Innocent pleasures in the age of alarm bells

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THE POLICE who raided the home of Michael Jackson last week took away a great deal of material but found no evidence of child abuse. One wonders, however, what would have counted as evidence, and what would have been discounted. Clearly, the police were not looking for evidence that certain acts claimed by one child had taken place, for these date back several months and some were alleged to have taken place in Florida, Monaco and the boy's home - places that were not 'raided'.

Perhaps the police were acting out of sheer curiosity - it was a way of getting to see the star's home. Or perhaps they felt they had to 'do something' to demonstrate to the boy's father that they were taking the allegations seriously. Or were they looking for evidence of a general disposition to child abuse, evidence that could lend weight to the boy's accusations? What might constitute such evidence? Photographs, perhaps?

There are people who feel very uncomfortable when looking at Lewis Carroll's photographs of young girls, which they find display an unnatural obsession, and one psychoanalyst says that Carroll limited himself, as a photographer, to idealised subjects: little girls and famous people. 'It would seem that the photographs were to capture and hold as incontrovertible fact the precious moments in time and space occupied by his ideal and adored subjects. . . .'

There is something of Michael Jackson in this either/or: either it's little people, or it's Elizabeth Taylor. Either it's someone who will hero-worship him, or it's someone he can hero-worship. And what an awful lot of idealisation must go on, in that private funfair, on the Neverland ranch.

But there is a distinction, or I hope there is, between seeking out subjects to idealise and being a child-molester. There were, as far as I know, no complaints from parents about Lewis Carroll - quite the opposite. He was considered an ideal friend for children.

The unease comes long, long after the fact, in an age full of alarm bells. It is part of an age that no longer believes in the innocent pre-pubertal child, and no longer feels inclined to believe that some men are just born bachelors. So a bachelor who prefers the company of little girls, or boys, sets those alarm bells ringing.

But some people are less than fully paid-up members of this post-Freudian age. The parents who accompanied their children on fabulous trips with Jacko, which turned into fabulous slumber parties in which junior got to share Jacko's bed, may seem somewhat old-fashioned in their insistence that everything was innocent. But there is no reason why they should not be right in saying that there was nothing in the nature of molestation. Inevitably, the battle over evidence will be a cruel one, if it comes to a case in which the boy's word is pitted against that of Jackson.

Thinking of those police officers rummaging through Jackson's photographs, I was reminded of a photograph I had seen recently, taken by a man of his pre-pubertal daughter. The nude child had a doll placed between her legs in such a way as to suggest that she was giving birth to it.

Now this photograph was being exhibited with pleasure and pride - it was not something the police had found in a raid. It seemed to mark a moment ('to capture and hold as incontrovertible fact') when the daughter became aware of what that part of her body was for. She seemed proud of her discovery in a sly and somewhat disturbing way. At the very least one could say that certain juries would have looked askance at such a photo if it were shown to them as evidence, and that certain newspapers would have had a field day if it were part of the kind of set-up Michael Jackson was subjected to last week.

I went to Zwemmer's to see if by chance I could find the album it came from, but I came away with something very similar, a book by the American photographer Sally Mann, called Immediate Family. This is all about idyllic summers in Virginia, and her children mostly in the nude.

I can imagine one description of this book that would say: here is an account of a close-knit family who are happy about their bodies and therefore happy with each other; the mother takes, yes, an erotic pleasure in her children, and it is the kind of pleasure that is part of any healthy, intimate family life.

Equally, I could imagine the book being triumphantly produced in the courtroom as evidence of sickness. The bodies are often seen disfigured in some way. The children are posed with dead animals. The oldest daughter's way of holding a candy cigarette seems knowing and unnatural. The children are caught at vulnerable moments, and so forth.

Such photographs come out of a kind of semi-bohemian culture that is very much concerned with health - healthy attitudes and practices. But, given the intervention of some catastrophe, such as a custody dispute, how quickly the evidence could change character. Once, it seemed all part of the nude idyll that the father should romp in bed with the kids - now it seems part of a pattern of abuse. Once, it seemed a part of loving one's family to take all those photographs. Now it seems obsessive, abusive, possessive.

Once Jordan Chandler had this great friendship with Michael Jackson. Now the 13-year-old is the subject of a custody dispute in which his father is saying one thing about Jackson and his mother quite another. Custody disputes are a form of child abuse that, of its nature, goes unpunished. One hopes that Jordan Chandler will not turn into one of those figures, like Anita Hill, on the question of whose veracity a nation divides.