The decline of incest as a marketable theme [in pornography] is probably due to today's inadequate middle-class housing. In large Victorian houses with many rooms and heavy doors, the occupants could be mysterious and exciting to one another in a way that those who live in rackety developments can never hope to be. Not even the lust of a Lord Byron could survive the fact of Levittown.
This theme is being supplanted by sadomasochism, Vidal says, continuing:
In the film The Collector, a lower-class boy captures an educated girl and after alternately tormenting and boring her, he says balefully, "If more people had more time and more money, there would be a lot more of this." This got an unintended laugh in the theater, but he is probably right. Sexual experiment is becoming more open.
A certain kind of sexual outrage needs space, privacy and time to percolate. This occurred to me when I read on BoingBoing about the internet activity of Philip Garrido, the kidnapper and rapist who - among other crimes - abducted an 11-year-old girl in 1991 and held her captive for 18 years. Growing participation in the internet - and the curious durability of many of the traces we leave on the net - mean that when crimes like this emerge, we now have the dubious honour of being able to see what the culprit wrote on his blog and elsewhere. Even more chilling is the fact that Garrido's house in Antioch, California, is clearly visible on Google Maps:
And can be seen on Google Street View:
In the aerial view, the complex of tents and structures in which Garrido kept his victims can be clearly seen. Apparently the neighbours heard nothing from these installations, which suggests a degree of solidity. If the neighbours can be believed.
There are obvious parallels with the equally abominable case of Josef Fritzl, the Austrian man who kept his own children captive in a purpose-built cellar/dungeon. Last year Nicholas Spice wrote a superb essay in the LRB exploring the Fritzl case through the writings of Elfriede Jelinek, the Austrian Nobel laureate. Spicer explores the implications of what Fritzl was doing in building his cellar:
Above ground, Josef Fritzl obeyed the rules of ordinary time and causality, the rules that say actions have consequences and are subject to the constraints of conscience (das Gewissen); but when he went down into his cellar, he left all this behind to enter the timeless underworld (das Ungewisse) of his desires. As long as no one found out, it was as if what he did down there had never happened (if he’d killed his children and grandchildren, he said, no one would have made a fuss). Jelinek calls what Fritzl did to his daughter a ‘performance’, the addictive acting out of a pathological need. In building his cellar, Fritzl was building a compartment of his own mind, a theatre for the nightly performance of his fantasies. Elisabeth Fritzl’s grotesque misfortune was to be imprisoned in this compartment, to be trapped inside her father’s head.
It's almost as if there's an architectural typology associated with these cases. A certain kind of structure is created by a certain kind of mind - explored in art in John Fowles' novel The Collector, the film of which Vidal mentions above. They make the space, this microcosm of their desires, and the space gives them the privacy and time they need.
What potential is there to expose cases like this through examining land use? Last year I briefly explored writing a feature about Detroit, the poster child of urban degeneration, with regard to urban farming and re-ruralisation. In the course of this research I spoke with Interboro Partners, a New York-based architecture practice that contributed an intriguing project to Actar's Verb: Crisis. Interboro's interest is "blots" - places where homeowners in semi-abandoned neighbourhoods of Detroit have taken over vacant lots next to their houses, disrupting the suburban grid. Interboro told me about how they use Google maps to look for "blots", and how they were getting better at identifying them from above. Could homes like Garrido's be identified similarly? Or could the process be automated, in the same manner that the police now use thermal imaging cameras to identify suburban homes that have been turned into cannabis factories? Researching "augmented reality" for the new issue of Icon, I was intrigued to hear that the same technology that is used to "recognise" faces on CCTV cameras could be used to recognise buildings - so if you were wondering what a building was, you could take a picture of it on your phone and an internet application could tell you who built it, when, why, and what it does now.
This is utterly fanciful as camouflage is second nature to the psychopath and the abuser and they'll cotton on to Google Maps and crowdsourced detection soon enough. One of the reasons these cases are so disturbing is the way the abusers apply surface touches of domesticity to the nightmares they design and build. I'm also struck, again, by Spice's description of Fritzl building a model of the inside of his head, a space in which his fantasies could be acted out for real. There's a curiously memorable B-movie thriller from 2000 called The Cell in which Jennifer Lopez travels into the subconscious of a comatose serial killer. What makes the film memorable is the depictions of what the inside of the killer's head is like - surreal, Byzantine palaces and landscapes. But what seems more likely than that sort of landscape is a kind of perverted domesticity, like Gregor Schneider’s terrifying 2004 Artangel installation "Die Familie Schneider", or the "village" in Jerome Bixby's similarly terrifying short story "It's a Good Life". (Be warned that the Bixby story, if you don't know it, is the kind of thing that haunts you for life - it shook me up terribly when I first read it in my teens.)
I don't mean to linger too long on these matters for the obvious reasons. My interest is that we all attempt, on one level or another, to turn our homes into models of the inside of our heads, and this is to some extent one of the themes of my book. In Care of Wooden Floors, a control-freak minimalist invites a more lackadaisical friend to look after his flat while he's out of the country. The flat is the precise reflection of the control freak's desires and ambitions, and as such leaving it in the hands of another is a difficult thing to do. His reluctance to let go manifests itself in compulsive note-making - everywhere, there are notes explaining the contents of drawers and what is and what isn't permissible behaviour from the flatsitter. It all leads to disaster. By stepping into someone's home you're stepping into a kind of myth of themselves, a hard projection of their psyche into the physical world. Once you start seeing homes like this, they can be pretty unnerving places. Maybe this is why I like hotels so much.
* New York Review of Books, 31 March 1966; I'm quoting it from United States: Essays, 1952-62.