“Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?”
(from Alexander Pope’s ‘Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot‘)
On August the 4th, 2015 the Chicago Tribune published an article whose headline read ‘Paul Christiano, talented dancer and choreographer with a difficult past, is dead at 39’.
Christiano was a paedophile, and he had taken his own life.
Paul Christiano, from his earliest childhood, was different to the other boys: he was an odd, creative soul, who loved to perform, and who was fascinated by the world of girls. At the age of eight or nine, inspired by a bio-pic of Nadia Comaneci, he started gymnastics lessons and would spend all his spare time practicising women’s floor routines in the school playground and on his front lawn. He worshipped his female classmates, in particular Shayna – a pretty little blonde who was “exceptionally talented at making little playground spectacles cry”, and who would, many years later, come to play an important part in his life.
In high school, whilst the other boys were dating their classmates, Christiano’s romantic and sexual interests remained with girls between the ages of seven and eleven. These feelings, and what he describes as his ‘effeminate heterosexuality’, left him increasingly isolated from his peers.
Despite Christiano’s talents in dance and gymnastics his ambition was to become a writer. But words proved refractory, and his literary struggles would drive Christiano to two suicide attempts and a month-long stint in an adolescent psychiatric unit.
Aged eighteen Christiano saw his first professional dance performance and it revealed to him that dance could be ‘an elevated form of poetry’. Moreover dance, through assimilating other art-forms (such as music, narrative, scenography and film), could by-pass the intractability of words.
After high school Christiano studied dance for three years, and taught dance, gymnastics and tumbling to children.
As a teacher, Christiano thought of his sexuality as a ticking time-bomb. Terrified that one day he “would turn into this insatiable sex monster and go molest a kid” he imposed on himself rules and rituals that would keep sexual thoughts out of his mind, and ensure that he never crossed any lines with his pupils: fasting all day, never sitting down whilst teaching, and rigorously maintaining an emotional distance from his students.
In 2000, when still in his early 20s, Christiano was convicted of purchasing child pornography after having been entrapped by under-cover customs agents. He would never again be allowed to teach or work with minors of any age. For the rest of his life he would be on a publicly-accessible sex offender register, and be subject to stringent reporting obligations, random police checks, and work and residency restrictions. A failure to comply with these would constitute a felony.
During his trial, his erstwhile 4th grade classmate, Shayna, contacted Christiano and they started a relationship together. It would be the only time Christiano ever saw himself as a ‘significant other’.
Christiano yearned to be a father, and Shayna, a single mother of a two-year-old girl, offered Christiano a ready-made family. But the implications of being in a relationship with a convicted sex-offender proved too much for Shayna and the relationship lasted only a few months.
“what woman in her right mind is not, sooner than later, going to realise that walking away from a relationship with the likes of me is only going to improve her life? “
After Shayna left him, Christiano made an attempt on his own life.
Christiano would choreograph his way out of the ’emotional black hole’ left by the end of this relationship by transcribing excerpts from his love-letters to Shayna into sign language, and setting the resulting gestures to the music of Vivaldi.
It proved to be Christiano’s break-out creation. It earned him the plaudits of the critics, and led to the Chicago Tribune naming him as one of that year’s top sixteen Chicagoans.
The world was eager for Christiano’s talent and his future seemed bright. Unfortunately, it would not be his talents that would determine the course of his subsequent years, but his criminal conviction.
Growing hysteria around child sexuality, the accessibility of Sex Offender registers, and improving internet literacy meant that employing Christiano became a serious risk for any business. Christiano found it increasingly hard to find work. In 2008 Paul’s life and career would take a further drastic turn. The year was actually proving to be an unusually productive and busy one for Paul. The dance school where Paul used to teach before his conviction would put on annual recitals in which the students could show their parents what they had learnt, and gain experience performing. The school’s owner, though not able to employ him as a teacher, remained a loyal friend to Paul and supported him as best she could by regularly employing him as a guest dancer/choreographer at these annual recitals.
Given how busy 2008 was proving to be for Paul, she had to veritably beg him to perform:
“The parents get so bored watching the kids do their sweet little numbers. You make it a night worth remembering!”
Paul’s brilliance would prove to be his downfall. A young audience member who had admired his performance on getting home searched for his name on-line and, in a panic, showed her parents what she had found regarding Paul’s presence on Sex Offender registry. The owner of the dance school was devastated at what had happened, and came under such pressure that she was obliged to stop hiring Paul for the annual recitals.
More significantly, Paul was arrested for not having registered in the town where the dance school was situated and where he had spent a week rehearsing for the recital.
Thousands of dollars in legal fees later, Paul was cleared of all charges, thanks to his status as an independent contractor. He had already worked as a dancer/choreographer in more than ten different towns that year (and likewise for several previous years) and the judge appreciated that, logistically speaking, it would be impossible for Paul to do his work were he obliged to register with the police department in each new town he worked in, registration being an unbelievably time-consuming process.
Regardless of the positive outcome of his legal battle the scathing publicity surrounding Paul’s arrest seriously damaged his already meagre prospects for employment – Christiano estimated that in the following six years the repercussions of this incident lost him some 20 dance contracts.
During this period Christiano became a tireless volunteer and administrator for B4U-ACT, giving interviews to newspapers, contributing to radio documentaries, promoting a more humane and rational approach to Minor Attracted Persons. He applied the same thoroughness, dedication and leadership skills to this role as he did to his art.
In 2014, speaking in a CBC radio documentary on paedophilia, Paul sounds at ease with his sexuality, seeing it as a positive part of his selfhood, no longer fearing that he might contain a ‘monster’ within himself:
“I’ve embraced it, and accepted it as part of my identity. There is no dissonance any more between ‘the way I feel’ and ‘the way I think about how I feel’. Before, every time I would have a sexual thought about a child, I would immediately chastise myself. Now I am able to let those feelings come and go, and acknowledge that they are there and that is totally fine with me. And I realise that being who I am does not obligate me in any way to behave in reckless or irresponsible ways.“
By then Christiano was dependent on the support of his parents, menial jobs and welfare. Christiano, for lack of work and exposure, saw his status in the Chicago dance community diminish. Audiences and critics seemed to have forgotten about him and his work. This neglect gradually undermined Christiano’s belief in himself and in his achievements. Meanwhile, the Kafkaesque residency restrictions imposed on him made it a constant struggle to find somewhere to live. He relied on supportive friends and colleagues from the Chicago dance world. These regulations would eventually push Christiano beyond breaking point.
In May of 2015 Christiano was arrested for falsifying his address. He faced at least three years in prison, during which he would be able to pursue neither his art nor his work for B4U-ACT. He also knew that he would be unemployable after his release. Faced with this future, it is understandable that death for him should seem a ‘soaring relief’, as he described it in a note left at the site of his suicide.
In order to survive in an extremely hostile culture and society, paedophiles have to make certain adaptations to the way we think, feel and interact with the world. This leaves us with an existential grammar (for want of a better term) that differs significantly from that of someone spared our struggles. We speak with the ‘accent’ of the condition which shaped our soul.
To pursue the analogy: paedophiles are like foreigners in a hostile country who are under great pressure to efface their native accent, but whose speech nevertheless, even after decades of living in their new country, still bears traces of their original language. This accent is probably most audible in the work of creative artists – people whose job it is to explore and report back from the hinterlands of human experience.
Even a raging paedophobe who engages sensitively with the art of a paedophile might be moved by something in this ‘accent’ that touched on hurt, stigma, loneliness, secrecy, and a bitter-sweet relationship with Time (that being a paedophile places one in). But, provided child sexuality isn’t too explicitly or insistently referenced in the art, they would have no reason to associate these qualities with paedophilia.
Christiano, writing about the depiction of child sexuality in the visual arts, identified ‘humor, eroticism, and grotesquery‘ as defining qualities of Sally Mann’s ‘Immediate Family‘ photographs. These qualities also define Christiano’s work and, I suspect, arise from the existential adaptations that he, as a paedophile, was obliged to make in order to be a creative artist in a hostile world.
The poetry in ‘Art’ and the humour in the ‘Joke’ both exist in the gap between what is being said and what is being meant. When paedophilic love is a significant element in an artist’s language this ‘gap’ needs to be very wide.
Christiano fills this gap with anxiety, energy, garrulousness and convulsivity. Christiano interacts with the stage, props, and fellow dancers anarchically, as if he were encountering them for the first time and was ignorant of their identity and function.
There is the sense of an artist trying to say more than the occasion seems to permit. This is especially noticeable when the accompanying music is slow and melancholy and when he is exploring emotions that are reflective.
Being laconic is for those who expect to be listened to, who don’t need to persuade in order to be understood, for those who are ‘cool’. Christiano’s eccentricity and sexuality ensured that he was none of these things.
Christiano is engaged in a paradox: he has to communicate something which must remain hidden. To this end his dance plays like a game of charades. He circles round his meaning without ever coming into contact with it. He overwhelms us with gestures which appear disparate, but which all point towards the hidden heart of the work. The meaning emerges through an accumulated density of these hints, clues, tangents and perpendiculars – in the same way as, in Monet’s late work, a confusion of brushstrokes resolves into the façade of a cathedral when the viewer pulls back.
To be able to take one extreme quality and make if feel like its opposite is the mark of a supreme artist. If Christiano’s garrulous flow so often feels like stillness it is because his best work maintains its underlying unity. This quality is also found in the poetry of John Ashbery, the music of Brian Ferneyhough, and the art of R. B. Kitaj.
Could someone unfamiliar with Christiano’s biography perceive his sexuality in his art? Is our work inevitably defined by our sexuality? To what extent must an artist who happens to be a paedophile be a ‘Paedophile Artist’?
In ‘What r u Wearing’ – a pas de deux danced to Scala & Kolacny Brothers’ re-interpretation of Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ – Christiano and his dance-partner, Autumn Eckman, interact as if they were a man and child playing, rough-housing together.
Eckman is as weightless as a girl of seven. This illusion of feminine weightlessness is, of course, a traditional part of classical ballet. But Christiano complicates this trope in ways which could be interpreted as emerging directly from his sexuality.
“The song ‘Creep’ by Radiohead has been my personal anthem since my junior year of high school.”
Christiano unfolds Eckman’s body, exposing its pits and crevices to our view. His gestures approach, but keep stopping just short of intimacy–a few inches more and there would be sexual contact. And Eckman is unembarrassed, like a five year-old. Or a girl who desires the adult she is playing with, but isn’t sure what to do with that desire.
Dance must be a particularly difficult art form to integrate children into, and in his essay ‘Riding Red’s Coat-Tales‘ Christiano makes it clear that he is not averse to engaging in the paedophile equivalent of the lesbian poetess who, in a love poem, changes every ‘she’ to a ‘he’ before sending it to her editor:
“I questioned whether casting […] a twenty-two-year-old female, to play the part of a young child compromised the integrity of Riding Red’s Coat-Tales, but decided that subjecting a real child to the Wolf’s sexual advances (however dramatized) had more potential to reinstate Red Riding Hood as a casualty of carnal knowledge in the eyes of a conservative public than to, alas, celebrate that knowledge as proof of autonomy.”
Was Eckman therefore a kind of substitution for Christiano? In his dream world, would his ideal partner in this dance have been a child?
Christiano spent his childhood coping with being odd and eccentric. He would then spend his adolescence and adulthood coming to terms with the Monster and Predator archetypes that society blindly assigns to all paedophiles (he makes repeated references to these in interviews and in his writing).
At the same time he was devoted to an art-form that is preoccupied with physical beauty and grace.
In the above sequence Christiano assumes postures which are angular and uncomfortable. We see hints of an insect struggling on its back, the hunch-back of Notre Dame, the splayed limbs of a komodo dragon, a scorpion flexing its tail, a urinating dog, the spastic movements of a cerebral palsy sufferer, a vulture spreading its wings, an ape, the pelvic thrusting of a libidinous disco dancer, the quadrupedal gait of a child affected by polio, a man falling through space, a swastika…
We are watching a teratology.
The need to synthesise the not-quite-irreconcilable opposites of ‘monstrosity’ and ‘grace’ was a powerful motor to Christiano’s art. When these opposites combine the result is unsettling – the viewer is held between the conflicting forces of fascination and fear. The common word for this is ‘creepy‘ – it is used for when a stigma that is meant to be kept hidden shows.
“…I was destined to become a monster, I was terrified.”
Just as the monsters in Christiano’s work draw on Society’s archetypes of ‘the Paedophile’, so I believe that the grace that pervades his work embodies what he knew to be the true nature of his love for little girls.
A friend remembers Paul Christiano
I first met Paul when he appeared on the public GirlChat forum. He was very intelligent and articulate, and his troubled life provided him with a strong sense of service to his fellow MAPs. He was very thoughtful and polite in the sharing of opinions and providing support for others. His arrival there was shortly before he was “outed.” After that occurred, he never let the turmoil this obviously made of his young life deter him from offering help to others. With his promising career in dance and choreography no longer being so promising after the revelation that he was a MAP, he spent a large amount of his involuntary free time helping other MAPs deal with the anxiety of being reviled and the need to manage their attractions legally. Never did he allow his problems stop him from helping others, and never did he take his problems out on anyone he worked or associated with.
In short, Paul was a terrific human being, and the mistake he made that ultimately destroyed his life insured that he knew better than to judge others. He never allowed that to let him to succumb to bitterness or hatred towards anyone. The fact that he refused to hate society back for what it did to him taught me more about compassion than a hundred sermons on the topic by a member of the clergy ever could have.
Paul never failed to call me when I asked him to, and whenever I had a problem I knew he would be there for me. Despite the constant inner turmoil he endured due to being shamed on the sex offender registry for the rest of his life, he never let this anguish show in his public persona, but found his outlet of expression in the artistic work he had a talent for — much like many other tragic artists throughout history. His pain translated into a creative way of providing succor and insights to others. This has allowed many to profit emotionally, philosophically, and aesthetically from the work that Paul was never himself allowed to profit from financially.
Paul spent his final years participating in various interviews and even an online documentary to let his story be known. He did much to advance understanding about MAPs and to offer proof that we are human beings, and not the vile caricatures depicted by the media. He became a tireless advocate of his community’s well-being, and his work with the MAP support group B4U-ACT enabled him to help that same community establish some very important and ground-breaking dialog with the media and the mental health industry. He was a true pioneer, and he was determined to derive the most good out of the tumultuous situation that a single mistake put him in. I’ve met many people in the MAP community whom I love and respect as amazing people during my nearly two decades of association with it, but Paul was one of the top of that august list.
When I heard he had taken his own life, I was devastated. I didn’t know about the final travails that caused him to unjustly face a long prison sentence due to being forced to live in a logistically impossible situation. As a result, I deeply regret being unable to offer him my support. It may not have saved his life, but I really wish he had come to me with the problem so I could have done my best to try, especially after he had done so much for me. But Paul made up his mind, and didn’t want to be talked out of his planned exit from the world. I just wish he knew how highly he was regarded, and I hope he has at least found the peace in death that the system refused to let him have in life.
Paul Christiano deserves to remembered as far more than yet another “pedophile” statistic who became a casualty of a hateful society. He deserves to be remembered for who he was as a person, and all the time and sacrifice he put into helping others; for making the best out of one of the most emotionally trying situations a person can find themselves in for as long as he did; for everything he gave to the world of dance, along with all the unfulfilled accomplishments he would have contributed had he been allowed to continue his career unimpeded; but most importantly, he deserves to be remembered for giving so much to the world despite all it took from him.
This blog recently explored the idea that ethical paedophiles make many positive contributions to children’s lives through deeds informed by qualities proper to the expression of any form of love (moreover, I have argued elsewhere that no form of love requires more selflessness, generosity, tenderness and restraint than paedophilia). But the secrecy with which we must cloak our sexuality means that, whilst this virtue may be credited to us as individuals, it is never credited to us as paedophiles.
This invisibility extends beyond our interactions with children to all our talents, achievements and merits.
Sappho, Tchaikovsky, Alan Turing, Henry James, Colette &c are all acknowledged by our culture as having been homosexual. And consequently they provide irrefutable testimony to the potential humanity, talent and value of homosexuals.
But Society won’t tolerate any association between ‘the paedophile’ and positive attributes such as humanity, talent, creativity and virtue. Whenever society learns that a person is a paedophile their talents and achievements are, by whatever means necessary, nullified. And anyone who tries to establish such an association, even if they have been entirely celibate, is punished as harshly as those who have broken the law.
If the person is an established historical figure, or if their contributions are too great to be excised from the culture, then Society instead obfuscates their paedophilia (e.g. Lewis Carroll, Benjamin Britten, Michael Jackson).
Paul Christiano was a major talent who committed a minor offense, one comparable to the possession of a class C drug for personal use. Christiano escaped a prison sentence, but received a life-sentence when he was placed on the Sex Offender Register. The restrictions imposed on him could not have been better designed to extinguish his talent or, failing that, his life. It took fifteen years for things to march, sufficient, to that end. Society, using the means at its disposal, prevented a paedophile it had ‘outed’ from using his passion and his talents to make the world a better place.
Difficult friend, I would have preferred
You to them. The dead keep their sealed lives
And again I am too late. Too late
The salutes, dust-clouds and brazen cries.
(Geoffrey Hill – from ‘A Valediction to Osip Mandelshtam‘)