New York, NY; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018, 144 pp., $18.00, hardcover
The author of The Incest Diary had sex with her father from the time she was three until she was 21. She has published her account as a memoir and has chosen to remain unnamed. This morning on Facebook, in response to a comment I posted about the book, a man said a memoir can't be anonymous. He didn't want to think about the subject matter of the book, so he found fault with its form.
The Incest Diary was published in hardcover a year ago. This review coincides with its paperback release. Some reviewers have questioned the truth of the narrative because the text is artfully constructed, with layered movements back and forth in time. Other reviewers have faulted the literary accomplishment because the author describes the sex she experienced in ways that purposely arouse the reader. Some reviewers have discredited it as an account of abuse because it includes the child's initiation into sexual pleasure. The author learned about sex from her father, and its many colors of pleasure remain prized by her--perhaps above all other sensation and all other forms of aliveness. "Sex is the center of things. If you're having it, it's the center. If you're not, it's the center," she writes. For a brilliant dissection of the many queasy responses the book has prompted, read Amia Srinivasan's March 2018 essay in Harper's, "Silent Treatment, a troubling response to an incest memoir."
Here are some things we learn in the book. The narrator's father entered parts of her body before they were large enough to accommodate those things. One day her bath water turned red with blood. She learned to float above her body and look down from the ceiling or a cloud at a girl on a bed. She had orgasms that filled her with desire and loneliness. In dance class, she was afraid to open her legs, fearing people would know she had intercourse. She was afraid to stick out her tongue, believing people could tell she licked her father's cock.
She imagined bashing in the heads of cats. She had nightmares in which she saw her "long-haired scalp hanging from a blossoming tree branch." On repeated occasions, her father tied her to a chair and left her alone in a closet. After he opened the closet, he fucked her mouth. He used a steak knife to cut her vagina while she was tied up. The wounds healed without medical attention. She sat on a heater until she could smell her flesh burning. She asked strangers in grocery stores to take her home. She pulled off the head of her Barbie doll.
"The extreme trauma ... gains resonance not as an example of psychological perversity but as a reflection of a dominant social force.
The author presents herself as neither a victim nor a hero. Her book resolves nothing about ambivalence, and that is one of its gifts. Her father was the parent who fed her, combed tangles from her hair, picked her up from school. As a child, he and his sister had been raped repeatedly by their grandfather. The author thought her father's penis was beautiful. She walked in ways to turn him on and had sex with him for the last time at 21 because she wanted to. Summing up her feelings about him, she writes, "I want him to think that I'm sexy. And I want to savagely mutilate his body and feed his corpse to dogs."
She wants the reader to enter the story as if the story is about the reader, and to achieve this effect, she slips the noose of moral language and the noose of psychoanalytic reduction (moralism dressed in a white coat). She opts mostly for restraint and deadpan delivery, layering memory, rumination, theory, and sometimes art criticism, as in this elegant series of jump cuts:
Sometimes I read my father's journals without him knowing. When I was a teenager, I read that nothing felt as good to him as being naked around me. Another time he wrote that little girls can be so sexy because they just love you and they want you to touch them. When Richard Serra was a boy, he was standing on the shore and he watched an old ship get launched into the sea. This gargantuan thing was set into the water, where it made the water move like mad, but the water held it. He says he thinks that all of his work might be about that day--about the transfer of mass and heavy things buoyed up. Maybe all of the things I do are about my father raping me before I knew how to read or write.
On my Facebook comment about the book, one man posted a lengthy narrative about his own experience of sexual abuse. Another man was interested only in the father as a criminal who should be punished. I did not respond to the first man. My post was not about sexual abuse in general, and I thought he was shifting attention from the woman to himself. I responded to the second man by saying the author wants to be seen. She's asking the reader to consider what a life looks like, smells like, tastes like when it has been formed in the framework of incest and rape. The man kept returning to the father. He didn't want to look at the woman's life.
That was pretty much the author's experience where she grew up, a world where people read art books, sent their kids to private school, and owned beach houses and horses. Several older women she tried to talk to did not want to know. When she told her maternal grandmother, the woman offered her a tuna fish sandwich. The author's mother knew what was happening under her roof; there was blood on the sheets of her premenstrual child. She suffered from depression and seems to have roused herself only to ride in steeplechase competitions. One day, when the author was 20, her father tried to choke her to death. By then her parents were divorced. The author jammed a heel into his sternum, ran out of the house, and called her mother to come for her. Her mother said she did not want to drive that far.
When the author was 22, she confronted her father about child rape and incest. He said he was sorry. The next day he denied everything. The author's brother had a nervous breakdown in light of the revelations and her grandfather threatened to commit her to a mental institution. For her brother's sake, she retracted the charges. He recovered and to this day, they have not spoken about it further.
Here are some other things the author discloses. At sixteen, she spent a year in Chile, living with a family, and met a businessman who was older than her father and with whom she conducted a secret sexual affair. After college, she was married to a man for twelve years. He was kind, and they seldom had sex. After the marriage ended, she met a man who liked to do the things to her body her father had done. It turned her on. She is with this man at the end of the book, having sex that feels familiar, scary, disgusting, irresistible.
Most critics have seen the author as starting in darkness and ending in darkness--as if they need to judge her as broken to prove the vileness of her ordeal. It's commonplace to question the understandings women bring to their stories of sex as well as to question the truth of their accounts. It's commonplace to disbelieve women publicly because privately they are believed.
The author's account is not a rare thing scuttling out from under a rock. What rattled the people the author told and has rattled some critics is the story's familiarity. The extreme trauma detailed in The Incest Diary gains resonance not as an example of psychological perversity but as a reflection of a dominant social force. A father believing he owns the life and body of his daughter. A man cutting the genitals of a girl. A male-supremacist culture alternating intimidation with a promise of protection. The punishment of murder for disobedience. Bondage, hurting, rape, child marriage, forced allegiance to the tribe. Gee, where are these things happening? Maybe not in every white household in Greenwich, Connecticut, but in the lives of millions of girls and women right now, a reality that lends legitimacy to the actions of men like the author's father, who has not been tried for any crimes. If the stories women tell about sex were publicly acknowledged as true, what to do about everything else in the world?
What has been left for the author and what has been taken away? Based on the book's chronology, she appears to be in her early forties. She comes across as self-reliant and profoundly alone. In the narrative, her focus is so squarely on her own sensations, other people are shadowy. Even her father is a vague presence, instrumental only to her tale of captivity and captivation. No matter what else was happening, she excelled at school and felt an overwhelming need to protect her brother. Most evident, she has become a masterful writer, a woman alive in her flesh, and a person who does not evaluate pleasure in relationship to the way it is stirred. Pleasure is pleasure. Incest and rape are vile crimes. Her boyfriend may not be your dorn. Lots of people enjoy S/M sex who were not raped as children and did not experience incest. Sexual tastes change in the course of a life, or they do not. You can count yourself lucky if you emerge from childhood with your clitoris intact, and if you get to spend at least part of your life deeply aroused.
Reviewed by Laurie Stone
Laurie Stone is author most recently of My Life as an Animal, Stories. She was a longtime writer for the Village Voice, theater critic for The Nation, and criticat-large on Fresh Air. She won the Nona Balakian prize in excellence in criticism from the National Book Critics Circle and has published numerous stories in such publications as N+1, Tin House, Evergreen Review, Fence, Open City, Anderbo, The Collagist, New Letters, Tri- Quarterly, Threepenny Review, and Creative Nonfiction. She is at work on The Love of Strangers, a collage of hybrid narratives. Her website is: lauriestonewriter.com.