Review: ‘The Wisdom of Perversity’ by Rafael Yglesias

The Wisdom of Perversity. Rafael Yglesias. Algonquin. 368 pages. $25.95
The Wisdom of Perversity. Rafael Yglesias. Algonquin. 368 pages. $25.95

For complicated reasons, this new novel by Rafael Yglesias creeped me out. The author picks up his readers and sets them down in the lives of three children who were assaulted by an NBC vice president and his teenage acolyte back in the 1960s.

Child molestation is an ugly subject even when seen from a distance, and Yglesias pulls readers inside the children’s heads. The outrage is intense.

Shuttling back and forth in time, he tells the stories of three childhood friends then and now, when a breaking scandal brings painful memories to the surface. More recent victims are filing charges against the evil pair, who run a phony Broadcasting Academy.

Now a successful playwright and screenwriter, handsome Brian Moran juggles shrinks, pills and high-class prostitutes skilled at bondage and discipline. His long-ago best friend Jeff Mark is a much-married director who produces blockbusters. Strongly aware of the past, he’s in denial. The third victim is Julie Rosen, an archivist who is OCD about housekeeping and child-rearing — and everything she thinks she can control.

Then there is this other thing she does, when no one is looking.

Explaining why it took him 16 years to complete this novel, Yglesias writes: “The revisions were made to clarify and refine my understanding of The Wisdom of Perversity’s delicate subject matter: the long-term effects of being sexually misused as a child — as I was when I was eight years old.” He is now in his early 60s.

The only sections he hasn’t touched, he says, are the children’s accounts of the violation. Making clear that his characters are drawn from life, he adds, “I am convinced my generation suffered an epidemic of child sexual misuse that went untreated and unexamined, and in some respects is still poorly understood.”

This gives a chilling authenticity to the kids’ memories of the moment when evil enters their lives in the form of powerful Richard Klein, and his handsome acolyte Sam Rydel.

Author of nine other novels and several screenplays — including the script for Fearless, which he adapted from his own book — Yglesias first came out as a victim in a 2014 article on Slate, in a piece about working for Roman Polanski.

“I worked for a man who raped a 13-year-old girl. I knew he had raped her, everyone knew he had raped her, and I was eager to get the job. I did not hesitate even though I had been sexually molested when I was 8 years old. I did not pause although I was still struggling from ongoing complications 30 years after an adult seducer had permanently interfered with my sexual development.” Each of his young trio has grown up warped in one way or another.

Now, children who suffer at the hands of molesters often swing back and forth in the gray area between ignorance and understanding. They think, “He’s an adult, so this must be OK,” even as they wonder: “If so, why do I feel so awful?” Combined doubt, fear and shame render far too many victims silent, as it does the trio in this novel.

Brian can’t shake memories of his first encounter with Klein, which marks the beginning of a long, unsuccessful struggle to escape the encounters that follow. Klein catches up with the boy at his best friend’s house, with 8-year-old Jeff as unwilling enabler.

The adult Brian reflects: “His time in the men’s room with Richard Klein lasted far longer than the quarter hour that actually elapsed. No matter how many years passed, those minutes remained ineluctable to Brian’s heart and mind. No matter how often he tried, with this drug or that therapy, with whatever philosophy of understanding, spiritual or vulgar, for Brian their time together lasted forever.”

Tortured by the memory, Brian needs more than anything to bring the two perps to an accounting, and this burgeoning scandal may be his opportunity. His best ally is Jeff’s cousin Julie. Eleven when Klein had his way with her, Julie’s torn between loyalty to her journalist husband, who wants to break the story, and her own desire to speak out now, so these two men will be punished for what they did.

Meanwhile, Jeff, who’s spent his life running ahead of the guilt, lets it all hang out in an Aliens-type movie in which he points an accusing finger at his mother. He knows the worst things happen in silence.

Of the three, Brian is upfront about his memories, while the other two suppress them. The boys’ experiences are painful, the most excruciating passage is a long, terrible memory that Julie resurrects decades later.

Klein’s assault begins with the customary ambiguous grope. This escalates in a long chapter in which he traps 11- year-old Julie on his lap and, in full view of the boys, goes further, while in the same room, the adults chatter on, oblivious. Later, he and Rydel do much worse things to her. The horror comes in Julie’s helplessness — and her terrified silence.

This makes the reader feel exactly what the girl feels: violated. Not that it ever happened to me —but it could have. If I hadn’t told.

Kit Reed is the author of ‘The Story Until Now’ and the upcoming ‘Where,’ out in May.