My first read of Sheila van den Heuvel-Collins’ new book “Past the Dark Field” took place on a crowded bus, surrounded by close friends and college classmates. We were on our way back to campus to start the spring semester, and after some catching up and a little idle chat, the bus got quieter, and most of us started looking at our phones or doing work. I dimmed my phone screen to keep others from reading over my shoulder, and began to read.
The story I started reading described a young person struggling with pedophilic attraction, surrounded by caring friends and family, kind and accepting people who he should be able to trust with his problems, and unable to tell any of them.
I had expected a book, and not a mirror. I would’ve waited until I was alone if I knew how hard it would hit me.
If that introduction leaves you with questions, then I suppose I should mention before I properly start my review that I am indeed a pedophile. That is, I am sexually and romantically attracted primarily to prepubescent children. I am also non-offending, meaning that I have never acted illegally based on my attractions. And I categorize myself as anti-contact, meaning that I do not think sexual contact between adults and children is acceptable.
I received an early copy of “Past the Dark Field” to write a review because the book is about people like me: minor-attracted people (a broader category which includes pedophiles) who are non-offending and anti-contact.
Perhaps it’s best if I give some background information about that, as well.
First of all, to my knowledge, no one has ever written a book like this before. To speak of minor-attracted people (or MAPs) in a sympathetic manner is already incredibly rare. To acknowledge MAPs who have not first committed some kind of crime is almost unheard of. But what Sheila van den Heuvel-Collins has attempted to write, a realistic fictional anthology representing MAPs with varied experiences, based on actual conversations with MAPs, to my knowledge is completely unique. That’s not surprising, since most people do not seem to wrap their heads around the fact that nepiophiles, pedophiles, hebephiles, (broadly speaking, people like me), are just people. People you can talk to, and ask questions of. Instead, it seems like most non-MAPs can’t even wrap their heads around the fact that non-offending MAPs even exist.
And the real horror of that is that people like me have been asking to be heard, and asking for help, for decades. Since the beginning of the internet there have been countless anonymous pleas for help, posted online to anyone who will listen. “I’m a teenager and I keep feeling attracted to young kids, is there something wrong with me?” or “Do these thoughts make me a monster?” or even “Am I going to become the same as the person who abused me?”
These gut-wrenching cries for help are most often met with either hostility or silence. There is more effort made to silence them than to respond to them. But out of this hopelessness, peer-support groups began to form. With professional support non-existent, hard to find, or not safe to access, communities began to form around groups seeking support from each other in dealing with their attractions and living non-offending lives. These are the people and communities that are portrayed in “Past the Dark Field.”
That makes the book personal to me, because after a painful period of self-realization in my teens where I, too, came to understand that I was a pedophile, I joined one of these support groups, called “Virtuous Pedophiles,” to help deal with having pedophilic attraction and with the depression and self-hatred I had developed. Soon after, I joined another support group, founded and led by another anti-contact pedophile going by “Ender,” who is personally thanked in the book’s appendix. A peer support group in a similar style, housed in a fictional online chat room called “MAP Chat,” provides the backbone for Sheila van den Heuvel-Collins’ story.
Sections of conversation from “MAP Chat” touch on basic issues relevant to understanding MAPs, and are interspersed throughout the book, between short stories about individual MAPs dealing with the various effects of their attraction on their real lives. The eleven characters portrayed in the short stories range from adolescence to middle age, include both men and women, and span a wide variety of different sexual attractions. It is an ambitious attempt to portray with less than 150 pages the experiences of an immensely varied group of people.
And, to my relief, van den Heuvel-Collins does not shy away from controversial subject matter in trying to depict these life experiences, or censor them for a non-MAP audience. Instead, she leans into truths about minor-attracted people that many will find startling. One example: the most tender, loving moments in the book describe Aaron, a 16-year-old babysitter, and Ezekiel, a 1-year-old with whom he has fallen in love. Aaron reminisces in an unsent letter to Ezekiel about the start of discovering his attractions, his decision to separate himself, and his mixed feelings about the mutual affection he left behind. It is the kind of situation one would expect a non-MAP author to completely avoid.
“You would curl up in my lap,” he recalls about a “special hug” between them, “your head resting on my left collarbone, and pat my right collarbone. I would wrap both arms around you. We would rock gently.”
Neither does van den Heuvel-Collins shy away from the darkest parts of MAPs lives. It’s not just struggles with staying celibate. While one character struggles with the temptation to view illegal images, another is discovering her pedophilia in the context of repeated sexual abuse by her father. Another character dies by suicide, and another dies by violence. One character, Andrea, frightened by her pedophilic attractions and afraid for the safety of her children’s friends, expresses her hopelessness in an outburst to her husband. “You can’t support me, Miguel,” she pleads, capturing the fears many MAPs harbor at the lowest points of their lives. “You have no idea what this is like. There’s no support for this shit. I’m a sick fucking monster and you should get the kids away from me!”
These moments are powerfully written, and would be worth my reccomendation of “Past the Dark Field” on their own. The success of the book comes from the fact that van den Heuvel-Collins does not feel the need to tell one simple, narrative story. She focuses conveying the experiences of a whole community, where realism takes precedence over plot arc. The result is that the power of these portrayals amplifies, rather than being resolved, as more characters are introduced.
Unfortunately, at times this style plays into the most significant shortcoming of the book, which is the inconsistency of its characterization. Some characters are convincing archetypes, others seem too much like a list of symptoms in a diagnostic manual. Their feelings and struggles are transparently visible and uncomplicated, where in reality these are often subsurface, conflicting, or otherwise difficult to explore.
In fact, most of the book’s imperfections stem from issues with supporting characterization. The dialogue is awkward and forced at times, especially in portraying teens, and in the online chat portions. And aside from being a literary shortcoming, this can detract from the larger message about seeing MAPs as real people with varied, vibrant lives. At times, the impression that van den Heuvel-Collins was trying to make a point to me as a reader distracted from what the characters were trying to say to each other. Meanwhile, the conversations themselves are often very surface-level, and do little to establish further depth.
Maybe the sense of realness of these characters could have been greater if some of this were not the case. But it’s also possible that my familiarity with living as a MAP and participating in MAP-focused discussions may have predisposed me to these lines of thinking, and that the average reader might not see it the same way.
And in spite of any qualms that I might have, (predictably, seeing as I had the unshakable impression that at some level I was critiquing a portrait of myself), I did identify strongly with nearly every character van den Heuvel-Collins explored.
Initially, I’ll admit, I had mixed expectations. Very seldom have I seen non-pedophiles sufficiently understand and explain the experience of being a pedophile. This extends even to professionals specializing in working with MAPs. And that’s frustrating, because to me it seems like it shouldn’t be that difficult to understand what we feel. Stigma often influences how people perceive us, and that is almost always reflected in how both minor-attraction itself is described, as well as the communities around supporting MAPs.
There are problems with van den Heuvel-Collins’ depiction of MAPs and of the community too, although they are different ones from usual. For one thing, the risk from participating in online discussions is greatly exaggerated. The threat of doxing, and especially of violence, is minimal. For another, past offenders who have reformed or are in the process of rehabilitation are erased from the community. And anti-contact and pro-contact views are presented simplistically and dichotomously, and although this may be an issue outside the scope of her project, I think that conception is ultimately unhelpful. But even with these and other issues with her depiction, through several of the characters she portrays, van den Heuvel-Collins provides a convincing and emotionally powerful glimpse into what it’s like to be a MAP, which is a rarity for a non-MAP author.
I’d recommend “Past the Dark Field” to anyone willing to explore the potentially uncomfortable subject of people living with pedophilia. I also think minor-attracted readers will get something special out of this book. The stories were gripping and personal, and they certainly gave me a chance to look at my experiences from a new perspective. And for younger MAPs, or those just beginning to address their attractions, having that kind of outside insight is valuable beyond what I can express. The central experience of being a MAP, in my opinion, isn’t attraction, but isolation. Stories like this can work against that.
But my strongest recommendation to read this book is directed towards current or aspiring mental health professionals.
When I finally built up the courage to talk with a therapist about how dealing with being a MAP was affecting me, I quickly found that we were not speaking the same language, and that despite weeks in advance knowing what I would be discussing, he was unfamiliar with and unprepared to understand my experiences. This is a common experience for those of us who are lucky enough to have access to mental health services when needed.
“Past the Dark Field” may not be a suitable replacement for actual conversations with real MAPs, and I wouldn’t recommend any therapist try to serve the population without having those kinds of discussions first. But it is an excellent entry point into understanding the issues we face, and that understanding goes a long way. If you are a professional and there is any chance you may work with someone in the future who is a minor-attracted person (and there probably is), I definitely endorse this book as a place to start.
About two thirds of the way through my first reading, I got another idea of an audience for this book.
Here’s how it plays out in my head: someday in the future, I would buy another copy of this book, and give it to my parents. I would first tell them about how I discovered something unspeakable about myself as a teenager, and the trauma I dealt with, and the people who helped me. I would ask them to read the stories compassionately, and try to piece back together a loving understanding of me. There would be sections that would be disturbing for them to read, certainly. (And maybe I’d give them the “Teen Stories” version, which is shorter and includes less sexually explicit content.)
But maybe when they finished, they could begin to understand why I so quietly kept to myself and held in my emotions for a time in high school, why I can never meet their eyes when ask me about love or relationships, why they may sometimes have noticed me crying at my computer screen, talking to nameless friends half a world away. Maybe they would finally understand what’s kept their son distant from them for so many years.
Maybe someday I’ll be brave enough to share my struggle with the people close to me in real life. If I ever work up the nerve, I think I’ll recommend this book to all of them, too.
“Past the Dark Field” by Sheila van den Heuvel-Collins comes out on March 1, 2019 in e-book format, and is available for pre-order now. Visit http://www.salmacispress.ca/ for more information or to buy the book. Half of the author’s proceeds from the book will be donated to Prostasia Foundation, a child protection organization whose approach to sexual abuse prevention includes helping people with a higher risk of offending to avoid doing so.
You can find David (that’s me, I’m the one writing this review!) at @FilledWithNoise on Twitter.