Monday, March 23, 2009

"Lost Paradise" by Kathy Marks

Summary: Marks, a journalist, recounts the recent "scandal" and court cases on the tiny, isolated Pitcairn island. Pitcairn, under British rule and containing only about fifty inhabitants, was recently wracked with allegations of widespread sexual abuse of young girls by the adult men on the island. The book covers Pitcairn's founding and history, development in the 20th century, the recent trails, and the outcomes of those trials.

Musings: Although this is a case that I had not heard of before, it is clear from Marks' writings that the events surrounding Pitcairn were front page news in England and New Zealand for many years. The story is immediately sensational. Pitcairn is probably the remotest inhabited island in the world and despite being under British rule, has been more or less left alone for its two-hundred year existence. It was originally founded by British pirates who mutinied and founded a society with Tahitian women. Pitcairn has long been depicted as a Utopian island free from the evils of modern society.

The stories of abuse that come to light are pervasive. Nearly half of the adult males on the island and many men now living elsewhere were accused of sexually assaulting young girls. Nearly all the Pitcairn women related stories of abuse. Nearly all had been assaulted regularly by more than one adult.

I was surprised at first to see Marks writing with such unabashed assurance of the men's guilt, but it quickly became clear that Marks was writing in response to the widespread support and justification of the men's actions during the trial.

Nearly every victim blaming myth appears throughout the trials. The girls wanted it (even though some were as young as seven). The girls were naturally promiscuous (despite the girls reporting their fear and pain). Early sex was a cultural norm (even though it usually involved young girls being forcibly raped by adult men, not two consenting young children).

The case is certainly a difficult one from the beginning. Britain had mostly ignored Pitcairn and there is a way in which it seems unreasonable for Britain to suddenly seize law and control. British officials lamented the lack of policing on the island, but for a group of fifty, it hardly seems necessary. Nonetheless, it is clear that abuse was happening yet quietly tolerated.

The book details the difficulty of prosecuting cases of sexual assault, particularly in closed communities. Marks points out that although a mother might have been raped, and her daughter might have been raped, her husband, brother, father, and sons had probably also been accused. Who does the woman side with, then? The women who came forward about their assaults were ostracized and derided.

The men received laughably light jail sentences and today continue to live out a relatively normal life in Pitcairn.

The book has a naturally interesting story, but in the details the telling can get tedious. I wish Marks had spent more on her time in Pitcairn during the six-week of trials. Marks does address some of the common "excuses" for what happened and also takes time on who should be blamed for the abuses.

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