Bringing Light to the Dark Field

review of Past the Dark Field, by Sheila van den Heuvel-Collins

You know a book is likely to be special when even the title is brimming with messages. ‘Past the Dark Field’ is the name of Sheila van den Heuvel-Collins’ newest collection of short stories, and the word ‘dark’ clues you in that the field in the title is probably not going to be dedicated to baseball. Nor does the title refer to deep space, nor to morbid despair.

To people in a certain community, as well as among psychologists, the phrase ‘dark field’ is instantly recognizable. It’s a translation of the German word Dunkelfeld, as seen in Prof. Klaus Beier’s German “Prevention Project Dunkelfeld” (http://www.dont-offend.org ). This rather famous organization aims to provide counseling support for pedophiles who want to avoid offenses and improprieties against children. The ‘Dark Field’ is the name for the unreachable terrain where law-abiding, non-offending pedophiles live — people who might or might not need counseling, but who keep their thoughts to themselves and are realistically afraid to reach out.

v.d.H-Collins, as she styles herself, has reached far into this dark field to pull out some of the most poignant stories you’ll ever see. Here I’m presupposing that the word ‘pedophile’ hasn’t already sent you leaping into your own dark-field of panic and collective revenge — and that may be reasonable to assume, since none of the people v.d.H-Collins writes about is an offender. She has gone for the stories that make up the lives of the vast number of non-offenders who, in secrecy, functionally incapacitate their sexual attraction towards minors.

v.d.H-Collins is not a psychologist. She’s an English major and freelance educator who qualified herself to write these particular stories by dint of perception, patience and hard labor. She struck up a working relationship with the pseudonymously named Enderphile, a brilliant European married man and non-exclusive pedophile ( he was attracted to his wife but also to pre-teen boys) who for a time co-hosted a number of chat venues and media forums. These facilities allowed strictly anti-child-sex pedophiles to converse and share their hidden lives. By permission of Enderphile and the other participants involved, v.d.H-Collins participated in the hours of conversation and read the dozens of thoughtful posts that showed how non-offender lives were really lived — or, in a few cases, ended.

A key feature of Enderphile’s tightly regulated, zero-erotica chats was that minors were allowed to participate. Most pedophiles realize they have this sexuality when they’re between 12 and 15, according to 335 people polled at the Virtuous Pedophiles website, and Enderphile didn’t want any of them to go off the track and become offenders. His daring inclusiveness allowed v.d.H-Collins to hear from pedophiles, hebephiles and ephebophiles of all ages. She heard from the ‘non-exclusive pedophiles’ who could participate enthusiastically in adult-adult relationships, and the ‘exclusive,’ who could not.

These stories do not consist of quoted or lightly paraphrased material. The book begins with fragments of internet chat, but distinct fictional characters are involved. Very early on, a critical threshold is passed — readers can see that these people are not merely types. They are proper, fully spirited fictional characters who unfold into three dimensions as your eye passes across them.

The first story in the collection, ‘Karl,’ shows as vivid a character as you’ll see anywhere. He’s a teen, running from himself, horrified at his attractions. He slips out of registering to work at a summer camp where he worked the previous year, not because he’d done anything wrong, but because the contact with children had confronted him with his attractions. This summer, he resolves, he’s staying at home, working for his parents until something with no kids in it comes along. He’s also closing the curtains on his bedroom window so he won’t see the little girl next door that he’d been mooning over before he decided to arrest himself. The level of anti-anxiety benzodiazepine he needs to function in this condition is becoming worrisome to his mother, and to readers. The story, even if superficially ‘depressing,’ is so compelling that I’m tempted to grab its ending to finish this paragraph — but v.d.H-Collins’ readers deserve its subtle twist unspoiled.

One always worries about looming stereotypes and mawkish, anguish-jerking tropes when one encounters stories about the strictures of life in socially excluded groups. v.d.H-Collins is FAR too deft an author for any of this. Inexperienced readers might miss the level of talent and professional restraint that has gone into making these unostentatious stories as interwoven with life as they are. It’s as if v.d.H-Collins’ late fellow-Canadian master-storyteller Margaret Laurence had sent out a flurry of maple keys, and v.d.H-Collins had grown from one of the most fertile seeds. Awesome.

A great diversity of characters and situations make up the rest of this collection, which can be read in a few electrifying hours. There’s an elderly gay man who imagines interacting with the voice of his deceased boyfriend, and even in these phantom conversations can barely admit that he’s still suppressing an eye for, of all things, young girls. There’s a teen who pulls out of a deep and harmless — in fact, transcendent — relationship he’s having with a toddler boy he’s babysitting, not because he thinks he’ll molest the boy, but because his fulfillment is so complete he’s sure that someone will notice it. Decades later, he writes a letter to the boy, lost to him and long since grown up. He only intends to burn the letter immediately after writing it, like a Shinto offering to the love of his life.

The email that v.d.H-Collins sent me when she invited me to review this book asked me to suggest which parts of it might be especially fit for psychologists to use in teaching or in self-education. This slim book, though, is such a uniquely trenchant summary of ‘where it’s at’ in the dark-field that the whole of it should be required reading — or at least a highly rated continuing education credit — for everyone in the psych trades. Professionals need to understand the diversity of issues and situations involved. They need to know there could be a woman who’s struggling with attraction, not to her own kids, but to their little friends. They need to know that their fellow professionals who step in to help non-offenders are acutely aware they may be putting their own lives and families at risk of attack.

You can’t read this book without hearing, like a roar in your social consciousness, the hordes of often violent scandalizers who bay all around this topic. The reality that such people try to bluster scientists away from is revealed here with skill that only an author with deep insight is capable of.

None of this talk about psychologists implies by any means that the book would be more interesting to professionals than to everyday readers, teen and adult alike. This is vividly approachable stuff.

Things have to get brighter in the dark field. v.d.H-Collins has deftly and authoritatively addressed an urgent need. This book is published by a proper small press with connections to all the major online booksellers. Take the advice of this deeply anonymous reviewer, then: obtain this book, read it and disseminate it in any non-offending way you know how.