When Chris Offutt Lost His Virginity at a ComicCon
On Growing up the Son of a Pornographer and Sci-Fi Star
My father’s early science fiction stories placed him in the new wave of young writers changing the field by exploring social concerns such as sexuality, psychology, corporate mentality, politics, and environmentalism. They focused on “soft” as opposed to “hard” science and often wrote from a more literary sensibility than their predecessors. If magazine published Dad’s story “Population Implosion.” Its inclusion in the anthology World’s Best Science Fiction led to an invitation to attend the World Science Fiction Convention of 1969.
My parents packed the Mercedes, left my siblings and me in the care of college students, and drove to St. Louis. Dad clipped on a nametag proclaiming him a “pro.” Strangers asked for his autograph. Women flirted openly, flaunting their braless bodies. None of the men wore ties, and Dad left his in the hotel room. He met other writers with long hair and beards. Surrounded by the outrageous styles of the hippies, Mom no longer worried that the wives of doctors and professors might judge her clothing.
My parents went to St. Louis with the confidence of people who are naïve to their own naïveté, and returned astonished by the experience. They had never questioned the lives they led or the motivations for their decisions; they merely followed the pattern of the time. They hated communists, loved JFK, and flew the flag on national holidays. A gigantic Douay-Rheims Bible sat on a dais in the dining room. The goal of life was making money and children.
A photograph from WorldCon 1969 shows my father in a gray pinstripe suit coat and a white turtleneck sweater. One arm is folded across his chest, the other propped before him, his empty hand posed as if holding an invisible object. His expression is unusual for its frowning discomfort, eyes staring upward as if in thought. Dad’s hair is quite short, and he is clean-shaven. My mother is facing him in a sleeveless cocktail dress, her hair in a perm that puffs around her head. Both appear awkward and ill at ease.
Less than a year later, photographed at their next SF convention in 1970, my parents have undergone a drastic change. Around their necks are silk kerchiefs loosely held by metal clasps. Both wear rock-star sunglasses. Dad has a full beard and long hair. He’s dressed in blue jeans, a thick leather belt, and a cool shirt with epaulets and flap pockets. Mom’s hair is cropped to a pixie cut. She wears a blouse, jeans, and sandals. Each has a broad smile, their bodies in open, relaxed postures. Starved for a sense of social belonging, my parents had found a community that embraced them—science fiction fandom.
The Bible vanished from the dining room, replaced by an equally large copy of Webster’s unabridged dictionary. Dad gave our property the official address of The Funny Farm, putting it on legal documents, stationery, and bank checks. Entering science fiction fandom led to the transformation of John Cleve as a pseudonym for porn to a full-fledged alter ego. Dad’s parallel careers in science fiction and porn occurred during the same years my parents attended cons, as many as nine per year, developing deep relationships with people they rarely saw. The con committee invited Andrew J. Offutt and got John Cleve in the bargain. He enjoyed playing both roles. At cons he’d wear one set of clothes to be on a science fiction panel, then change into his John Cleve attire for parties. He switched nametags so often that a fan presented him with a large handmade tag of bright fabric. Stitched onto one side was the name Offutt. The reverse said Cleve.
* * * *
Initially, my parents left my siblings and me in the care of older people when they went to cons. One weekend it was a married couple. She was pregnant and stayed with my sisters while the man took my brother and me to search for Indian artifacts. He drove out of the county, deep into the hills, explaining that he’d already located a site high on a cliff, recognizable by the black imprint that ancient smoke had left on the rock. Until then my time in the woods had been spent alone or in the company of my brother. Leaving the county with a grownup for a planned mission was thrilling, especially since it involved an archaeological treasure hunt. The road dwindled as he drove: two-lane blacktop, one lane, a dirt road, then a rough fire trail. He parked in a slight wide spot. We hiked through the dense woods, climbed a steep hill, and found a shallow cave on a ledge.
The man gave us kitchen spoons. He said that digging with them would preserve any fragile artifacts we found. My brother and I were obedient and diligent. For several hours we crouched side by side, making small, precise motions with our spoons, chipping intensely at the hard earth. Each time I found a rock, I asked if it was important. The man examined the first few, then merely glanced at them and shook his head, and finally began ignoring me altogether. Sweat ran into my eyes. My brother’s glasses were streaked with dirt. Rocks scraped my knuckles raw, then drew blood. As the sun faded in the west, I became chilly. Bored and tired, our bodies aching from the cramped positions, we were just two boys conscripted by a stranger on our day off from school.
The man abruptly made an odd sound. He dropped his spoon and jerked backward, a scared expression on his face. I peered into the hole and saw the tiny white bones of an infant. The man quickly refilled the grave and tamped it down. He rushed my brother and me off the cliff and through the woods, dimmed by dusk, then heavy night. Despite the darkness, he marched us fast through the woods directly to the car. He drove silently, but I could tell he was frightened by his discovery.
After this incident, my parents ceased hiring people to stay with us. At age twelve, I was placed in charge when they went to cons. My brother was nine, and my sisters were eight and seven. My instructions were simple: feed my siblings, feed the dogs, don’t run in the house, and above all, don’t tell anyone that Mom and Dad were gone. At night, I fixed supper and put my siblings to bed, reassuring them that everything was fine. After they were asleep I sat alone in the house and fretted. I was afraid my parents would never return. I worried how we’d get food, what would happen if the electricity went out. Some of our neighbors’ children had been removed from the home by the state, and I feared I’d lose my siblings, that I would fail at taking care of them.
Occasionally my parents would be late returning on Sunday afternoon, and I’d call the state police to ask if there had been any fatal accidents on the interstate. Fortunately, our parents always came home. My relief was mixed with trepidation: they were always exhausted, and Dad might fly off the handle at any moment. Mom slipped silently about the house, as fearful of his potential rage as we were. Many years later I understood the dire position she was in, caught between two opposing forces. Any display of loyalty to her children risked Dad’s perception that she was disloyal to him, the worst act of treachery. She strode a rigid and terrible middle ground, but invariably chose Dad. It was the wiser decision. His rage at her would quickly extend to all of us, and last longer.
* * * *
In 1971, Dad was invited to be the guest of honor at a convention in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, over Thanksgiving weekend. To offset missing the holiday, the chairman offered a free room for the Offutt kids. I had just turned thirteen. It was my first con, representing entrance to the secret world my parents inhabited. After a seven-hour drive, we arrived at dusk, underdressed for the harsh November wind cutting across the plains. Meals hadn’t been part of Dad’s negotiations. While everyone ate turkey at the banquet, my siblings and I shared Kraft cheese sandwiches in our room. The con had severe fiscal problems, prompting my father to forego the final payment of his fee, which led to his being permanent guest of honor for the next thirty years. As a result of his generosity to strangers, we never had another family Thanksgiving.
For a few years my siblings and I attended nearby cons with my parents, the only form of family vacation we ever had. Cons exposed me to an exotic world beyond the hills. Men in my Appalachian hometown of Haldeman, Kentucky, carried pistols. At cons, adults wore plastic space guns, wizard robes, and swords. I once witnessed a fatigued con chairman trying to explain to the hotel manager why a man in a Star Trek outfit was sitting in the kiddie pool with a woman wearing a diaphanous gown and holding a snake. Attendees tended to interact with a defensiveness born of insecurity, often dueling intellectually with their knowledge of science fiction. Some devoted their time to playing poker, bridge, and hearts. I spent an hour watching two obese fans reading side by side in a hotel lobby. Each time they turned a page, they simultaneously dipped a hand into a bag of potato chips as if the two actions were synchronized. I understood that this was how they behaved at home, and that cons offered an opportunity to safely display their private quirks. My parents’ devotion to this world confused me. I regarded fans as strange, sad, and extremely obnoxious. The violent world of Haldeman was more secure.
At cons, my siblings and I shared a hotel room with two coolers of food. We were each given a key, cautioned against embarrassing our parents, and turned loose. Aside from big-city art theaters, the only way to see vintage SF movies was at a con, an experience I couldn’t bear. Fans had watched the movies so often that they competed with each other by making loud comments intended as humorous, ruining the film for anyone else. I preferred an area called the Huckster Room, set aside for dealers in books, magazines, comic books, original art, and movie posters. Already an avid comic collector, I used cons as a way to improve my holdings. Now and then I caught an untoward glimpse of the politics of fandom: hucksters who didn’t like my father drove me off with rude comments.
At the time, I didn’t know I was at the forefront of what would become a massively popular “geek culture,” as cons eventually splintered into subgroups, evolving to widespread acceptance. ComicCon currently draws more than one hundred and fifty thousand attendees. The Society for Creative Anachronism has its own formal gatherings, as do Star Trek, anime, pulps, fantasy, cyberpunk, steampunk, alternate history, and gaming. In the early 1970s, they were all huddled beneath the ragged tent of SF cons, which doubled as sexual free-for-alls. Mom and Dad lodged themselves on a separate floor from us. They shared two rooms with a linking door, the better to accommodate private liaisons on both their parts.
My mother’s seamless veneer of politesse was unusual among fans, whose interpersonal skills were on par with those of chess players and degenerate gamblers. Fans revered my father as royalty, granting him constant attention. They gave him swords and daggers, homemade chain mail, whips and leather cuffs, bottle after bottle of bourbon, plaques, statues, and original art. Dad was charismatic and funny until someone failed to grant the proper respect, usually by having the audacity to speak. Dad then subjected that person to a public humiliation that made others uncomfortable, an interaction that enhanced my father’s notoriety. I learned to avoid my father, who gave me a dirty look and deliberately turned his back if I didn’t vacate the area quickly. In this way it was similar to our home life, except that the hotel offered an alternative to the woods as a refuge.
My parents cultivated a special con wardrobe, which they never wore at home. Dad dressed in dashikis or open-necked shirts with giant collars, zipper boots, wide leather belts, and flared pants. Mom wore short skirts and low-cut blouses that zipped up the front with no bra, high boots, and tight belts. John Cleve wore a long djellaba with nothing underneath while Mom wore a floor-length polyester gown. To complement Dad’s leather-and-denim leisure suit, Mom had a leather miniskirt. My parents were a compelling pair, and I was awed by the figures they cut. Though they ignored me at cons, I never loved them more, drawn to the personas they’d crafted for public consumption.
* * * *
Dad’s occupation as a pornographer was a semi-open secret at home, which affected my social standing. Concerned parents refused to let their daughters go out with me. With puberty coursing through my body, I thought about sex constantly. I began spying on a hippie commune in a narrow holler, occasionally glimpsing a woman with no shirt. The hills offered free clay for potters, cheap rent in general, a gorgeous landscape, and soil that was highly suitable to the cultivation of marijuana. The current wave of visitors came from northern cities and spoke with heavy accents. Many were rich kids slumming among the exotic, as if Appalachia were a tour of duty necessary to acquire their counterculture bona fides back home. They arrived for brief periods and left. The old folks called them “hemorrhoids,” saying that the good ones came down and went back up, but the bad ones came down and stayed. People left them alone.
From my spot in the tree line, I saw a man tending a marijuana plant near a broken-down house they rented. After weeks of clandestinely watching, I decided to steal their marijuana and then trade it back to them for sex. A buddy and I made a night mission, moving furtively along a ridge behind the hippie-house and down through the woods. We used our pocketknives to cut the plant at the base and escaped into the shadows. The marijuana was more of a bush, and we didn’t know what to do with it.
In an abandoned smokehouse, we built a small fire and heated some leaves in an empty coffee can. We began inhaling the acrid smoke and lay around pretending we were high, not really knowing the effects but making lofty claims—that we could fly, see through walls, become invisible. Eventually we admitted that the only results were seared throats and throbbing heads. We figured it had to be cured like tobacco, and I hatched a plan even more ingenious than trading dope for sex.
We carefully stripped the leaves and packed them in four bread sacks, tied off the ends, and pressed them flat. We slid them under our clothes, hitchhiked to town, and went to a Laundromat. When it was empty, we dumped the marijuana into a dryer, cranked the heat to the highest setting, and stood guard. Within ten minutes the pungent scent of marijuana filled the Laundromat. We monitored the load, but the leaves hadn’t changed color to indicate a quickened rate of curing. The next time we checked, half the leaves blew into the room and scattered across the floor. My buddy and I fled.
* * * *
That summer our family attended MidwestCon, which turned out to be my last con. The minute we arrived at the hotel, Dad began operating in full John Cleve mode, refusing to acknowledge his children. The only other teenager at the con was the fourteen-year-old daughter of a minor SF writer who also wrote porn. We talked the first night. Tessa had run away to New Orleans for a while but now lived with her father, whom she hated. He ignored her, and he drank and had too many rules. I told her I knew exactly what she meant. We agreed on everything—fans were the biggest weirdos in the world, cons were boring, and our parents didn’t care.
The next day I suggested we swim in the motel pool, mainly for an opportunity to see her in a bathing suit. She refused on the grounds that cons were full of old perverts, then crooked her finger in a follow-me motion. We rode the elevator to the fifth floor, the walls of which were painted a deep shade of blue. She led me to a door with a sign that said “Housekeeping.” Inside was a wall of shelves that held sheets, towels, toilet paper, plastic cups, and tiny packages of soap. Tessa unfolded a rollaway bed. The only illumination came from a wide crack beneath the door.
Prior to this, I had kissed three girls from other counties and believed I could acquit myself well, but Tessa explored my mouth like she was planning a topographical map. Her body pressed against mine, her hands were on me, and I became lost in a delirium of desire. She took her shirt off, then her pants, the dim light outlining her body. I could not believe I was actually seeing a naked girl. Tessa quickly removed my shoes, then dragged my pants off and pushed me back onto the bed. I could feel the softness of her chest, the smoothness of her skin. She put her arms around me. We rolled over, and I held her as tightly as possible. I frankly thought I was going to die. Nothing had ever felt better, and I wanted to prolong it until, in fact, I did die.
I bucked my hips and squirmed like a salamander, trying to stay on my knees and elbows so as not to mash Tessa too much. I mainly just hoped for the best. She put one arm across my back and the other on my hip and began to assist my maneuvering. After a while in which I lost all sense of time, our activity slowed. She started putting her clothes on and I did too. When we were fully dressed, she said, “You’re better than guys three times your age.”
“Thanks,” I said.
She opened the door, and we stepped into the hall, blinking against the sudden light. At the elevator, I heard the sound of an opening door. Down the hall, my father stepped from a room. He said something low, and a woman responded with laughter. Dad closed the door behind him and straightened his hair. I pushed the elevator button repeatedly, fearful that Dad would see us. Tessa and I descended to the lobby without talking. Dazed and happy, I wanted to remain in her company, but she avoided me for the rest of the con. I didn’t mind. I’d finally had sex.