A review of “The Last Closet: The Dark Side of Avalon” by Moira Greyland.

This is not, in anyway, a pleasant read. The author is a heroine if not a saint, the book is a must-read tale of horrors, albeit horrors leavened occasionally by very dark humour. If any book deserves to be surrounded by “trigger warnings” this one does. The book covers rape, incest, sodomy, child abuse – both sexual and not – and a person who has PTSD about such things should probably not read it without a lot of mental preparation.

To me, the most amazing thing about it is that the author survived to write it. Moreover she seems to be surprisingly healthy in both body and mind, all things considered, and is professionally successful as well as (apparently) happily married with children. The next most amazing thing about the book is that the author is able to make us empathize with the primary abusers in the book – that is her parents, Marion Zimmer Bradley and Walter Breen. It is very clear that both were themselves abused and mistreated by their families and the book makes a decent case that their abuse of their children and many others can be explained in part by that prior experience. You even feel a certain amount of sympathy for them as they discover that the world does not behave in the way they would like. Mind you it is also clear that explaining the cause of something is not at all the same as excusing it or accepting it, and the author herself is an example to show that not everyone who is abused has to pass that abuse onto others in turn.

For people who generically liberal/libertarian in outlook – the sorts, such as myself, who think people should be free to do as they please sexually with their partner(s) of choice so long as said partners are willing – this book should be a wake up call. Tolerance can only go so far, and consent can be a slippery concept. Is it “consent” when the alternative is freezing to death under a bridge? Indeed even if one consents is it in fact healthy to perform the desired act, or would it actually be better to find out why they want it and seek treat it?

I do not agree 100% with the book’s message about the general badness of homosexuality or polyamorous relationships but I do think the book serves a very useful purpose in graphically illustrating the ways such activities and tolerance for them in others can go horrifically wrong. The book covers the end result of a bunch of such slippery slopes. Many people who knew the author’s parents deliberately closed their minds to the rumours of abuse. Even, in some cases, denying what was in front of them. Others were so lacking in empathy and convinced of their own rectitude that they thought it was good. A lot of people who wouldn’t wish harm to a fly, who were anti-war pacifists and the like, let themselves be convinced that children (and I’m not talking teenagers here, but prepubescent children) could not just consent to sex with adults but actually enjoy it. Of course these people didn’t witness the acts themselves and thus didn’t grasp the fundamentally painful physical nature of what happens. Moira puts it very simply:

At no point is sodomy ever going to feel “good” to a child. For some of us it is something we can be forced to tolerate. But it exists for the “good” of the adult, never for the child. Somehow the notion of “Greek Love” seems a little less romantic when it is put in its proper context of a screaming, crying boy with a bleeding backside.

This explains why just the sight of a bottle of lube can trigger someone was was abused. Moira goes on to describe a number of her father’s victims who “consented” because having him bugger them for money and food was better than being whipped with an electrical cord at home where there was no food and no money. The fact that Moira considered her rampant paedophile father to be “nicer” than her mother shows just how screwed up the family was, even if it was logical – he rarely raped her, never gave her to others to rape, never beat her and he would actually talk to her instead of criticize her all the time.

The problem hinted at here is the difference between literature (where literature includes pulpy SF and trashy romance) and reality. In fiction we want to escape the humdrum of everyday life to experience something more. This means we want stories about people who are more than plain human – that are better (or worse) than the ones we meet everyday. It is quite possible to believe that a teenager or possibly a mentally mature near teen might legitimately have love of the erotic sort for an older person. It is quite possible to imagine that three or four adults should be able to live together in harmony with sex being spread equally around the group. Thus we can accept and enjoy stories where the heroes and heroines do the non standard sex thing and still end up living “Happily Ever After”.

The problem is that this is vanishingly rare in reality and in books they can skip over the nasty bits where the parties have to work on maintaining their bond. Relationships between adolescents and adults significantly older are rarely long term. This is probably one reason why the allegations against Ray Moore in Alabama were so effective. Even if he didn’t actually do anything sexual, most people have an instinctive EWWW to the idea that someone in their thirties would pursue teenagers, even though there are decent evolutionary reasons for it to occur. French President Macron and his wife of over two decades appear to be a very rare example of the relationship sticking and President Macron seems to be an exceptional man who very likely was much more mature than the average 16 year old when he was taught by his future wife.

Likewise I’m aware of various triads that seem to be long term stable with everyone happy and in love, but they are massively outnumbered by the ones which end up in disaster of one sort or another (and I’m unaware of any group marriage with more than 3 that works except when it boils down to pair bonding with occasional spouse swapping orgies). I note that in the triad cases I am aware of, one critical factor to their success is that all the parties were friends before they became lovers and none of the parties stray from the triad. It is, from my observation, a lot harder to deal with than a conventional pair relationship (and the divorce rate shows even that is not easy). In fact now that homosexual marriages are legal we’re beginning to see that they are (on average) no more stable that heterosexual ones, and may in fact be significantly less stable. In other words just like socialism, a lot of the free love ideas of the 1960s and 1970s are not just wrong but dangerously wrong and likely to seriously damage people. Sadly, also like socialism, the people damages aren’t always the true believers but rather the not so willing followers and, particularly, the children

The problem is that the willingness to believe in the free love sorts of things leads one to look on credulously at various abusive relationships and behaviours such as paedophile grooming and not see the harm that is going on. Moreover the chances of such things being genuine rather than abusive seem to be very low, while the chances that such things will lead to, at best, mental abuse and suffering, are rather high. It is critical that people who join societies of “outcasts”, from paganism to the SCA and SF-fandom to something as banal as the Hash House Harriers or MENSA, be aware that their fellow outcasts may be outcasts for good reason. Many of course are not, but as this book makes abundantly clear, one scumbag can ruin it for dozens of victims, so toleration of the foibles of fellow outcasts must not include turning a blind eye to their abuse of others.

The book is, in many ways, a story of victims. But it is, in most ways, a book with a positive message. For people who were abused, one important thing to get out of this book is that you are not alone. Indeed, as we are learning also from the various #metoo tales recently, rape and sexual abuse seems to be a lot more widespread than we thought. However I think even more importantly the other messages to victims are that

  • you are not defined as a victim
  • you can call the police or other authorities, you are not worthless
  • you do not have a scarlet V on your forehead
  • you can overcome the trauma and get revenge on your abusers by living well.

You don’t have to forgive your abusers, you certainly shouldn’t try to forget them, but you should also try to stop letting them live rent-free in your head.

For those (like me) who weren’t abused beyond perhaps a bit of bullying, I think they key takeaway from this book is to get a feeling for what it is like for those were were. Now we can understand the odd twitches and phobias of our acquaintances who were (whether they tell us or not). We can also get to see the warning signs if we (or others we know) are slipping down to path to becoming abusers and we can see how critical it is to stop the abuser as soon as possible and not to beg the victims to keep it quiet for the good of the group.

Perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not, to me the larger message of this book is that its OK to be conventional. In general, if you stick to the conventional you may be boring, but you won’t be causing suffering in others. As for those who do want to pursue something non-conventional? I find it a bit ironic, but I’m reminded of something Moira’s mother wrote in her “Lythande” stories about how (I’m paraphrasing, in part because I don’t have the book to hand) the non-standard be required to do all the work of those who are more conventional AND the work to do retain their non-standard lifestyle. A lot of pain would probably have been avoided if MZB had been able to put into practice what she preached.