Documenting the Paedophile: Virtual White Men in the Era of Recovered Memory
Harkins, Gillian, New Formations
Every time you think you have the truth in this film it sort of slithers away down some corridor and suddenly you're left wondering again. I felt that was one of the things that had to come across about the film, was how hard it was to find the truth, how hard it is to find the truth, how our memories change over time to suit our needs. You know, we think we put our memories away in a box and we can go check on them later and they'll be the same; they're never the same, they're just these electro-chemical bubbles that continue to bubble over time.
Andrew Jarecki, Interview with Charlie Rose (24 June 2003).
Many critics argue that we are in an era defined by memory. The post-1945 period is marked by a generalised trauma culture, one that has produced what Eric Santner calls a 'rhetoric of mourning' iterated as 'shattering, rupture, mutilation, fragmentation, to images of fissures, wounds, rifts, gaps, and abysses'. (1) This insight is echoed by such diverse critics as Cathy Caruth, Shoshana Felman, Ian Hacking, and Andreas Huyssen, each of whom posits a turn toward memory as the historical discourse of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. (2) Film critics have also noted a marked memory turn in the cinema of this era, particularly in films treating crises in white masculine authority in the United States. In films like Christopher Nolan's Memento (2000) and Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), memory becomes the vehicle through which such authority crises are introduced, negotiated and resolved into new forms of white masculine identity. What is less frequently noted however is a peculiar subset of the new memory genre: films treating haunting memories of childhood sexual abuse. In films such as Andrew Jarecki's Capturing the Friedmans (2003), Clint Eastwood's Mystic River (2003), Gregg Araki's Mysterious Skin (2004), and Nicole Kassell's The Woodsman (2004), memories of child sexual abuse repeatedly return prototypical white men to scenes of a specifically sexual vulnerability. This condition of vulnerability is then resolved cinematically, through the crafting of the white 'paedophile' as both sexual type (empirically distinguishable from normal men) and virtual image (outside the representation of either past or present). Memory is yoked to a regime of what Katherine Hayles and Brian Massumi theorise as 'virtuality,' allowing the white paedophile to emerge as the vehicle for the reformation of troubled white masculinity as well as the medium for new technological relations of reality associated with neoliberalism. This essay focuses on Jarecki's 2003 documentary Capturing the Friedmans, arguing that this Oscar-nominated documentary best reveals the technological relations through which the white paedophile appears as the virtual image of a neoliberal 'real', part of a signature visual code in what I call memory for new times. (3)
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, a series of films represented white men as the traumatic subjects of a specifically memorial vulnerability. Recent films such as Memento and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind feature white heterosexual men whose loss of a white woman prompts the decomposition of their memory. Both films stress the importance of memory in a properly composed white masculinity, and both films purport to universalise their themes with broad meditations on the nature of forgetting and unbidden loss, memory and the agency of recollection. The memory-loss films of this era depart from earlier genres treating white masculine agency, such as Joel Schumacher's Falling Down (1993), focusing not on physical action but on memory itself as a site of masculine victimisation and recovery. (4) According to David Savran, claims of white male victimhood have been on the rise since the 1950s, when 'a marginalized and dissident masculinity' represented 'an attempt by white men to respond to and regroup in the face of particular social and economic challenges'. …