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Effacing Rolf Harris

We now see him rolfharrisfor what he is. For decades, Rolf Harris was adored by millions. His was a warm, avuncular presence on our screens. Whether introducing kids to classic cartoons, or shedding a tear over a dying puppy, Harris was a reassuring fixture and one of those very few celebrities to reach national treasure status. No one disliked Rolf, how could you?

The women who were abused and assaulted over a 30 year period knew another Rolf Harris. The one who couldn’t keep his hands to himself, the predatory sex pest, the man who groomed and assaulted his daughter’s 13 year-old best friend. That Harris, the one who left trauma and bitterness in his wake has been dragged from the shadows by his survivors and exposed for the world to see. We should be thankful Harris has lived to a ripe old age. Unlike Savile, he will go to his grave knowing he didn’t get away with it, that justice has been done, and the women he abused have seen him brought low for his crimes.

There are two wider, slightly related points I want to make about Harris and celebrity abusers. There is the monstering of sex offenders. They – rightly – inspire visceral loathing. In the case of Harris and, to a far greater degree, Savile, this gut reaction is all the more potent because of the esteem and trust in which they were held, and that their crimes, their abuses, often took place in plain sight.

Yet sex offenders, though guilty of monstrous things, are not monsters. Writing that line tastes like ashes in the mouth, but there are human beings too. They were not born sex offenders, they are not a species apart. Like everyone else, these men were made. We might not do it under the circumstances of our choosing, but all of us make our own way in life. For Harris and Savile, there was no especial trigger that flipped their abuse switch. Understanding them does not lie in a putative paedophile gene – the reason anyone chooses to abuse is rooted in their biography, and how this is formed and constantly reformed by choice and circumstance.

In Harris’s and Savile’s cases, fame conveyed upon them an aura. Celebrity gave them opportunities to offend, and a means of silencing the survivors of their abuse. It feeds back time after time, heightening a sense of invulnerability and entitlement. Their offending are early examples of pathological narcissism (Ian Watkins, for example), a state of nihilistic self-centredness in which people – men, women, boys, girls – are so much adjuncts of their wants, their lusts. What was it the First Baron Acton said?

The second is the effacing of the celebrity abuser. Foucault’s classic Discipline and Punish opens with the detailed description of a hanging, drawing and quartering from 1757. The victim, Robert-Francois Damiens had attempted to murder Louis XV. Tortured and found guilty of regicide, his body was obliterated through dismemberment and burning, his house destroyed, his siblings forced to change their names and his immediate family banished from France. I

n 21st century Britain, the body – if still living – is incarcerated. Yet for the likes of Savile, Gary Glitter, and now Harris, a process of effacement begins. It is impossible to undo the damage their abuse of trust caused, but society can recuperate itself by erasing their position in popular culture. Commissioned retrospectives of the 1970s, for instance, avoid all mention of Savile and Gadd, despite their then looming figures on. Top of the Pops retreads are carefully edited to keep them out. The same will now happen to Harris. Reels and reels of archive footage rendered unusable, a place in the popular consciousness unthought. This is replaced with trial images around which the old memories are illustrative flutters. The organising principle for these men from now and for many decades hence is their offending. This is held up to be the truth of their characters, and how they will be forever re-remembered.

This article first appeared at All that is Solid

7 Comments

  1. Robert says:

    Somebody had to have known about these people, I would have said animals but that would be insulating animals . But Saville grave should be removed and he should be cremated and his ashes should be dumped at see or in some large rubbish tip.

    Harris has to go to Jail for the rest of his natural life, I suspect that will be about ten years I suspect what he will get is a two or three years in an open prison where he will paint pictures for the other inmates, once out he should be sent back home to Australia.

    1. Robert says:

      Even at sea.

  2. Chris says:

    “Yet sex offenders, though guilty of monstrous things, are not monsters. Writing that line tastes like ashes in the mouth, but there are human beings too. They were not born sex offenders, they are not a species apart. Like everyone else, these men were made.”

    This is a fashionable view, but I don’t know how accurate it is. Genetics plays a big role in making us who we are. Obviously environmental factors also contribute, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some people were born with a much higher likelihood to be sex offenders than others.

    I actually think calling them monsters may be more accurate than you think. They may look like normal people, but they sure don’t act like us and fundamentally, there’s something wrong inside.

    As for effacing them from popular culture, I’d rather not. Oh, I don’t mind Savile going (though technically, he’s the only innocent one), but I still like to listen to a bit of Gary Glitter now and then. I’m the Leader of the Gang is a really good song. And I’ll always have a soft spot for Rolf, whatever crimes he might have committed.

    1. Robert says:

      Not me Glitter is not going to be played again, and Rolf and a soft spot, well he’ll find your soft spot alright, nope he has to be removed now he cannot again be seen on TV.

      1. Chris says:

        Why?

        1. Robert says:

          Generic is a good old fashioned excuse, for me Glitters music and his sexual preferences means I would rather not see him or his music or Harris art or his shows the dirty perverts.

          While they are on TV the fact is in a lot of cases they were playing out their perversions.

          we all make choices and we can all say no, genetics do not make you have sex with children, it’s a decision they made.

          I mean to think that children from these perverts would do the same because of the genes is insulting beyond belief …

  3. Chris says:

    I don’t care if it’s insulting. The idea of free choice you espouse is a naive fantasy. No one chooses to be good or bad. It just happens based on on genetics and environment.

    And I WOULD like to hear Glitter’s music on the radio and see Rolf on TV. Hell, once he’s released from jail I hope he works on TV again.

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