This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books
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.