Standard Deviation

By Petrakis, John | The Christian Century, December 28, 2004 | Go to article overview

Standard Deviation


Petrakis, John, The Christian Century


WHEN ALFRED Charles Kinsey was hired as an assistant professor of zoology at Indiana University in 1920, he began a two-decade study of the gall wasp, collecting over 1 million samples. He loved the gall wasp, he said, because each one was totally different from the others. In 1938, at the behest of curious students, lie taught a course called "Marriage" that was designed to dispel the sexual myths that were confounding and frustrating young people. ("Is it true that oral sex can cause problems getting pregnant? Will excessive masturbation lead to impotence?")

Kinsey gave the students what they wanted, and then some. Soon his students were taking a written questionnaire about their sex lives. Then he designed a 350-question interview process, and within two years Kinsey and colleagues were traveling across the country conducting thousands of interviews. They discovered that when it came to sex, each subject was totally different from the others.

Kinsey, written and directed by Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters), is in many ways a traditional Hollywood biopic. What makes this tale intense is the degree to which Kinsey's life was his work--not only in the amount of time he spent at it, but also in the way he used his research to explain and exorcise the demons in his own life.

In developing that point, Condon employs a fascinating and comprehensive expository device: he has Kinsey (Liam Neeson) detail his life through the very interview process he invented. (The film begins with Kinsey off-screen, castigating a member of his team for shoddy interviewing technique.) Together with appropriately placed flashbacks, this Q-and-A format allows us to learn about Kinsey's lonely and sickly childhood, his mastery of the outdoors (in 1913 he was one of only 77 Eagle Scouts in the U.S.), and his difficult relationship with his dogmatic and demanding father (John Lithgow), an engineering professor and Methodist preacher who would howl about the sins of lust. (In one sermon, he bemoans the invention of the zipper, which "provides every man and boy speedy access to moral oblivion.")

We also learn about his marriage to his onetime student, Clara McMillen (Laura Linney); the birth of his three children; his insatiable curiosity about all things scientific; and his frustration at the sexual ignorance that surrounds him. …

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