A Bearer of Suffering. Not a Victim.

Author: Bodo Kirchhoff
Translator: Henry Holland


 Bodo Kirchhoff published this autobiographical essay in 2012, in the middle of a long-lasting wave of German media attention focussed on institutionalised sexual abuse of children. The collection of essays from which this translation is drawn is titled Legends about My Body (Legenden um den eigenen Körper). The media concentrated especially on the Odenwald boarding school, where the number of children abused in the 1970s and 1980s may total 130 or more. Kirchhoff’s standpoint, dealing with his experience at another German boarding school, is unique in all published German language writing on this subject.

Every narrative about sexual preferences is crippled by the narrators’ loneliness, standing on the side-lines of language, surrounded by a mass chattering about sexuality, isolated with their own words and images, amid a flood wave of words and of porn. The other, who shaped us sexually, holds his tongue, and we, in attempting speech, are forced into verbal hallucinations. No one can grant us the certainty that we are telling the truth, but you can listen to us attentively, in the same way you listen to foreigners speaking their own language; and the more familiar words we slip in, to move quicker from the side-lines to the centre, the greater the danger of an untrue understanding. A common language of sexuality, beyond the chatter and the flood of images, requires a common affirmation—yes, I desire, and am worthy of desire—and a longing to understand and to be understood which borders on pain. Otherwise the details of early experiences remain purely to haunt individuals like the Furies, making the individual appear a victim, someone who only conjures up pity in their communities.

I was abused—the first words of the article in the Spiegel, from March 2010, a dialogue which I’m going to continue here. And after that opening phrase, written in the prevailing tone of the debate on the subject which was then at its peak, the article continued: a word (abuse) that isn’t much use, that doesn’t help much, that only demonstrates the whole misery of speechlessness. And nevertheless it was saying something: that I was actually a part of the debate, inside the syntagma, and no longer linguistically isolated, the word ‘abuse’ connoting membership in a certain group, rather than a specific drama made up of sexual details. But it is only this—this early drama between two participants—which matters.

I was one of these two participants, the weaker one unquestionably, someone who bore over many years the manifold suffering resulting from an emotional and sexual assault. A victim of abuse in other words. Later I passed on this double misdoing—which only counts as a crime when committed on those too young to consent—to others, not through blatant violence, but rather by getting people to bind themselves to me, even though I knew I was incapable of reciprocating this attachment for more than a day at a time. And during that same period, through the whole of the seventies, I was writing already, and getting into psychoanalysis. I wanted to be different, or to put it another way, I wanted to understand what was foreign to me—nothing unusual back then. Seen in this light, the whole contemporary debate about abuse—which can see perpetrators only as monsters, and suspects anyone attempting to trace their motives of complicity—is a step backwards, away from sexual enlightenment. The idea of enlightenment in this debate limits itself to shedding light on who the offender was: it’s police jargon, the language of The Killing.

You see, I don’t just want to know what happened to me, but also why and how it has influenced me up to the present day; outer details are, at most, the spectacular part of the whole, that which the law can capture, and not in any way the truth, which is what I still live with. Or to put it another way: whoever points a finger at an offender should also take a look inside their own psyche.

I was twelve, a pretty boarding school boy, and my housemaster, teacher and choirmaster—a Winnetou really, Indian chief of my reading fantasies, years before the books got filmed—was in his early thirties, a guy with long, dark hair (in 1960!), who smoked Roth-Händle, could play the piano, and drove a Volkswagen Cabrio. No question about it, the pretty boy was in love with him. And one night, a warm night in June if I remember correctly, he came to collect me—I had complained about a headache at choir practice that evening—out of one of the beds in a five-bed room while the others slept, to take the pain away, as he put it, in a one-bedroom flat at the end of the corridor. With pulse beating in head and heart I followed him there, where he peeled me out of my spotted pyjamas—the meaningless details in the drama are the ones you remember—took my head in his hands and kissed me; his tongue tasted smoky, something that still turns me on today. I had never been kissed that way before, passionately, and returned the kiss, not wanting to be impolite, but perhaps also out of a need to do so, freshly awoken in this June night. On top of which I believed it was a special way of treating headaches, only used on myself, working with a kind of opposing impulse, which he then added to. And then all of a sudden he was stroking my childlike thing, in the first moment nothing but shock, in the second, panic-ridden moment too; what the third moment was like I would no longer vouch for. The childlike thing of the many names took on a new shape between his fingers, which were yellow at the nails from smoking. It grew hard and pulsated, as if my headache had slid down into it, glowing with growth against my will. And so I glowed with shame, yes, even apologised, and Winnetou whispered something into my mouth: All is piggery for the pig, all is purity for the pure—his only words on this the first of many nights, or the only ones I want to remember even today, after almost a lifetime. And also the same words which shone through in my poetics lecture eighteen years ago, without a public debate on the subject to back them up, the single perspective which mattered to me entirely absent. Winnetou’s words were clear in that lecture already, even though they were downplayed, and presented as a scene.

Because it didn’t stop at the kissing and the stroking, my Red Indian wanted more, wanted that I should bear, long after the event, the stigma of desire that he was stamping on me. So he took on the hardness in a mercilessly gentle fashion, and that boy, barely twelve years old, had his first orgasm—years away still from knowing this enticing, mantra-like word. I didn’t know what was happening down there, pure mental as you’d say nowadays, a smouldering riddle between my legs, a sullying buzz. The childlike thing had suddenly become a cock—I was a speechless child with a cock. And the man—who’d turned me into that, growing more daring every time, and making me who I am into the process—was a bloody good choirmaster: the music from back then, by Schütz, Bach and Sibelius, still knocks me for six. A top-notch choir chieftain and a damned boy-nibbler; but, to use one of his maxims, sine ira et studio, he was just one of the damned, condemned to an unliveable kind of love. Unliveable, because the lives of half-grown kids are screwed up by it. Screwed up being the ugly, and operative, word.

I was still half a child, and became, overnight, a premature half-man, suddenly sexualised, someone who has prematurely paid the price for being cast into the world as a sexual being, who desires and sparks desire in others, attracts more love than he feels comfortable with, loves beyond his own horizon, and loses the ground beneath his feet. Normal stuff really, the literature of love is full of it. Just at that age it isn’t normal, and neither is it normal in our frenetic, individualistic internet world. As the debate about the whole complex subject has illustrated, with its tacit arrangement to minimise the two great positive risks of our existence, sexuality and love, along with the greatest negative risks—poverty, ill-health and violence.

No other existential danger has been so repressed by the internet as love—and defending love as an existential risk strikes me as the most worthwhile thing I can do as a writer, through narrating a long novel. We desire and are worthy of desire, and since time immemorial boundaries have been established to deal with the transgressions intrinsic to this fact, taboos constructed in the consciousness to remind us that good will cannot stand its ground against bad longings without a general law. Sexual assaults against minors are strictly prohibited in almost every society. For this we can be glad. The regulation of sexuality through marriage, on the other hand, is still widespread, which is rather a reason to be unhappy; and behind the dogma of the Catholic Church and the ultra-religious, whether in the USA or in Iran, lies a contempt for the feminine, just as contempt for all humans is the real spring from which every form of prudishness flows. This is more than an unhappy situation—this is a calamity.

I experienced this contempt back then, in my Protestant boarding-school, through slaps, segregation and icy words. That’s how they knocked us down to size when we’d persuaded the hairdresser who came to our boarding-house once a month to leave the hair at our napes two centimetres longer than normal, by pressing a fifty pfennig piece into his hand. (He was called Anton Ironbite, how could you forget that?) And it was this little tail in the back of the neck that drew the contemptuous punishment down upon us, being grounded for example, while the others went on outings. No wonder, then, that a half-child, a little ripe fruit—a tasty morsel, as they say—fell into the arms of a man who wore his hair like a Red Indian, and chose him as an object of love, on whom he could orientate himself. And no wonder, when confronted with this other new ‘tail’ between his legs, not made by a hairdresser and not in the least metaphorical, that he was shocked but also clung to it: down below a real lad now, and his lips on the lips of his choirmaster Indian-chief to boot, whose kisses tasted of forbidden smoke—the whole thing one big drug.

In my memories this choirmaster and educator, who was also my music, religion and sports teacher, still looks like Winnetou; all my attempts to get hold of a photo of him have failed—your own memory was your hard-drive back then, before the era of lots of photos. Without anything to counterbalance it, I still see him as the star of the boarding school, with parents, pupils and colleagues thronging around him. But all he’d wanted was fine-limbed lads with kissable mouths, he was powerless against it; his violence was the violence of seduction, his aim was to melt together with the person prone before him. I learnt to kiss and to come from him, and both far too early. Just as child-soldiers learning to kill are being abused in the most serious possible way, the full connotations of ‘abuse’ being apposite to describe what happens to them, I too learnt blindly to make love, and practised what I had learnt, without being able to gauge what was happening. And all this in an entirely contrary environment, rigidly Protestant. From which my sister was later given the Consilium Abeundi—the dishonest phrase used for expulsion—just for being caught holding hands and drinking Coke by dimmed red lights; typical for that era, respectably dishonest. It’s long since this boarding school was anything like the one I passed through between 1959 and 1968, it has changed along with the whole of society, and will, as it happens, close down soon, due to lack of clientele. For enlightened parents, boarding schools have long since served their purpose. My wife and I would never have dreamt of absconding from the process of our kids growing up, though I’d admit that conditions have become more favourable for parenting.

[…] 6

When things were over between my Indian chief and me—yes, I need to talk about this part too—I was, as I’ve said, a speechless child with a cock. A piece of me which then proceeded to twitch, that piece which a man had taken in his mouth, until it was all too late. Ultimately, it’s about putting the boot on the other foot, or rather, taking it in the mouth, and articulating it, a process which still can shock, to this day. It’s not the ordinary words like victim, perpetrator and abuse which tell the truth, but rather those which are left unsaid, hovering between the lines, like cock-sucking, arse-fucking or shooting your load, the embarrassing words behind those which were once uttered quietly in the dark—friendship, purity, Eros, to name but three. Camouflage words which disguise their own obscenity, hegemonic language, deployed against the weaker party. From the perspective of this Other, this pedagogue bearing the insignia of education, his actions emerged out of a true desire, a louche one, I’ll grant you, yet entirely pervaded with love: that old story as told, once and for all, by Thomas Mann. Aschenbach, that most famous of all louche literati, a fictional figure and yet extremely real, knows that he’s being ‘pulled on a fool’s rope by his passion’, and his unhappy inventor goes one step further in his mind. According to Mann, the only wisdom we can garner from this is, ‘sympathy with the abyss; this narrative is the abyss’.

The boy who I became walked out of an abyss constructed from various sorts of grown-up sex games, grounded on mute love and mumbled desire; my Winnetou was no self-possessed chief and his mouth watered as much as Aschenbach’s did. Someone who desires, desires. He can’t do anything but set his sights on smooth boys’ bums, or a woman’s white hips, or the crucified Lord if he happens to be Saint Francis. Which turns every excuse, every display of remorse into a stage act; those who were once desired have to forgive themselves today. Our seducers were sexual freaks working in secret, and that is what they’ve passed on, their seed which we have caught. Abuse doesn’t lend the victim a noble touch, but turns them more into a joke figure, and most bearers of suffering do everything they can to cover up exactly this. You cannot see from the outside how much is defunct inside of someone, nor how big the linguistic hole is. Every one ultimately develops their own substitute language in order to cope with themselves and the world. It’s only those who are done with such manoeuvring who will name the perpetrators, but this strategy of ‘destroying the person who destroyed you’ doesn’t help. The only thing which helps is talking about it.

Every evening Winnetou stood beside the main taps of the shower room, dressed in a brown leather jacket with fur collar. He smoked one of his Roth-Händle, (those strong, filterless fags, with a ten pfennig piece slipped into the packet, which, later on, I was to smoke for years), and watched us washing, the angels, who were still naked above their sex, and the others, who already had a few hairs there. He made sure that angels and non-angels showered together, mingling in front of him. His amber coloured eyes were fixed on our shivers when he suddenly turned the water cold; he also chased me with a hard jet of water because I was one of his favourites. And one evening—a one-mark coin had slid out of my trouser pocket while getting changed after P.E., a lot of money at that time—he went with me down into the basement room, where the sports lessons took place in winter, to search for the silver coin. It was late already, the showering long since finished, but he locked the door from the inside, no doubt with a good explanation, and then bent me over the horse, which we had to run up to and jump over during the sports lessons, while hoping for his helping hand. And the twelve-year old, who I then still was, felt a mouth at my neck, his lips, big and rather blueish, blueish like lips when you’ve swum for too long, and I felt a falling hair, which tickled my ear—details like letters of an old and incomplete alphabet, written inerasably into the skin, without me being able to say definitely which word they spell out. Sex—and that is exclusively what that hour was about—is nothing logical, that starts with A and ends with O, but rather a flow, flowing between sheer love and sheer violence. And the real retrospective shock for the weaker party is the bedlam inside himself, the chaos in his memories: who was I during these embraces, what part of them is still hidden in me? I think of this hour in the sport’s room, the only light falling in through the basement window from some lamp or other outside, and view what happened as a kind of Fata Morgana, a precise flickering. And even my memory of what the foreign body parts felt like has something contradictory about it, a rough tenderness—an optical and sensory oxymoron, eluding all clear speech. Quite possible that the boy, who I was, was taken whole-heartedly, with loving violence; but also possible that it was just a brute craving, dressed up with tender tokens—the memories flicker too much to tell for sure, yet I can’t make this Fata Morgana disappear, because I can’t go towards it. I can only tell its story, and seek to resolve it in fiction, in a construct I’ve created as it were, to mirror reality. There can be no exact or reliable narration of that hour in the basement—it wasn’t good, what happened there, it was anything but good; but it is mine, the stuff which I am made of.

And this stuff is nothing wonderful, or great, or something which grants me wisdom, or something sacrosanct, yet therefore all the better protection against every sort of bravado and cant—you distrust everything that hints at boastfulness, including your own loose words, and you don’t need to trumpet out any poems about the state of our world, as a Nobel Prize winner felt the need to do recently, when the bad rhyme has already been written into you. You only need to find rhymes for this one rhyme, again and again, concentrate on being the pot and forget about the kettle, and tell your story: that’s how out of the speechless child an author grew, whose writing is closer to the feminine principle than anything masculine—which does not mean he writes in an unmanly way. Meaning people who can’t read it properly label him a macho. I also became a writer—or rather, will continue to strive after the aim of being a writer my whole life long—because, to get at the whole truth of that one hour for example, I need the whole fiction. Otherwise what was not good remains unsayable, as it is for almost everyone with a similar story.

From Legenden um den eigenen Körper  © Frankfurter Verlagsanstalt, 2012