Kirk Nesset has no face. It’s not just that his page is erased; he has lost face in every way imaginable. He has resigned tenure. His passport is suspended. His computer is monitored. He will probably lose his dog—a mini-pomeranian he cradles in a sling. He may go to prison, where his cred will not be high. Kirk Nesset’s face dissolved the day the FBI raided his house, confiscating 500,000 files of child pornography. The children were named and categorized. Allegedly, Kirk Nesset confessed to preferring ages nine to twelve.
In twenty years, I’ve met Kirk Nesset three or four times. We’ve chatted in elevators and conference bars. He is handsome, charming, and flamboyant. The mini-pomeranian is named Ryan, and he has his own Twitter feed. Or had. Ryan may lose face, too. Kirk was 57 years old when the agents knocked, but considering he had collected half a million files, it must have been some time since he started living a double life.
I am not leading a double life. Am I missing something? Am I living a half life? Though of course if I were leading two lives, I wouldn’t say so here. “I may not tell everyone. But I won’t tell you.”
Kirk Nesset was a writer. Weird to say, was, but he’s facing a five year minimum sentence, and if he writes again it will be as another person. Oscar Wilde maybe. Or Michael Ryan. It has never been clearer to me that writing depends on a fictive persona with a real address. The writer must be someone. It’s a myth that dead writers do better. As a publisher with three deceased writers on my list, I assure you that dying is a bad career move—unless your death makes a splash, and if you can make a splash, why not splash and live? Revealing your double life might work, as long as your spare life qualifies for Oprah.
Kirk Nesset was leading a very creditable first life. He won the Drew Heinz Prize. He was a full professor at Allegheny College. His latest book is called Saint X, and before his face disappeared he had arranged a national tour. On the cover of Saint X is a picture of a child standing before a wading pool at midnight. Eerie and compelling—when Kirk Nesset was a writer. Now it’s Exhibit B.
Kirk Nesset did not do the worst thing possible. It’s worse than that. He is the worst thing. On the homo sapiens ladder, consuming child pornography is the lowest rung. It’s beneath murder, which has a long pedigree and inspires awe. Each of us has witnessed thousands of staged murders. Murders make histories, careers, and literary genres. Murder is, at least in its initial phase, performed with others.
Theft? Cary Grant played a thief. François Villon was a thief. Christ’s neighbors on Calvary were thieves. Thievery, like murder, arson, even rape, has a profile. All require action, entail risk, perhaps even demand skill. But this: performed in greenish dark, withholding of discourse, paralytic, masturbatory.
Wherever Consumption of Child Pornography sits in the cornices of evildoing, it is near the core of what the Jesuits called sin. In the words of that great sinner John Logan, it is “an offense against love.” Or against engagement. Against witness. Against, even, identity.
Kirk Nesset of course knew all this during the years he accumulated his collection. What was it like—closing the door behind him, abandoning all hope? What scruples did he need to relinquish?
I do not lead a double life, (the acolyte doth protest too much, methinks) but I have slid close to the edges of my single one. I have witnessed sin. Taken note. I have sinned. I sense your swelling interest, but I will not tell you.
I imagine that Kirk Nesset took note of all that we know about trespass. I imagine that he knew that the children whose images he downloaded were victims. I imagine this because when the FBI showed up, he confessed immediately and provided details about the nine and twelve year olds. None of that “They think I’m mad” crap.
Kirk Nesset’s Facebook page has disappeared, but not before the discussion of his crime went viral. There are no “likes.” Comments express shock and betrayal. Betrayal of the children, but more of the Facebook friendships. How close to home he struck: “We had 238 friends in common.” Several posts made it clear that whatever distinction might be drawn between making and consuming child pornography was spurious.
For some, Kirk Nesset’s arrest triggered personal trauma. There were testimonies of rape, exploitation, and abuse. I was not surprised by these revelations. It is a fact of my own single life that nearly every woman with whom I have been intimate has suffered abuse, harassment, kidnapping, or rape. Am I crazy? Do I attract victims? Having only the one life, I don’t know.
There are no rapists or child molesters on Facebook. In fact, there are no sinners—the most culpable are those who are squicked by the ice bucket challenge. But many are sinned against. Sometimes as individuals—but more often as members of a group. And this makes sense: isn’t testifying to being sinned against a way to gain face? Sinners are secret, and if exposed, as Kirk Nesset has been exposed, lose both faces. But to be sinned against, in public, is to be saved.
When I told Kirk Nesset’s story to a friend, he said that he didn’t understand what glitch in the genome would turn someone’s sex drive to children. It went without saying that he and I were driven by forces barely within our control that happen, in our cases, to operate within legal strictures. My friend’s sigh was an acknowledgement that he was lucky to be so genetically encoded. But he, like me, has not been sinned against. At least not grievously. We might feel differently had we been the children violated.
The children had a second life too. But it was imposed upon them. Now they must carry the second life, secret, inside. Can testimony heal? Is that what we call shame—the light that exposes the second life? I can’t decide.
Is the second life—if it is chosen, if it is stepped into willfully and in full possession of one’s first life—the only place one can truly decide? Must all real choices be made in a chosen dark?
For instance, every day Kirk Nesset had a choice: he could act in a way he knew was wrong, or he could act rightly. 500,000 times or so, he chose wrong. I don’t know how often he chose rightly. Maybe never. Maybe only once. But even so, that choice now belongs to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Is all this too…. jesuitical? What about the suffering of the children? Suffering endured in the dark, now brought to light. They had no choices. Choice—whether in dark or light—is a privilege. Privilege is elitist. I am ashamed.
But I have no choice. Here on the page, there is just one life. Every moment flattened to transcription diverts time’s stream and radically distorts the scale of things. Inscribed, pain has no scale. Kirk Nesset’s face takes up more of this sentence than the suffering of half a million children. If we insist on measuring suffering accurately, we must stop writing right now. Stop reading. Right now. No longer make the weaker argument the stronger. Unsuspend disbelief. No more bookwrights. Proscribe chirography. Let nothing mean or be but that which is. Or if you must write, draft ordinances. Draw up manuals. Scratch out equations. Indite Chinese fortunes or French criticism. Do not write as if to conjure a body out of two dimensions, do not rip story from the ear, or song from vibrant throat. Do not pretend to bring to life a human being. Because whatever suffering we reify in print, it is not the worst. It is never the worst. Writing drives everything crazy. Even the Jesuits. “If all evil,” they wrote, “could be erased by the permission of one venial sin, still God could not permit.”
If we insist on scale in suffering, we must heed Theodor Adorno’s adage, “To write poetry after the holocaust is barbaric.”
If Kirk Nesset’s impending incarceration seems to me barbaric, it is not only because he is, like me, a privileged white male in middle age. It’s also because I have just come from my writing class at Trumbull County Correctional Institute. Our next assignment is to compose in one stanza a cell, a task which I imagine the students will perform with profound intimacy. “The cell is gray,” one student might begin. “The cell is three steps endless,” says the incarcerated surrealist. “The cell is the pin of my skull’s grenade,” screams the escape artist. “The cell is an eternity of daybreak in the suburbs of Juarez, Mexico,” writes my internalized James Wright. But the cell is not a book. I can’t imagine it. If I imagine Kirk Nesset confined in this unimaginable space, I am imagining myself.
I have met Kirk Nesset three or four times; this I have confessed. But that was at the beginning of these sentences. Writing can commence in open air, but the pressure of line upon line snuffs out light. For you, ten minutes have passed. You are home in late afternoon in an endless October and the plaid recliner prickles the shoulder blades and a wing-shaped shadow plays on thumb and forefinger and into the crease of the spine of the book that is there and not wholly present, a thing you have picked up without intending and may put down this moment, as if bidden.
In my cell, the ashtray is full and the light bulb has seared my retina and I have not slept. And while I continue to deny the second life of which I have, I swear, no knowledge, I will stipulate that my first meeting with Kirk Nesset was not casual. It took place at a job interview for a position as assistant professor at Allegheny College. Kirk Nesset chaired the search committee. I didn’t get the job. The sinecure was one of a number of Kirk Nesset’s privileges that I have been denied: Good looks, a pinch of literary fame, a dog. Am I choleric? Do I now feel karmically redeemed? I can’t decide.
With karma, you never know. Maybe Kirk Nesset will write a memoir. In memoirs, the protagonist may be a dope fiend, or murderer, or even a child pornographer—though no memoir that I know of has plumbed that depth—but the name on the glossy cover spells success. Pornographer or memoirist? Like Schrödinger’s cat, it’s neither until you open the box.
I am a publisher—I open the box. I facilitate the illusion that the writer is completely other, so immersed in the second life she cannot be reached except by someone else’s hand turning the doorknob, some agent of One Life sleuthing half a million files. Only by my presence can you enter another’s dark. I make the dark inviting, tantalizing, safe. If you don’t believe me, read my flap copy.
But watching me opening the cell into the writer’s dark is never enough, is it? You want to open it yourself. You want to violate the dark. You want to see the drafts, variorums, notebooks, letters, diaries. You want to be there. You want to insinuate yourself into the moment before nothing was written into existence. Before identity. Before anything could happen. I understand.
I stay because I know that failing to gain access, you’ll buy. You’ll shelve a title in your library, or place it, as if casually, on your coffee table. Its gloss and blurbs and colophon and garamond draw the eye and gratify the touch. But deep down, something’s missing. Something has been covered over. Something writers would not willingly reveal.
How do I know? I confess, I have a double life. I am not only a publisher. I am a writer. I do not publish what I write. The cells are separate and discrete.
In one cell, I tear open the carton, let peanuts fly. I press the book to my face, inhale the new product aroma. I feel the sturdy but fragile clothbound edition, admire its heft. I touch it all the way down, the spine’s indentation not unlike the curves of a human spine. The creak of the first opening, the slight resistance, the feeling of the thirty-pound bond, acid free. I love the book. I love the books of others, and I love the books others publishers have made out of my writing. I port them in my cargo pockets. I drool on them in bed.
Then, to underline, to annotate, how reckless. The first dog-ear. The beer ring. The warp after a day left on the sedan’s back ledge. One day you pick up the thing as if it came from someone else and realize that the cover is garish. The font skimps, the colophon’s obsolete, and the author pic has morphed to Opie.
In the cell of my second life there is no book, and no light to read by. Sometimes, I feel an eye at the keyhole. I shiver. Is someone there? Will you ever come? Do I want you to come? I can’t decide. In this cell I know why Virgil and Joyce burnt their drafts and why Salinger fled and McPherson impersonated Ossian and Frey lied to Oprah. What were they doing, but squirming at the light and the prying eyes?
Are writers bad? Plato says so. Hell, with Socrates as a cellie I’d take hemlock too. But are we bad all the way through—with a capital B, as in Bukowski, Baudelaire, Byron, Berryman, Bocaccio.
Are we the worst? True, we have the second life here—not on your page but on mine—blank, scratched on, accusatory. But we’ll come forth if commanded. And for all the apocrypha about found manuscripts and forgeries and interpolations and salacious letters, I—the writer, not the publisher—monitor the transition into light. I choose the shape and depth of shadow. And you, reader, feel the shadow, though all you have seen is the shape that I have shaped.
What we want is not just fresh awareness, but the illusion that we have been allowed into a darkness of which the writer himself is not truly aware, just as I allowed him to slip gender into the sentence, as if unseen. That’s the real, unmediated him, you think.
I have turned Kirk Nesset back into a writer, no? I have compared his half a million crimes with innocent scribblings. Not in real life. In real life Kirk Nesset is going to prison, where he can enroll in one of my classes. But here on the page there is no scale. And everything is like everything else.
I have met Kirk Nesset three or four times and now you are wondering if I am breaking under the weight of all these sentences. Suffering has no scale? Let the world burn for one untended sin? I sense your frustration. You’ve pushed this far and no confession.
I confess that behind the face I see tunnels. Passing through eyes, light takes on shapes. It may not matter who or what they are. Their passage haunts, no matter what they’ve done, no matter what you’ve done, no matter who I think I am. I think the passing of these specters makes it possible for us to write at all. And makes it impossible and necessary. I think that finally, Terence, not Adorno, was right. Nothing human is alien to me.
But what about something monstrous? And is this sentence human? If I am leading a double life, one half of it does not exist.
The friend to whom I told Kirk Nesset’s story asked why I was writing about it. Do I think I am Kirk Nesset? Am I crazy? Won’t readers assume that my attention and empathy, my canny failure to condemn, indicates that I too am a pervert? Do I really think writing is like child pornography? Do I care about my good name? Step off, he said. Walk away.
But I can’t. And I know you are still waiting for a confession. You are patient. You monitor, you stake out, you wiretap. And I will break. I am breaking now. I deliver my confession. First I wrote it in French, then in boustrophedon, then in water and finally here on this page in a hieroglyph so vaporous that only those who have surrendered to their second life can see it.
If you have seen—did you think you were the only one? Did you think you were original? Are we absolved?
If you have not seen, are you relieved? Ashamed? Are you pressing your eye to a dark keyhole? For you, I give this redaction of my confession in plain English. Once, long ago, with a loved partner, I failed to bring to term a child. There is no adequate word in plain English, which is why you need a second life to understand. Without a second life, reading in plain English, you may think I equate child pornography with abortion; you may think I’m a pro-life nut. You may unfriend me. But there is no child.
Everything I have done is at the lip of that darkness. Nothing has scale. What happens here in the darkness has no consequence for the living. I do not think this confession satisfies you. I am not going to prison. Still, I have made the weaker argument. I have disappeared my child.
Three or four times have I encountered Kirk Nesset. How else to say it? First on the occasion of my job interview for a position of assistant professor at Allegheny College. This we have established. The interview took place at MLA in Chicago, and the walls of the interview room were a strange greenish white. Most MLA interviews take place in hotel rooms—unsettling enough, with the towels crumpled and toilet gurgling and a junior geezer perched on the queen bed. But this was not a hotel room; it was a classroom of some kind, with plastic chairs arranged in a horseshoe, and outside was the Chicago El and I could hear the wind whistling down Morgan Street into the future. Everything moved slowly. My answers were dry and stiff, my gestures seemed, as they often seem to me, slightly out of sync like a dubbed movie. This was before Kirk Nesset adopted Ryan, and before Saint X, and before I bumped into him on the elevator or bar, and before I read about him as a consumer of child pornography. This was before I embarked on the life I’m leading now, here on the page, far from Allegheny College, or anywhere else. But it was not before I failed a life, to which I have confessed, twice, above.
Composing people out of symbols is no crime, is it? I do not equate writing and abortion and child pornography. Maybe there is no sin. I can’t decide. The child and the children haunt me but I cannot name them. The sin is nameless. The sin is naming. It is in the wind, out of sync. It makes it impossible to cleave to one life, and keeps us locked in our separate cells.
It is mine own.
It is the children’s. It is Nesset’s before he became him.
Jesuits and writers disagree about everything except one thing. Jesuits call it sin. Writers call it the second life. Both call it “Original.”