In 2004, a trial was held on Pitcairn Island, that tiny speck of land in the vast Pacific Ocean, and settled in the 1700s by the mutinous crew of the infamous HMAV (His Majesty's Armed Vessel) Bounty.
But eventually, Great Britain declared that those events were a long time ago, far, far away. Can't we all be friends?
That seemed to be the case for the remaining families on Pitcairn Island, until allegations of mass rape and child abuse were uncovered.
In Lost Paradise, author and journalist Kathy Marks was selected to accompany the lawyers and judges in a trial that had neighbors accusing neighbors and families accusing families of the gravest misconduct. Marks reviews the initiation of the original investigation, the various trials, and then delves, speculatively, into how and why this abuse could occur, and whether it is the fault of the British government, clueless or powerless religious leaders and school teachers, fearful parents, or simply the result of an island culture's unique history and evolution.
The residents of Pitcairn Island are terribly angry at the British government, their accusers, and Kathy Marks and the other journalists. "The unforgivable crime, in the Pitcairners' eyes, was not sexually assaulting children, but betraying the island" (p. 79).
Marks uses her journalistic eyes and ears to capture, as well as possible for an outsider, the sense of Pitcairn as a place. Although idyllic in some ways, living on a speck in the ocean has its drawbacks as well. It is not a place for the weak-willed. Leaders needed to be strong. And everybody seemed related to everyone else. It is unknown when child abuse on the island started (indeed, when does it start anywhere?), but over the past 40 years its "acceptability" seemed to increase. This "acceptability" wasn't legal, moral, or even discussed. Marks points out evidence during the trials and her investigations afterward that this abuse was a well-know "secret". It was the "Pitcairn way." And, from the islanders' perspective, they wanted to deal with it in their way, not necessarily the British legal system way.
And they certainly didn't appreciate the role of journalists. "While Betty was still friendly to us, in her slightly guarded way, the animosity of most of the other locals was getting me down. It was not as if the islanders knew any of us personally; they disliked us solely because of our jobs. The majority believed, or claimed to believe, that the media were writing and broadcasting fiction. My perception of reality seemed so different from theirs that I sometimes felt like I was going mad" (p. 129).
What I know about the trials (there were more than one) is nothing from the national or international newspapers; my perspective comes entirely from reading this book. Certainly there are known cases of mass delusion involving child abuse, but clearly it occurred. The debate should be not if, but how much and by whom? But the islanders' focus was on the absence of a crime committed. "The only thing that really unites the islanders is survival, and when it comes to survival, community takes precedence over family and individuals. Yet, it is debatable what community means to the people of Pitcairn, or what they are so intent on preserving: the collective well-being, and their common history and culture, or simply their own self-interest. In order to preserve communal harmony and maintain the status quo, certain parents effectively opted to sacrifice their daughters. But while some kept quiet out of a misguided sense of loyalty, others, it seems, were not prepared to give up their lifestyle and status" (p. 217).
Pitcairners fought, and are probably still fighting, very hard against all charges, even with some defendants pleading guilty and testifying in court that this abuse occurred.
Although Marks pulls out the specter of Lord Of The Flies, by William Golding, I think there are many non-fiction examples of group-think linked with abuse: certain religious groups (Marks mentions some), gangs and their traditions, and atrocious abuse as a means of sowing terror (think Sudan). Clearly, the worldview of Pitcairn Island residents strayed from the conventional, from the norms of how a healthy community protects and nurtures its children, particularly girls, in a male-dominated society.
"The Pitcairn story makes us shiver. We recognize that hellish little universe, and we recognize ourselves. The island offers a glimpse of the darkness that lies within every one of us" (p. 284).
Here's what we know. Child abuse wasn't invented on Pitcairn Island. Horribly, it occurs everywhere. Marks argues that the uniquenesses of Pitcairn Island allowed this abuse to flourish. Her story, as a journalist, wasn't so much the abuse itself, but the vigorous defense of the perpetrators, and the lack of a support network around the victims. She saw a situation where the perpetrators called themselves the victims while the victims were labeled the perpetrators.
For a journalist, that is a story to follow.