Book re­view The In­cest Di­ary; Read­ings

This mem­oir is un­re­lent­ing – so imag­ine how sur­vivors feel

NOW Magazine - - CONTENTS - su­sanc@now­toronto.com | @su­sang­cole By SU­SAN G. COLE

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.

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