Bold debut novel challenges views of sexual abuse

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November 18, 2014

Pedal

By Chelsea Rooney

Published by Caitlin Press

240 pages, $21.95

Reviewed by Jen Neale

Chelsea Rooney’s Pedal, her debut novel, is a bold and challenging look at issues that most veteran writers fear addressing. The novel examines sexual abuse, and also pedophiles, one of the last groups that, according to Rooney, “we’re allowed to openly hate”. Rooney, a Vancouver-based writer, completed the novel while attending UBC’s MFA program. On her website, she says, “I just wanted to write a book that was funny and also had pedophiles in it, like life does.” The humour and style with which Rooney writes renders this a necessary read for anyone seeking a fresh take on a mired subject.

Pedal tells the story of Julia, a counselling psychology master’s student researching sexual abuse, specifically, non-traumatic sexual abuse in childhood. Julia seeks to find people like herself, who experienced sexual abuse as a child, but refuse to buy in to the victim/survivor models available. She nicknames her participants her “Molestas.” In a meeting with Julia, one of the Molestas describes a therapist who tried to convince her that her depression was caused by her years of childhood molestation rather than her sister’s recent death. The Molesta responds to the therapist by telling her to go fuck herself. Julia questions whether trauma and shame come from society—and particularly doctors—rather than from the experience itself.

The idea that childhood sexual abuse could be harmless, or even desired, will no doubt cause many readers to squirm; however, Rooney discusses this idea so unflinchingly and with such reason that I gave it full credence. The underlying message is inarguable—the right of women to define their own experiences of abuse.

Julia’s field of interest naturally extends to the perpetrators of sexual abuse, including her father, whom she calls Dirtbag. However, Julia’s obsessive fascination with pedophiles eventually leads to both her graduate advisor and boyfriend leaving her life on a single day. After being spurned by these two stabilizing forces, Julia sets off on a cross-Canada bike trip with a man named Smirks, whose sexual proclivities she takes advantage of for research and self-analysis. The result is a tense narrative, with questions of sexual disposition woven seamlessly into the text. Pedal begs to be read in a single sitting.

It’s worth pointing out that Rooney distinguishes in her novel between pedophiles, those who are attracted to children, and molesters, those who act on their desire. The reader is pulled into the secretive world of non-offending pedophiles at an MAA (“minor-attracted adult”) meeting. The attendees are those that cannot publicly reveal their attraction, or seek support, if they wish to maintain their social and professional lives.

Though it has the forward momentum and arc of a novel, Pedal seems to follow the format of a personal essay in its systematic exploration of ideas. Sexual abuse and pedophilia are examined from every possible angle, but no conclusions are ever forced upon the reader, who is instead left to follow Rooney’s ideas to their natural, often paradoxical, conclusions.

Mid-way through the novel, for example, Smirks asks Julia how she would solve the pedophile problem. Julia conjures up an alternate reality where pedophiles could act on their desires—an island filled with children who felt no shame or trauma in sexuality. Smirks asks what happens to a sixteen-year-old girl who is no longer attractive to inhabitants. Knowing that her line of reasoning falls apart here, Julia says, “You’d kill her.” Julia knows that in reality there is no easy answer to the pedophile question, and also the question of what happens to the minors involved. Pedal is filled with such moments, where the arguments highlight an aspect of Julia’s past or inward search.

Julia is a finely balanced character. At times she seems hopelessly lost, and in these moments I couldn’t help but feel parental worry. At other moments, though, her clarity and wisdom forced me to reconsider my longstanding beliefs on childhood and sexuality. In perhaps the most distressing moment of the book, Julia encourages Smirks to spend some alone time on a canoe with a young girl. When the canoe and passengers are no longer in sight, Julia is forced to confront her conviction: will she intervene or remain inactive? These are scenes to be read through barely-parted fingers.

Pedal carries the reader through moments that, if they were not buoyed on either end by humour and lively prose, would sink to the depths of discomfort. Rooney handles her topic with sympathy and openness, two qualities pedophiles are not afforded in society. With public dialogue on sexual abuse expanding, this novel comes at a key moment.

Jen Neale is a Vancouver writer.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Veridicus November 22, 2014 at 11:29 am

Most of what is commonly believed about pedophilia is based on the presumption that all child/older person sexually expressed relationships are intrinsically pervasively harmful. But there are no legitimate data supporting this universal harmfulness, and no credible pathway or mechanism for this harm has been demonstrated. For further discussion, see http://www.shfri.net/mech/mech.cgi

Also, there are indeed some people who trick or force children into unwanted sexual interactions. But there are vast differences between consensual sexually expressed child/older person relationships and unilateral “child sexual abuse” by an older person. For a scientific journal discussion of these distinctions as they apply to boys, go to http://www.boyandro.info

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