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

Gilbert O’Sullivan (Official Site) – Whatever happened to the real Clair?

Wikipedia: Clair (song)

Wikipedia: Gilbert O’Sullivan

The Little Girl Inside: Sabrina Brady

I don’t usually pay much heed to commercial artwork, especially that commissioned by megacorporations like Google, but in this case it was unavoidable. Many who use Google may have noticed that they have been displaying artistic renditions of their logo. On May 23rd, one of these really caught my eye. It was a series of drawings of a little girl running toward something and suddenly encountering a soldier, then in the last frame, they embrace.

Sabrina Brady - Coming Home (2013)

Sabrina Brady – Coming Home (2013)

My first impression was that this was a charming metaphor about growing up. It looked to me like a little girl symbolically progressing through life until she discovers romantic love–represented by a soldier indicating youthful manhood–and embraces this new development in her life. This kind of motif seemed too sophisticated for a mainstream company like Google, so I investigated.

It turns out that these artistic flights of fancy have been the results of contests and the winners got their work posted on the Google homepage. The artist in this case was Sabrina Brady, a high school student from Sparta, Wisconsin. Her work stood out among 130,000 submissions as part of the 2013 U.S. Doodle 4 Google National Contest. This year’s theme was “My Best Day Ever…”

Sabrina Brady on the Today Show (May 23, 2013)

Sabrina Brady on the Today Show (May 23, 2013)

In fact, Brady’s doodle tells the story of her reunion with her father upon his return from an 18-month deployment in Iraq. The way she drew the images still puzzled me though because she was a 12th grader but drew herself like a little girl with her father towering over her. A Today Show interview cleared up the matter as she explained how she intended to convey the excitement she felt as though she were a little girl again.

After an awards ceremony, all fifty of the State Winners exhibited their artwork at the American Museum of Natural History in New York where their doodles were on public display from May 22 to July 14.

In addition to her artwork appearing on Google, Brady receives a $30,000 college scholarship, a Chromebook computer and her school gets a $50,000 technology grant. She will soon attend Minneapolis College of Art and Design in the fall, so this is a auspicious beginning to her artistic career.

The Art of Censorship

This post is really a favor to the Artist on Trial Blog which has been vigilant in digging out the facts of the Graham Ovenden case.  He wanted his readers to view an excerpt from a documentary produced in 1997 and aired by BBC4 called For the Sake of the Children whose purpose was to show the negative impact of opposition to the nude depiction of children in the name of protecting them.  An attempt to post this video on YouTube failed because it violated their Terms of Service which prohibits depictions of nudity.  Therefore we offer it here so readers can hear the words directly from the models’ mouths.

For more details and commentary on the documentary visit the Artist on Trial Blog.

Nicky Akehurst - For the Sake of the Children (excerpt) (1997)

A 10th revision of the Ovenden case is complete.  -Ron

A Girl Hath Charms: In America

One of the things I find remarkable about little girls in literature and in real life is that so often they are able to approach and charm complete strangers, even if the stranger is feared as a monster. The classic example is the encounter of the little girl with the Frankenstein monster. Great tension is achieved in the story by making the reader or viewer believe that a precious little girl is about to be harmed. In fact, many stories have it that the girl charms the stranger and brings about his redemption in the eyes of the audience.

In America—released in 2002is remarkable in two major ways. First, it makes excellent use of the interactions of the girls Christy (Sarah Bolger) and Ariel (Emma Bolger) with the characters in their world. In fact, this is one of only two filmsthe other being The Saddle Club serieswhere I was compelled to take a look solely based on the image on the box. Secondly, it has that intangible quality you get when you see something that is someone’s labor of love. Hollywood’s cookie-cutter methods do not lend themselves to achieving this potential and it is a delight when something like this manages to reach the screen.

In America was produced by Jim Sheridan and is meant to be largely autobiographical. After an Irish couple suffer the tragic loss of their son Frankie, they immigrate to the U.S. to make a new life for themselves. Although there is some tension regarding Johnny’s (the father) inability to express grief, he does his level best to scrape out a living for himself, his wife Sarah, who is pregnant, and his two girls in the urban jungle of New York. Christy (the elder) is obsessed with her camcorder, as if not to miss one precious moment of her surviving family members. Ariel is the younger and has a disarming forthright exuberance. The girls are played by actual sisters, which helps with the interpersonal chemistry on the screen. Here they are seen entering the U.S. under the pretense of tourism.

Jim Sheridan - In American (2002) (1)

Jim Sheridan – In American (2002) (1)

Like many struggling families, a parent’s inventiveness can be remarkable. Early in the film they cannot even afford a window-mounted air conditioning unit, so Johnny rigs up a shower for the girls to cool off.

Jim Sheridan - In American (2002) (2)

Jim Sheridan – In American (2002) (2)

On Halloween, the girls trick-or-treat in the building, but given the cynical culture of that neighborhood, they cannot get anyone to answer the door and the parents listen upstairs to their girls’ progress hoping they will not be disappointed. In frustration, they pound on every door, including one that even the other neighbors stay away from, and persist even after the inhabitant yells at them to go away. They are finally rewarded by the sudden appearance of an angry-looking black man. When he looks down at the girls in their costumes, he composes himself and invites them in.

Jim Sheridan - In American (2002) (3)

Jim Sheridan – In American (2002) (3)

It turns out that Mateo (Djimon Hounsou) is an artist and has been angry because of his own terminal illness, and the girls charm and comfort him, especially Ariel, whom he picks up to look around for some treasure to give them; he settles on a jar of coins.

Jim Sheridan - In American (2002) (4)

Jim Sheridan – In American (2002) (4)

The stresses of survival and concern over the coming baby has put Johnny at the end of his rope and it affects his relationship with the girls. Ariel notices this and gets herself worked up to the point of emotional breakdown, screaming, “Where is my father! You’re not my father!” again and again. He tries to console her and calm her down by putting cold water on her face and she calms down but is clearly not convinced.

Jim Sheridan - In American (2002) (5)

Jim Sheridan – In American (2002) (5)

After the family’s introduction to Mateo, an enduring bond forms between them. Unbeknownst to the family, he decided to leave a substantial fortune to them upon his death which took care of their medical expenses, and they christened their new baby daughter Sarah Mateo. In this final scene, Johnny and the girls look up at the moon from their balcony to say goodbye to Mateo and Christy helps her dad say a proper goodbye to Frankie as well.

Jim Sheridan - In American (2002) (6)

Jim Sheridan – In American (2002) (6)

It is easy to see that Jim Sheridan put his heart into this story and it was such an intensely personal one, it made sense for him to put the focus on the girls instead of himself which was a double blessing. Not only did we get to meet the delightful Bolger sisters, but the other actors testified to their uplifting presence on the set, and they most certainly contributed to the quality of the production. The movie was dedicated to Sheridan’s own lost son and undoubtedly served in his and his family’s grieving process.

On a personal note, I noticed repeatedly Sarah Bolger’s startling screen presence. The scenes I have chosen here really don’t do her justice and are meant to illustrate important plot points, but whenever there is a scene where she looks into the camera, it is quite hypnotic.

IMDb details (here); Note: the image shown on IMDb is not the one I saw in the video store.

Country Girl (I Think You’re Pretty)

Although producing Pigtails can be hard work and a hassle, one of the things that keeps us going is the support of our fans. This post was researched and written by one of our readers named RJ who is a photographer himself and has commented on our site many times. Given that Pip and I cannot be expert on everything, it is a pleasure to have the input of guest writers to round out our content. Thank you, RJ. – Ron


When it comes to creativity, my impetus for output often borders on the nearly unexplainable (think Faulkner’s attempt at stream-of-consciousness prose in The Sound and the Fury). Often two or more disparate thoughts, experiences, ideas, etc. come together haphazardly and a sort-of “Frankenstein’s monster” is wrought (hopefully fairing better than Victor’s poor creature). Thus, it is with a pop song, two photographers and a handful of images I stand before you at the precipice and ask humbly for a liberal and lenient audience.

Recently, I have been on a Neil Young kick, with my headphones at work streaming Crazy Horse and CSN&Y, as well as a peppering of solo work interspersed. One of my favorite off-the-radar Young tunes is “Country Girl” or formally, “Country Girl (Whiskey Boot Hill/Down Down Down/Country Girl I Think You’re Pretty)” which appeared on the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young album, Déjà Vu back in 1970. It is with this very tune I had subconsciously taken lyrical liberty one evening while browsing my love-worn paperback copy of Roger Minick’s underrated photography book, Hills of Home: The Rural Ozarks (1975). What I was conscious of was Young’s brooding chorus playing softly while viewing images of the people and landscapes of rural Arkansas, and then I found my eyes fixated upon images of “regular” folks only slightly posed, if at all. This is just what I needed that evening, a reality check away from all that is over-produced and gussied-up in my world; the bare-bones world is still a very attractive place indeed! Well, one thing led to another—as so often is the case—and I soon was revisiting another photographer’s similar images, this time online, taken in rural eastern Kentucky circa 1964-65. Pure documentary overall, photographer William Gedney’s images still strikes a chord within me since I first discovered them some ten years ago. Gedney seemed to have a knack for photographing the grace, dignity and strength of people living on the edges of society, and perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in his Kentucky images, a fitting final addition to my picturesque melodic meanderings.

Artist/photographer Roger Minick was born in 1944 and has been photographing seriously for nearly fifty years. He is a teacher, painter, documentary photographer, fine art photographer, book designer and more; Minick has done it all and is still active. A multiple NEA awardee and a Guggenheim fellow to boot (the latter of which was used to assist with work published in Hills of Home), Minick thrives in setting his images to the printed page, especially the well-crafted fine-art book format. Basically a tome describing the rural Ozarks (where Minick lived as a child), Hills of Home is part photographic record fortified with writings penned via his father, Bob Minick, along with folksy accompanying illustrations by Leonard Sussman. As a whole, the book works wonderfully in creating a voluminous setting of realness in which the reader can deeply explore quietly and at leisure. Of particular interest here are Minick’s images of one family, the Stilleys, to whom the book is dedicated. A rural farm family, the Stilleys exemplify hard work while living in somewhat impoverished conditions and yet can be seen contently smiling in several images (unsolicited smiling in this author’s opinion). The two Stilley daughters, Martha and Janie (from left to right), are shown in their natural setting of work and farm animals, still beaming with youth’s freshness, especially in contrast to other images within the book’s folds of their proud parents, worn with work’s wages. A third image is included herein which beautifully highlights garb long-dismissed on what appears to be a blustery day. The three foreground figures are seen mostly in profile against a somewhat somber-looking crowd, only further accentuating the bright and curious demeanor of these young rural ladies.

Roger Minick - Three young girls at farm sale (c1975)

Roger Minick – Three young girls at farm sale (c. 1975)

Roger Minick - Martha Stilley with favorite animals (c1975)

Roger Minick – Martha Stilley with favorite animals (c. 1975)

Roger Minick - Janie Stilley (c1975)

Roger Minick – Janie Stilley (c. 1975)

Photographer William Gedney, born in 1932, was unknown to a wide audience until after his untimely death of AIDS at the age of 56. While his subject matter included photographs of rural New York, Manhattan, hippies in San Francisco, photographs taken during travels in India, England, France and Ireland among others, it was during his 1964 and 1972 trips to eastern Kentucky depicting the simple, hardscrabble existence of two families that Gedney made some of his most memorable images. It was there that Gedney met Willie Cornett (who was recently laid off from the mines) and stayed with him, his wife Vivian and their twelve children. Twenty-two of the photographs from Gedney’s visit to Kentucky were included in his one-man exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (not all featured the Cornetts). William Gedney was a National Endowment for the Arts Grant recipient, a Guggenheim Fellow and received a Fulbright Fellowship to go to India. Duke University’s Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library houses Gedney’s photographic archive as well as many writings, correspondence, sketch books, etc.

Three girls in kitchen is arguably William Gedney’s best-known image. There is a fantastic story describing how Gedney sold this image years after it was taken and split the proceeds with the Cornetts (sending $35 to Vivian Cornett) as he promised on any sale of images from their time together. Also, upon closer inspection, there is a fourth figure deep within the image (see if you can find him or her). The interplay of light, fabric, texture and patterns, the echoes of the skirts, the similar standing position of the three sisters and the bare feet; all work harmoniously and provide the viewer with so much more than just a well-documented moment of their surroundings and leisurely work. Fortunately, I live within fifty miles of the Duke University campus, and therefore visiting the William Gedney archive is high on this author’s bucket list. There is simply no replacement for seeing an artist’s oeuvre in the flesh. In the interim, I highly recommend the superb hardcover book: What Was True, the Photographs and Notebooks of William Gedney (1999).

William Gedney - Portrait of a girl (c1965)

William Gedney – Portrait of a girl (c. 1965)

William Gedney - Three girls in kitchen (1964)

William Gedney – Three girls in kitchen (1964)

William Gedney -  Two girls with dirty clothes holding hands (c1965)

William Gedney – Two girls with dirty clothes holding hands (c. 1965)

William Gedney - Older couple sitting in chairs with a young girl standing in between them holding a doll (c1965)

William Gedney – Older couple sitting in chairs
with a young girl standing in between them holding a doll (c. 1965)

William Gedney - Children by washtub; oldest girl washing her hair (c1965)

William Gedney – Children by washtub; oldest girl washing her hair (c. 1965)

Duke University Archive of Cornett Family Photographs (here)