Book review The Incest Diary; Readings
This memoir is unrelenting – so imagine how survivors feel
Ihave written about violence against women for over 30 years. I’ve seen a ton of violent pornography – real women getting terribly hurt – and heard survivors’ devastating stories. And I have never experienced anything like The Incest Diary (Faber, Straus, Giroux/McClelland & Stewart).
It is an upsetting, lucidly written account of a father’s sadistic torture and sexual abuse of his daughter, as told by the victim who says she came to need and want both. It is a survivor’s story of how child rape can define a girl’s life and have a lasting effect on her sexuality and identity.
It is not a real diary. It has almost no structure, let alone anything resembling chronological order. The anonymous author shifts back and forth in time from her experience as a threeyear-old, to take just one example, licking her father’s penis, smeared with jam, to her teenaged years when her father’s brutality made her feel special, to her marriage to a man she considered dull because he was kind to her, to her experience with what seems like a present-day lover who’s turned on by her history of suffering and acts accordingly.
It is graphic. There is blood in the bathtub, semen all over a child’s body and a young adult survivor’s desire for all the wrong things.
It is unrelenting. There are no artistic niceties like texture and breathing space. It is page after page – 132 of them – of horror.
With the attention it’s getting because of its explicitness and, especially, because of its accounts of the pleasure the writer got from the abuse, I fear it will be read as pornography. I mean, it’s even got a plain brown cover, like the plain brown wrapper guys once used to disguise their porn.
But the potential for exploitation
exists for almost any account of sexual assault. And anyway, that’s not really what disturbs me about this book. It’s the terrifying reality of it. It has made me realize that for all the research and listening and reading I’ve done, I still haven’t grasped the impact of abuse. And if that’s true for me, then all the more reason for people with no awareness of incest and its profound impact to read The Incest Diary.
Especially now. The conversation about sexual assault has intensified, thanks to high-profile trials of famous people – including America’s favourite TV dad, and Canada’s once most influential pop culture radio commentator – new disclosures about date rape and the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses.
And there’s been a shift in consciousness: whereas strangers used to be the ones females were supposed to fear most, there is a new awareness that the vast majority of rapes come at the hands of perpetrators women know.
Still, there has been an eerie silence of late about incest.
It was the last of the sexual abuses brought to light by the feminist movement to end violence against women. When the data first surfaced – especially from Diana E. H. Russell, whose 1986 study revealed a 4.5 per cent rate of father-daughter incest – there was widespread disbelief. That was nothing new: even Sigmund Freud famously couldn’t believe the patients who disclosed abuse at the hands of their fathers.
Still, in the wake of rising awareness of violence against women, the disbelief was distressing given that every researcher at the time and since has suggested that father-daughter incest is vastly under-reported. That means these numbers are probably low.
Some of the incredulousness comes from the hugely complicated nature of the relationship between abuser and victim and between victim and everyone else round her (the abused is usually female): the contradictory feelings of a child knowing she’s being hurt but feeling special at the same time and often aroused; the silence of a mother who often knows and does nothing; complicit friends and family members who are told what’s going on by the victim and advise her to get over it. Crucially, in the latter case, these coconspirators often tell her they too were sexually assaulted as children.
All of this is described vividly – often luridly – in The Incest Diary. Honestly, many times I felt like I couldn’t finish it. But if it’s unbearable for me, or anybody else, for that matter, to read about these events, imagine what it’s like for those who have experienced them.
Time to get a grip and face the reality.