliciting automatic horror. The reaction is usually so extreme that it can lead to witch hunts--for example, a day care center in North Carolina whose caretakers were rigorously prosecuted, and indeed persecuted, until their sudden and complete exoneration; a teacher in Maryland accused by several underage female students, who was forced to forfeit his job and was vilified by the courts and the public for two years until the girls admitted it was all a lie, done out of revenge for a bad grade. So child abuse is so hot an issue that we will tolerate excesses in pursuit of punishing it.

In abuse cases the abusive relationship is invariably seen by the public in terms of pathology, the interaction of a sadistic adult and an innocent child, predator and prey. But what if, even beyound the situations in the above cases, the child is the actual instigator of real abuse? What if our investigation of an abusive relationship discovers a child who actively and consciously employs provocative and exasperating behavior in order to drive adults to violence against him or her? Perhaps we would still see the adult as the responsible party, only now guilty of omission rather than commission. The adult, we would say, as the mature participant, should have exercised restraint. We might feel slightly more lenient toward the adult here, but not too much.

Now let's go further still. Given our hardwired condemnatory reactions to abuse, how on earth are we to respond to a description of intense and repeated physical abuse in which the child is the provocateur, no blame is ever pronounced, and the abuse leads directly to the healthy reclamation of individuals and their (formerly) dysfunctional relationships with each other? That is exactly what we are confronted with in Keri Hulme's novel The Bone People.

Of course, the story does not reveal this unusual situation immediately, although our initial encounter with the child, Simon P. Gillayley, does indeed mark him as unusual. For one thing, the story's central character, Kerewin Holmes, finds that he has broken into her home, a tower she has built for seclusion (Bone People 16-18). Also, since Kerewin is half-Maori, half European (pakeha), she finds Simon's appearance to be quite exotic with his pale European skin, "seabluegreen" eyes, "a startling colour, like opals", and white-blond hair (17). More surprising yet, he is mute and communicates by writing ("CANNOT SPEAK"). Physically he seems almost pretty and quite powerless:

   There isn't much above a yard of it standing there, a
   foot out of range of her furthermost reach. Small and
   thin, with an extraordinary face, highboned and hollow-cheeked,
   cleft and pointed chin, and a sharp sharp nose.
   Nothing else is visible under an obscuration of silver-blond
   hair except the mouth, and it's set in an uncommonly
   stubborn line. (16)

Yet his slightness is deceptive. Already there are signs that he is manipulative, for he knows enough to stand out of range of adults' ability to hit and enough also to disguise his motives by hiding his eyes. His jaw shows determination. Small and silent though he is, he manages to maneuver other people by using his body:

   He moves slowly, awkwardly, one arm stretched to touch the
   wall all the way down, and she is forced to stop on each
   step behind him, and every time she stops, she can see him
   tense, shoulders jerking. (18)

Later we will understand in retrospect that he is tensing at the possibility of being shoved or hit, but notice also how he forces Kerewin to walk downstairs at his exaggerated pace. And when she offers him the sandal she had found outside before she knew of his presence, he proceeds to manipulate her wordlessly once again, this time into the role of servant:

   He looks at the sandal in her hand, glances quickly at
   her face, and then, heart thumping visibly in his throat,
   sits down on the bottom step. … 
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