Book: Selfish, Little: The Annotated Lesley Ann Downey
Author: Peter Sotos
Type of Book: Non-fiction, pornography, indescribable
Why I Consider This Book Odd: Peter Sotos wrote it. If that is not enough, just Google his name and it will all become clear.
Availability: I have one of the 1000 copies Void Books released, but it looks like Void has since rereleased the book (at a much more reasonable price, as well). You can get a copy here:
Comments: This is not going to be a coherent review. There is no way it can be.
The first thing that needs to be said about this book is that it is not an analysis of the murder of Lesley Ann Downey. It is not a biography about the 10-year-old child who died at the hands of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, the trickster and the moron who committed what came to be called the Moors Murders. They took pictures of the little girl, naked and bound, and recorded her as she spoke, begging them to let her go. It was one of the most outrageous murders in the 20th century, the sheer horror of the media remnants of the crime surpassing even the pictures Harvey Glatman took of his victims. It took Manson to top the duo, in terms of shock and fetish value of the murder victim. It shocks me, the number of people online who picked up this book thinking it would be either a fictionalized account of the girl’s life or her biography. Despite the title, there is remarkably little of Lesley in this book, in terms of cold, hard words. But as Sotos makes clear, she permeates every page. She is his muse.
This book grew out of his epilogue to Ian Brady’s load of horseshit, The Gates of Janus: Serial Killing and Its Analysis, which I reviewed on this site. Sotos was the only one, it seems, who had Brady’s number. Somehow, knowing that enabled me to read this book a little easier. Not much. Just a little.
Sotos is hard for me to read. He is relentless. I have to put him down and come back to him. I can never read him in one go. He upsets me. He makes me sick. At times, I do not understand him and when I do, it bothers me because it makes me wonder about the sickness that lurks in my own soul. But I comfort myself that what is happening to me is that Sotos is provoking a reaction, not a realization, which is why I think this book exists.
I expose myself to Peter Sotos for the same reasons I expose myself to any number of artistic darknesses: I have to. It is a compulsion and one I gave up fighting years ago. Sotos leaves me bewildered, unsure about what I just read. Parts of the book are unclear. Was it truth, a remembrance of actual sexual couplings? Fantasy? Is he describing himself or is it a fiction? And would knowing the truth make any difference?
I don’t know.
I flat out do not know.
Sotos is notorious for many reasons, but chief among them is that he once produced a ‘zine called Pure. In issue 2, he used copies of actual child pornography from a magazine and was arrested for obscenity and possession of child pornography. Only the second charge stuck and he received a suspended sentence. Is he a pedophile? There is a common misconception that he is. As in everything else in life, that is subject to definition. I know others violently disagree with this assessment, but in my head, until you behave inappropriately with a child, what exists in your brain is not enough to label you a pedophile. There are those who think that his use of images and his obsession with children like Lesley and Masha Allen (whose story he included in Show Adult and it made some foam at the mouth and boycott a book that had a release of only 113 copies) make him a de facto pedophile. Since his arrest for possessing kiddie porn, and the fact that he continues to write such transgressive fiction, it seems likely he has a huge target on his back and would be arrested very quickly if he did assault a child. But even though I say he is not a pedophile, he exists in a mental realm that will disturb even the most ardent freak. If he doesn’t disturb you, as the kids say, you’re doing it wrong.
Sotos is a transgressive writer, a real transgressive writer in a world where mainstream writers like Douglas Coupland and Bret Easton Ellis are still considered transgressive. Being strange, being quirky, being sick is not enough in my mind to be transgressive. You have to horrify or you have to provoke, and people misunderstand what it really means to provoke, thinking it a cheap shot for short reaction, but I am talking about real provocation here. You may have to hit your reader between the eyes with a sledgehammer and hope they see what you wrote when they recover from the blow. In this, Sotos succeeds. The problem is that when I see what he wrote, I filter it how I see fit and who the hell knows if my thoughts are correct.
In reading Sotos, you must understand that you will read that which cannot be unread. You must have the stomach for it and it is not his fault if you don’t. Morality is not needed here. Just a willingness to see what you will never be able to unsee.
In my brain, even extreme literature has a middle road of experience. You experience the art at the edge of reason, then come to the center to see what it is you experienced. Even mainstream fiction has a middle road, the place where meaning is clear, if banal.
I put reading Selfish, Little into the same cannot unsee category that I put Throbbing Gristle’s song “Hamburger Lady.” I still recall the first time I listened to it, on a loop, appalled, fascinated. Sotos fascinates me in the same, sick vein. There is a horror to it all that enthralls me, makes me read, makes me endure when I want to put the book down and never pick it up again.
But Throbbing Gristle’s middle road, and indeed the middle road for Genesis P-orridge, is far different than Sotos’s middle road. After hearing “Hamburger Lady,” I understood how very terrible it can be to be alive. Furthermore, Throbbing Gristle’s frontperson, P-orridge himself, or herself, as I am not sure which is correct anymore, became another sex, a third sex, and however unsettling it may be seeing him with breasts and plumped lips, he shows us there are many ways of being human. (Throbbing Gristle also performed a song about one of the Moors victims called “Very Friendly.” Just mentioning it so we can come full circle in a way… “Ian Brady and Myra fucking Hindley, very very friendly…”)
But when I look down Sotos’ middle road, the place I must come to digest and make sense out of his words, all I see is Sotos. Sometimes there is a greater truth, but mostly, it is just him. He is less coming to terms with the world around him than coming to terms with himself and it is an intensely personal process that has little universality to it. Sotos is not here to show you transgression, though he is transgressive. He is here to show you himself, however provocative he is. All you see at the end of the middle road of contemplation is Peter Sotos. This is not a fault nor is it a condemnation. It just is what it is. You yourself have to decide if Sotos himself is enough of a transgressive epiphany.
Sotos wrote this book to explain himself, in a way, to make clearer his obsessions:
Every book I’ve ever written begins and ends with Lesley Ann Downey. Every single one. Every thing I’ve ever fucked has been a stab at the idea of her somehow in my pathetically happy hands. Not as flesh and hair and precisely examined childhood but as simple, personally degrading pornography.
Selfish, Little is also one of many places where Sotos examines how the creation of victims and the media role in child abduction, rape and murder actually feeds the psyches of those who are aroused by or commit such crimes, that the media is often responsible for creating the monsters that feed the machine, and he’s probably correct on that point. But to get to that point, one has to consume a lot of vulgarity and sickness.
Is it worth understanding Sotos’ mind and what makes him tick? I cannot answer that question but I suspect the real answer lies in the fact that I read him at all. This is not the first Sotos book I have read. It won’t be the last.
But at times, this book aroused a visceral anger in me, a need to find Sotos and wrap my fingers around his throat and ask him point blank what was real and what was not, what goes on in his head and what comes out of his hands, even though I think I already know the answer.
Take, for example, this:
She’s begging them now. Not to undress her. Her mother even heard it. But how vulnerable is a child then. How much more vulnerable. What degree was she cold and available and attempting to cover herself up. Who was fucking reaching for exactly what when. Cunt. She was begging the adults. She’s begging for a chance to explain something she that she hasn’t even figured out yet. Just a pause. A wait. So she can plot her innocent little personality into a convincing argument to fool the adults of her honest and purity. This simply must happen. She absolutely needs to go now. There is no time for this. She must be home or her mother will be mad at her. Which was the best excuse she could come up with. And correct. She knew it wasn’t a total lie. And mum, ironically, bled safety into that mind then. She now just wants a little child’s chance at pity. She wants a little child’s chance to talk to them and tell them something that might – might – make them stop touching her. Please. She asks. She begs. She cajoles. She asks for just a minute. But wants more. Dirty liar. Dirty next step. Dirty little mind raging all her lessons into summations and bad guesses and pathetically lost chances. Dirty little bad sexy mistakes. Sweetheart. Sweetheart chances, Sweetheart naked chances with fingers all over her plans and mistakes and her open mouth and those little words on top of those fucking, fucking pictures. Where all she fucking does is fucking lay there. Alone. Though. She calls out for mummy. Or she calls out to her mummy. Or she may be calling fucking Myra Hindley mummy now. Anyone older must have her best protected safety in mind and should simply be her mummy right fucking now.
It is infuriating, and it is meant to be, but this nasty ramble goes somewhere, if you are willing to continue reading.
It goes on…
Her dirty filthy filled lowlife trash mouth. Calls Ian Brady dad as well. And she begs him to stop touching her skinny little body as if the little rat hadn’t been touched ever before. Like it’s the worst fucking thing in the world. As bad as the threats and yelling and worry about wherever could this go from here, darling. Little rat. All dolled-up naked as fuck. Like a little naked rat. Little fucking holed-out rat. They weren’t shoving a cock in her mouth and rubbing her back and her chest like it was going to be a good blow-job and she had great little tits there someday soon. Like a child promises. Like you don’t act like you want you filthy fucking fat pig. You fucking disease. You reactionary beast staring at her absence rather than her attributes.
You almost miss it. You almost don’t see the shift, and it doesn’t last long before he is back, thinking about naked Lesley, abused, the little rat who occupies his entire mind, but there it is, it happens. He spells it out, the realization that he is the filthy pig, the disease, the reactionary beast, and that all the eyes that looked upon this scene with relish in newspapers, that those ears that avidly listened to Lesley’s cries on tape, are the beast too, looking with horror at what happened to this little girl and seeing their own depravity.
And in all of this, after explaining how Lesley was a manipulative rat, he gives us this:
She expected more of how she had grown up till then. She expected maybe pity. But concern, care and, at least, above all, help.
God, maybe I am so conflicted about reading Sotos because I resent this yanking around he does, a revelation of the sickness with a dose of humanity when I least expect it. But it’s necessary in order for him to show how Lesley is a canvas upon which are painted illegal sexual acts, perverse interest in crime, hypocritical media examination and the genuine desire to help a child. She is what we have all made her, and she is what Sotos has made her. She is all things at once because the media still pokes at her corpse and because men like Sotos cannot get her out of their heads.
And then he makes sense, complete sense, and you understand, for a moment at least, where he was going with this wallow:
In fact, a danger arises in that one can easily see how the public’s recalcitrant lust for the murder and rape and recording of Lesley Ann Downey could create the misunderstanding that a more specifically degenerate interest in her could be quietly acceptable or benign. Or that the responsive media fascination is a signpost for perverts to avoid help and instead find their ugly delusions more appropriate in light of the public’s greater denials. That picky details are much bigger than petty… That there’s more honesty than facts or proof… Nothing is as terrible as child pornography. Just like they said. I still absolutely believe that.
Sotos understands, as he says elsewhere in the book, that the media and those interested in Lesley have raped her over and over again without ever touching a hair on her head. Which makes ironically hilarious the people pissed off that this book is not a detailed look at Lesley’s life, because Sotos calls them all out as perverts. Perhaps that’s why they were so angry.
Sotos also goes into excruciating detail about how he, or rather the narrator, has a collection of pictures of a specific little girl, a little girl he knows, a child he has watched grow up. Harmless pictures of a gawky child who wears swimsuits and sits awkwardly. All arms and legs, flat chested, long hair messy in that way that only a pre-teen’s hair can be. I cannot recall now if he masturbates on her photos or if it is just implication that he does. He speaks of how many perverts masturbate onto innocuous photos of children, that pornography can simply be an innocent photo assigned sexual intent by the viewer. We know this, I think. Don’t we? I think we do. But perhaps it is a revelation to some.
After reading that section, however, about all the masturbation onto photos, the cover of the book changed for me. All those little dots that look like the little round slivers left when you punch holes into paper suddenly became semen drops.
But then there are other wallows. Wallows that are not as clear to me as the wallow with Lesley. The wallow with the man with Down’s Syndrome in the sling, all the encounters with fat men in restrooms, the shit, the blood, the cum on the floor, the gaping wet holes in bodies, in walls. I became angry too because I don’t think I wanted to get pulled down into that depth of self loathing. Sotos mocks himself sometimes with humor, and denies that he is as full of loathing as he appears in print, but I don’t buy it. There is some serious self hatred in these pages, in these almost stream-of-consciousness fantasies. Peter Sotos borders on despicable and and the subject matter, by its very nature, is going to sicken 99.9% of the people on this planet. It certainly sickened me.
So why did I read it? What does it say about me that I kept reading when, as I say above, it upsets me, makes me ill at times? Why do I not declare this book a load of filthy trash and burn it and warn others to give it a wide berth?
I don’t know. And that I don’t know, that I wonder, that I have such an extremity of emotion during and after reading, makes this book worth reading, I think. I have in me a kernel of respect for Sotos for being willing to reveal his mind in order to prove the points he wants to prove.
This book also forces the reader – well, true readers and not just ideologues and pearl-clutchers – to examine what they are about. There is no way for me to read Sotos and not wonder why I read Sotos. There is no way for me to read him and not wonder why I know so much about serial killers. There is no way to read him and not wonder about your own motivations in the things that you do and think. And I can tell you from where I sit that this is an uncomfortable feeling.
Still, in spite of all the wallow and the internal contemplation, at the end, I remember this quote best:
I don’t think I could bear it if anything happened to this child. She is worth protecting. I wouldn’t be able to think of anything else.
I have always had a lot of sympathy for the devil, so to speak. What does this mean to have this grotesque content in your head and yet also be the person who cannot bear anything happening to the child in the photos. If you read that line and still think Sotos is a pedophile, or some sort of apologist for harm to children, you have missed the point of this book.
But even though I think will read Sotos again, in fact, I know I will, it will be a long time before I pick up my copy of Lazy. I need Sotos in small doses lest I become inoculated to him. I don’t want this sort of foulness ever to become normal for me.