GUEST POST: How Studying Anthropology Helped Me As A Novelist by Sofka Zinovieff

Like most students of social anthropology, I was required in my first year at university, to write an essay about whether the incest taboo is universal. The answer is: pretty much yes, if you don’t count some ancient Egyptian royals and some differing views about first cousins. But not much else is universal in the rules surrounding human sexuality. Things are all over the place when it comes to customs, rites of passage and laws concerning with whom, when and how much people should have sex or marry.

My training as an anthropologist helped me appreciate sitting on the fence and taking a look around before I jump down on one side. I haven’t lost my awareness that what is horrifying or shocking in one place may even be de rigeur in another. When I did post-graduate research in Greece, I found myself immersed in the life of my subjects and talking with anyone who could help me understand more. Anthropologists call this “participant observation;” many novelists do it automatically. As a researcher, I might meet with a fascist or a communist in the morning, hang out in a Roma encampment in the afternoon, and spend the evening with a lawyer, immigrant worker or a kamaki(a ‘spear-fisher’ or dedicated seducer of tourist women). These experiences gave me the bug for wanting to get inside other people’s minds, something which is a ground rule for writing a good novel. It also taught me the value of suspending judgement, at least for a while.

In my novel, Putney, I look at the challenging case of what happens when a young teenage girl falls in love with an older man. Does love make any difference in a case of child sexual abuse? Ralph falls for Daphne when he first sees her, even though she is nine and he is 27. He buys her gifts, takes her out for treats and, as a composer, makes her his muse. When she is 13, he seduces her. They are aided and abetted by the Bohemian freedoms of 1970s London; Ralph is a friend of Daphne’s writer father and Greek activist mother. The lines are all too blurred when it comes to ideas about sexual liberation and consent.

Daphne looks back on the relationship as a romantic secret. Now middle-aged and with a young daughter of her own, she has finally settled down after a rackety life marked by drugs and bad choices. She doesn’t see these disasters as consequences of her early abusive relationship. She loved Ralph and knows that he adored her. It is only with the re-appearance of her long-lost schoolfriend Jane, that Daphne begins to question her memories. Jane insists that what happened was rape of a child. She should report Ralph to the police and he should be punished. This is hard for Daphne to hear, but she begins to observe her own 12-year-old daughter, balancing on the vulnerable cusp between childhood and adolescence. One day it is cartoons and teddy bears and the next it is dressing up for parties in make-up and killer heels.

Anthropology taught me to examine shades of grey rather than deal in black and white. I was determined to see this story from different angles – even the uncomfortable ones – and the chapters alternate between the perspectives of Ralph, Daphne and Jane. Naturally, there are dangers in suspending judgement, especially when dealing with something offensive or illegal. Nevertheless, I find it just as interesting to explore the mind of the criminal who justifies himself as that of the victim.

Now a famous composer heading for 70, Ralph looks back to his “love affair” with Daphne as an elegiac period. Notwithstanding the fact he was married and a father, their hidden trysts provided doses of ecstasy in his life, and the memories see him through the miseries of chemotherapy and ageing. Predictably, he thinks the massive escalation in the focus on historical child sexual abuse is absurd. “It was different then,” he claims, pointing to a witch-hunt for men who might have slept with a teenager of 15 decades earlier and are now in jail for having raped a child. Anyway, he argues, it’s all culturally specific. There are no absolutes for the age of consent. Above all, he and Daphne were in love. He believes he would never have done anything to harm her.

As an anthropologist, I would have to agree with Ralph that each society sets different standards for what is permissible and what is taboo. While in one country a girl would still be at junior school, in another, she would be getting married. Even within Europe there is a vast variation in the age of consent. And that is without examining how opinions and laws change across time. When I was a teenager, it was unsurprising to be harassed by older men; my daughters (now in their twenties) are gratifyingly clear about how wrong this is.

We do inhabit specific times and places, but there are dangers in being too relaxed about cultural comparisons and making everything relative. If we can’t establish guidelines and laws for what we believe is right and what is wrong, it’s a disaster. And this is where Jane’s angle is so vital in Putney. While Daphne is muddled and damaged, Jane is doggedly furious about how serious the crime was and how justice must be done. Love makes absolutely no difference, when it comes to grooming and abuse, she declares, Gradually, she brings Daphne around to the realisation that the “love affair” was violation of a child.

The number of prosecutions for historical child sexual abuse has risen dramatically in recent years. Women and men are now talking, often for the first time, about events from years and decades ago; what was ignored or un-named then is now recognised and given a label. I agree with Jane that “love makes no difference”, but as an ex-anthropologist and writer, I am fascinated by the tangled nuances in these cases.

Putney by Sofka Zinovieff is published by Bloomsbury Circus and is available to purchase here.

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