Friday, 11 July 2014

Rolf Harris: Some Notes

Interviewer: What's the secret to your enduring popularity?
Rolf Harris: "I think it's because I'm honest and real onscreen. I talk the same way onscreen as off. It's the same person you meet on the street as on the screen, so people feel that they can trust me. They know where they stand with me."
Saturday nights was Grandstand, with the boring and interminable football scores read out, before the camera swung round, Doctor Who (which in those days was William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton), and some kind of variety show based around a presenter, such as Val Doonican, or Rolf Harris.
We grew up with Rolf, his wobble board, the didgeridoo and the stylophone, and the songs like "Two Little Boys", "Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport", "Sun Arise" and "Jake the Peg". There were massive paintings on the stage when he would tell a story and his catchphrase was always "Can you tell what it is yet?"
He was part of our childhood, far more than Jimmy Savile, who always seemed a very strange individual. Rolf, on the other hand, seemed almost like a friend of the family, invited into living rooms on television up and down the land.
Writing in the Telegraph in 2011, Rebecca Tyrrel wrote that
"He is a man so guileless and innocent and unsullied that he couldn't see the smutty innuendo lurking within the title of his most famous, all time, blockbuster-hit single - 'Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport'. Jake the Peg was a man with an extra leg to Rolf - nothing more or less, nothing to giggle at. Smut and Rolf just don't go together - smut and Rolf is an oxymoron."
But now, he has been has been found guilty of 12 counts of indecently assaulting four girls in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. It turns out that he was not "guileless and innocent and unsullied" after all.
As Alison Phillip, writing in the Daily Mirror, comments:
"Jimmy Savile. Yes, everyone thought he was a total weirdo from the distance of their TV screen. Stuart Hall? Yep, all the signs of a serial sleaze ball. Max Clifford? About as surprising as rain in June. But Rolf Harris? Now this truly was shocking."
"When Operation Yewtree cops made their arrest of this national treasure there was a real sense that this time they had got it wrong. Tragically, we now know the police had it absolutely right and the lovable entertainer was one of the nastiest, most duplicitous types of pervert."
Why did he do it? The article by Rebecca Tyrell, written before his fall from grace, before he was even being investigated, is helpful here because it allows us insights into his strange upbringing:
"That 1974 TV Times interview is quite so shocking and revealing. In an article headlined "Sooner or later Rolf Harris must tie his kangaroo down", Rolf reveals, 'I grew up in the belief that sex was dirty. It was spoken of only behind the boy's lavatory at school or written with chalk on a wall. All the external freedom I had as a child couldn't overcome it: inside me it was like a prison. When I was ten or 11 my mother decided I should see her naked to let me know it was all natural and everything - and we had baths together.'"
Going from a culture of repression when sex was regarded as dirty and shameful, to taking baths with his mother naked must have surely contributed to the part of himself that he kept hidden. In particular, one of the strongest taboos in almost any culture is that of incest, of having sexual feelings for your mother, and yet his strange upbringing had his mother reveal herself as a sexual object.
As Peter Conrad noted:
"Since she had seemingly encouraged such intimacy, Rolf reacted in the same way when he saw her in a swimsuit she had knitted, with a fringe of tassels below the waist. In the water, the dangling strands swelled up, which prompted him to say, 'They look like pubic hairs.' Affronted, his mum belted him hard across the face."
The messages that sex was dirty, and something to be kept secret, but was a secret pleasure was something that he probably learnt from these contradictory experiences. It is known that some people who have been abused, mistreated or neglected develop negative feelings and beliefs about themselves and others. Sexually molesting others can be a form of control, and regaining self-image over a hostile world.
But it is not the whole story. Children who are abused quite often become child abusers themselves, but Clare Rayner survived her childhood to be strongly against child abuse. Norman Wisdom was physically and brutally abused by his father, and yet he survived, taking the experience, and channelling it into his pathos when on screen. He never was violent with his children.
What turns one person into a monster? As the judge stated, there was no expression of remorse, and not was there any outburst protesting his innocence. It was more like acceptance that the game was up, and he had failed in his attempt to have his witnesses discredited.
Most of us have some degree of moral code, what Freud termed the superego, but it appears that there is no indication that people like Rolf Harris feel that what they are doing is wrong. They know it is illegal, so they become adept at hiding it. However it begins, one thing seems certain. Like the concentration camp guard who gradually and unconsciously becomes desensitised to his own wrong doing, sex offenders are less and less likely to feel any remorse or guilt.
The Harborview Center for Sexual Assault & Traumatic Stress looks at this, and describes different ways in which sex offenders deal with their offences:
"Denial is used by offenders to avoid facing the consequences of their actions. Denial means that offenders refuse to admit to others or sometimes even to themselves that they have committed sexual assaults. They may say, "It's a lie. I never did it," or "That wasn't really rape, she agreed to it."

"Rationalizing involves blaming the victim, other people or circumstances. Typical thoughts are, "It wasn't my fault, she led me on", "he didn't fight back" or "I didn't know what I was doing, I had too much alcohol." These are ways of placing responsibility on someone or something else.

"Minimizing is used by offenders to deny the seriousness of the acts or the harm done to the victims. "It wasn't that bad - he liked it," or "I didn't really hurt her." By minimizing their actions, offenders try to make it seem as though what they did was not such a big deal.

These all involve self-justification, means of stilling any conscience; they are coping mechanisms for dealing with the fact that the offender has done something wrong. But of course they know it is wrong, which is why they conceal it, and ensure that they cannot be easily caught.
Why did he do it? As one article on sex offenders notes:
"Typically, it's not just one thing that leads up to sex offences, it's a series of decisions and positions that the offender was in that led to this point."
His background certainly can't have helped, but repression of emotions - "boys don't cry" - was part of the culture back then, even more than it is today. And alongside the messages from school that sex was something dirty, was the heyday of free love and the swinging sixties, a culture where hedonism was given reign, and sexuality was something much looser, more easily available. It was against this kind of background that more perverse sexual activity could be camouflaged, as with Jimmy Saville, because there was a perception that sex was more readily available, and birth control meant it could also be liberated from procreation. Against a time when pop stars, DJs, soap opera actors, and other celebrities could take advantage of the young women eager to participate in a liberated lifestyle, the sexual offender like Harris could operate almost invisibly. Who would notice him?
The impression he gave, of everyone's favourite uncle, of cuddly Uncle Rolf, kind with animals, was in part true; this was as the judge said, a Jekyll and Hyde character. As Jekyll, he entertained, made people laugh, drew paintings, sang songs, but this also provided opportunities for Hyde to be there, concealed, waiting for the opportunity that he knew would arise.
That is why it was always more of a shock when he was convicted. Jimmy Saville, by contrast, always came across as strange, and somehow creepy, even when presenting "Jim'll Fix It".
Jekyll and Hyde is a good way of grasping the essentials of the case. Jekyll lets Hyde out, and enjoys the thrill that comes from his experience as Hyde, but eventually, Hyde comes to dominate, and can control when he wants to be released. The alter ego becomes dominant.
Today's society, where even children sitting on Father Christmas is considered to be something of a risk, has a much greater awareness of predatory sexual offenders, and the background culture is one where one-night stands, while they may still occur, are not openly part of the culture, and highly visible as back in the sixties.
That's not to say that monsters might not arise, but we are more watchful and mindful of them when they do. In a way, the process of safeguarding has also removed the innocence that society once had for children. Sitting on Father Christmas, or taking photos of children at a nativity play, are all bound up with risk assessment, and that is the price we pay for our concerns about what has slipped by in the past.
The problem comes when the monster in our midst is also a conjuror, and all the safeguards we have in place mean that we only look one way; the clever conjurer can see where we look, and know where the gaps in our vision are, and by all accounts, sometimes operating in full view of an audience, this seems to have been what Rolf Harris did, making use of misdirection. Even some people who had worked with him did not see any sign of that, and could not believe they might have been hoodwinked.
Fundamentally, behaviour can become addictive, and sexual offenders display a marked inability to give up that particular addiction. It is not surprising, because as Freud pointed out, libido is one of the great driving forces within our psyche. The literature shows the risk of recidivism is high, but what we can perhaps be thankful for is that even when Rolf Harris is released, his high profile will mean he will not have the relative anonymity of the average offender.

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