Comfort & Critique by Peter Sotos (Andrew)

Comfort & Critique by Peter Sotos
Andrew Wilson

Comfort & Critique documents Peter Sotos’ pornographic and intellectual fixations.  The intensely personal nature of his work, due in part to his from-the-gut writing technique, feels like an intimate gesture toward the reader.  His writing has always been a beacon to his private obsessions, siphoned through a pointed yet fragmented rant.  In this sense, Comfort & Critique is Sotos all over.  But what sets this book apart from his earlier work is the feeling it leaves that Sotos might be America’s most dangerous cultural critic.  He has never sounded so clear and, at the same time, so disturbing.

Sarah Payne, the twelve-year old murder victim, and Sarah Payne, the victim’s mother, are Sotos’ anchor in Comfort & Critique.  His encyclopedic knowledge of killers and their behavior is hinged to this particular story, as his topics constantly depart and return to the politics surrounding Sarah’s death.  To those unfamiliar with Sarah Payne, her murder prompted the victim’s mother to create and campaign for “Sarah’s Law,” which would make the information and wareabouts of convicted pedophiles available to the British public.  This campaign transformed both Sarah’s into media icons.  Ultimately, Comfort & Critique centers on the media’s fetishism of pedophiles and their crimes—a spectacle that amounts to its own brand of pornography.  Sotos puts this pornography in plain view by presenting and critiquing dozens of tabloids about the two Sarah’s.  He lets the articles tell the story of Sarah’s abduction, the search for her body, the family’s grief, their campaign for Sarah’s law and Great Britain’s ensuing pedophile witch-hunt.  This aspect of Comfort & Critique gives the text a political edge.  By quoting interviews with child killers—and dipping into his own experience—Sotos outlines the public’s misunderstanding of these killers, their motives, and presents Sarah’s law as misguided excuse for mob rule and vigilante justice.  

But that part is easy to swallow.  The driving force behind Comfort & Critique is far more unsettling.  Sotos is not concerned with politics.  Instead, he’s concerned with young Sarah Payne—a fixation amounting to a fevered lust perpetuated by the media.  Sotos works with the notion that killers and would-be-killers—perhaps like Sotos himself—live vicariously through the media.  Unlike the general public, whose relationship to these stories is more of a peep-show fetish, Sotos directs the reader to an audience that comes to envy these killers.  But rather than side with this second group, Sotos writes from his own conflict between his sexual interest in children and his personal disgust for of pedophiles and child killers.  He writes:  “I am, so far, completely within the law.  And, stupidly, it’s that severe but specific reduction that creates the definition of pornography.  Pornography is not an image.  It’s not an act.  It is defined from the outside by those who threaten me.  It is purely what I do to an image.  Or a fucking act that I only run through my head.  It is the limitations you accept.  What little I think I can live with.  You’re bound to be disappointed.”  In this sense, Sotos is his own toughest critic, refusing to establish a base for himself or siding with pedophiles and killers who might ostensibly share his views.

The last part of the book, simply titled “Sarah,” is a 100-page collage of tabloid images that serve as a fourth voice to the text.  Throughout the written portion of the book, Sotos works with tabloid quotes, his own commentary, and a mysterious unspecified voice telling personal—questionably fictional—accounts of sleazy sex shows and encounters with child pornographers.  The visual component, however, proves to just as shocking, as the reader is confronted with pictures of missing children and celebrity victims after lurid depictions of their assaults.  The text component makes the power of these pictures possible.  Sotos’ genius shines in his ability to make the reader see what he sees, which is perhaps an act of sadism on his part.

The feeling persists that Sotos is the middleman between his readers and a horrifying world they know exits but choose to keep at a distance.  He relates the story of a prison psychologist who had became so traumatized by listening to the fantasies of child murderers that he suffered a nervous break-down and sued the prison for a six-figure sum.  The psychologist became crippled by anxiety and panic to the point that he couldn’t be around children.  What keeps Sotos from having this effect on his readers is space he shares with the killer and the psychologist—the person with the genuine impulse toward evil and the person trying to understand it.  

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