Beth B Interview

Beth B Interview
by Alexander Laurence

This interview took place around the time of the film Visiting Desire (1996)

Part one: Voices Unheard

Alexander Laurence: There are all these ideas about protecting children in society today. It's complex. It's eventually involved with the whole idea of innocence and purity and manipulation. How do you feel about it?

Beth B: It makes sense. There are adolescent sex offenders who have forcibly attacked and molested children younger than themselves. Usually the ages are eleven to eighteen. Sometimes they coerce or blackmail other kids into being involved with them sexually. It doesn't have to go to the point of intercourse. In studies that they are doing they have been asking themselves "Where do you draw the line between innocent child play and dangerous sexual play?" The studies have been showing that once a person has become an adult sexual perpetrator, where it is a recurring thing, and something like an addiction, it is almost impossible to arrest and stop that impulse, that compulsion, and the best treatment is early detection and treatment when they are young kids. When they start to do it.

AL: I was reading many books about families in the 1950s and 60s, and in the cases of Gary Gilmore's or Squeaky Fromme's families there was child abuse and sexual abuse. That seemed to go on and nobody was really questioning it.

Beth B: Right. Within the domestic home it was considered OK. Basically the police didn't have any right to go into a domestic situation. Whereas the laws have changed since then, so a domestic affair is now also considered an affair of the courts. You don't remain immune to the law just because you're in your own home. But I think things have also changed, with education in society, in terms of a victim saying "No, this is not OK!" There's educational program in schools now, where they say "If someone touches you in this way, that's not OK!" Even if it's your mother, father, brother, or sister, it's not OK. You can actually voice your disturbance to somebody about it. That's why there's suddenly this proliferation of adolescent sex offenders, because the victims, little kids, are actually coming out and saying this that my brother was doing this or my father was doing this.

AL: What's the legal definition of molestation? Is it when somebody's touches the genitals?

Beth B: I don't know the exact legal definition, but they take a lot of different things into consideration. If it's coercive, if it's against the will of the other person, even if they just start fondling, the breast or whatever. Even if the father just exposes himself. If the child doesn't want that or if they feel that they are being coerced into a situation, then that's when you start to question whether it's voluntary or not. But who is a child to say what their judgment of the situation is. That's what happens in a lot of those cases, is that the parent has so much authority, that they say "It's OK" and a child takes it as being normal. Daddy says it's OK. Do you know what I mean? It's a vague area.

AL: I think that I saw both my parents naked when I was a child.

Beth B: But it's different if he's masturbating. (laughter) So I think it has to do with another person's sexual pleasure, if they are exploiting the other person, and if there is a re-occurring type of thing. That was one of the main questions that I was asking some of these people when I started interviewing them. Because I started to think about my own childhood and messing around in the basement with the neighborhood kids. There is innocent exploration.

AL: Can you elaborate on this whole idea of "childhood innocence?"

Beth B: I think that innocence is like "Show me yours, I'll show you mine." Let's play doctor. Childhood curiosity as to what the opposite sex looks like, rather than about masturbation and penetration. Or abuse. Another indication is the age difference between the two kids. I have all these questions about this issue, and why there seems to be this proliferation of adolescent sex offenders. That's why I am doing this documentary which is called "Voices Unheard." I going to go to this small town, Fort Wayne, Indiana, where this occurrence happened: this man who was an adult sex offender and had been in and out of prison, was in treatment, but he was never treated when he was a kid. He was terribly abused in the family. He set up an appointment with his probation officer and his counselor one day, and brought a shotgun, and blew them away. Then, he turned the gun on himself and killed himself. So how do you prevent a person from getting to that stage?

AL: Can you describe some of these new techniques for preventing this sort of behavior?

Beth B: The kid gets arrested for doing something, an abusive situation. They go to the family and try to find out how where did this child learned this behavior. Was the father or the mother abusing the kid? They've found that a great number, about 80%, have been abused in their own homes. They've learned this behavior from the parents and it becomes a cycle of abuse. The point is to arrest that behavior in the young kid so it doesn't perpetuate itself in the next generation. It's preventative. In our society, we don't think about prevention. You only go to the doctor when you dying. There is an array of preventative measures to take for all sorts of behavior, but our society doesn't function in that way. It's all based on the economy. What makes money.

AL: Are you interested in older men who are convicted child molesters?

Beth B: I'm interviewing a number of those as well to try to understand what they feel would have been helpful for them, in early parts of their lives.

AL: What do you think about the current situation where you have a convicted child molester, and he's let out of jail, and he moves to a town where they don't want him? Then you have a bunch of mothers protesting the fact that this potential danger lives on their block.

Beth B: It's terrible. If they do that, they should do it with all kinds of criminals. If a convicted robber moves into your neighborhood, you might want to identify him because he may rob your home. I really have big problems with that. I feel that if someone has served their time, and has paid what our society says is their debt--I have big questions what that means and this whole prison system--but I think that people should have the opportunity to change their lives. They are already so stigmatized by having been in prison, to then, to put on top of that "Sex offender," no way they're going to get anywhere.

AL: Do you think that mothers are really acting in the best interest of all children? 60, 000 children were killed in Iraq during the war, but I didn't see any of those same mothers protesting the war. I would call that a severe act of child abuse. Then there are laws that are passed that affect millions of children, but they seem to be apolitical and not too complex. Their protests don't make sense. They should be a little more consistent if they really care about the welfare of children.

Beth B: Exactly. It has to do with how the average American thinks: if it's happening over there, in another country, Vietnam, Iraq, Iran, we can watch it comfortably from our living room. There is comfort and safety in watching TV. When it gets close to home, and someone moves to our community, and the threat is a block away, suddenly people are up in arms. That's what disturbs me the most about the apathy within this country. There's no way to really have a world view because there's such a strong sense of apathy. It's only when it becomes personal that they react. People see acts of violence as these anomalies. It's not connected. It has nothing to do with society, the family, or things going on in our culture. They are not looking for causes. They want to pretend that it is one isolated incident that has nothing to do with themselves. That's why we have an emphasis on good and evil, and it's pervasive in the media as well. People are always being labeled as "Satanic." Timothy McVeigh is supposed to be evil and satanic. No, he's not Satan. He's just an extension of our culture.

AL: Some people think McVeigh is a hero. That's the other thing that is weird about people: many of them think that it's a better thing to be molested and murdered, than to be just molested and forced to live with the trauma. Like with Polly Klaus, at least the guy killed her so she didn't have to go through life having had all these things done to her.

Beth B: You mean better to be killed than tortured for the rest of your life? In our culture, we ignore the fact that victims of horrific events can recover from that. Often victims of sexual abuse in the past have been told "Don't tell anyone." I think that there is something amazingly therapeutic about being able to voice what has happened to you, to exorcise the trauma and get it out of the body, and to acknowledge it as part of your life experience. I think that can end up being a very positive thing for a person. Rapes, child abuse, spousal abuse, people always try to keep those things hidden and shut down. There are a lot of good reasons that it is kept hidden, but at a certain point you can die inside by shutting off those feelings. The disturbances that happen during a certain part of your life will kill off all sorts of other emotions and potentials for relationships. Certain things that have happened in my life created a guarded reaction in many situations until I started to deal with what had happened. Then I could go "That had happened in the past, I don't need to guard myself all the time against all these other things." You need to talk about things that are disturbing. That's what all my work is about, voicing the disturbance behind the door.

Part Two: The Beginnings of B

AL: How did you begin as an artist and filmmaker?

Beth B: I went to the Chicago Art Institute when I was a child. They have a children's program there. I did this from age eight to twelve. I thought that I was always going to be an artist, most definitely. I had no doubts in my mind. That's what I had always wanted to do.

AL: Was that the influence of your mother, Ida Applebroog, who is also an artist?

Beth B: It was because of her but it was also something that I loved to do. It was this solitary place that I could go to and use my imagination and be completely uncensored. That's what I really liked about it. Especially when you're a kid, you're being censored and being told what to do. In terms of the creative process, there was nobody telling me what I could or couldn't do. Then I went to a university where I studied art, but getting out of art school during the late 1970s, there was this great explosion of music, film, and art. It was such an incredible time. I soon realized that it wasn't important what medium I worked in. What was more important was getting it out to an audience and the ideas that I wanted to express. The medium was, in a sense, secondary. So I did some magazine stuff, some street art, and I picked up a camera and started to shoot film because all of this felt more accessible than art. I have never liked the preciousness of art. The idea that you make it, it goes into a gallery or museum, it's collected and whatever. That reaches just a select audience. I sort of changed my view somewhat these days, but it's because I still do public arts projects, as well as doing film and art.

AL: Were you trying to break down the elitism of rarefied art forms?

Beth B: Yeah. For me it was much more exciting to do things on the streets and know that anyone could see it. Or you go in a movie theater, Joe Shmoe could come in off the street and buy a ticket to see the movie. The first films that I was making were being shown in rock & roll clubs, which was a very different audience than this very safe, precious, sterile audience that flocked to the art galleries.

AL: Did it ever matter that you were a woman doing art? Did that affect you or the audience?

Beth B: No. What is interesting is that factored into things later when I got older rather than in the beginning. (laughs) I guess that earlier in my life that I always ignored the fact that I was a woman. I was like "I can do anything!" I had this rebellious attitude. I almost took it as a challenge. If it was something that was generally thought to be confined to a male domain, I would take that as a challenge, to be able to do it myself. I never went into the negative place where I thought "I can never do this because I'm a woman" or "I'm not getting this because I'm a woman." In my later years now, I do think that there have been clear situations where things have not happened because I am a woman. If you look at the economy and our society and the way things are formed and shaped, we are still in a male dominated society. If you look at the art market, men still get a much higher price for their work than women. The number of women who are showing their work in museums is miniscule. How many men are there compared to women making movies? I know this stuff, but I don't let it restrict me in any way. But it's an awareness that I think is important for me to have today. But you can't take it personally, and you can't make excuses, and say "It was because I was a woman!" That's not the direction I want to go and I don't want that to control my ambitions in life.

AL: That's more about the economics and the business side of things rather than the creative act. I remember reading that people used to tell Djuna Barnes: "You're an important woman writer." And she would say "I'm an important writer." She didn't want to be compared to her women contemporaries but just her contemporaries, mostly men, like Joyce or Eliot, she wanted to see her work compared to.

Beth B: Exactly. That's disconcerting. People never say: "Oh, you're an important male artist!" (laughter)

AL: Will we ever get to a point where the scales are tipped, and where they start to influence that economical side? When we can forget that Jasper Johns, Jackson Pollack, and DeKooning get all the high prices?

Beth B: I hate to say it but I don't think that it will ever entirely shift. If anything in society, I think that there's been a backlash. There was a women's movement that occurred, then there was a backlash against that, and things got really conservative. AIDS came and the mentality was everyone was being punished for all that free love and sex and drugs. I think that in a way we have taken a lot of steps backwards. There's a re-evaluative process going on. Things are in a very confused state because women, ten years ago, became very possessed by their careers, and put the family second. Now there are a bunch of women my age who are realizing "Oh shit, I better have my kid. Because I'm forty-years-old, and if I don't have it now, I never will." There's another cycle of confusion just ahead of us for women who didn't have kids when they were in their twenties. All these women with careers are finding that they want to have kids too, and are dropping out of the work force and having families at the age of forty. But what happens to these women when the kids are grown and they've put their careers on hold. How do they re-enter the work force? Will they be able to? I think that women have done a tremendous amount of work on their relationships with men and the power structure. I don't think that men have done a hell of a lot of work to deal with this big change. I think that it is important to recognize that there has been an avalanche of changes that have taken place in the workplace, in the sex place, the family place, in regards to male and female roles, and the power and control that exists in that. It's up to men to look at that reality and to work on trying to co-exist in that kind of relationship. There are plenty of men who talk the talk, but they get into a relationship with a strong woman, and all they want to do is conquer the woman. (laughter) They haven't really evolved at the same pace as women, in a sense. It could be an incredibly rich relationship between men and women. At least for me, in my own life, I have been able to find that with my husband. We have a very equal and supportive relationship. He has his career. I have my career. We don't live together. But we share a very close and loving and nurturing relationship, and I've never had a relationship like this where it's so positive and supportive. It's not about conquering each other.

AL: You put yourself or your career first before the relationship?

Beth B: Are you asking me what I do? I have to put myself before anything in my life. I don't say that I'm putting my career first. I don't feel that I have to make a choice, Alexander. That's the whole thing. That's what is amazing: I feel that I can have both. They are equally important to me. I'm not going to sacrifice my friends, my family, or my career.

Part Three: Filmed Harassment

AL: You briefly mentioned the workplace. I think that a big issue now is the line between flirting and sexual harassment. We now see many women talking about how they were sexual harassed at some point. Do you have any comment about this? I was thinking in more terms of this grey area where teachers go out with students and where people marry other people who they work with.

Beth B: Yeah. I did that, but it's the same question with adults, if it's consensual it's one thing, but to have your boss hit on you and there's the issue of being fired hanging over your head. There's a definite problem here. I have had situations where I had worked day jobs where I had some fucking guy putting his hands all over me. It's fucking horrible. I think it is a big issue. How often do you find women with their hands all over their boss? Trying to coerce their boss or a fellow worker. It is part of power in the workplace that a man feels that he is in a powerful position and should be able to sexually play out that role as well. I think that it's pretty sad.

AL: During the 1980s you just focused on films and didn't do much of the public art or installations. Why was that?

Beth B: From 1978 to almost 1989, I pretty exclusively made films. In 1989 is when I started to do art again, and it was out of a frustration with film. I basically make experimental films, documentary films, and feature films now, but prior to 1989 I got completely focused on features and it became horribly frustrating. The content of my films is usually quite disturbing and they haven't had commercial success. It became very difficult to raise money and I spent a lot of time waiting to make a movie. So again I started to realize that the medium is not the most important thing. In a sense, I went back to my roots and started then doing public arts pieces, postering of images on the streets, and started doing installations. It was odd because it seemed to progress rapidly. I was able to get a lot of support and I was able to show my work in many types of venues. What I am doing now is juggling the two and doing art and film simultaneously. It goes with my concept of "Non-specialization." People are confused about me. They think "Well, isn't she a filmmaker?" or "What is she?" It goes back to "Do I want to be known as a woman artist?" It's not about being defined and confined; rather it's about expressing ideas. It's about getting them out in whatever form.

AL: Some of the installations included films like "Under Lock & Key" and "Amnesia," where people could sit in a booth and walk into different rooms and watch these images on the screen.

Beth B: I love to do that, combining mediums, and I love when people are able to enter into a different reality. It's like a different dimension. "Out of Sight, Out of Mind" was like that where you went through history in a sense, with this machine that you had to sit in, and be rotated around. That chair was a device that was used in mental hospitals and mental institutions in the 1800s. That's how they thought you could cure madness by spinning a person around at a hundred revolutions a minute. It would spin the evil demons out of your body. People got sick and comatose but it definitely didn't cure their illness.

AL: You were talking about covering uncomfortable subjects in film before and I think that with your movie, Two Small Bodies, that was the case. I think that the story of a woman who kills his children is a great classical story and goes back to the play Medea. But in the popular consciousness, TV culture, you have Susan Smith, and people couldn't stomach the thought of it after a while. They went back to thinking about racial and sexist issues which was thinking about something safe like OJ Simpson.

Beth B: Right. The Susan Smith thing happened three months after Two Small Bodies had been released. Now people are really into JonBenet Ramsey which is like a fetish, or a child as a sexual object. That is more interesting because it feeds off of repressed fantasies which all people have. Whereas the whole concept of a mother killing her children is a horror that no one wants to deal with at all. It's really going against the image of the mother as a madonna and family values. Everything about the family is confronted and destroyed if you embrace that idea. It really scares the shit out of people because it taps into the reality that there comes a time most mothers' lives where at some point they have thought about killing a child. Women, as well as men, do not want to acknowledge that. It relates to the burden that women have in bringing up children. It's an incredibly difficult burden placed on women, and men generally do not partake in that part of the family. If we confronted that inequity, we would move towards a place where we could have healthier communication within the family. The idea of a woman being abusive towards her children wouldn't seem as threatening, because it wouldn't happen. But we now realize that it happens more than we would like to believe.

AL: In Two Small Bodies we have this rebellious woman and this macho detective. In the beginning he's repulsed by her, but in the end he's attracted by her.

Beth B: She rebels against everything that he stands for: she leaves her husband; her children disappear, and works at a strip joint. I love that dynamic in the film. The film is hopeful and progressive in that by the end of the film, he becomes vulnerable. He starts to discuss the problems he has being a man upholding the patriarchy, representing the establishment, being a detective. There is a humanity within him that is just starved and dying to be able to break out. Through the course of the film he is given permission to do that. I think that it is a beautiful love story, but boy, is it torturous!

AL: Do you think of strong roles for women in films? It seems that when Lydia Lunch is in your films she's definitely in control and always a strong presence.

Beth B: By virtue of being a woman, of course I consider women's roles very strongly in my work. My experience as a human being is as a woman. I grew up with all the values placed upon me that all little girls have placed upon them. Who you're supposed to be, what you're supposed to do, what you're not supposed to do.... All sorts of things.

AL: You're not supposed to hang around Lydia. (laughter)

Beth B: But I always did hang out with people like that. My attraction has always been the underbelly and the rebellious characters, male and female. My attraction has always been more for the underdog in society. This new feature film that I will be directing, called Whacked, is about delinquent boys, mostly. I think that our next generation of boys is critically important for the next hundred years, and more.

AL: And young girls too....

Beth B: Yeah. For me, I have always had strong female role types in terms of cinema in my life. People like Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Barbara Stanwyck.

AL: I liked Mildred Pierce a lot.

Beth B: Yeah. Those were the films that I was immediately attracted to and it was because of the women. I think that we need more films that have characters, even when there like the ones in What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? You have this terrifying female character in it, but boy, she has a voice. She really has a strong voice, presence, and psychosis that is riveting. In Hollywood, there is a huge lack of strong roles for women today. It is usually a sexualized role. Sexuality is a strong element in my work and it needs to be dealt with responsibly or it just becomes exploitation.

July 1997