In last week’s episode of Homeland, I thought the real standout of an episode that otherwise was a retread of the show’s Carrie-Brody obsession was Erik Todd Dellums’ performance as Dr. Graham, the surgeon who runs a crude hospital in the Tower of David, and who lives and works for a criminal gang there in part because he’s a pedophile. As he puts it to Brody, “We’re here because the world outside can be judgmental and cruel. We’re here because this is the place that accepts us. We’re here because we belong here.” As I wrote in my Vulture review of the episode, “He’s such an upsetting, specific creation that I was almost tempted to up my rating of this episode by a star.”
Apparently, the character, and my enthusiasm for the performance, rubbed some people the wrong way. I didn’t find Dr. Graham particularly effeminate or stereotypically gay — he’s a little bit performative, maybe, but he’s the sort of guy who orders around Caracas criminals and performs crude surgery and dispenses heroin to non-compliant patients. But Sean Kennedy, who teaches as Lehman College felt differently — and he asked a question I felt was worth a response. “Actually, yeah: why portray pedophiles? What does the audience get out of that?” he wanted to know. “But if you’re going to insist on one, avoid the effeminacy & other ‘gay’ conflations.”
On the surface, this is an argument disguised as query that I find tiresome in many forms. If I could make all of us who talk about the arts and culture write “Depiction is not endorsement” a hundred times on Bart Simpson’s blackboard, I would. But the sentiment persists that it’s better to erase a lot of kinds of people and a lot of kinds of behavior than to portray them — and to grapple with the consequences of their behavior. It’s one thing not to want to watch a rape happen on screen, or to see a character who sexually abuses children do something else, like practice medicine well, or come across as charismatic on screen. It’s perfectly fine not to want to consume something that is upsetting to you personally. But, depending on how well a book, movie, or television show does its job, I think it’s important to recognize the gap between your own triggers and the actual ideas a work conveys.
And specifically, pedophilia is an offense that all of us hope we’ll never encounter in our real lives, whether as survivors ourselves, or as parents or friends to the parents of victims. But characters like Dr. Graham are worth some time and attention for what they can teach us about the ways in which pedophiles continue to be able to gain access to children, whether it’s a matter of personal charm or public policy.
Dr. Graham is tolerated by the criminals who run the Tower of David because he’s useful to them, willing to perform surgery in conditions that produce risks that other physicians might consider unethical. He’s also willing to keep his mouth shut when one of his patients turns out to be a wanted terrorist with a $10 million bounty on his head. For these services, the criminals in question are willing to allow him to abuse his targets, as long as he confines himself to the Tower. That Dr. Graham’s predations can continue are a reflection of the low morals and self-interest of the criminals who tolerate him, but understand that if he is allowed to offend in larger Caracas, he might bring negative attention to the community in place in the Tower. They’re also a symptom of the limits of the state’s reach in the city. In so much as he acts as a moral voice in the context of Homeland, he’s issuing his judgements of Brody from deep within the Pit, from a position of moral recognition rather than any sort of moral superiority.
There are other issues that stories about pedophiles can raise, and other conversations they can start. How can we get people who are themselves survivors treatment and help so they don’t become offenders in term? What happens when large numbers of sex offenders are housed together because of regulations that prevent them from finding households in many neighborhoods? Why would certain jurisdictions tolerate sex trades that include children among their offerings? And what about people who feel drawn to offend, but resist?
If we want to keep children safer, thinking about and understanding the conditions that allow them to be attacked in the first place may be uncomfortable, but it’s necessary. And the demands of art mean that even the darkest, most damaging parts of the human spirit are open for exploration. That doesn’t mean all of us have to follow: what we want to consume is for us to determine. But that doesn’t mean that artists who walk dark paths have dark intentions, or that those dark paths have no value.