A Little Clair-ity: The (Un)tainted Love of Gilbert O’Sullivan and Clair Mills

Here’s something new, and a refreshing change of pace.  Although I don’t ordinarily dip into music (other than the visual aspects of it such as album covers, music videos, etc.), in this case I will make an exception.  There may be other examples in the future too, since music is an art form, though I am a little out of my element.

Anyway, I would like to draw attention to a song that perfectly illustrates the seemingly gargantuan disconnect between artists and the culturally unengaged when it comes to issues involving children, sex and love.  In late 1972 pop musician Gilbert O’Sullivan released a winning ode to a girl he greatly adored, Clair Mills.  This was nothing new—love songs are a staple of pop music and have been since its origin.  What made this song different is that Clair was a preschooler O’Sullivan sometimes babysat—the daughter of his manager, in fact.

Okay, so it’s a sweet song about a little girl.  So what, right?  Well, when you consider some of the lyrics in the light of today’s pedo paranoia, the situation becomes a little more complicated.  Lines like “I don’t care what people say, to me you’re more than a child” and “But why in spite of our age difference do I cry; each time I leave you I feel I could die” the meaning changes from a simple display of affection and admiration for a child’s innocence (a theme so clichéd in music of the late ’60s and much of the ’70s that even true believers began to find it cloying, and rightfully so) to something a little deeper and seemingly more romantic.  It would appear, then, that this song is what it sounds like: a romantic love song for a 4-year-old.  But what exactly is romantic love?  Is sex a necessary component of it, and if so, is it possible that a romantic attraction to a child must be tainted and uncouth by design?  I wonder.

In my estimation we have far oversimplified these issues in modern times, accepting as a given that there can be no healthy “romantic” (a loaded word) relationship between adults and children.  Now, before I go on, let me offer a little, er . . . clarity here: the immediate impression of many to such a statement is that to even consider the possibility that it is anything less than entirely loathsome for adults to be ‘in love’ with children—especially those that aren’t their own—marks you out as a vile and detestable defender and/or practitioner of kiddie rape.  There is no middle ground for a lot of people, and therefore no quarter shall be given to anyone broaching such ideas.

It should be apparent to any thoughtful person that this simplistic black-and-white view of a very complex and deeply misunderstood issue is more than a little problematic.  In any other context such thinking would be immediately and correctly aligned with a totalitarian worldview.  The Nazis, the Fascists and the Stalinists could only have stood in awe of the degree to which Western society has come to embrace the absolutist stance towards this matter that has taken root here amongst a mind-boggling array of political and social factions, bookended though it may be by the false/extremist feminists and the hardline religious types.

Photographer/Designer Unknown - Gilbert O'Sullivan - Clair (cover) (1972)

Photographer/Designer Unknown – Gilbert O’Sullivan – Clair (cover) (1972)

All of that being said, is it to be assumed that O’Sullivan’s ode to a beloved child is an open and blatant admission of a pedophilic attraction to a small girl, and if so, how did it fail to make waves when it was released?  After all, adult-child sexual encounters were still largely condemned by most of society even in the free-wheeling 1970s.  Does this mean that everyone in that decade was so hopped up an drugs that they barely noticed the sexual connotations in the song, which, to add insult to injury, had the unmitigated indecency to become a #1 hit in much of the English-speaking First World?  If all of that isn’t shocking enough, there was even a proto-music video made at the time that depicts “Uncle Ray” and little Clair frolicking together en plein air, with the little girl wearing a pedo-fetish dress if ever there was one that unavoidably flaunts her tiny panty-clad behind for O’Sullivan and all of his perverted ilk to gawk at.  And my God!  O’Sullivan joyously fondles that same behind right on camera!  Why hasn’t his head been served on a platter and delivered to Oprah yet?!

Unfortunately, there are people out there on which the facetious nature of the above paragraph will be entirely lost.  A lot of them.  And herein lies the problem.  A thoughtful, even-headed person will soon realize that this song “Clair” uses the language of romance in a transcendent way to underscore a relationship that young Clair herself has framed in her own mind, innocently or not (your definitions of the word ‘innocent’ may vary, faithful readers), as romantic (“Will you marry me, Uncle Ray?”)  I have myself been the recipient of just such a request by a girl of around the same age.  In that case I am certain it was very innocent.  But that’s neither here nor there.  Back to Gilbert and Clair.

How do we know that Mr. O’Sullivan wasn’t a creep who really did take advantage of this little girl?  We can start by reading Clair’s own words in response to a slew of insults and attacks that appeared at YouTube underneath the above video.  The poster of the video corresponded with the now middle-aged subject of the song, pointing out the horrendous libelous attacks on O’Sullivan’s character, to which he received the following reply:

Sorry you have to read the awful posts about the song Clair..
I was a toddler !!!!!! Please feel free to tell them that from me.
He is also a very kind and lovely man who I adore still to this day and I would ask them kindly to refrain and respect our wishes.

And there you have it, folks.  It is the statements of these outraged citizens who have been the most hurtful to Mills, not the innocent and well-meaning O’Sullivan.  And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with much of society with regard to this issue.  In their effort to stand squarely and unquestionably in the corner of justice, they have been too blinded by their own emotionalism and moral indignation to see the real complexities twined beneath the seemingly straight-edged surface of these things, and they often wind up doing more harm than good in the process, which is the inevitable result of taking any moral position, regardless of what it is, too far.  That’s why they can listen to a song that cleverly one-upped the teen love ballads of the era with a charming, audacious and somewhat tongue-in-cheek romantic ode to a preschooler and hear only a tribute to the object of a child molester (or at best an encouragement to child molesters), or why they can look upon photos of naked children by Jock Sturges or Sally Mann and see only sinister motives behind the photos.

But I can’t help coming back to this question: who are really the ones obsessed with child sex?  Is it people like Sturges or O’Sullivan?  Obviously not.  I have a few quotes that I read from time to time, to keep things in perspective.  Here are two that really apply:

All seems infected to th’ infected spy,
As all looks yellow to the jaundic’d eye. – Alexander Pope, Essay on Criticism

 

Every political good carried to the extreme must be productive of evil. – Mary Wollstonecraft

 

Photographer Unknown - Gilbert O'Sullivan and Clair Mills, The Australian Women's Weekly (June 6, 1973)

Photographer Unknown – Gilbert O’Sullivan and Clair Mills, The Australian Women’s Weekly (June 6, 1973)

Editor’s Note: I was quite moved by the O’Sullivan-Mills relationship and though such relationships are reasonably common, we are fortunate in this case to know about it because of one of the participants being an artist and expressing himself through song. However, I feel it important that those who have not personally experienced this kind of relationship get a firmer understanding of what is happening and a conventional Freudian interpretation is highly misleading and overly simplistic. These relationships can be complex and deeply emotional and no patent and lazy platitude is going to shed real light on it. It should never be naively assumed that because Mills was 4 years old at the beginning of this relationship, that she was simply a passive or subordinate participant. This is a real relationship involving two people and each contributes and benefits differently.

Before going on, I should say something about the nature of genuinely abusive relationships. Almost without exception, these situations involve desperate people that, because of their life circumstances, are not capable of engaging in and appreciating more sophisticated relationships. In the case of O’Sullivan and Mills, we are dealing with people with some leisure, who can enjoy the pleasures of life and have the ability to express compassion.

From an evolutionary standpoint, the cuteness and behavior patterns of children and babies motivate adults to treat them with tenderness and affection. I am reminded of an uncle who told me that he never dreamed he would be such a devoted father until after the birth of his two daughters. A man’s bond to his family is complex because, unlike a woman who literally experiences a series of hormonal switches upon pregnancy, birth, and suckling that help establish her attachment with her child, a man’s bond is emotionally triggered by his psychological involvement in the family. Therefore, it is possible for a man who does not have his own family to become attached to another–perhaps that of a sibling or close friend. This, I believe, was the allure from O’Sullivan’s point of view, and with sufficient affection and attention on the part of Mills, that relationship would have strengthened and evolved over time. Of course, as an adult O’Sullivan was capable of expressing a more adult notion of love through songwriting. This could be confusion over the intensity of his paternal-friendship love, but most likely it is a reflection of the difficulty in communicating this level of emotion to a general audience.

The young Mills would have had a lot of appealing qualities that she would not be conscious of which would facilitate a special bond, and that, simply put, is interpersonal chemistry. Even one who is generally good with children would likely have a special bond with a particular favorite and with whom there is a strong reciprocity. The most obvious benefit to the child is that she gets additional attention which certainly promotes healthy development–being held, consoled, fawned over, etc. More subtly, the girl gets a lot of feedback about her value, character and emotional needs which she subconsciously uses to judge the quality of relationships later in life.

Those fortunate enough to be involved in these kinds of relationships experience intense emotional attachment and perhaps the best word to describe it is romantic. But whatever word is used, it is a genuine form of mutual love devoid of inappropriate sexual connotations. -Ron

Wikipedia: Clair (song)

Wikipedia: Gilbert O’Sullivan

27 thoughts on “A Little Clair-ity: The (Un)tainted Love of Gilbert O’Sullivan and Clair Mills

  1. As a person molested as a child as well as the aunt and great-aunt of many young children, I feel that I have a bit more of a grasp on the pedophilia than perhaps some who commented before (although not necessarily all). The song is, while some might say, poorly worded, I believe it is a simple song about an adult and a child. My niece “J” was quite clever and seemed older than her age, she understood and empathized with the ability of an adult. I believe that sort of personality gave rise to the “more than a child” line. I believe we have all wanted to marry someone older, such as a favorite actor, thus the lines regarding Clair wanting to marry her Uncle Ray.

    During the 70’s and 80’s many innocent people were accused of child sexual abuse — the McMartin case being one of the first — with people seeing what they secretly feared in innocent comments from children. The McMartins were tried and convicted without real evidence — were basically railroaded — and they were not the only ones. By the time they were finally cleared, their lives were ruined!

    Pretty Baby was blasted for Brooke Shields’ nude scene and I feel rightly so. No matter how accurate a portrait of life in a bordello in the 1800’s it may have been, it could have been insinuated rather than shown. This I believed was fuel to a fire.

    What I am trying to say is that pedophilia was, in fact, not only known in the 70’s and 80’s but some people saw it wherever they looked.

    What I am trying to say is, if you never experienced an actual assault, your understanding of the situation is, in my opinion, well-intentioned but uninformed. You cannot see into a writer’s mind and your suppositions are potentially libelous (I also work in the legal field and help survivors when I can). Be upset about child exploitation in entertainment like Pretty Baby but don’t see it everywhere, it could cause more damage than help.

    • Interesting take on this, thank you for commenting. Of course, if you read fully through the article, you’ll see that I agree with you! At least with regard to the matter of whether the song “Clair” is or is not about pedophilia (it isn’t). I do, however, wish to emphasize—if it isn’t already clear—that my position on child nudity in the arts is rather the opposite of yours. I will say that Pretty Baby is a problematic film, but nevertheless it is a product of its time, an experiment with an idea that didn’t fully work, in my opinion, but is nevertheless fascinating for what it is. I don’t think there’s enough information to conclude that Louis Malle intended to exploit Brooke Shields. As I said, it was a very different zeitgeist when this movie was made, and Shields has been on record making opposing claims about whether she felt “dirty” about the experience. Malle made sure to have policemen present on set during the filming of those scenes even, for the sake of credibility, and I don’t automatically dismiss child nudity as exploitative, even in a film about prostitution and child marriage. If anything, I think we go too far in the opposite direction these days, and that our modern paranoic and puritanical take on this issue will eventually pass.

      Which leads me to another criticism of your reply: you seem to assume that I have never been sexually abused. I don’t believe I have ever officially made a statement one way or the other about this. And I won’t, for precisely the reason I intend to critique your argument: it is, in effect, a fallacy of origins argument in which you dismiss the opinion of anyone who does not share your particular history. This argument is a common one (e.g. “You have no right to comment on parenting until you become a parent”, or “You have no right to say anything about abortion until you’ve gotten one”, and so on and so forth). It is quite easy to flip this argument on its head and use it against you (e.g. “You have no right to comment on rape because you’re not a rapist!”), which should indicate to you precisely why these sorts of arguments are fallacious.

      Bottom line: with all due respect to you and other abuse survivors, whether or not someone has been sexually abused as a child should have no bearing on their opinion concerning the validity of child nudity or even pedophilic themes in the arts. Nor does it inherently impact one’s understanding of these issues, including abuse survivors. For example, I’ve read criticisms by survivors that O’Sullivan’s song is indeed about pedophilia. They were mistaken, and the fact of their history of abuse clearly did not provide them with any particular insight into the song.

      Furthermore, because you are assuming that my critique of the song assigns pedophilic intent to O’Sullivan when in fact I go out of my way to dismiss that very argument, you are additionally conducting a straw man attack here. Of course I cannot know precisely what O’Sullivan was thinking when he wrote this song, and nowhere do I make the claim that I do. This is all based on assumption derived from clues given in the song itself, but that is exactly what many media critics do everyday when they examine a work such as a film or album or whatever it is: try to understand the motives of the creator(s). There is a long and cherished tradition of this in the fields of art and media criticism. I’m not engaging in anything even remotely groundbreaking in doing so.

      Thank you once again for the comment.

    • This commentator seems to conflate “paedophilia” (a sexual orientation) with “child molesting” (an imposed sexual act). This is like conflating heterosexuality with sexual harrassment or assault against women, or Islam with Talibanism or ISIS. Having experienced the latter does not give someone a better understanding of the former.
      To me, whether the love of Gilbert O’Sullivan for Clair Mills was erotic (thus “paedophilic”) or simply of the parental style (thus non-sexual), is irrelevant. It was an affectionate and respectful love, which made the little girl happy. Whatever makes two people happy without harming anyone is good.

  2. Yes, the 70’s were all about pedophilia. I lived it, I know, in fact, child porn was not outlawed until the US Supreme Court ruled in 1981 that close exhibition of child genitals was considered lwed.
    Now that doesn’t mean that there were hard core porn movies, but I myself personally saw SEVERAL movies in movie theaters where 5 -10 year old girls were totally naked with very exposed labia in presenting postures.

    Films like Little Baby and Blue Lagoon were the ending of it all when Brooke Shields mother freaked out finally.

    • Yes, it was much less restricted with respect to child nudity and even child sexuality to some extent, but to characterize the 70s as being “all about pedophilia” is absurd. Just because YOU sought out these soft-core child porn films, it doesn’t mean everyone was doing it, or that most people were cool with that. Certainly there was a prevailing attitude of ‘live and let live’ in the 70s, but most people still thought sex with kids was wrong.

    • Bill, are you sure that you are remembering correctly?
      I lived through that decade also.
      Just WHICH movies are you referring to, beside Pretty Baby (the correct title) and Blue Lagoon?

    • After re-reading Bill’s comment, I feel that there is something I must add here about appreciation of children:
      LOOK, don’t TOUCH!

  3. I find anything is tainted these days because of the shift in society that makes everyone believe that they have a right to be offended. I see nothing wrong with this moving and innocent relationship during a time when people felt free to express genuine feelings and truth. Nowadays we are expected to talk and behave like Stepford wives in line with what’s deemed acceptable. The age of individuality and personality has sadly demised along with common sense and decency.

  4. The reason this song was able to reach #1 status back in 1972, was because pedophilia was something the public was aware of in general, but victims were not allowed to speak up, nor were they given credibility back then. Those were the days where one didn’t speak about “such things”. These were the days before Sally Jesse Raphael and Oprah began to air private families’ and individuals’ dirty laundry and come forward with their private hell and tales of abuse behind closed doors. This video was made to appeal to pedophiles, whether Clair Mills wants to admit it or not. BTW, she has benefitted greatly by being born into the industry, so she’s not unbiased.

    • So, a supposedly pro-pedophilia song reached #1 status (meaning it was THE most popular song at the time) because sex abuse victims were silenced? Your argument would imply that not only was the issue not discussed in a negative light, but that a significant percentage of the population was basically okay with the idea of a grown man being sexually attracted to a four-year-old girl and the notion that he might abuse her was essentially not that important to them. You’ll excuse me if I find that hard to believe. I think it far more likely that, as my article suggests, a majority of public at that time were not subject to the extreme moral panic we are subject to today and saw the matter in a more nuanced light than we currently do. My hunch is that this moral panic, although powerful, will eventually pass and we will return to some level of sanity, where people will again be able to differentiate between the sort of innocent flirtations some adults can express towards children and actual abusive relationships with them.

    • This song reached the top of the charts because at that time one could still enjoy the beauty of tender love feelings between an adult and a child, as one could at the time of Lewis Carroll. This has now become almost impossible in the present bigoted and pornographic climate, which does not distinguish between love, obscenity and violence.
      Also in the free-speaking seventies, victims of any type of abuse, whether sexual or other, could always speak up; but without the Internet, it was difficult reaching a large public. As suggest Ofshe and Watters in their book Making Monsters (about the so-called “recovered memories”), the claim that previously one neglected child sexual abuse is an invention of psychotherapists who feel guilty for having during decades dismissed reports of incest as “Oedipal fantasies”; in reality the police and judicial apparatus dealt with serious cases of abuse, but without making a media fuss.
      I don’t trust TV stars like Oprah, who propagated wild nonsense like satanic child abuse conspiracies in day-care centres.

  5. It is very unfortunate that Sullivan and Mills became opponents in a legal battle and then never spoke to each other again.
    It reminds me ironically about the “real” Gilbert and Sullivan, how they came to hate each other personally and did not speak to each other.

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