Riverhead, N.Y. -- ON THE east end of Long Island we are living with a nightmare. A 27-year-old woman is accused of prostituting her three daughters, aged 3, 5 and 6, to a number of grown men for money at crack parties. She is also accused of allowing men to take pictures of her daughters being raped and sodomized.
Every dream, Sigmund Freud declared almost a century ago, represents the fulfillment of an unconscious wish. This applies to nightmares, too. Freud called dreams the "royal road to the unconscious." The trick for the psychoanalyst is to figure out the wish. Now I'm neither a psychoanalyst nor a detective, but this accusation, and the way we respond to it, feels to me more like a nightmare than a sober consideration of hard facts.
Our outrage, you see, satisfies so many of our fears and secret longings that, if the charges in the indictments are accurate, this is almost a perfect crime.
It confirms our own powerlessness, and our resigned sense that dreadful things happen all the time and that we can do nothing about them. As we first read the story in April, how many of us hoped desperately to find flaws that would hint that, just maybe, it hadn't really happened, or that not all of it did? Even though we said, "I can't believe it," we meant: "How could something so hideous have happened around the corner?" I'll bet most of us sought out the goriest details. I did. Seduced by the horror, I detested the part of me that wanted to plow through the long excerpts from the statement of the 6-year-old girl.
Even though we view this alleged crime as so disgusting, so revolting, so awful, that we outdo each other coming up with the right words to describe our reactions, the story remains riveting. I don't know the men and woman accused in this case but I do know the neighborhood. It's black -- poor and black -- and so for most whites there is no genuine uncertainty in the words "suspected" or "alleged." In our minds, I fear, the accused are already guilty.
Liberals are commonly castigated for misunderstanding why so many people are frightened by crime, even distant crime. But reports of violent crime create a psychological ripple effect that magnifies the impact of any individual crime. (This crime may not have happened, for all I know, but in the minds of white folk in Riverhead, it did.) In a recent New Yorker article, Tony Hiss explains why Baltimore's very fine zoo has so much trouble attracting visitors. It seems everyone in Baltimore, black and white alike, thinks the zoo is in a high-crime area, so people stay away. That Baltimore's six largest suburban shopping malls have the same crime rate as the zoo cannot penetrate the widespread perception that the zoo is more dangerous.
Our local incident confirms the fear lurking in many whites that blacks are capable of unspeakable, inhuman acts. Just think of the black "wolf pack" who gang-raped and nearly killed the white Central Park jogger. Animals, right? A white female victim can only be violated by "animals." (If the alleged attacker is white and upper class, then the press is more skeptical. By analyzing the "alleged" victim's driving and drinking habits, as the New York Times did in the Palm Beach case, the newspaper encouraged us to think she was "asking for it.")
In this moral universe children, the ultimate innocents, can be violated only by "animals," monsters who in no way resemble us. This is another convenient fiction, since most child abuse, whether punitive or sexual, is carried out by family members, at home.
Adding to our fascination and discomfort, the story involves child pornography, a sexual relationship between adults and children
that is a version of incest, the great taboo. If incest and kiddie porn were erotically uninteresting, there would be no reason to ban them.
So as we read this tale of depravity, pornography and our own powerlessness, many of us are hooked, caught in a nightmare with too many familiar elements.
What might have enabled a 27-year-old mother to defile her own flesh and blood? This could be an engrossing, if depressing, human-interest story, but it's not a simple morality play; the participants don't inhabit the expected moral categories. Readers would have to consider employment and schooling and parenting -- and boring issues like housing and day care and why people smoke crack.
Even a nightmare fulfills a secret wish. That's why we don't read about the mother accused of prostituting her young children and say to ourselves, "No, it couldn't have happened," and mean it. It's why we don't say, "No 6-year-old could get all those facts straight." (Because children make such terrible witnesses, prosecutors don't like to put them on the stand.)
Somehow, weirdly, unconsciously, we want this crime to have happened. Maybe it enables us to feel better about our own cruelties and indiscretions -- shrieking at our children, having one drink too many before we leave the bar, watching a kinky X-rated video -- if there's something out there a thousand times worse than anything we'd ever do. And how about those of us who get a little farther out of line -- beating or sexually abusing our children, getting sloshed five nights out of six, cutting corners on safety inspections or stealing from the company till? At least we're not that bad.
Do we really need atrocities to reassure us that we're OK, even when we're not? Would we (those of us who are white) respond with equal credulity if all the people in this horrible story were white? Just try it as an exercise. If you're white, do you sense maybe a wee bit more skepticism; you resist the exercise, right? Maybe you're trying. But you don't really believe it; it couldn't happen to white folks, right? Certainly not Jews, right? (Remember Lisa Steinberg, Joel Steinberg and Hedda Nussbaum?)
The point is not that no crime happened here. Something may very well have, for all I know. After the children, though, I worry about us, about our readiness, our peculiar eagerness, to embrace such an atrocity. I wish this story -- and our response to it -- didn't feel so much like a revealing nightmare.
Warren Goldstein teaches American studies at the State University of New York at Old Westbury, N.Y.