By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
In 1997, 15-year-old Sam Manzie sexually assaulted and murdered 11-year-old Eddie Werner. Those are the bare facts. Shrouding them, however, are complex, interlocked issues: queer teen sexuality, pedophilia, homophobia in macro and micro forms, and the explicit and insidious ways that the state, mainstream culture and families can converge to drive queer folk mad — and then blame the victim for the fallout. Novelist and playwright Sarah Schulman’s 11th book, The Child, is based on the Manzie case. It examines the dynamic of cause and effect between sanctioned manifestations of homophobia and the consequential alienation and madness (low-flame or combusted) still suffered by many gays and lesbians. As she writes of one of the novel’s lesbian characters, “First, they humiliated her for being gay, so she became isolated. Sequence, consequence.”
Manzie’s sexual relationship with Stephen Simmons, whom the boy met online when he was 14 and Simmons was 43, was cited by the teen’s family and by the court as the trigger behind the murder. Manzie had been corrupted.
Schulman uses that tragedy as the foundation for The Child. In her quest to make sense of damaged queer psyches, she sifts through recent political and cultural history. She makes note of how the American legal system enforces not only law, but homophobic Judeo-Christian morality, and outlines ways that the American health care industry specifically fails women and gay men. At its core, though, the book is a painful but astute observation of the roles played by families themselves in inflicting spiritual wounds. The main players are Eva, a Jewish lawyer born in the ’60s but shaped by the New York of the ’70s, and her California-born and -raised gentile girlfriend, a frustrated playwright; Hockey, a gay lawyer battling HIV; and 15-year-old Stew, whose slow descent into insanity makes for wrenching reading. In true Schulman form, the book has a gleaming intelligence and chilled anger. It’s beautifully blunt and plainspoken. Schulman recently spoke with the Weekly by phone from her home in New York.
L.A. WEEKLY:In the afterword forThe Child, you write, “The novel you hold in your hand was ready for publication in 1999. It reflects a world of perceptions and values firmly grounded in that year.” And you express regret that neither you nor the reader was able to experience the book in the moment in which it was meant to be read. Can you explain or define that specific moment and how it led toThe Childbeing written?
SARAH SCHULMAN: It was finished in ’99. That’s the moment where protease inhibitors were beginning to be widely used, but they still had enormous toxic side effects. People who had expected to die were instead plummeted into this kind of merry-go-round of extreme drug reactions and dramatic ups and downs. It looked like things were going to change but at a very high price. So, there’s a great deal of emotional change and uncertainty, and physical discomfort. Also technologically, it’s when people are starting to get cell phones and to really be online, but most people are still waiting at phone booths and carrying quarters around in their pockets. So culturally, it’s quite different. Stew is young, so he is living online, but that’s very mysterious to older people.
I also think at that time there was still a common outrage and recognition of how the marginalization was hurting people. I feel that now people are so assaulted and beaten down by being lied to culturally for so long that there’s not even a place to articulate those kinds of feelings. I think the book looks so unusual today, but had it been published in its time, it would have been more in sync with how people were looking at things. I don’t think there’s anything like it being published now, because I don’t think we’re as aware now. I think we’re much more blunted. The culture is moving backward.
You say the novel was finished in ’99. When did you start it? What took so long for it to get published?
It took my friend Diamanda Galas picking up a phone and making it happen. No one wanted to touch it, and I think it’s because I wasn’t condemning the relationship between Stew and the older men. When I got to Carroll & Graf, my editor and I were very far apart culturally, and he had a very hard time understanding the book. So, there are three or four extremely explanatory paragraphs that I don’t really like, but I was forced to put them in to help him understand what the book was doing.
What was it about the Manzie case that attracted you?
He was a young man, about 15, who lived in New Jersey and who had gone online looking for an older man to have sex with. The [older] guy got caught in a pedophilia Internet sting, and the kid got exposed to his community. At that point, [Manzie] had a psychotic episode and murdered a little boy. When he chose his own boyfriend, they said he was a child. But when he killed somebody, he was tried as an adult. They offered him a deal where if he would say that he was molested, he could plea bargain. He refused and took a 30-year sentence, which he is now serving. That case profoundly affected me, and so I think I started with that story . . . You know, each character at a different point in the story is the child. It’s really about the consequences of familial homophobia on people’s emotional lives, that it has a very, very wide range of consequence that each of the characters experiences in their own way, but it’s dramatically determining in how their lives unfold.