‘Can You Tell What It Is Yet?’ The Enigma of Rolf Harris

The trial is over. Rolf Harris has been found guilty on 12 counts of indecent assault and has been sentenced to five years and nine months in prison. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions of words have been written on this matter in the last few months so by now we ought to be very clear about it. As I sit to add a few words of my own I am reminded of his old catch phrase “Can you tell what it is yet?” -- and I’m afraid that I can’t.

On the one hand, we know that Rolf Harris spent many years sexually abusing women and girls as young as eight. More and more people, from assaulted women to art critics,  are coming forward to testify to his dark side. There are numerous calls for the Attorney General to review the sentence as “unduly lenient”.

On the other hand, we have a genial, jolly, quirky, ebullient and apparently sincere entertainer. He has been a tea-time fixture for children for the last 60 years. (I wasn’t allowed to watch him though. After one programme my father delivered his judgement – “the music is pap and the art is competent but second rate”).  The announcement that he was being questioned on sexual abuse accusations took me by surprise. Jimmy Savile was different - he always sent shivers down my spine, and my father’s daughter that I am, I refused to allow any programme featuring “that creep” to be seen in my home.

I never thought of Rolf Harris in that way. I have always seen him as irritating but essentially harmless – if elevating mediocrity to the status of Australian cultural icon can truly be said to be harmless.

Then there are some of the famous quotes.

“I hope that maybe I am on this planet to try and spread a bit of love and affection and to try and help people to warm toward their fellow man instead of all this destruction and misery”, or “I draw the line at filth and crude language. It seems to be an excuse for not being funny”, or “Try and spread a lot of love and affection around the world. The most important thing is not to 'con' the public. Be real.”

Like vast swathes of the population I was taken in.

My “cultural elitism” notwithstanding, the first stirrings of misgiving came when I watched the BBC programme about him painting the Queen’s portrait. My leftist leanings made me squirm at his obsequiously deferential manner.  His expressions of self-doubt about his ability to paint the portrait left me suspicious. Despite my father’s opinion of his skills, Rolf Harris did not seem like the kind of person who would express genuine self-doubt.

So what can we make of this paradox, this absurd enigma, that is what we know of Rolf Harris?  “Can you tell what it is yet?” If not, you’re not alone. I suspect that the trial and the verdict and the sentence have left many, many people trying to make sense of what they know – know about him, and about what his conviction means for our understanding of why abuse happens and why it has so often been missed, ignored or minimized. 

This apparently genial, ebullient man, who has described himself as “a big kid,” also has a very dark and repugnant streak.  He not only molested many women and girls (and more are coming forward all the time) but his could slip into aggression at the slightest hint of criticism, correction or rejection. Even in the courtroom his demeanour changed. He sang and joked and laughed his way through his reminiscences about his rise to stardom but afterwards he became persistently aggressive when cross-examined by the barrister, to the extent of being rebuked by the judge.

He seems to be a man much conflicted – on the one hand expressing no remorse during his trial and showing no emotion when sentenced; on the other, writing a letter expressing deep regret and considerable self-loathing to the father of one of his victims.

I know nothing of his pre-fame history, of his upbringing, his childhood experiences, but I can see that the facts “on paper” bear very strong hints of a person who was himself traumatised and has suffered the consequent inability to deal with life in a mature and responsible way.

In a July 3 article in The Guardian Simon Hattenstone had this to say:

I have never felt so strongly the presence of two contrasting characters as when I interviewed Harris. For much of the interview he performed, just as he did in court – he sang, he laughed in that exaggerated way, he whispered in that exaggerated way, he drew me a miniature flick cartoon book. Then, when he wasn't performing, he was miserable as sin.

Harris himself has said, “I don't mind how they [people] see me as long as they see me”. This is telling: a man who must, whatever the consequences, be seen. His sexually abusive behaviour, which he could not at all afford to be seen, and his manic extroversion appear to be different manifestations of a wider personality disorder.

I think that this interior torture is one of the things that Harris’ “it” is. It is present in many abusers.  I confess that despite his crimes and his cruelty, I feel compassion, or at least some human recognition of his frailty.

But there is another thing that this trial brings home to me even more strongly.

I very much doubt if there are many woman alive (or dead for that matter) who have not been subjected to the kinds of assaults for which Harris has been tried and convicted. I most certainly do not know a woman who has not been raped, groped, or touched or kissed inappropriately by a man, known or unknown to her. Let me be clear – I am not saying that every man is an offender, but I am saying that virtually every woman is a victim of such offences.

In the past, most women have felt as vulnerable, betrayed and confused as Harris’ victims say they were. Mostly they have not known what to do. Either shame or confusion paralyses them. Some question whether what is happening is really happening. In my own case I started experiencing sexual assaults at the age of eight, and yet when at the age of 29 I was groped by an Oxford don during a tutorial I still did not know what to do or say. Like many women, I felt threatened and sullied and deeply confused and even though I was a good scholar and a passionate and articulate advocate for a number of causes, the shock of the assault robbed me of words and I laughed it off. When I finally recovered from the shock and spoke of it to a mentor I was told “Don’t make a fuss – we all know he has wandering hands and that he is just a dirty old man but he has the power to destroy your career with a click of his fingers. Just don’t wear dresses to his tutorials and try to keep some physical distance between you”.

In other words, like many women before and since, I was made to feel that it was somehow my fault and that the offender wasn’t that bad. “Wandering hands” implies that he is not responsible – that his hands are autonomous and they go wandering off all on their own. “Just a dirty old man” is a double edged sword. It is both trivialises the offence and the offender but it also reinforces that feeling the victim has already that she too is somehow dirty and complicit.

So now I think I can see what “it” is in the canvas painted by Rolf Harris’ coming to justice. On the one hand, it is that I feel compassion for this pathetic old man lost and betrayed by his little boy need to be seen and the compulsions he kept hidden, who has been stripped, by his own actions, of all the admiration and honours that he needed and so assiduously pursued for sixty years, who will spend the next few years of his rapidly shortening life alone in a prison cell. On the other hand, it is another sign we may be reaching a time when girls and women have a clear and available remedy for when they are sexually assaulted. His conviction is one more signal to women that they do not have to endure and laugh off sexual assault, that their complaints will no longer be dismissed as overly imaginative or overly prissy. It is an even clearer signal to men that sexual assault will no longer be winked and nodded at, and passed off as “wandering hands” or “boys being boys”.

In the end what “it” is, is not about Rolf Harris. It is about society at last recognising that sexual assault on women and girls, is a crime, and will be treated as such whether you are a celebrity, an Oxford don, a bus driver or the man next door.