Reviewing the Reviewers: The Love Jerry Controversy
(UPDATE: Nicole from Nice People responds in the comment section here. Not a hundred percent sure how I feel yet, though I am disdainful of the idea of putting personal safety ahead of art.)
Well, controversy is important in the theater, and I like it. Love Jerry is a play currently in production by the Nice People Theater Company; it is a musical about a pedophile, about his family, and about how they deal with each other. I guess; I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m intrigued by the idea, especially because of Wendy Rosenfield’s recent Inquirer review of the piece.
(Maybe you thought the controversy over this was the censorship of their online ad? No, though, because that’s not actually that controversial. “Corporations are squeamish about things that might offend people.” There; that’s the whole story in a nutshell.)
Anyway, Rosenfield’s review does, in fact, seem a little off the mark. Here’s how it opens:
The title of Megan Gogerty’s musical Love Jerry isn’t a sign-off, but an entreaty. Nice People Theatre Company, in producing this show about an active pedophile, asks a not-so-nice question: Can you love Jerry? I’d like to ask an even less nice question: Why should I be forced to try?
See, intriguing. ”Why should I be forced to try?” is a problematic question for a reviewer to raise. In the first place, she wasn’t forced, she volunteered (moreover, a regular audience would pay for the privilege). In the second place, suggesting that the play forces her to try suggests that she’s already committed to not trying. In the third place: why? Because the point of compassion is that it’s for everyone.
The idea of this play interests me; the online ad for it, which ends with “can you love Jerry?” is fascinating, because it’s like a dare. Sure, you think you’re a compassionate person, but it’s easy to be compassionate most of the time. How good are you at having empathy for people who are actually potentially despicable?
The play veers away from discussing the child, because it’s not, as author Gogerty points out, about the child. Rosenfield objects to this, suggesting that it makes a victimized person into an abstraction, further victimizing abused children — but of course, this isn’t true; there is no real child in this play. No matter how realistically the child is presented onstage, that child will still only be an abstraction. So, since no one was actually victimized to make the play, perhaps it actually is worth exploring the premise without the overwhelming horror and empathy that necessarily comes into play once we start talking about the child.
None of this is meant, obviously, to endorse or justify child abuse. And THAT’S doubly interesting, because despite the fact that all I’m saying here is, “Maybe we need to consider having empathy for pedophiles, too,” I still feel the need to say, “Of course, I’m not endorsing child abuse.” Well, OF COURSE I’m not endorsing child abuse. Having empathy for someone isn’t the same thing as agreeing with them; it’s not the same thing as saying that what they did was right, or okay, or even tolerable. It’s simply a condition of recognizing other human beings as complex individuals (not creepy monsters, typically abstracted into perverted boogeymen), with complex motivations, who suffer from their psychology in much the same way as everyone else does.
If you read here, Wendy’s got a few more comments about the review, which itself garnered a lot of comments from supporters of the play. I’ve got a little more to say about that, but later. First, look at this:
After all, love, therapy and forgiveness is the same cocktail the Catholic church claims it served up while managing its pedophile priests, and look how successful that’s been for the church and its young victims.
An interesting point! Though, as Carl points out, way down in the comments section of this post, for all the attention and controversy they get, the Catholic Church actually has a lower rate of child abuse than Protestant ministries. Now, obviously there could be a lot to that, but it does show that the position that Rosenfield espouses is a little facile.
Not only that, but the traditional, legal alternative to “love, therapy, and forgiveness” – that is, judging, condemnation, and imprisonment — has an absurdly high recidivism rate. So high that there’s almost no point in letting people out of prison, since we basically have to watch them constantly forever afterwards, anyway; and, not only that, but the few people who are “rehabilitated” by their time in prison, in order that we can keep tabs on those who aren’t, have to live the rest of their lives in traumatic paranoia.
Rosenfield asks whether or not the pedophile’s side of the story was one that really needed to be told — she seems to think this is a rhetorical question, with the answer being “Obviously it doesn’t.” But it’s actually not a side of the story that is told very often, and the play has the potential to raise some good points: that social ostracization doesn’t actually help solve anything, for one. That demonizing human beings, however demonically they may be have, doesn’t actually cure them of anything.
Now. In the Drama Queen article, Rosenfield says that Nice People Theater Company actually asked that her review on the Inquirer website be taken down. If that’s true, it’s wholly inexcusable. Rosenfield’s review is not, in any way, out of line; she thought the premise of the show was flawed, and said so. It’s as valid position as any; I don’t necessarily agree with her, but so? I don’t agree with a lot of people about stuff. The response to that is considered debate, not trying to erase the offending opinion. Moreover: you absolutely do NOT get to say, “I’m going to do a play that I know is going to be extremely controversial” and then complain when people don’t like it. You should be reveling in your bad reviews; Wendy Rosenfield’s complaint about the premise of your play proves that you’re doing your job.
This is also interesting: if you look at the comments on Rosenfield’s review, many of them are clearly from NPTC’s supporters, but their support actually seems to undermine their position. The review posits that the play is fundamentally morally flawed, but the counter-response to this argument is, “How can it be morally flawed if such and such child-abuse organizations support it?” That’s Appeal to Authority, right there, which as we all know is a fallacy of defective induction. Rosenfield isn’t claiming that child-abuse organizations don’t like the play; she’s claiming that they shouldn’t.