Unforgivably unforgettable: memory, childhood trauma, and Mysterious Skin.

Author:Hart, Kylo-Patrick R.
Position::Youth Culture in Film and Television

That Was Then ...

It is summer 1981 in Hutchinson, Kansas. Eight-year-old Brian Lackey (played by George Webster) wakes up in the crawlspace under his family's rural home, blood dripping from his nose. He has no idea how he got there, or what has transpired over the preceding five hours of his life; the last thing he remembers is that rain began to fall. As the days and weeks go by, Brian begins to experience terrifying nightmares and wet his bed on a regular basis. He is plagued by recurring nosebleeds, as well as debilitating blackouts. During this same period, a huge blue UFO appears in the night sky above the Lackey's house, and Brian watches it closely, alongside his mother and sister, from atop the domicile's roof as the object moves across the heavens. It doesn't take the boy long to conclude that he was abducted and experimented upon by space aliens during those five missing hours of his life.

Elsewhere in the same Kansas community, another eight-year-old boy, Neil McCormick (played by Chase Ellison), ejaculates for the first time while watching his mother perform oral sex on her dim Marlboro-Man-looking boyfriend. About the same time, Neil is introduced to his new Little League coach (played by Bill Sage)--who reminds him instantly of the sexy male models contained in the pages of his mother's secret stash of Playgirl magazines that he has furtively admired--and finds himself intensely attracted to the handsome man. As time progresses, Neil and Coach begin spending increasing amounts of time together, alone. Entering Coach's house for the first time, Neil is struck by the comfortable beanbag chairs, giant television, and wide variety of Atari video games it contains. He appears to be a bit uncomfortable when Coach begins to audiotape him talking and belching into a microphone and to snap a rapid succession of Polaroid photographs of him--including one with Coach's thumb inserted into Neil's mouth as a penis symbol--but he clearly appreciates the undivided attention he is receiving nonetheless, which rarely comes from his single mother, who is typically out of the house working, dating, or drinking.

Following a particularly impressive win, while Neil's mother is working late, Coach takes the boy back to his place once again. Positioning his hand on Neil's knee, he declares that he has been thinking a lot about his star player over the past several days. Avoiding the sexually charged moment, Neil states that he is hungry, and the two proceed to the kitchen cabinets, which are stocked with miniature boxes of cereal that the boy particularly enjoys, at least in part because his mother feels they are a waste of money. After Neil accidentally spills his cereal while opening it and feels awkward about the blunder, Coach lightens the mood by pouring his own box of cereal over his own head; within seconds, the two open all of the remaining boxes and toss their contents into the air, creating a colorful kaleidoscope of cereal bits all around them. Seconds later, Coach lies Neil down on the linoleum floor and begins to kiss him passionately; over time, their sexual acts increase in variety, frequency, and intensity. As their first intimate encounter concludes--and Coach emphasizes that Neil liked what just occurred --Neil thinks to himself, "It was like a kaleidoscope had shattered, and, when I swallowed, the taste of Coach's tongue seared my mouth."

The preceding scenes can be found in independent director Gregg Araki's 2004 film. Mysterious Skin, which explores the psychological aftermath of these life-changing occurrences in the lives of Brian and Neil. Based on the acclaimed novel by Scott Heim, the contents of this cinematic offering, which explore the loss of childhood innocence and these young people's attempts to come to terms with it in the months and years that follow, are summed up rather succinctly in the film's tagline: "Two boys. One can't remember. The other can't forget."As the narrative continues, it becomes evident that Brian will do anything he possibly can to recover all of the details of his alien encounter. In contrast, Neil recalls every last detail of his various sexual encounters with the coach quite fondly, feeling honored that he was chosen to participate in them and believing that they demonstrated how truly loved he was by the man.

At this point in the film, little can be concluded with any confidence about the traumatic experience that Brian has endured. With regard to Neil's situation, however, it is readily apparent that he was left at the summer's end to long endlessly for what he regarded to be the coach's loving touch and affection, as the man moved away immediately thereafter, to a location that Neil has not since been able to determine. From a clinical perspective, it is clear that Coach engaged regularly in "abnormal" sexual behavior pertaining to pedophilia, which is defined as ongoing "sexual attraction to children who have not yet reached puberty" ("Pessimism"). He represents a common type of pedophile in society who, despite possessing this specific sexual orientation (which is regarded in the clinical research as being inherently distinct from both heterosexuality and homosexuality), comes into regular contact with children--such as by serving as a clergyman, coach, or teacher--yet nevertheless frequently exists without detection or suspicion from others in the surrounding community ("Pessimism").

Experts maintain that the majority of pedophiles who ultimately act on their impulses toward young people do so most successfully by gaining the trust of their victims and gradually desensitizing them to various sorts of inappropriate behavior, which they continue to escalate over time; this is the approach utilized by Coach during his interactions with Neil ("Pessimism"). The plans of such individuals frequently come to fruition because they shower uncommon, much-needed attention on young people who are otherwise lacking it in their everyday lives, which was certainly the case for Neil (Cloud et al.). Furthermore, it is not uncommon for pedophiles to rationalize their actions by insisting, as the coach did in his follow-up conversation with Neil, that the young victim enjoyed the experience ("Pessimism"). That is because, for many of these adults, the only emotions they are attuned to while abusing a child are their own, and so they frequently project their own feelings and emotions onto their victims, convincing themselves in the process that the young people derive as much pleasure from the sexual encounters as they do (McQuillan 39).

What makes the viewer's experience of Araki's him a bit more challenging, however, is that the coach is not indisputably represented as being a bad person. As sexual-trauma researcher Fred Berlin has emphasized, "People want to see a monster when they say 'pedophile'" (Cloud et al.), but this is not really what they get in Araki's work. Instead, as critic Joel Dossi has noted:

This film questions the accepted, stereotypical image of a pedophile by portraying the victimizer in a sympathetic manner. Often endearingly referred to simply as "Coach,"...

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