Content Warning—Please note this short story and author’s note contain reference to childhood sexual abuse, the sex offender registry, and child pornography.
As a victim of childhood sexual abuse and a mother of two young children, I did not undertake lightly the act of empathizing with a sexual predator in order to write “The Shape of Skin.” But I believe it’s important to recognize and probe the moral complexity of actions so unconscionable to us that we circumvent trying to understand them by simply classifying them as Evil. I’m undecided about the notion of evil as an abstract force at work in the world, but I’m positive that I don’t believe in evil people, which means that something more psychologically and socially complex than super-villainy must be going on when people exploit or abuse children. In order to explore at least one version what that might be, I decided to write a story that swept aside notions of good and evil and instead explored the humanity of a sexual perpetrator from a neutral place.
When I started working on “The Shape of Skin,” I knew two things: the first was that my narrator, Shawn, was a registered sex offender convicted of producing child pornography; the second was that Shawn had himself once been a child. I spent a lot of time imagining Shawn’s early childhood—his premature birth due to Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, the long string of therapeutic foster placements he endured while his mother bounced in and out of detox programs, and his eventual landing as a cold-case in a misfit foster home in Central Maine. Self-consciously small, sullen, and arrogant, Shawn is a difficult person to like. Before he meets the professor in “The Shape of Skin,” Shawn has only ever known three people willing to try: his harried foster mother, Brenda; her aging father, Ron; and me.
By letting Shawn knock around in my head for many months before I started writing about him, I got to know him pretty well. I know, for example, that he thinks of himself as “artistic” without really knowing what that means, and that he has worked hard to cultivate his artistic persona against the grain of popular culture in rural Maine. I also know that, as the oldest foster kid in a home with a lot of turnover of younger kids, Shawn became a fixture—useful, but also easy to ignore. He spent his adolescence cherry-picking, over an unreliable internet connection, music, movies, and literature that seemed aggressively indie enough to appeal to the person he was trying to be. This meant steeping himself in a random spattering of counter-culture without much sense of its context. He listened to bands like Gorgoroth and Burzum without any knowledge of the Norwegian Black Metal scene, watched Japanese horror films on YouTube without subtitles, and moved his eyes over the words of what existentialist writers, language poets, and beat writers he managed to find at the small library close to his foster home. In other words, he was an outsider even in the world of outsider art, beating his head against doors that didn’t want to open for the likes of him until, finally, one did.
The door that opened, as we slowly piece together in “The Shape of Skin,” presents Shawn with an opportunity to finally commit a subversive artistic act of his own—the photographing of two children engaged in sexual activity in the bunkroom at his foster home. This is where my commitment to neutrality was tested, and where ethical questions threatened to tug me out of Shawn’s consciousness and into my own. I wanted to know whether there really was a morally defensible position from which one could call what Shawn was doing art, and I worried about the ethical implications of making my own exploitative art out of Shawn’s photograph. But what I told myself, and what I hope is true, is that fealty to the first-person voice I was inhabiting specifically contraindicated my trying to understand or make decisions about ethical considerations outside of Shawn’s worldview. For Shawn, with his fuzzy understanding of subversion and social action, photographing those children was a turning point not because the action carried him across an arbitrary line between good and evil, but because it blurred the dichotomy—negating questions of intent and responsibility through the higher power of art. At least that’s what Shawn wants to believe. The public appearance of his actions, which is made manifest in his sex offender registry photograph, is like a splinter under Shawn’s fingernail throughout “The Shape of Skin,” and we see him grapple with the increasingly plausible possibility that public perception is accurate—that, in short, he’s a bad actor.
My then four-year-old daughter, who was very into superhero movies, asked me once: Do Bad Guys always know they’re Bad Guys? It’s a question that had a lot of resonance for me as I wrote “The Shape of Skin.” Because my answer is no, I don’t think Bad Guys always know they are Bad Guys. Many Bad Guys think what they’re doing is justifiable, which makes them Good Guys in their own stories. This suggests a very different kind of moral confrontation with predators like Shawn—one in which isolation, ignorance, and confusion are much more important enemies to vanquish than what we too dismissively call Evil.
KRISTINA JIPSON’s first book of poetry, Halve (Tupelo Press 2016), was selected by Dan Beachy-Quick for the Tupelo Press Berkshire Prize. She is the author of two chapbooks: How Void of Miracles (Hand Held Editions 2009), and Lock, Means (Dancing Girl Press 2011). Her poetry has appeared in AGNI, American Letters & Commentary, At Length, Chicago Review, Colorado Review, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere, and her first work of short fiction was recently published in Tin House. She is currently shopping her first novel, Before They Wake, about a frenzy of early adolescent experimentation on a Utah camping trip that leads to the deaths of two children. She holds an MFA from Columbia University and a PhD from Notre Dame, and is a professor of English at Everett Community College. She lives with her husband and two daughters on a once-upon-a-time orchard in the emerald suburbs of Seattle.