What is lurking in Orson Scott Card’s closet?

Bless me father, for I have sinned: I tried to read Orson Scott Card!

Specifically, Lost Boys, a 1992 thriller that I was able to get as a free ebook. I have to admit to a weird on-and-off fascination with Card that was rekindled by the recent proposed boycott of the Ender’s Game movie. Most of the fascination doesn’t come from the beauty of Card’s storytelling–it’s pretty easy for me to boycott Ender’s Game, frankly–but rather from his strident anger about the existence of homosexuality, combined with his propensity to write about child abuse and underage encounters. I have a prurient interest in his prurient interests.

To reframe the problem, I guess I just wonder: Why does every Orson Scott Card story involve child abuse?

Lost Boys isn’t an exception, but I didn’t expect it to be, really–it opens with a vignette that’s obviously supposed to be from the mind of a sexually perverse, murderous psychopath and then segues into the story of a Mormon family moving to a new town for the dad’s job. Since that was the beginning, I thought this was going to be a suspense story about a family under threat from a pedophile murderer.

However, Lost Boys doesn’t read like a suspense narrative for the longest time–it’s more like an inspirational novel about the day-to-day life of a struggling Mormon family. Father Step hates his crappy programming job, mother DeAnne is worried about making new friends and teaching at a new church, and the children mostly blend into the background, except for quiet, intelligent oldest son Stevie (the Ender figure) and the couple’s new baby, who is born with cerebral palsy.

At some point in the story a serial killer shows up in town, but that doesn’t quicken the narrative’s pulse–there’s still time for Step and DeAnne to bicker and for long, long descriptions of Step’s exploits in video game development and office politicking. Then, suddenly at the end of the novel–SURPRISE! it turns out that the guy coming over to fix the family house likes to rape kids and kill them, and he’s killed Stevie and a bunch of other kids. Fortunately, Stevie is pure enough to bring back all the ghosts of the dead kids back for a special Christmas treat, I shit you not, and then everyone finds out that an evil handyman is the killer and lives happily ever after.

This story hits all the Orson Scott Card highlights.

– Children’s emotional torture by adults. Stevie is humiliated by his teacher, who becomes irrationally angry at him, tells the other students not to talk to him, and knocks his grades down out of spite. This just happens, because the teacher is a bad person (she’s compared to a Nazi and Stevie’s experience is compared to the experiences of concentration camp survivors, just in case the reader doesn’t know that it’s wrong for an authority figure to pick on a child).

– Children’s fragile purity. Step’s family is so pure that he can’t bear for his sleazy coworkers to see his family. This being Orson Scott Card, one of the coworkers is a burgeoning pedophile, but the other workers are just jerks who treat Step badly. However, because Step doesn’t like them, it’s taken as a given that they’d spiritually pollute his family. Later on, it turns out that Stevie is able to detect serial killers because he is so good and pure that their evil saddens him. This is spelled out in the narrative by a policeman, no less. After Stevie’s death, his family is sad, but they’re comforted by his assured purity and his place in heaven.

– Molestation. The crux of the story is Stevie’s rape and murder by the evil handyman and the revelation that follows, which makes for a bizarre tonal shift. Card doesn’t tell the story through Stevie’s point of view, but through his parents, who are concerned about Stevie but have all sorts of other mundane things on their minds. Meanwhile, Stevie is developing psychic powers that allow him to communicate with the dead. Those otherworldly powers aren’t very interesting, though, or at least Card didn’t think so because they only fully appear when it’s time to reveal the molester’s identity (and once revealed, our evil handydude is referred to as the “old molester,” because Card has to make sure that we know that molestation was going on and not just ordinary, not-so-bad child murder). The out-of-the-blue semi-twist ending, with its emphasis on the rape of children, reminds me of Card’s notorious story Hamlet’s Father, in which Card messes with the story of Hamlet so he can get some pedophilia in there.* It’s like Card has an alarm clock and when it goes off, it’s time for a child to get raped and for the story to end! He’s not interested in that child’s (obviously extraordinary) life, just in the nasty bits that end the child’s life. Gross.

I’ve also read Card’s Songmaster, which was a really early novel of his–1978–and which involves a little kid who has the most beautiful, pure voice in the world, and then when he gets into his teens he falls in love with a man and they make out, but some sort of controlling chemical implant throws him into terrible pain and basically chemically castrates him. The lover comes to a tragic end–he’s tortured and commits suicide–but he’s not condemned as a child abuser or as evil, and Card suggests that the government that enslaves our singing hero is also oppressing this man for his sexual feelings. Remember, this book was published in 1978. Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, a much better novel published a few years earlier, still has a lonely, sexless homosexual character pining away over the unnaturalness of his position. I mean, gay guys! Getting sort of laid! In a dopey 1978 fantasy novel!

Fifteen years later, Card is writing books with the same negative elements centering on children or young adults–emotional abuse, easily defiled purity–but whenever he deals with sex, it’s either heterosexual, married sex or child rape.

What the hell happened? Card says that it’s the fault of that old demonic Left, of course, but a thousand commited Stalinists couldn’t make a man writing overdramatic gay awakenings in 1978 create the kind of homophobic op-ed trash that Card writes today.

I can think of a few things that would cause this kind of narrative castration, and I think I can put together my own storyline based on some of Card’s own comments, but speculation will have to remain speculation. I just want to know why Card can’t let go of his extravagant tortures of fictional boys. Won’t somebody think of the children?

* Spoiler: Hamlet’s dad was a kiddy fiddler! And it’s implied that he rapes Hamlet in hell! Because, you know, you can’t end a story without a father raping his son in the pits of hell. It’s like forgetting to write The End.

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5 Comments

  1. The thing is, idle speculation is obviously idle speculation. And I am not saying anything about Orson Scott Card, I am just saying that if I imagine a kid, abused by an older sibling (or cousin, or maybe just a teacher), right around the same time he’s discovering his own homosexual impulses; if I imagine this kid growing up, carrying the shame of his abuse, internalizing it as a personal weakness; if I imagine him indelibly connecting it with sexual impulses that he believes are morally wrong and deeply suppressing those impulses, so that what you have is a closeted gay man who’s repressed his own history of sexual abuse and sublimated it into open hostility for what he’s had no choice but to understand as a fundamental weakness of character — if I imagine what that guy would be like when he grew up, he says almost exactly the same sorts of things that Card does.

    (Also, for what it’s worth, Card’s later comments on Songmaster pretty clearly make it out that the characters’ homosexuality was their downfall because of its unnaturalness; maybe that is a later reinterpretation of himself though, I don’t know.)

    Reply

    1. And what if that kid grew up in a religion which condemns homosexuality and puts a heavy emphasis on its members existing in heterosexual nuclear families–to the point where single people, even if celibate, are not equals on earth or in the afterlife? Hmmm, I can imagine that kid growing up to say those sorts of things. But it’s speculation.

      I haven’t read Card’s later comments on Songmaster–do you have a link? From reading the book alone, it didn’t seem as if homosexuality was the main character’s downfall, just sexual expression of any type.

      Reply

      1. It’s in this essay, though it’s a long one. I don’t know, I may have read his explanation of it too harshly, here. This is the relevant passage:

        ” What the novel offers is a treatment of characters who share, between them, a forbidden act that took place because of hunger on one side, compassion on the other, and genuine love and friendship on both parts. I was not trying to show that homosexuality was “beautiful” or “natural” — in fact, sex of any kind is likely to be “beautiful” only to the participants, and it is hard to make a case for the naturalness of such an obviously counter-evolutionary trend as same-sex mating. Those issues were irrelevant. The friendship between Ansset and Josef was the beautiful and natural thing, even if it eventually led them on a mutually self-destructive path. And both of them were cruelly used by the society around them, being regarded as expendable or exploitable.”

        But it is couched in a lot of that sort of vacillating language of, “I don’t hate homosexuals, I just believe in the prophets of the Mormon church, so I think homosexuals should stop being homosexuals if they want to be Mormons.”

        Probably, I’ve just got my back up about how self-evidently stupid the phrase “counter-evolutionary trend as same-sex mating” is.

  2. I’m reading Ender’s Game right now and, after noting the repeated references to nude male children, I began to wonder if what type of person OSC was purported to be. WHAM! I Google his name and what do you know? He’s vehemently anti-gay everything and has often written about male children in sexual situations. You can’t make this kind of stuff up. There’s a section in that book where Ender gets confronted in the shower by some clothed adversaries and he goads the lead child into stripping down naked to fight him, right there in the shower. OSC makes sure to note how much soap is dripping down Ender’s naked body. Given what I’ve read today about these pervasive themes in his other works, combined with his very public viewpoints concerning gay rights, I think it’s sad that this guy has chosen to publicly demonize other human beings when he clearly is dealing with some dark things internally.

    Reply

    1. Just because Card writes about these things doesn’t mean that there is some sort of direct connection to his life story (I have to make that disclaimer because it’s extremely tempting to make that link). But beyond that, I think it’s OK to notice the constant abuse of children in Card’s stories. It’s definitely a theme, and sometimes it is sexualized.

      Reply

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