Book: Most Outrageous: The Trials and Trespasses of Dwaine Tinsley and Chester the Molester
Author: Bob Levin
Type of Book: Non-fiction, biography, pornography, constitutional issues
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: It may not be full-bore odd in the way that many of the books I discuss here often are, but it’s unsettling and at the end of the book I had more questions than I did at the beginning. This book also dovetailed neatly with some of the work I am doing preparing for upcoming Jim Goad/”Rape Me” discussion, so discussing this is a warm up for what is to come. So the book may not be odd, per se, but it’s worth discussing here because I say so.
Availability: Published by 2008 by Fantagraphics Books, you can get a copy here:
Comments: Pornography as a whole doesn’t bother me. I’ve read every argument for and against it and ,all in all, the Red in me says all work is exploitation. Some of us get exploited more than others. Pornography is an ugly business, uglier than most, but it serves a purpose and I can’t look at anyone who makes or performs in pornography as being a victim. At least not in every circumstance. I sure know a few hundred dollars a scene or for a set of photographs, on the victim-scale, sure beats the hell out of working for minimum wage in retail or scrubbing toilets. People may say the latter work permits workers to have more pride but sentimental ideals like that are worth very little when you cannot pay your bills.
Whether or not opponents of pornography like it, pornography that involves consenting adults (within the legal limits of federal and state law) is protected under the First Amendment. Pornographic depictions in the form of drawings are far more lenient, as in the USA it is still legal to draw children in pornographic situations. Even if we loathe it, we have to tolerate it if we want to live in a free society. But it’s important to note that a free society is not always a healthy society. That’s where Dwaine Tinsley comes in.
If you aren’t familiar with the “Chester the Molester” cartoons that used to appear in Hustler, I tend to think you are a lucky person. I admit that my truly negative opinion of the cartoons are probably coloring this discussion, but I also am struggling to approach this with an even hand. That struggle is helped greatly by Levin’s book, because though I knew of “Chester the Molester,” I knew nothing of the man who had created the cartoons.
Dwaine Tinsley was born poor white trash and had an upbringing that was less Dickensian than straight out of an Erskine Caldwell novel. Throughout his life, he had an affection for plump women, marrying a couple of them, and eventually he made a decent life for himself as a cartoonist. His daughter from one of his earlier relationships moved to live with him and his new family when she began to have problems at home with her mother and, from all accounts, Dwaine and his wife did their best to give his daughter, called “Veronica” in the book, a nice life with some basic household rules.
But when “Veronica” began dating a man whom her father and stepmother disliked, a man who apparently got her hooked on cocaine, she began to make allegations that Tinsley had molested her. Her accusations came during the time when incestuous abuse of children was becoming a very big topic in mainstream society, from movies like Something About Amelia to talk shows with an array of people who had increasingly unbelievable stories about abuse. Tinsley went to trial for molesting his daughter and was convicted, supposedly, on the merits of some taped phone calls he had with “Veronica.” The transcription of those phone calls, when read dispassionately, are devastating to Tinsley’s denial that he did not molest his daughter. Those calls can also be open to interpretation, as a man who knows his daughter is troubled and is refusing to enter into another tiresome, interminable discussion about something that never happened.
But it’s also very much a possibility that Dwaine Tinsley went to prison because his daughter was urged by a boyfriend to blackmail her father. But mostly he went to prison because he was the creator of “Chester the Molester.”
Seriously, if you found out that the artist behind a cartoon wherein disgusting old men stalk and sexually interfere with children, mostly little girls, was accused of raping his daughter, would you even be surprised? Would you shrug and think, “Stands to reason that a man who would draw such cartoons might actually harbor salacious feelings toward children?” Is it even possible that a man who drew such a cartoon could get a fair trial if his work was invoked as proof of his overall degeneracy?
That’s why I am discussing this book here, even though it’s not so odd. It’s because it’s a hard book. Tinsley comes across as a sympathetic man. Levin does an excellent job of showing Tinsley as a man with a good work ethic, a sort of working class hero who made good after a crappy childhood, overcoming the limitations that are often part and parcel of being a “son of the soil.” But he’s also a man who drew some of the most vile cartoons, cartoons that in most cases were utterly devoid of irony (and often humor) because he claimed he was satirizing and lampooning the behaviors of pedophiles. That made me uneasy. And that sucks on my part because a man’s crappy attempts to create valid social satire is not proof positive that he has the urge to rape a child.
To make matters worse is the picture that Levin chose to lead off the book. In this picture, a pretty young woman is sitting on a low wall of some sort. She has her legs spread and Tinsley is leaning back against her, his ass level with her crotch. He is smoking a cigarette and she has her arms wrapped around his neck. I assumed it was a picture of Tinsley with one of his wives or a girlfriend. Of course, later I learned that the “Veronica” in the picture was Tinsley’s daughter. Without any signifiers of who the girl was when I first looked at the picture, I would never have thought the picture was of a father and his daughter. It was creepy and unsettling when I realized the relationship between the two people in the picture.
And that’s dangerous, isn’t it? Lots of families express themselves in ways that I may find odd but are not engaging in incestuous or even unhealthy behaviors. What can one really tell from one photograph? What can one tell from a photograph when the father inks “Chester the Molester?” And why would any man want to ink a cartoon like “Chester the Molester?”
According to Levin, Tinsley was reacting to the sickness of society, Reagan’s America where everything was clean on the surface but dirty underneath. He used the example of a cartoon he drew of exterminators using a human baby to lure out rats, inspired by stories of actual babies being gnawed on by rats in tenement apartments. He said that when people were outraged, the fact remained that the sympathies of the viewer were with the baby, not the exterminators. The implication being, of course, that when one sees a “Chester the Molestor” cartoon wherein Chester has slipped his dick in a bun and a smiling little girl finds it, tongue sticking out in anticipation of the hotdog she is about to eat, our sympathies lie with the child. It’s hard to see that when one looks at the picture. All one sees is the child anticipating a treat – nothing hints at the horror to come when Chester steps out of the bushes and shoves his cock down her throat. It’s a very amateur hour claim to insinuate that the average viewer is supposed to fill in those blanks of intent when Tinsley fails to signpost the real danger. He implies danger in a few of the cartoons, but, for the most part, the consequences of Chester’s actions seldom foreshadow grave harm to the little girls he stalks. The little girls are targets, but they are not portrayed as potential victims. All we see is the fun Chester is about to have.
The hell of it is that Tinsley, in addition to inking “Chester the Molester,” drew some very trenchant and funny political cartoons. One very funny one is of a painter using a dog’s anus as a model for Newt Gingrich. Crude, but the point is unambiguous. Given that Tinsley was capable of creating cartoons that lampooned their target effectively, it makes it all the more curious that he was unable to convey the satire involved in Chester particularly well. Perhaps, as Levin states, Tinsley felt that the value in Chester was more personal:
He was saying, in effect, that there is value in the most foul and repugnant, as there is value in me.
In a way, it seems as if Tinsley stumbled into drawing Chester and kept drawing him out of some sort of defiance:
Dwaine had not planned to tread the tightrope walk above the razor-bottomed pit that is a career hand-in-hand with a ball bat-wielding pervert; but he had pursued his artistic vision, and his vision had produced Chester. If he took his art seriously, which he did – which he certainly did – it was his responsibility to push it to extremes, to grind Chester against the most noses, to fling him into the most eyes.
This passage was very important to me because it shows that Chester was art for Tinsley, more an expression he chose rather than a satire used to expose. It’s no crime in the USA to think such thoughts or even to reproduce such thoughts on paper, but if Tinsley wanted to rub our noses in his art, he wasn’t engaging in satire.
But given what happened to him, one can understand why he wanted to put some intellectual distance between himself and Chester, because once one is on a jury to determine whether or not the creator of Chester raped his child, it’s going to be hard not to convict him of molestation. Tinsley was convicted because the district attorney made the trial as much about Chester as it was about anything Tinsley may have done to his daughter.
The conviction was appealed and a cogent point was made about how damaging his case was to First Amendment rights.
By using Dwaine’s cartoon’s against him… the state had not only improperly imposed itself on one side of a sociopolitical debate, it had made his expressions of unpopular ideas appear indicative of criminal acts. If it was allowed to hang Dwaine with a rope woven in part from his creations, all artists would be discouraged from describing, in song or film or on the printed page, actions that might be used against them by other vengeful district attorneys.
I agree with this, and so did the judge who reversed the child abuse conviction against Tinsley because his trial had been contaminated when his cartoons were used as proof against him. Ventura County chose not to retry him, which makes it clear, to me at least, that the taped phone calls he had with his daughter – where he never admitted guilt but answered questions in a strange, evasive manner – weren’t worth much. The case hinged on the cartoons he created, not what he had said or even what his daughter had said.
“Veronica” later became a born-again Christian and, with a fierce anger, she maintains to this day that her father molested her. And I can draw no conclusions. I want to believe victims, but nothing in Dwaine’s life as presented by Levin shows any sign that he would rape his child. Other than those cartoons. And that picture…
Perhaps that is what is so very odd about this book. I don’t think anyone can walk away from it knowing any sort of truth other than that the things we type and draw and sculpt should not be used as proof about us but that human nature makes it difficult to avoid such conclusions. I was forced to think why it is that I admire the body of work of men like Peter Sotos and Jim Goad but found very sleazy and grotesque some of Tinsley’s works. Pointlessly sleazy. It was hard to look at a cartoon of a pervert lying under a slide, his tongue sticking out so that he can lick the panty-covered crotch of the little girl about to descend. What custom is this lampooning? What cultural norm is this subverting? I couldn’t see how any of it was satire (aside from the parody of the Coppertone ad wherein it is Chester pulling down the little girl’s bathing suit instead of a dog). It seemed to me that Tinsley was just spewing his id.
And that’s okay, spewing one’s id. It’s just best to be honest about it. Pornography and art that many can dispassionately consider vile does not have to have a purpose that is readily identifiable to everyone who sees or consumes it. While at times Tinsley admitted that he was just being disgusting to be disgusting, he also insisted there was a cultural and critical morality to his Chester cartoons. Were I on a jury, I would have considered that a damnable lie. But inking disgusting cartoons, being evasive in phone calls and posing in an unusual picture with one’s child do not a conviction for molestation make, or at least they don’t in a country that respects freedom of speech and the rule of law.
As appalling as I found this book in so many respects, I also think it is very much worth reading. Levin, whom I had not heard of before but plan to investigate a bit, is a fine writer (though I think I liked him because I recognized a lot of my own labyrinthine writing style in his words). He does an amazing job of showing Tinsley as a man of some virtues and a man of some deep failures. His refusal to declare Tinsley innocent or guilty as he examines this case closely was the only honest way to handle this book. He asks all the right questions and I sense he was as frustrated as I am that there seems to be no definitive answers as to what happened between Tinsley and his daughter. If you have the stomach for this sort of thing, give it a read.