Yesterday I reviewed the novel 13:24: A Story of Faith and Obsession and shortly after my article was posted I was contacted by the author Dolon Hickmon. He agreed to answer a few questions about symbolism and other aspects in his book.
Dolon is a survivor of religiously motivated abuse in the name of discipline and this is why the descriptions of abuse and PTSD ring so true in the novel. He has escaped from Christianity and currently lives in Florida with his wife and 2½ year old daughter.
At this time of this writing, 13:24 is ranked at #47 of the best sellers in the category “Child Abuse”.
JU: In my review, I brought up some of the Biblical and mythological references I spotted, would you like to elaborate on any, or are there others I missed that are important to understanding the book or the characters?
MDH: I really enjoyed reading your review. As you noted, many of the story elements function both literally and symbolically.
On the most obvious level, it’s the story of a rock singer, a teenaged murderer and a smarmy televangelist. Beneath that, the plotline loosely follows the tale of King Solomon and his rebellious son, Rehoboam. In 13:24, the so-called Christian parenting expert and televangelist, Allen, represents the Biblical figure of King Solomon, who while described as ‘wise’ and recognized as a sort of spiritual celebrity, was also famously cruel, legal minded, sexually perverse, spiritually wayward, and known for abusing his subordinates and his legal authority. Solomon’s rebellious son is portrayed in the novel by Josh, who is the lead singer of a demonic heavy metal band, named for the Biblical figure he represents.
On the other central storyline, I like to think of the vengeful teenaged serial murderer, Chris, as following a mythical trajectory that is reminiscent of David and Goliath—except that in my mind, Chris is not David, he is the pebble: guided by fate but also spent in the process. Lesser symbols are littered through-out: you mentioned the kiln that the kidnappers used as a holding cell, which obviously represents the Old Testament sacrificial oven; however, the unfinished statues inside of the kiln are also symbolic—they are figures of the South American aboriginal god Tlaloc, who demanded child sacrifice. The name of the factory, Allcot Industries, is an anagram of Tlaloc.
Similarly, the isolated desert hotel where the pornographers conduct their trade is named ‘The Saturn’; this is rationalized by the location’s clear night sky and the presence of a space-themed mural on the side of the building, but Saturn is also the name of the Roman god, who devours his children. As another reviewer said, “Nothing in this book is coincidental.”
JU: I thought the child pornography connection took away from the impact of the extreme, religiously motivated discipline/abuse. Why did you feel it was important to include the issue of sexually motivated spanking on top of what is usually associated with certain groups of Fundamentalist Christians?
MDH: First, let me say that the premise of criminals trading videos of children being whipped was not one of my inventions; that entire plot was lifted from a news story that I read while in the early stages of formulating the novel, and I have found a considerable number of similar real-life cases since.
The immediate appeal was that it gave a sound framework to tell a series of stories involving different family prototypes and different kinds of victims; but it also fulfilled my need to have some extremely unsavory bad guys for Chris to take his revenge on. In the sense that nobody yet has said they felt sorry for Chris’s victims, this was probably one of the book’s most universally successful elements. But I still would not have taken that direction if I didn’t think that it added something to the book on a philosophical level.
Something that influenced me long before I started writing 13:24 was George Bernard Shaw’s 1914 Treatise on Children and Parents. In a section called The Whip, he wrote about the practice of whipping children for disobedience: ‘Wholesome people would not argue about the taste of such nastinesses: they would spit them out; but we are tainted with flagellomania from our childhood […] Other methods and other punishments were always available: the choice of this one betrayed the sensual impulse which makes the practice an abomination.’
To me this was an eye-opening accusation, because the ‘sensual impulse’ that Shaw dared to put in words involves much more than the sexual kinks of sadism and masochism; it covers all of the unspeakable emotional needs that can be gratified by humiliating and dominating a helpless human being.
I have never thought that my abuser was sexually gratified by beating kids, but when I look back it seems obvious that he was enslaved by a need to feel irresistibly powerful and in control. He had to dominate us completely. And even though his abuse was destroying his children, ruining his marriage, threatening his finances and his standing in the community, he could not subdue his craving to indulge. I saw him repeatedly try and fail to swear off using the strap. And there was no help for his addiction in the church, because there was no recognition that there was any intrinsic reward to be had from whaling on one’s kids.
JU: Josh and Chris suffer similar abuse, but Josh’s father couches his behaviour in the language of the church. Do you think that the abuser’s motive matters to the victim?
MDH: Even the mildest physical punishment can be damaging if it is accompanied by a tone of anger and rejection, or by insults or other derogatory conduct. However, when it comes to physical abuse—which degrades, inflicts terror or causes physical injury—the abuser’s motives and explanations probably have very little mitigating effect.
Ultimately, the question that pastors need to ask is not whether an adult of average intelligence and maturity can understand their instructions on how to whip a kid without abusing him, but whether an average five- to nine year old could figure out what it means to be physically abused from what he has overheard at church. Sadly, what victims of religiously motivated physical abuse have consistently said is that because of their church’s teachings, they believed that the abuse they were enduring was normal discipline.
Thanks very much Dolon. I’m really looking forward to reading your next book.