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Scenes of Abuse: Fatal Indeterminacies, Affective Assemblages and the Nachträglichkeit of Recognition


“The whole issue of child abuse is so sensationalized and so kind of saturated in the media today. […] There’s just sort of like “Oh, I was abused as a child” and the violins start playing. But you don’t have any kind of empathy for what these kids have actually gone through and the emotional aftermath of what’s happened to them,” states Gregg Araki an interview with Indiewire about his critically acclaimed picture Mysterious Skin (Knegt).  The film tells the story of two boys that are sexually abused by their baseball coach and their contrary strategies of coping: while Brian (Brady Corbet) represses the events and fabulates a story of an alien abduction, Neill (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) continues to regard the abuser as his big love and exposes himself to risky and self-endangering sexual practices.

Araki’s statement dissociates his aesthetic from a sensationalist media economy, where the topic of sexual abuse degenerates to a mere signal-character: a cliché that pushes the right buttons to activate sentimental and melodramatic reactions that, however, remain as flat as the accompanying acoustic cues of a sad violin score. It is self-evident that this mode of cultural production and reception is incapable of providing the profound sensibility necessary to deal with a topic like sexual abuse.  But what makes the “real” experience of abuse and its portrayal in film nuanced, complicated, and, in accordance with the “aftermath” of abuse, understood as a radically restructured field of subjectivity? This article wants to trace the ways in which Mysterious Skin circumvents the popular depictions of abuse survivors as mere victims or passive surfaces for the inscriptions of the abuser, that tend to neglect the complex agential relations of the childish subjectivity and facilitate a complex set of orientations, attachments, and affective relations. Analyzing Mysterious Skin in close readings that are informed by psychoanalysis and queer affect theory, this article argues that, to understand abuse, an oscillating perspective is required that switches between the historical present where abuse takes place and a belated, retroactive act of recognition, signification and attribution that recognizes the event of sexual abuse. This oscillating perspective can be understood as an extension of the methodology of adaptation studies that traces the alterations of a text through different media or authorial treatments following criteria of fidelity, mimesis, recognizability, and reference. In this context, looking at adaptation means comparing and tracing the ways in which the source text of the affective realities of abuse is adapted into mentalized scenes, contained emotions, and narrative accounts of the event through the workings of the defense mechanisms.

An Epistemology of the Troubles of Writing About Abuse

To write about sexual violence in general and child abuse in particular is tough. It is tough on an emotional level to bear the burden of an empathetic relation to the lives that are put at stake, are becoming undone, and are fundamentally altered by the event abuse represents. It is furthermore so if the represented stories, affective experiences, and non-experiences1 resonate with the writer’s personal history of sexual violence in a way that the critical involvement with these stories induces a complex process of understanding and self-knowledge originating in the symbolized and narrativized accounts of a real or fictional other. At the same time, as a researcher and scientist, the examination of abuse is not only tough but a tightrope act. Far from being a universal category situated outside the realm of history, childhood is a highly politicized and affectively charged concept and a cultural construct figured in retrospect from an adult perspective. Sexual and non-sexual relations of children and adults differed throughout history and our perspective on these issues is a particularly modern one. For example, in ancient Greece, the institutionalized practice of pederasty was a highly regulated, ritualized relationship between an older man, Erastes, and a young lover, Eromeos, that followed a strict set of rules, role expectations and codes of conduct, and implied a kind of pedagogical mentor relationship (Kraβ 64). In mediaeval times, it was not uncommon in Europe that people were engaged and married at an early age that often correlated with the advent of sexual maturity. Often an older man married a far younger female - a practice inseparable from historical factors like child mortality, short life expectancy, and the economic necessity to bequest titles, properties, and legal responsibilities (Saar 114). To understand these practices and intergenerational encounters as pedophilia or sexual abuse is to engage in a similarly fallacious logic whereby the practice of pederasty is associated with homosexuality – a category or species term Michel Foucault has famously shown to be invented not until the end of the 19th century by the institutions of psychiatry, judiciary, and medicine (Focault 43) . Poststructuralism has sensitized us to the ways in which Lebenswelten (“life worlds”) , epistemologies, and meaning itself are constituted discursively. Not only did the above-mentioned practices belong to the realm of everyday life, being institutionalized elements of the structural formation of society, the category of childhood and attendant strict separation between the worlds of children and adults did not exist yet (Ariès 128). Phillipe Ariès traces the historical development of the family as a functional unit that mainly “ensured the transmission of life, property and names; but it did not penetrate very far into human sensibility” (Ariès 411) into an institution with “a moral and spiritual function, [… that] molded bodies and souls [… and in which the] care expended on children inspired new feelings, a new emotional attitude […]” (Ariès 412). It was precisely the structural position of the child around which the family reorganized itself with a new sense for privacy and interiority, that correlated with the emergence of a new sentimentality about children. At the same time, the emerging institutionalization of schools played a role in the (unifying) production and disciplining of “children’s” bodies and installed a moratorium that delayed the advent of traditional aspects of adulthood like working life, marriage or childbirth (Ariès 413). Childhood as a category of difference, therefore, was still in the process of being invented. But even after the discovery of childhood, the affective dimensions of abusive relations between children and adults differed. It seems natural to project contemporary attributions of shame, guilt and disgrace associated with pedophilia onto perpetrators of child abuse in other historic contexts. However, Anne-Marie Sohn’s thorough examination of sexual abuse against female minors in 19th and early 20th century France has shown that these supposed affective self-experiences do not necessarily hold true for historical subjects. The author stresses the everydayness of sexual violence in France and attests that the accusation of having done a French kiss aroused more indignation and denial in one perpetrator than the actual crime of sexual abuse that was shamelessly confessed (72-73).

Ariès insights can easily be read in the political context of queer theory that questions the way in which heterosexuality and the nuclear family naturalizes itself as a universal truth and the only valid concept of social belonging at the basis of society. However, the discursive construction of childhood as definition of innocence and its embeddedness in the ideology of the family is not less political. If both left and right politics are fundamentally defined – as Lee Edelman famously has shown - in relation to the child as bearer of the heteronormative fantasy of reproductive futurity and principal weapon for state governance, what does this tell us about discursive constructions of sexual abuse (Edelman)? The cultural circulation of abuse narratives is deeply entwined with a complex transmission and induction of negative affects into public spheres that usually arrange themselves around fear, paranoia, anger, hate and inversions of helplessness. Narratives of abuse are here closely linked to the sensationalist media economies Araki referred to that use anger and negative affects to maximize their sale figures and feed discourses in which pedophilia is represented as an invisible invasion of the national state and the heteronormative family as its reproduction unit. It is no coincidence that the reporter’s following question for Araki addressed the fear that his film might be paradoxically appropriated by right wing populism and reinscribe the image of the pedophile homosexual (Knegt). In fact, the perverse invader of the nuclear family is often figured in terms opposed to the ideological norms of white, bourgeoise cis-heterosexuality in line with cultural productions of otherness: the homosexual, the (colored) immigrant, or the political opponent. This results not only in the production of affectively highly saturated sentiments against marginalized minorities that easily glides into violent outbreaks and lynching proclamations but also displaces and conceals the recognition and awareness of other potential spaces for abuse that are situated outside of the sphere of pedophile intelligibility. Pedophile intelligibility is understood as the discursive frame or filter through which we perceive, allege, and misrecognize sexual abuse. To insist on the historical and discursive dimension of cultural meaning is therefore not limited to historical times but extends in our present. For example, sexual relations between adult women and male minors are often not recognized as abuse and overlayered with scenes of sexual initiation, positive emphasis and idealization by the male peer group, and an alleged consent persisting in the stereotype that pubescent boys are always sexually aroused and willing to copulate. Pedophile intelligibility also plays a crucial role for the distribution and accessibility of children in networks and assemblages of abuse: Who is regarded as a trustful person regarding whom even the slightest association with abuse is unthinkable?2

What the narrative of the pedophile outside figure also conceals is the fact that pedophile fantasies as well as sexual abuse are far more common and disseminated than the general population chooses to believe. The enormous prevalence of porn categories like “teen,” “daddy,” “teacher,” or “18+” in the ubiquitous sphere of internet pornography3 points to the fact that a huge percentage of the population puts itself in proximity to phantasmatic scenes that stage erotic relations between children and grown-ups. Appeased by the feeling of anonymity and not being watched, a number of people who transgress every attribution of pedophilia with some singular outside figure seems to enjoy depictions of scenes that are advertised as “barely legal” precisely because these scenes represent encounters that are not legal at all. It should be noted, however, that the viewer’s identification processes are far more complex and layered than often assumed: fantasies of being abused or raped are common and – as Carol Clover has stated for a completely different genre that might, however, be equally true in the context of internet pornography – processes of identification have to be understood as far more fluid and transgressive of those fixed identity positions under which one might be tempted to classify them (Clover). Insisting on the difference between fantasy and action and the insufficiency of shaming and repression as prevention strategies, the best way to prevent child abuse might be to offer guidance, therapy, and a methodology of self-control and impulse-management in a climate where people with pedophilic impulses are not afraid and too ashamed to search for help and support.4

Demanding a methodology that bears in mind how the categories of childhood and child abuse are constantly discursively constructed, reproduced, and instrumentalized as means of political warfare, is also a way to make sure that the researcher’s gaze remains undistorted and unbiased in the examination of the structural relations and assemblages that enabled the abuse to happen. To argue against an anachronistic or ahistorical understanding of sexual abuse is not to say that what was deemed acceptable or livable before can hardly be bad in our contemporary society or to suggest that these relationships remained without consequences for those affected. What it means to be affected, and how the affective sphere is compounded and concentrated, however, is an issue at stake that points to the very historicity of the present moment.

The Historical Now: Cruel Relations, Complex Attachments, and the Indeterminacy of the Affective Field

Trauma as a term for self-diagnosis and unprofessional ascription has developed a life of its own, becoming a standard phrase for situations and experiences that are perceived as hard, unbearable, or overwhelming. The phenomenology of trauma as a set of aesthetic figurations has developed some iconicity and can be read and understood not just by experts in the field. That trauma is just one style or genre to manage what is overwhelming and is particularly insufficient in describing crises that take place in the uneventful sphere of ordinariness, is the fundamental critique of Lauren Berlant. She states that the primacy of trauma as a method of labeling and diagnosing fails to account for the complexity of the present moment of the historical now and the complex agencies, adaptation strategies and managing modes of people who survive crisis not as an event with fixed boundaries but as a diffused zone of everyday life’s ongoingness (Berlant 54). Shifting attention away from an all-encompassing event in the past, melodramatic performance modes of high-expressivity, and a discursive frame under which everything can be read as a symptom of trauma, Berlant is more interested in the ways people adjust and manage precarity and crisis (82). How do people shape and make sense of situations for which there is no cognitive concept or aesthetical genre yet that would help them to comprehend and enter into fixed paths of action? Instead of dealing with fully intellectualized or mentalized ideas, concepts or contained emotions, to turn to the historical present is to consider the dynamics of affect. Affect, according to Brian Massumi, is a form of embodied thinking that emerges from the converging and mutual enfolding of the body and the world, a movement of affecting and being affected. Affect is here a plural term: a virtual cloud of potentialities, an indeterminate field of a multitude of inseparable entities that differ but do not contradict themselves because they are situated before actualization, signification or conscious subjectivity (Massumi, The Power, 103). Massumi writes:

Before the subject, there’s an in-mixing, a field of budding relation too crowded and heterogeneous to call intersubjective. […] It is the coming together of the world, for experience, in a here- and- now prior to any possibility of assigning categories like subject and object. […] It’s a brewing, the world stirring. It’s a coming event […] (The Power, 110).

Affect is described here as an all-encompassing fullness or depth that constitutes the basis from which experience emerges. Certain affective potentials are actualized in sensual experience as transitioning intensities that may or may not inscribe themselves in the body through repetition as habits, skills, desires or tendencies (Massumi, Ontomacht, 28). A tendency is a priming of affect’s potentiality: intensities point to the futurity of some present possibilities, so that certain events become more likely be realized than others (Massumi, The Power, 103). Present, past and future are enfolded and intra-acting in complex ways in a transversal temporality. Not yet quality, affect is a rich indetermination that is filtered, fixed, and narrativized through processes of aesthetical and sensual experience, cognition and mentalization into emotional and intellectual categories (Massumi, The Power, 105). Between affect and emotion is a gap: one is thrown into an affective experience that can only be recognized and made sense of retrospectively and that is autonomous in its excess of bodies and subjectivities (Massumi, The Power, 107). Affect points to the relations that bind the body to the world. Berlant and Massumi stress that affect is never fully personal or subjective, but always embedded in a whole sphere of entangled relations and enfolding difference that open us up to the world and connect us to other situations and bodies, constituting the material of politics and history (Massumi, Ontomacht, 29). Berlant thoroughly analyzes the ways in which this affective sphere is mediated, filtered and constituted by discursive-political differences that saturate public spheres, media economies and personal live-worlds, particularly in relation to fantasies of the good life, “happy objects” (Ahmed 29-52)5 and notions of normalcy (Berlant 4). Subjectivity or personhood are structured by “[… the organization] of the world […] around the impersonality of the structures and practices that conventionalize desire, intimacy, and even one's own personhood […]” (Berlant 125) and that mediate the ways people choose their attachments. An attachment is an affective relation to an object or a scene, that is heavily invested in through projection and phantasmic constructions of diffused clusters of promising qualities, that open the subject to an encounter and anchor it in proximity to the object (Berlant 48).

It might seem surprising to propose that research on sexual abuse should account for the indeterminate moment of the present instant before dealing with the phenomenology of trauma. However, I want to argue that a great deal of the violence sexual abuse induces is emerging precisely from attachments or needs that are responded to in a perverted way and can hardly be given up again; relations that are so ambiguous and multilayered that they conceal their true nature; and an all-encompassing indeterminacy of the present moment, that is even fortified by the fact that the mental categories of sexuality are not yet developed.

In Mysterious Skin, Neill appears to feel drawn to his Coach from their very first encounter onwards. We see his changing expression from disdain to awe, a close-up of Neill, a subjective, slow-motion image of Coach running in Baywatch-manner, overlayered with imagery of Playgirl models. Another close-up of Neill’s face but now in vertigo as if he was fainting, then we are thrown back into the space of reality and non-self-referential presentation. Neill averts his gaze with a reticent expression. Are we already witnessing a retrospective recontextualization, a defensive attunement to a narrative of the first big love (see Figure 1)? As the summer progresses, Coach will fill the hole Neill’s mother leaves in her denial of her motherly duties and create fake moments of domestic reciprocity and belonging. Even a family album is customized, however, with highly sexualized images of Neill. Coach’s house fulfills the promise of a dreamland without restrictions in which everything is allowed no matter how corrupting for youth. Neill is too young to recognize Coach’s true intention behind his allegedly devoted questions about his mother and her neglecting of care: they are inquiries about the structural conditions that will and regulate his access to Neill and enable the abuse to happen. At the same time, Coach not only gathers information, he grooms the boy by complimenting him on being the best player and the topic of his thought all week, showing him affection, care and attention. What is particularly cruel about these relations is that Coach oscillates between a wide variety of different structural positions. He takes the part of a father, buddy, coach and lover while concealing the transgressive violence of sexual abuse behind double binds of love,6 which keeps them from being addressable. At the same time, Neill is already too dependent on the positive gain Coach brings into his life as a cluster of promises, that their relation becomes one of cruel optimism. This concept is described by Berlant as a relation in which the optimism in archiving some promises of the object through attachment is inverted into a toxic relation that threatens the well-being of the attaching person. Because the pain and damage of being in that relation can be easier borne as a loss of the object, its orientation and endurance “[…] a person or a world finds itself bound to a situation of profound threat that is, at the same time, profoundly confirming” (Berlant 2). Unambiguous, messy relations in which the subject’s continuity and endurance are at stake mobilize a variety of defense mechanisms that distort not only our scripted memories but also the way we filter and perceive the present.

Scenes of Abuse: Fatal Indeterminacies, Affective Assemblages and the Nachträglichkeit of Recognition, Lucas Breitsohl , Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 1: Coach’s onto-epistemological status is precarious.

Therefore, the scene of Neill’s abuse is not depicted as a horrible event but as a radically indeterminate scene in which relations of reciprocity and equality are established and deconstructed. Following a moment of intense joy and intimacy, we hear a coming-of-age soundtrack that would be appropriate for a teenage romance, as an accidental spilling of the Froot Loops is not followed by anger but a playful throwing and wasting of cereal. While fixed borders diffuse in an instant of pure potentiality and freedom, abuse takes place in the instant of the reemergence of boundaries and distance. As Neill is shamefully averting his eyes as if he noticed that something wrong or forbidden has happened or is going to happen, Coach is suddenly becoming too proximate, approaching the camera that is aligned with Neill’s subjective perspective.  He is laying Neill down on the carpet of colorful cereals, as the alternation of close-ups breaks the different proportions and sizes of the bodies down into a cadre of sameness. The moment in which both bodies fuse as Coach puts his giant head on Neill’s stomach, difference is reemerging with a shock. Just before Coach starts to kiss Neill, his face betrays discomfort, which is accompanied by inarticulate groaning sounds that could denote a wide variety of high-agitated affects like panic, anticipation, excitement, emotional arousal or an overwhelming presence. After a fade-out into black, we hear adult Neill’s laconic retrospective voice-over-remark, that “it just happened,” and see young Neill lying on the floor in a kaleidoscopic field of crumbled cereal, an aftermath that mirrors the shattering of Neil’s childhood. Coach’s didactic comments from a father’s or mentor’s position stress the rightfulness and naturality of their actions, while Neill’s formerly expressive face has become a blank space of reticent action on which emotions and knowledge are not permitted to appear. Using persuading phrases like “There is nothing wrong – don’t let anyone tell you there is” or “You liked it, it’s okay if you liked it. Everything is going to be okay,” Coach strategically overwrites the not-yet-mentalized event, distorting and concealing the real affective contents of Neill’s inner life. What makes these overwriting interpretations so cruelly tempting and alluring to Neill is that they offer him a way to cope though a narrative of big romantic love, allowing him to keep the received attention, “love” and narcissistic worth. Even as an adult Neill is still empathetically insisting that he was the favorite, the one Coach picked out of everyone, the only one allowed in the bedroom, stressing a romantic experience of unreached sensuality and idealized love: “No one ever made me feel that way, before or since. Like I was, I was special. […] But he really loved me. I mean, there were other kids sometimes, but... I was his prize. I was his one true love.”

To propose an understanding that moves deeper into the affective dynamics than a mere subsumption under the category of trauma, is not to deny its impact, but to look at the infinite ways people cope. Neill and Brian are characterized by contrary ways of adapting: hypersexuality vs. asexuality; reticence vs. melodramatic situations of acting-out; growing-up vs. regression, and idealization vs. repression. However, on an aesthetical level the film suggests that both experiences are interrelated and reflecting upon each other. This mirroring relation is primarily expressed through the return of upside-down close-ups of the protagonists, first introduced in Brian’s alien visions, afterwards repeated on Neill’s hustling date or his head-first position on the climbing frame while hustling– sometimes with the recurrent theme of a finger penetrating the mouth (see Figures 2 and 3). The speckled underground In Brian’s vision also emphasis the structures of the crumbled Froot Loops of Neill’s first abuse and recalls a dissociative perception Neill remembers later: “Whirls, speckly, sparkly” patterns on Coach’s wallpaper he “used to get lost for hours.” At the same time, Neill’s scene of the raining Froot Loops mirrors the floating shower of his future rape and the sprinkles and downpour on the day Brian was abused, because his father did not pick him up. Another aspect that relates both protagonists is the outer space theme: Brian’s obsession with the idea that he was abducted by aliens as a child is mirrored in the UFO-shaped climbing frame of Neill’s hustling playground and his best friend’s assertions: “Where normal people have a heart, Neil McCormick's has a bottomless black hole. And if you don't watch out, you can fall in and get lost forever.” Wendy’s use of this figuration is deeply connected to a scene she witnessed and involuntarily participated in. During the Halloween night where Brian was abused a second time by Coach, a parallel montage is established that analogizes Brian’s abuse with Neill’s and Wendy’s actions. We see how Neill abducts a young boy who looks like Brian, inserts exploding fireworks into his mouth and forces sexual acts on the boy to keep him silent and appease him. This scene follows the logic of the inversion paradigm of trauma in which the powerlessness of being abused is reversed by an identification with the aggressor and a reenactment of the abuse as being the one in control. The demarcations between victim and abuser fray. The scenic relation of being “sucked into” the “bottomless black hole” of trauma figuratively approximates Neill to Coach. The image of a devouring absence that sucks everything into it is later reiterated in the discussion of Coach’s abuse in phrases like “It felt like his whole body was trying to suck me into it. Devour me,” or “Watching his big lips sucking your face, I remember thinking, oh, he's going to swallow his head whole.”

Scenes of Abuse: Fatal Indeterminacies, Affective Assemblages and the Nachträglichkeit of Recognition, Lucas Breitsohl , Literature Film Quarterly
Scenes of Abuse: Fatal Indeterminacies, Affective Assemblages and the Nachträglichkeit of Recognition, Lucas Breitsohl , Literature Film Quarterly
Figures 2 and 3: Upside-down shots as a shared symbolic space analogize the emphasized different protagonists.

Through this conflation of trauma, scenic figuration, and self-reflecting genre modes, Araki develops a filmic meta-reflection on the ways genres channel the events-to-come by providing an affective filter of how to understand, mentalize, and narrate them. The highly mediated aesthetic genre of science fiction becomes the language through which Brian makes sense of his abuse as an abduction that brought the alien into his life. The circulation of media representations embedded in trashy affect economies is structured here along the lines of a collective and impersonal dynamic that produces screen-memories and a context of meaning for those who fall through the cracks. Avery and Brian alike channel their trauma of sexual abuse through a shared symbolic space that connects their experiences without having to acknowledge them. At the end of the film, when Neill takes Brian to a reenacting guided tour of their shared past in Coach’s old house, the realism of the storytelling and the sci-fi genre modes of Brian’s screen memories are short-circuited. An unnatural blueish glow radiates from the house, engulfing and immersing the approaching Brian. Unable to deny the unconscious knowledge of the event, the integration of the disintegrating experience of trauma takes the form of a blending of his sensual perception and the supernatural aesthetics of his genre mode. Matching the visual staging of his memories with the embodied experience of a reality that is aesthetically structured along sci-fi-genre lines enables him to re-experience an experience he never made. The price of knowledge and remembrance, however, is high: Brian’s defense mechanisms, like the processes of repression and splitting that kept him fixated on the event while at the same time allowing him to maintain distance, begin to collapse. The only way out is the complete surrendering of consciousness and subjectivity in an act of total regression.

To trace the ways the affective field of the historical present are channeled and filtered by finding its genre is to detect the workings of adaptation. Adaptation studies usually explore the relations between a source text and the way this text is appropriated or referred to by other texts. At the heart of these examinations are questions of fidelity, media specificity, intertextuality, and reference structures, while the privileged object of analysis is the translation of a text from one medium to another. However, recently points have been made that regard the whole process of historiography as a work of adaptation and claim that the allegedly objective realm of the historical is not only dependent on focalization, fictionalization and narrativity but also heavily saturated by the genre modes of its own time of reconstruction (Tutan). This point resonates deeply with Berlant’s understanding of the historical present and her notion of genre as a way to navigate and appropriate the diffused zones of affective richness and historical ongoingness into patterns, embodied habitudes and framed experiences, that produce sense. In my discussion of Mysterious Skin, I want to make a theoretical argument to understand adaptation in a broader and displaced sense to find a methodology that can trace the aftermath and complexities of abuse. What is needed is an oscillating, comparative perspective that traces how the source text of the affective realities of abuse is adapted into mentalized scenes, contained emotions and narrative accounts of the event. These adaptations can follow the criteria of fidelity, mimesis, recognizability and an understandable reference structure; however, the workings of trauma and its mobilization of the psychic defenses suggest that they most probably will not. Indeed, these moments of infidelity and difference, the discrepancies, inversions, and displacements between source text and adaptation might turn out to be the most analytically rewarding.

Adaptation is here understood as a work of translation that reappropriates the not-yet-processed event of abuse according to the principles of the unconscious, reworking it in a phantasmic way and mapping a field of embodied repercussions in scenic ecologies. I will now examine how the affective aftermath of abuse is adapted into scenes of sexuality that form the basis of subjectivity and desire.

The Aftermath: The Anachronism of Sexuality, Scenic and Narrative Reconfigurings and Dramas of Adjustment

To propose an analytical separation of the affective event abuse represents and its psychological and aesthetical adaptation in memories, scenes, cognitions, and narratives is not to state that both realms are clearly separated and not enfolded in each other in complex ways. Jacques Derrida has persistently criticized western philosophy for a way of thinking that organizes itself around dichotomous binaries that are regarded as independent origins of a fixed presence or identity and misrecognizes the ways differences really unfold. Arguing to understand difference as différence – a process of constant, relational differing in suspension that never reaches a telic point of fixed, full or independent congruence with itself (Grammatologie), Derrida also demands to think of the present as an out-of-joint zone that is constantly haunted and reworked by interventions from the past and the future (Marx Gespenster). Mysterious Skin is highly sensitive for the complex temporalities that arise out of the impossibility of narrativizing abuse in accounts that are not anachronistic and uncontaminated by the aftermath of abuse and its radical reconfigurations of subjectivity. The paradoxical nature of sexual abuse lies in the fact that every reconstruction and narrativization of abuse happens retroactively, and tries to grasp the event by rendering it in the sex-educational vocabulary of a later self .7 However, in the case of sexual abuse the advent of sexuality already happened before the advent of sexuality . Childhood and mature sexuality are two radically incompatible spheres that are, nevertheless, deeply entangled in complex temporal relations. To talk about abuse is to dive into messy histories and queer temporalities, that defy every notion of clear causalities and demarcated subjectivities. While the event of abuse marks a clear fixing point, an excess of meaning, it still raises the problem of an impossible origin of subjectivity and desire, an origin that is both overfull and empty, all-defining and insufficient.

The question of sexuality and its origin troubled psychoanalysis from the beginning. Freud and many others have famously argued that unconscious scenes and fixations are the core around which desire, sexuality and even character structures or subjectivity organize itself. While Freud righty argues that infants have a polymorph-perverse, unstructured, or unintegrated erogenous sensorium that recognizes pleasurable bodily experiences that call for repetition (Drei, 45), it would be far-fetched to call them sexuality. Sexuality describes a more integrated desire that emerges out of structural and relational intrapsychic conflicts, constitutes core fantasies, scenes and fixations, and binds and orientates the subject to objects of desire, that are also perceived as more integrated, independent, and resistant entities. Although the core fantasies remain unconscious, there is an approximate knowledge of what sexuality is and what entering into a sexual relation brings along and costs. Freud’s theory building on the origins of sexuality is, however, not as unfractured as it seems: before Oedipus there was seduction, or, as we call it, sexual abuse. Freud’s thesis, which he later abandoned, was that neurosis and hysteria emerge from unconscious memories of the outer event of premature induction of sexuality in an apparatus that is not capable of comprehending and integrating these experiences (Über, 19). Freud had concerns about the reality status of the memories of sexual abuse, claiming that the unconscious does not distinguish between facts and highly charged fantasies. Later, Jean Laplanche took up Freud’s loose threads and argued that the unconscious emerges from interpersonal relationships between the infant and adults. Stating that the addresses and messages adults direct at infants are interwoven with a multitude of unconscious, sexual meanings that cannot be fully deciphered and have to be repressed by the infants, Laplanche generalized seduction and in a certain way even the phenomenological experience of trauma. Like the overwhelming, disintegrating experience of trauma, the untranslatable messages from the other are regarded as an outer foreignness that becomes an inner, unassimilable alterity that constitutes the core of the emerging unconscious (Laplanche).

The turning of the external situation of abuse into an intrapsychic conflict would, however, only displace Freud’s epistemological struggles to locate the advent of sexuality in an origin. In his discussion of the Wolfman case in 1918, Freud would still hesitate to decide if the perceived scenes of the parent’s coitus could be regarded as a real or a retroactively fantasized event (Aus). Freud’s consistent attempts to situate the emergence of the Wolfman’s sexuality in a primal scene, a pure origin, are constantly disrupted by resistances of the material (e.g. implausibility of age and memory assignment), the emergence of new memories (the Greisha episode) and his constant issue of having to explain the status of some memories as temporally contaminated through a mode of action of Nachträglichkeit, a bitemporal concept that queers every notion of clear causality. Nachträglichkeit combines two conflicting temporal movements: a retrospective re-actualization and re-signification of memories and an operational mode of some memories that enfold their meaning and effects only prospectively when being triggered after a period of latency. This becomes particularly evident in Freud’s thorough dissection of the unconscious structuration of the Wolfman’s conflicted sexuality in partly remembered partly fantasized scenes. In the psychoanalytical sense, a scene can be understood as an aesthetic figuration that negotiates latent, hidden meanings through manifest, symbolic substitutes that follow the unconscious principles of distortion and displacement on a primary visual level. Meaning is relationally produced in an indirect, ambiguous and transferred mode that works through the condensation of several fields of association, memory and discourse in overdetermined nodal points. At the same time the scene is always already a symbolized and in parts narrativized adaptation of unconscious matter. As a re-appropriation of the unconscious that emerges out of the mysterious messages of the other, the scene as a filmic and depth-psychological form of thinking proves to be particularly important to trace the aftermath of sexual abuse.
This epistemological precarity of the Nachträglichkeit of sexuality becomes evident in the aesthetical thinking of Mysterious Skin: In a self-positing gesture that can be regarded as a sexual “cogito ergo sum,” Neill proclaims “The summer I was eight years old, I came for the first time.” It appears as if this relatively early scene represents Neill’s primal scene of sexuality. Strictly periodized by the title “summer 1981,” there is, however, a certain pastness sticking to the scene expressed in the overdetermination of a future narrator, subjectivized in a voice-over of adult Neill’s voice that reveals the scene as a retrospective construction of childhood and the initiation of sexuality. Neill is standing at the window, watching his mother and her boyfriend having sex in the garden on his childhood swing through a jalousie, a mise-en-scene with a certain tension between borders and their transgression. Typical for the disposition of the primal scene, there is a strict separation between the seer and the seen, often underlined by an emphasis on the visuality, framing or staging of the scene, here induced through the window. However, some impossible close-ups on his mother’s boyfriend that interrupt the long shot reveal that the scene is at least as much fantasized as seen. Likewise, typical for a primal scene is a certain visual constellation of ambiguity that enables the seen to connect with other psychic meanings or associative nodal points. This is the aspect where temporality starts to fray: the mother’s boyfriend is connected through a match-cut with Coach’s orgasmic face and characterized as a man “I would call many years later my type,” as if it were he that served as a model for the others to come and not Coach, as if the definition of his scene of attraction would only later become fixed.

But also, the setting is suspicious: the child swing that is converted into a sex swing by Neill’s mother anticipates the playground as Neill’s future hustling place and points to the mother’s irresponsibility that starts in the failure to protect her son from her own sexuality manifested in her public-private sexual performance on the stage of a violated childhood and extends in her self-centered neglect of her care-responsibilities for Neill that puts him in proximity to Coach’s abuse. She combines the tropes of the hard-working single mom, an infantilized teen who regulates her self-esteem through a changing number of men, and a mother who is intrusive, clingy, and absent . At the same time, what this scene is really about is the identification of Neill with the image of his sexually serving mother that inverts her helplessness and dependency into a relation of sexual control, in which the man is degraded to an “helpless animal.” But like the retrospective voice-over, the memory-flashbacks and Neill’s address of Coach as a sexual partner at the end of the scene suggest, temporality is already queered and out of joint. In fact, the completely asexual and innocent looking credit scene at the very beginning of the film, is later reconfigured as a scene of abuse. The first scene, the primal scene is here put at the beginning of the film, projected at the origin of subjectivity. As the credits roll, pastel-colored flashes of intensity seem to fall from the upper edge of the frame to the lower one, saturating an otherwise factitious desaturated, overexposed white screen. The muffled and estranged images are accompanied by spherical, angelic sounds that transform into a coming of-age soundtrack as the frequency of the colored patches intensifies. What is introduced as sparkles of indeterminate, pure quality without fixed meaning outside the realm of the senses and affectivity is later reconfigured as blurred, slow-motion images of falling Froot Loops . As the camera follows the movement of the falling cereal, a child’s face becomes visible that performs a countermovement by stretching out to the colorful rain; his eyes are closed; his facial expression is pure bliss. This is the scene of how Neill imagines himself, a phantasmic relation to the world and to himself he is trying to maintain – representing the event of abuse as a solipsistic experience in which the other is absent, present only in the delegation of a gaze that becomes inverted as a self-experience; and identified with in a moment of dissociation (see Figure 4).

The cryptic title “Mysterious Skin”refers to this complex figuration of Nachträglichkeit in pointing to the skin as a screen upon which interiority and exteriority unfold and converge in complex temporalities of belatedness. In a double movement of appearance and concealment, an opacity becomes visible that expresses an indeterminate quality, a sensuous matter that is not yet meaning.

Scenes of Abuse: Fatal Indeterminacies, Affective Assemblages and the Nachträglichkeit of Recognition, Lucas Breitsohl , Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 4: Abuse adapted as a primal scene.

In the filmic text the staining of the skin is associated with the bruises Neill receives after his hook-ups with clients. A salesman for cheap snacks, which reiterates Coach’s unhealthy snack feasts, leaves heavy traces of his teeth during fellatio on Neill’s penis, blending the transgressive pleasures and intensities of self-dissolution in sexuality with actual wounds that embed the scene in a masochist pleasure economy. Elizabeth Freeman has pointed out the ways in which masochism as a sexual and cultural practice can be conductive to reappropriate experiences of historical and personal violence in pacing, modulating and subordinating them to an own pleasure economy. Masochism, in my reading of Neill’s sexuality, is understood in a much broader sense than a mere set of sexual practices focusing on the merging of pain and pleasure: it describes the way in which Neill’s hypersexual and promiscuous sexual behavior is circling around an infantile experience of powerlessness that is inverted on a phantasmic level into a feminized feeling of sexual control through being desired as expressed in the flashing emergence of the fruit loop scene in the moment of climax. Only at the closing of the film it is revealed that the very act of hustling is itself a repetition of sexual role plays Coach initiated and reattaches the new sexual encounters to the proximity to the phantasmatic clusters Coach represents.

The emergence of gender, desire and subjectivity in the wake of Neill’s abuse are deeply entangled and queered. Neill is heavily invested in a fetishized idea of hypermasculinity that is accompanied by constructions of sexual difference along the lines of roughness, strength, agency and sovereignty, an image that is inverted and internalized through a fantasy of feminized control and dominance through being desired. This feminine position is, however, always at risk of collapsing into a performance of gender that is “too feminine” or to “effeminate” as expressed in Neill’s internalized misogynous homophobia: “I hate it when they look like Tarzan and sound like Jane.” Neill not only desires masculinity, but he is also grotesquely trying to incorporate it into his habitus and bodily performance. His thin, boyish body and teenage look are at odds with the exaggerated gestures of masculinity and his disarticulate, rumpling articulation. Neill’s fetish of hypermasculinity eventually leads him into scenes and situations where the feminized power of being desired is being exposed as what it really is: a mere fantasy, and a dangerous one.

Although the scene of the rape takes place in the affect sphere of the historical present and is staged not as a flashback, memory or fantasy, it is structured along the lines of a depth-psychological scene. Details like the rapist’s baseball cap and Neill’s baseball shirt reconfigure the scene as an extension of Neill’s relation to his coach - with the only exception that violence is no longer disguised as love and concealed behind double binds. Shifting from a consensual scene of ritualized domination by an unapproachable, tough man that resembles Coach, the scene gradually slips with every transgression of Neill’s boundaries into rape. Neill is constantly objectified on a semantic, bodily and sexual level: Coach’s flattery is replaced by dehumanizing performative speech acts that label Neill‚ “the slut”. The dissolution of physical boundaries through the firework of flying cereal and the blending of Neill’s and Coach’s bodies are replaced by a hard-cut sequence that opposes Neill and the rapist and stresses the imbalance of power and incompatibility of positions. Opposed to the colorful shower of flying cereal, we are now at the bottom, where a literal shower flushes the red of Neill’s blood through the plug hole – a figuration that reiterates the black-hole metaphor. Abandoned and left alone, badly injured, full of blood and hematomas, Neill wakes up in a driveway like the one where he and Coach left Brian after the abuse.

This relation of a primal event and its belated production of symptoms or diffractions on the screen of appearance, is central to what constitutes the “mysteriousness” of the skin. The metaphor of the film patterns itself on the arguably most horrendous trauma of 20th century queer history: the AIDS pandemic. AIDS lingers as possibility throughout the film, implied by the periodization of the film, the unsafety and riskiness of Neill’s encounters, his infection with other STIs and a sexual encounter with someone whose body is marked by Kaposi’s sarcoma.  But AIDS as a figuration of latency is aiming on more than bodily diseases here, it is transferred to a certain mode of masochistic desiring. Neill’s assertion “Desire sledgehammered me,” mirrors a form of “self-shattering” pleasure economy Leo Bersani described at the heights of the AIDS pandemic as a particularly gay experience of the dissolution of subjectivity and meaning. More than a mere metaphor, AIDS as a venereal disease becomes readable as an extension of the first sexual contact of abuse, introducing the vulnerable bodies in an ecology of persisting cruel relations that enfold their violence and consequences retrospectively.


1  The term ‘affective non-experience’ refers not only to the processes of mentalization and emotional containing that filter the richness of affective potential into experience and meaning, but also to trauma-induced workings of the defense mechanisms that can block or displace the affective quality of an overwhelming event.  The event happens but it cannot be experienced or processed.

2  The strength of thinking about abuse is terms of networks and assemblages lies in the shift of focus it introduces. Instead of fixating one’s attention on individual perpetrators that become representatives of their schematized group, this approach looks at the subject from the angle of impersonal structures.  These structures are concrete, historical, relational and highly political in the sense, that they represent the basis conditions that enable abuse to happen. While networks are defined by their openness and their operational range (the multitude of connecting nodal points) and distribution flows, assemblages are more or less stable and closed systems, relational ecologies that are, nevertheless, in constant exchange with their outside. This differentiation is not absolute but describes tendencies of systems. For example, the nuclear heterosexual family would be a prime example of an assemblage but can also function as a network that distributes children in the case of foster care homes.

3  For a thorough discussion of the developmental trends of these categories see: https://fightthenewdrug.org/this-years-most-popular-genre-of-porn-is-pretty-messed-up/ (last accessed April 31, 2023).

4  The discursive battles that are being fought around the topic of pedophilia, its stigmatization and possible prevention strategies became crystal clear in the wake of Allyn Walker’s publication ‘A Long Dark Shadow’ and the controversies that arose from it. Cf. Walker, Allyn. A Long Dark Shadow: Minor-Attracted People and their Pursuit of Dignity, Oakland University of California Press, 2001.

5  Cf. Sara Ahmed’s brilliant analysis that is closely related to Berlant’s arguments.

6  Double binds are communicative acts that combine two contradictory meanings in a way that it is impossible for the addressed person to fully decipher the true relational meaning of the expressive act. In this scene, Coach blends the violence of sexual assault with expressions of love. He responds to the child’s need for endearment in a way that Neill naturally mistakes the closeness and intimacy of sexual contact for appreciative tenderness.

7  These anachronisms happen in multiple contexts: in contemporary social work discourse as well as in autobiographic accounts of the abused. To say that these accounts are anachronistic is not a critique but the acknowledgement of a necessary condition. There is neither a mature understanding of sexuality nor of the structural positions and affective relations the abused person is entangled in at the moment of abuse.  And precisely because of this condition, the temporal dynamics of Nachträglichkeit come into play that queer monocausality and substance-ontological easy-origin-narratives further.

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