Friday, 28 June 2013

Invisible Girl

The case of the Girl Who Ran Off With Her Teacher (and Who Cannot Be Named For Legal Reasons) isn't over yet, despite the fact that Jeremy Forrest has been put away for a wince-inducing five and a half years.  It's now reported that the police have arrested a woman (unnamed, but assumed to be related to the teacher) on suspicion of attempting to pervert the course of justice by acting as an intermediary between teacher and pupil while he was on remand.

The suggestion is that the girl's oral evidence was influenced in some way. During sentencing, the judge pronounced that she "had clearly received assistance" - the evidence for which seems to be that her account under (unusually friendly) cross-examination was more helpful to the accused than the pre-recorded statements in the police interview that were played to the court.

But if the girl did change her story (in the direction of falsity) because she wanted to support her lover/abuser's version of events, then it's not only the woman who acted as go-between who's guilty of conspiring to pervert the course of justice.  So is the girl.  She'd be guilty of perjury too.  It's strongly rumoured, too, that the girl was herself threatened with arrest during the course of the trial because she was reluctant to testify.  Whether or not her strong feelings for Forrest will survive his lengthy imprisonment, which will last at least until she's well over 18, no-one has tried to deny that today she still believes herself to be in love with him and that the trial was entirely against her personal wishes.  She was no more coerced to say nice things about Forrest in court than she was coerced to go to France with him in the first place.

Does this matter?  It's telling that there's no real public consensus surrounding this crime and its aftermath.  There's an official view, of course, the police/Guardian/NSPCC view according to which Forrest is an abuser (even a "paedophile") and the girl is his victim; and there's an alternative view, to be found in comment sections on social media sites, which sees it as essentially a romantic tale of doomed love in which both the girl and her "abductor" appear as victims, the villains being the law, the child protection establishment and even the girl's own family. 

I think both views are probably wrong, or at least one-dimensional, but before I try to offer a better one let me return to the matter of the latest arrest, which seems to me key.  The official version, according to which the girl is the victim, implies that the main aim of the prosecution is to protect her by jailing the man who abused and abducted her.  Thus even if she didn't desire the legal process, it was for her own good.  On this view, it must also be for her own good that mortifying details of, and claims about, the sex-life of a 15 year old girl are relayed in open court and reported breathlessly in the media ("8 times a night"), even if her name remains taboo. But if the new police investigation were to lead to the girl herself being charged with perjury and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, could this be said to be for her protection too?  Clearly not.  It would, though, show plainly that the case isn't, and never was, about her. 

She's the invisible girl not just because she can't be named for legal reasons, but because her own wishes and personal narrative were either rejected or ignored by the justice system.  The inevitable result was her objectification.  Had she co-operated with the police, denounced her abuser and recognised (with a maturity perhaps beyond her years) the objectively abusive nature of the relationship, then she might have been the star witness.  As it was, the evidence she gave was discounted (the judge referred to the teacher's "spurious defence" and  called the girl's testimony "very different in content from her original account and designed to support it").  It's usual these days for the victim of a crime (or the family of a murder victim) to have a Victim Impact Statement read out in court before sentence is passed.  There was no statement from the girl (how could there have been?) but there was one from her mother who was thereby cast into the role of "true" victim.  Yet to configure the mother, from whom the girl "was taken" by Forrest, as the victim in the case is to redefine the girl, not as her own person, but as her mother's property.

The mother's statement was, indeed, all about her, and highly melodramatic: describing how she was grieving because "the daughter I knew is dead" (the two aren't on speaking terms); how she felt "like the worst mother in the world" and that she had "failed as a parent"; how she (not the girl) had been robbed of "part of her childhood" because she won't get the chance to "dress her up in a party dress for the school prom".  The uncharitably inclined might notice a certain consonance between the personality thus revealed and the complaints the girl herself made in court that her mother had been preoccupied with a new pregnancy and hadn't been paying her much attention.  And behind that one can detect signs of a family dynamic that was in trouble well before Jeremy Forrest turned up on the scene.

(Once we've agreed that Forrest's behaviour in having a sexual relationship with an underage pupil is completely unacceptable - I think we can agree on that at least - the matter of motive is still open.  Did he - does he - have a thing about emotionally vulnerable teenage girls which led him to target her for his own selfish reasons, or was his folly (as his sister has maintained) provoked by his own emotional immaturity and depression, which may have led him to feel a genuine emotional connection with a girl who was going through a rough time at home?  I don't know; I suppose only time will tell.)

In passing sentence, Judge Lawson was content to treat the girl with a mixture of condescension and annoyance, rejecting her account while portraying her as the passive object of Forrest's improper lusts, ignoring the possibility of her own agency in the events that unfolded.  (This is a different question from that of consent, which legally she couldn't give.)  While he expressed some sympathy for her predicament - having to give evidence in a high-profile court case, for example - he showed no comprehension of, or interest in, the obvious fact that seeing her (in her eyes) lover jailed for a long period for a relationship in which she considered herself a full and consensual participant was likely to be the cause for her of considerable misery, not to mention guilt.  (That she was seen sobbing and mothing the words "I'm so sorry" when the jury returned its verdict is evidence enough of that.)  But then, to reiterate, it's not about her.

Hadley Freeman had a piece in the Guardian that I almost agree with, and which comes close to getting the point.  It's not a romantic love-story, she argues, but nor is Forrest another Jimmy Savile.  Rather he's "an emotionally immature, selfish and foolish man who couldn't cope with the adult responsibilities of marriage and sought out a young girl with approximately the same level of maturity as him."

Language is important. Just as describing Forrest's tale as a love story is unhelpful, so is dismissing it as yet another Savile-esque shame. Both takes are extreme and possibly only harden his and the schoolgirl's resolve to be with one another in the face of incomprehension. This was an abuse of power, and I'd be willing to bet that similar versions happen more often than we know, in situations where men – some of whom will be weak and immature – work with emotionally vulnerable woman. Dismissing Forrest as an aberration and a monster is easy; acknowledging just how common he might be is far scarier.

Close, but it doesn't quite reconcile the conflict between the official narrative of abuse and (her) victimhood and the popular narratives of star cross'd lovers - which, as Freeman notes, some of the media coverage might almost be designed to reinforce.  Both are in their way misleading attempts to shoehorn real-world events into a pre-packaged narrative, whether a legal/child protection account of predatory sexual behaviour or a Romeo and Juliet-style romance.  (The girl herself made the smartest comment on this in a Tweet reported in the Mail: "Of course it's not Romeo and Juliet.  That's a fucking tragedy.  They both died".)  But forcing facts to fit a stereotype isn't just misleading; it's also inevitable.  It's how the law makes sense of the messiness of the world, and it's how people make sense of the messiness of their lives.  Stereotypes are the lenses through which we view the world.  And they construct society.

So to ask, "Is Jeremy Forrest a foolish lover or a dangerous abuser?" may be the wrong question, because he's both.  Just as the girl is both the victim of a predatory older man and the victim of an oppressive and soulless legal process.  Objectively, the official narrative is true: society needs to be protected from teachers who overstep the proper boundaries of a professional relationship with their charges.  Objectively, the girl is a victim of abuse.  Subjectively, it is a story of mutual attraction and support.  Subjectively, the villains are the police, the judge and the girl's mother. 

Subjectively, the sentence was far too harsh because Forrest lacked the malicious intention which would justify a long term of imprisonment; and because from the girl's point of view this "abusive" relationship was the most thrilling and emotionally enriching thing that ever happened to her.  Subjectively, one might predict (and I very much hope I'm wrong about this) the severity of the sentence will have a more deleterious long-term effect on her than on him, especially if feelings of guilt and thwarted love lead her to waste years of her young life loyally waiting for him and for the resumption of a relationship whose long-term prognosis is not good (here's what happened in an uncannily similar case ten years ago).   Objectively, it was about right.  He knew what he was doing was wrong, he knew that it was illegal, and a strong deterrent message must be sent out to others who might be tempted to overstep the boundaries.

The law is objective.  The law, even in the era of victim impact statements and much rhetoric about putting victims first, must pursue the wider interests of society rather than those of either the victims or the perpetrators of crime.  Protecting society ranks higher than doing justice, even, which is why people accidentally caught up in riots can be sent down for years for walking off with a bottle of fizz.  Jeremy Forrest threatens the social order and the prevailing official consensus, based as it is on an expert (and objective) view of child protection.  The girl in her passionate attachment to a teenage crush is no less of a threat, which is why she must be the Invisible Girl.