From Chris Wayan's journal 4/24/1995
At the San Francisco Film Festival, I saw a semi-autobiography called ART FOR TEACHERS OF CHILDREN. The filmmaker, Jennifer Montgomery, had an affair at age 14 with a married faculty advisor twice her age, called "John" in the film--but really, photographer Jock Sturges.
She asked to be one of his advisees. He admired her writing, though patronizingly: "You write way beyond your age level". He tells secrets about her dorm mates to impress her--violates client confidence, even names names. One girl, Molly, "may have been molested by her father. I'm trying to help her recover memories."
Jennifer asks about his photos, he tells her about photographers he studied with. "Weston slept with all his models, he said it was part of the creative process." She poses for him, volunteers to take her shirt off. She tells her friend she's ready to lose her virginity. She comes to his office one evening and tells him. He's hesitant but wants her. Grotesque scene where he tells her she's too young--which to him means not that she could get hurt but just that he could end up in jail. He drifts into a fantasy "I'd lose my job. I could even go to jail. I couldn't handle jail. I'd get raped, I know it. Look at me. I'm too pretty. I couldn't handle that..." So vain it's comic. But she misses his selfishness entirely, for she's decided to have sex, it's time to learn, and he's the one. That drastic decisiveness of adolescence.
Sex in the darkroom. Not romantic. Ow! More like a pelvic exam. Sit up here. Speak. Roll over. Here's your bone...
Still, she stays interested in him, and they have an affair. Hikes, sex, posing, photography. She says later "The photos helped in a way--I needed to see myself as real. In a way it was a triangle between me, John, and me in the photos."
He stays with his wife, takes that for granted. Expects Jennifer to get along with her, not rock the boat.
Weird letter from him, eerily adolescent: grandiose language, genuine concern for her writing and creative development, casually judging her as if he's still her mentor not her lover... alternating with recurrent fears of being caught. Or does he WANT to be caught?
A boy comes by and leers at her. From what he says, it's clear her best friend has told the whole school...
And so Jock Sturges is found out, and fired. His wife leaves him.
Jennifer goes to visit him. Her parents don't want her to, but they're weak and Jennifer's determined. They agree, if Molly goes too. Molly promptly takes off, leaving them alone. John admits he fucked Molly too: "to help her get over the incest, by giving her a good sexual experience." Jennifer confronts Molly, who says "He promised never to tell anyone! He broke his word! Now everyone'll know. You can't trust him. And I didn't initiate it--he did, and we were stoned and I didn't care."
He tells her weird stories about mutilated negatives of O'Keeffe by Steiglitz. Claims Georgia scratched them herself. "A fierce woman."
They visit his house, one of several--he's from a rich family. Paintings. She's getting bored with sex with him and posing for him. Growing past him. She asks for a portfolio of all his pictures of her. She tells him the ways their relationship hurt her: "Some of the sex wasn't with my full consent--at least I didn't realize what I was getting into. And all that posing left me self-conscious, concerned with my appearance..." She even uses the word vain. For once he admits she's telling the truth and regrets he hurt her...
And they leave it there, and go their separate ways.
Fifteen years go by. He's arrested for his portraits and accused of making child porn. All his art's confiscated and the FBI goes through his old photos looking for evidence of pedophilia... and finds Jennifer.
So FBI agents track down and threaten her parents until they give the Feds her phone number. An agent invades the art colony where she's living, demanding she answer his questions.
She says "none of your damn business."
So does the FBI scratch her off their list of victims? No. They BLACKMAIL her: they have her love letters, photos of her naked, and they'll show them in court if she doesn't testify for them. Enraged, feeling far more violated by the FBI than by statutory rape, she decides to testify FOR Sturges, though she still feels he hurt her some... but, as she says, she grew, too.
We're all left gaping, hanging... trapped in the moral gray area Montgomery's painted us into. We're as ambivalent as her mom, in the film: "He raped you! Well, maybe not. But he went along with everything. He's so weak. What a nebbish! Nothing's worse than a boring man who makes bad art!" Except maybe boring men who blackmail you about art, good or bad...
Hesitant questions from the audience...
"Do you think his pictures ARE obscene?"
"Seemed like you at 15 wanted something from your parents they weren't giving you."
She says "Yes... my parents were torn between civil libertarian ideals and protectiveness. So, they did NOTHING. I did want to provoke action. Also, part of what I wanted to convey in the film was teenage abruptness. I was passive, inarticulate, then took sudden violent risks."
"Do you feel he raped you?"
"He didn't rape me. But the law is a blunt instrument, that sets an age of consent--and that's a fiction. There's partial consent. There's confusion. There's consent without fully knowing the consequences. That can happen at any age... There were exploitive aspects to how he treated me, but I made this film to show just how gray the gray area gets..."
So she testified in his defense... and then made this film, which portrays him so embarrassingly... yet doesn't let herself off either. But it reserves clear and scathing condemnation for one party, and one alone: the US government, for blackmail, censorship, threats, and spying on its own citizens' sex lives.
I notice that I felt the most discomfort about the FBI man threatening to show her photos and love letters in court. Feel sick at the image of government men leering over her nude photos, reading her love poetry. Stripping her EMOTIONALLY bare, in public--without her consent. That's the key. This film is very brave, just as naked--but she chose to tell it, and tell her truth, not what they want to twist it into. That's the difference.
I supposes I shouldn't be, but I'm shocked to learn just how crooked FBI men can get, in pursuit of their own agenda. Montgomery's experience makes me hesitate to publish my dream-tales and dream-art. Shiver, thinking of such personal dreams being read by cops or dubbed obscene by lawyers who don't understand the first thing about dreams and don't want to, who want to induce some jury to misread my work their way. Like blackmailing Jennifer Montgomery, trying to get her to turn the complexity of her real life into their little black and white pogrom.
I feel wrung out from just writing these notes. Think I'll skip my life drawing class tonight: naked model, clothed artists... it'll cause flashbacks to the film. Really feel sick! I'm getting ill for the first time in months--sexual fear and guilt strong enough to make me physically sick. Not food, not sexual arousal or suppression, no invasion by another person. From pure emotion.
Wait! NOT pure. It's been three weeks since my last allergy shot, and it's the peak of the worst season in years!
Gray areas, gray areas...
THE NEXT DAY
I go to hypnotherapy and describe how ill the film made me. Suddenly I see the pain as a chopstick, jabbing though my bladder. Remove it! It's ivory. Chinese characters inscribed on its side. They translate... "Self, Pain, Dream, Family."
Well, that's insightful, but I still hurt.
My therapist Shelley says "enlarge it, convert it to a horn." Do. I reach in like it's a cornucopia.
Ow! A lobster pinches the middle finger of my right hand. Weird! I think of that high school dream of sex with my cute classmate Shelley, where we turned into lobsters. And I had a recent dream where a jury was eating Exhibit A, a lobster. "Shellfish." The moment I say this word aloud, the pain recedes.
"Selfish!" laughs Shelley. The pain is my mom inside, saying I'm as selfish as Jock Sturges if I come on to ANYONE--every female on the planet is a victim, unable to consent...
Shelley asks "How are you selfish? Give examples." I can't come up with much of a list. I'm socially backwards, not criminal.
Shelley encourages me to go for anyone I really like even if she's underage. "Legality is one thing, but morality's what matters. It seems to me that any sexual relationship that's based on mutual consent, respect, and affection is healthy no matter who you are."
I feel a sudden whoosh of agreement with this. Inside me I see a sudden flash of a black and white Jock Sturges, from the movie, nodding yes--not just my inner child, my inner sex pervert agrees to those guidelines! Even he's willing to give up all that thrilling shame and pain and guilt... for real touch, real attention, real sex, real affection. Real love.
The pain is gone. Therapy works!
But then, so, apparently, does filmmaking.
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