Incest and intertextuality in Carolivia Herron's 'Thereafter Johnnie.'
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies ?...
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop? (Yeats)
The affirmative reviews with which the publication of Thereafter Johnnie was announced suggest that a new vision of Western culture and its battles has entered our midst. Writing for the New York Times Book Review, John Bierhorst compares Herron's "fascinating and highly original" novel about incest in a middle-class African-American family to The Color Purple, Beloved, and Linden Hills because it "adds a mythic dimension to the experiences of African-Americans" (16). Farai Chideya labels it a "gothic" novel as well as a "blues lament" and a "rap" in Newsweek and writes that it is set against both a "backdrop of worldwide race war" and the history of "slave-era miscegenation" (53). Barbara Christian's essay in The Women's Review of Books describes the novel as a "lyric poem" and an "epic" that invokes "ancient cultural myths" while also grounding itself in the present and foretelling an apocalyptic future. Christian calls Herron "a writer to be reckoned with" and discusses the ways that the novel challenges ready-made cultural categories such as "fact/fairy tale" and "family/race/nation" (6-7).
Thereafter Johnnie's intertextual focus underlines the extent to which incest is structured by received cultural narratives whose meanings, as Christian notes, are constantly subject to revision. Herron's project is similar to that of Toni Morrison in The Bluest Eye because both novels collapse hegemonic myths to challenge male constructions of incest as a consensual, erotic act by problematizing the notion of daughterly desire in contexts in which fathers are omnipotent. Thereafter Johnnie, however, functions as an important counterpoint to the brutal rape Pecola Breedlove experiences because it suggests that fathers bear primary responsibility for incest regardless of whether they induce desire in their daughters. To the extent that Herron's text is in dialogue with The Bluest Eye, it can also be associated with the ongoing exploration of incest's function within our culture that has preoccupied psychologists, feminists, and writers for the last two decades.
Thereafter Johnnie joins a growing list of female-authored novels that contradict the Freudian assertion that most incest claims are untrue expressions of forbidden daughterly desire. The earliest of these texts, The Bluest Eye (1970), has been followed by a steady stream of novels that explore the roots of incest in American culture and its interactions with institutions of race, gender, and class.(1) This novelistic insistence that allegations of childhood sexual abuse are true is supported by psychological theories that began during the 1970s to challenge the notion that all claims of incest are false.(2) Judith Herman began researching incest in 1975 because of discrepancies between her patients' stories of childhood sexual abuse and her clinical training, which told her to ignore them.(3) The feminist perspectives from which Herman and others worked gained support from clinicians such as Ruth S. and C. Henry Kempe, who dealt primarily with those cases in which legal and social agencies became involved (3-9). Finally, the early 1980s witnessed psychoanalytical revisions of the Oedipal complex that challenge its assumptions that incest claims are invariably false. Alice Miller argues, for example, that adults confuse their desires for those of children and critiques theories that teach abused patients to view themselves as "wicked, destructive, megalomanic, or homosexual" (18).
These new approaches to incest support each other, combining diverse clinical techniques with the gendered analyses provided by feminism to provide a more comprehensive model of incest within our culture and our families. Melba Wilson's Crossing the Boundary: Black Women Survive Incest extends this thought by considering how race affects ideologies of gender and family structure. Wilson addresses specific myths about sexual abuse and stereotypes of black female sexuality that she believes prevent African-American and Anglo-African communities from protecting children adequately. She also identifies a need for culturally specific incest therapies and affirms the incest fiction of black women writers as especially liberating for minority women.(4)
Like Invisible Man and The Bluest Eye, Thereafter Johnnie situates incest in African-American families within the context of American racism. Unlike these earlier texts, however, it challenges stereotypes that locate incest among the poor and uneducated. Additionally, it problematizes father-daughter incest with a sustained examination of forbidden erotics while also exploring the embeddedness of incest within the Western literary canon. With a subtlety comparable to that of better-known novels such as Beloved, Dessa Rose, Bailey's Cafe, and Corregidora, Thereafter Johnnie provides important insights about how oppressions of race, gender, and class interact in American society; Herron's disturbingly beautiful prose is also aesthetically comparable to that of these better-known texts.
Herron invokes canonical Western texts ranging from the poetry of Wordsworth and Yeats to the psychoanalytical theories of Jacques Lacan, but she ultimately destabilizes all of them. She seems especially interested, however, in Macbeth and stories from the Old and New Testaments. Her revisions of these texts sustain and motivate Thereafter Johnnie, revealing an intricate web of seduction, rape, and desire that is not only central to Western culture at large, but also specifically relevant to American slavery. Like Beloved and Corregidora, Thereafter Johnnie insists that individual stories and actions have far-reaching cultural significance. Herron laces her readings of the Bible with stories of the American slave trade to force an acknowledgment of how the sexual exploitation practiced by white slave owners distorted the sexuality of both master and slave and blurred the familial boundaries that ensure observance of the incest taboo.
Rather than writing a revisionist novel that overtly exposes the corruptions of canonical texts, Herron uses several conflicting narratives to explain the incest that occurs between Dr. John Christopher Snowdon and his daughter Patricia. In these narratives, different members of the Snowdon family interpret the incest between father and daughter by reading it through numerous canonical texts. They pervert these literary texts, however, and their interpretive errors lead them to misread the meaning of incest as well.(5) They mistakenly legitimate the actions of the incestuous father by figuring him as a patriarch besieged by female sexuality and by equating the novel's father-daughter-child trio with Christianity's Holy Family. Herron thus discloses the rape within Western culture's most sacred texts, thereby enabling her critique of the politics of domination that underlie white American patriarchy. At the novel's end, Herron replaces the traditionally structured narratives she has shown to be complicit with racial and sexual exploitation with a new text whose structure does not elide these abuses. This new text links Patricia's rape with both the Middle Passage and a futuristic race war, insisting that the causes and consequences of a daughter's rape have implications that cannot be overlooked.
When John Christopher digitally rapes his two-year-old daughter Patricia, he sets in motion a chain of events that culminates in the birth of his daughter/granddaughter Johnnie. His inappropriate touch seems without consequences for fifteen years, until he sees his three daughters--Patricia, Janie, and Eva--dancing and singing in a circle in the snow. He connects this scene to the three witches in Macbeth and feels both excluded and endangered by his daughters' self-sufficiency. Convinced that the danger to himself is imminent, he decides that the only way to regain their love and to save himself is to perform open-heart surgery on a stray dog. He believes that witnessing the operation will teach his daughters to choose life and the material world he understands over the poetry that he believes symbolizes death. Janie and Eva are unimpressed by the surgery, but Patricia is entranced. Shortly thereafter, she becomes possessed by an apparently unquenchable desire for John Christopher. The narratives of Eva and Janie, as well as that of Camille, John Christopher's wife, all relate how John Christopher flees his daughter's passion. They record bewilderment at Patricia's behavior because its cause remains unknown to them.
Patricia pursues her father to San Juan, where she continues to act seductively. She claims to want to have intercourse with him, but panics when he finally responds to her efforts ("... she has never expected this. She has not imagined that something could happen" ). John Christopher, having allowed his daughter's attentions to arouse him, resorts to force to gratify his desire.(6) On the same night, Eva is raped in Washington, D. C., and her rape, combined with Patricia's absence and the incest that Camille and Janie infer has taken place, destroys the familial fabric. When Patricia returns to Washington, her reluctance and fear have disappeared, and she is driven to possess her father's body again and again. When she becomes pregnant, John Christopher tries to perform an abortion on her but is chased away when she brandishes a knife at him. Patricia gives birth to Johnnie, goes into hiding with Diotima, her lover, and finally commits suicide by walking into the Potomac River. Her death precipitates Johnnie's quest to find her family and past.
Herron's characters see themselves as living enactments of canonical texts, which they revise to enable their interpretations of their actions. Janie compares John Christopher and Patricia to "Leda and the Swan," telling Johnnie that Patricia's
"passion kept changing into indifference
like the swan in Yeats's poem. But
then she was both the swan and Leda,
and my father was both of them too.
They mingled so much with each
other, it was hard to tell who was the
possessor and who was the possessed."(206)
Although Janie intends only to condemn Patricia, whom she views as evil, her comment is more revealing than she knows, tier understanding of the ways that forbidden passion mingles with fear and indifference precisely captures the horror in which John Christopher and Patricia are trapped. Patricia, possessed by paternally implanted desire for her father, can do nothing but pursue him, and John Christopher must live with the unrelenting repercussions of his own desire as Patricia's aggression removes even the barrier of his self-control. Herron's choice of Yeats's poem compares the apocalyptic incest of her text to the originary moment of the chain of violent events that, though pausing at the destruction of Troy, looks beyond even the modern moment of the world wars. A less obvious allusion, of which Janie may not be aware, is to "Among School Children," in which the narrator, having dreamed of a "Ledaean body," cannot distinguish "the dancer from the dance." The intertextuality of Janie's analysis reinforces the extent to which private readings are already grounded in external traditions.
Janie's reading of the incest scenario in her family through Yeats is also ironic because John Christopher sees the operation on the dog as his last stand in a battle against poetry. The verses of Yeats, Milton, and Blake seem demonic to him because they involve his daughters in activities that have nothing to do with him. He rejects the visionary messages of the poets they read for a more simplistic, direct equation of his activities in the material world with divine salvation. In his view, good and evil are opposed rather than intertwined; not only does this definition reject the moral subtleties that entrance his daughters, but it also prevents him from having to acknowledge how his own view of the world depends on a carefully finessed mixture of readings and misreadings about power and fatherhood.
When John Christopher finds his daughters dancing in the snow, his concern that they love him too much is replaced with the conviction that they do not love him at all. This shift from one extreme to another identifies John Christopher as a "symbiotic father" who requires his family's exclusive attention in order to feel secure and loved (Courtois 49). This need leads John Christopher to think of his family as somehow foundational or primordial; in such a "first" family, incest is required for procreation. John Christopher is enraged by the sexual energies he feels passing from one daughter to another, because, even though incestuous, it excludes him and denies him heirs:
... all those small pettings and cajolings
that had occurred between you
and your daughters were absentminded
caresses to pacify an old fool of a
father when compared with the
fondling, probing, interconnecting
arms and bodies you saw playing in a
circle in the snow.... Why had they
never treated you like that?(43)
That the "small pettings and cajolings" include the molestation of both Eva and Patricia underscores the sexual component of John Christopher's jealousy. It is a small step from this to the decision that his daughters do not love him and will hurt him. Here, John Christopher reads himself as a "king who is betrayed to his death' by "three witches" who would tempt him to destruction (50). Although Herron does not extend the parallels between her novel and Shakespeare's play, Macbeth is nonetheless one of Thereafter Johnnie's most powerful intertexts. The play's first lines, "When shall we three meet again? / In thunder, lightning, or in rain?" reverberate throughout the novel. It is worth noting that Herron also repudiates the terms of Shakespeare's text in a dual ironic touch: Not only do the sisters dance in snow, but the family name Snowdon, or "snowed on," insists on an elemental difference from the "thunder, lightning, and rain" of Shakespeare's play. The passions that motivate the Snowdon family are cooler, more calculated, and that much more frightening as a result.
The connection between the Snowdon family and the mountain on which Wordsworth experiences his epiphany in The Prelude is less overt than the Shakespearean references that lace the text, but its challenge to John Christopher's reading of his daughters as witches is equally serious. The lines describing the ascent of Mount Snowdon provide textual support for the sisters' conviction that they lead a blessed, privileged existence. Janie, Patricia, and Eva view themselves as Wordsworth's "three chance human wanderers" blessed with the abilities of angels (Book Fourteenth 65). This claim of special powers balances positive images of otherworldly strength with Macbeth's depiction of female power as preternaturally evil, allowing the sisters to ignore the problematics of identifying with witches by invoking more positive images of otherworldly women.
The narrative provided by Johnnie, the daughter of Patricia's union with her father, supports this reading by reversing John Christopher's definition so that sisterhood becomes positively empowering, creative instead of destructive: "... those three met again above Three Sisters Island above the Potomac ... and the three sisters moved in a circle singing" (156-59). The loss of this sisterhood indicates the magnitude of the power John Christopher needs to break their circle and interrupt their communion: Only the rape of one daughter and the incestuous rape of another suffice to isolate all three. His success is underscored when we realize that Johnnie's tale of the reunion of the sisters is false, a reading of eternal sisterhood induced by the suggestively named Three Sisters Island. Eva flees to Europe after her rape, and Janie can neither accept nor forgive Patricia after the incest. Of course, Johnnie is also living proof of John Christopher's ability to break the witches' circle, because her birth negates the power of the number three on which the story of the threatened king rests: "Your last thought as you come to yourself suddenly is that you have not three daughters, not three, but four. I am the fourth" (54).
In order to account for Johnnie's existence, the characters of Herron's novel interpret themselves through Old and New Testament stories of apocalypse and salvation, Lot's incest, Jacob's wrestling match with an angel, the Holy Family, the crucifixion, and Revelations. However, since the traditional readings of such stories are also finally insufficient, they must be reworked to meet the family's needs. The revisions that Herron's characters enact provide a comprehensive, fundamental critique of Western patriarchal mythology and abandon it, ultimately, as an incomplete rendering of the incest story.
Kimberly Rae Connor writes that African-American theology frequently relates the circumstances of black people's lives to Biblical texts and that history is often viewed as "a source for theological interpretation of God's work in the world" (20). She also suggests that revisiting the written texts of other eras is "the challenge African-American women writers in the twentieth-century have accepted.... they are rehearsing the ultimate religious act of apprehending self in relation to whatever they consider divine" (25). This recuperative act, clearly a significant part of Herron's project, can also be said to describe the inverted Biblical readings that enable Herron's characters to view themselves as divinely chosen.(7) The Snowdon family's relationship to Biblical and secular texts distorts the traditional link between African-American literacy and conversions to Christianity in which the Word is cast as Logos, "the revealed design of God" (25). The ease with which the Snowdons manipulate Biblical and secular texts and their belief that even a text such as The Prelude can reveal God's will convince them that it is their destiny to usher in a messianic age.
The dialogue of Herron's characters with the Bible begins in the novel's second chapter, which describes the last sexual encounter between John Christopher and Patricia. John Christopher asks, or rather compels, Patricia to undress before him, and he then masturbates her to orgasm as the infant Johnnie watches. Johnnie refers to John Christopher as "the father who takes my voice," linking sexuality, language, and knowledge as she describes the scene and its effects on her: "He has his will with my mother, and I, Johnnie, am compelled to see it, to know it" (14).
This scene is structured in a way that allows it to destabilize an intertext in much the same way that allusions to The Prelude or Macbeth undermine those texts. Here, Herron targets Jacques Lacan's well-known psychoanalytic model, in which the child's acquisition of language relies on its recognition of the father's phallus as an empty signifier (like language itself) to which meaning accrues (Lacan 76). This scene, in which Johnnie witnesses incest between Patricia and John Christopher and becomes mute, initially appears to conform to Lacanian theories about the relationship between sex and language. Herron's unraveling of these claims is embedded into the very structure of the chapter, however, because Johnnie herself narrates the episode in which her father "takes" her voice (14).
According to Lacanian theory, John Christopher's frequent violations of the incest taboo with Patricia have collapsed the distinction between his physical penis and the symbolic phallus on which his authority as a father rests. Even though John Christopher remains clothed during the encounter Johnnie witnesses, so that she never actually sees his penis, her visual initiation into incest renders her vulnerable to this distortion of sexuality and power. Insofar as both Patricia and Johnnie are concerned, John Christopher's sexual desires and his patriarchal authority are interchangeable and irresistible to such an extent that the hand with which he masturbates Patricia becomes a symbolic extension of his penis. He commands her pleasure with his fingertips, reenacting his initial digital molestation of her.
By engaging in sex with one daughter in front of another, John Christopher unveils the real object (his penis/finger) on which his symbolic phallic power rests, thereby preventing Johnnie from differentiating between signifier and signified. In other words, Johnnie becomes mute because her father's incestuous indulgence with Patricia violates her as well, blocking her psychological development with an unsolvable dilemma. Forced by her father's sexual possession of Patricia to recognize her mother and herself as castrated, Johnnie is simultaneously prevented from transferring her desire to her father because she cannot recognize that the male privilege "erected" on the phallus is an "imposture" achievable by entry into the symbolic realm of language (Rose 44). Put more simply, if Johnnie could speak, she would resist her father's intrusive presence and his inappropriate treatment of her sister / mother.
Just as Johnnie's narration of her muteness undercuts the notion that an abuse of patriarchal power can deprive a daughter of language, the disturbing primal scene between John Christopher and Patricia insists on a continual decomposition of originary moments. John Christopher's violation of the incest taboo with Patricia is a repetition of previous transgressions, even though it is Johnnie's initiation into her family's incestuous cycle. Additionally, the interchangeability of John Christopher's penis and finger disputes the validity of the opposition of real and symbolic on which the Lacanian reading rests. Johnnie's narrative, based on her memories and what she learns from different family members as an adult, also collapses the distance between origin and derivative as it invokes yet another primal moment, using the language of Genesis to connect John Christopher's present and past actions: "So as it was in the beginning, the very beginning, as it was in her infancy, he places his right hand between the legs of my mother, and I watch carefully, carefully" (15). The horror of this encounter grows as Herron's lyrically erotic language takes the reader toward Patricia's orgasm and the beginnings of apocalypse. The "rising color on his daughter's face and neck" soon becomes the "rising hesitating sea" (16). The combination of a tradition that sees female sexuality in terms of water imagery with the rising sea or flood builds the tension of this scene to a dual climax that foreshadows the destruction that will follow from this quietly earth-shattering event. Patricia's gasps ("Daddy. Daddy. Oh, Daddy!") are interspersed with the Biblical line "as it was in the beginning." On the third repetition, this phrase becomes the menacingly parodic "(s)wirled without end, Amen" (17). As familial boundaries disintegrate, so too does the world's coherence and stability.
Johnnie portrays herself as Noah, survivor of the "rising hesitating sea" of the Biblical flood. The difference between Johnnie and Noah, of course, is that Johnnie lacks the dove whose reports of the outside world help her determine whether to leave the "dark box" in which she has sought shelter. Johnnie may have survived the mass destruction that punished humanity for its sins, in other words, but she is unable to rebuild her world.
The image of Johnnie as the sole survivor of a holocaust recurs in the narratives of other family members as Herron's readers learn that both John Christopher and Patricia interpret their sexual relations as part of a complicated apocalyptic mythology. Both, for example, insert themselves into the story of Lot's incest with his daughters, who plan to impregnate themselves by him because "there is not a man in the earth to come in unto us" (Gen. 19:31). Janie tells Johnnie that Patricia "actually quoted Lot's daughters to me, `Come, let us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, that we may preserve the seed of our father,' as if we lived at the end of the world" (206-07). Patricia's belief that the earth's salvation depends on her impregnation by her father allows her to explain her behavior within a logos that appears coherent within its own boundaries. Her belief is an extension of John Christopher's personal mythology, emphasizing how her craving for a connection with her father has permeated her thoughts. Patricia's entrapment within this mythology supports John Christopher's interpretation of himself as someone both cursed and divine. That other family members also present both themselves and family events according to this system demonstrates even further how compelling false mythologies can be. And that, ultimately, is Herron's point--that every mythology through which the Snowdon family interprets itself is false.
Camille, John Christopher's wife, alludes to herself as Lot's wife in her letter to Johnnie: "I would be a pillar of salt trying to look back to you" (184). This comparison connects the incest of her husband and daughter with the race war that destroys America at the end of the novel, while also likening the society that exists before the war to Sodom, the city from whose destruction Lot's so-called hospitality earns his family's salvation (he offers to permit the rape of his daughters in order to protect his male guests from being sodomized). John Christopher adds Lot's story to his reading of himself as the besieged Macbeth in order to solidify a vision of himself as a victorious patriarch who has overcome great evil. This perverse reading, in which the patriarch justifies taking that which does not belong to him--be it a kingdom or a daughter--allows John Christopher to believe that his intercourse with Patricia was prophesied during his childhood.
Sneaking out of his parents' home at age six, John Christopher encounters a hobo, who frightens him and leads him to recall a preacher's sermon: "God was mad in the sermon that had excited him last Sunday. God was mad and had burnt up a city and only Lot and his daughters were left alive" (78). Herron reproduces the text of the sermon at this point, and we learn that the story of Lot's escape from Sodom appears in the context of a discussion of the three Greek words for love: "`Now the first word that means love means carnal love, you all know what I'm talking about, I'm talking about sex, I'm talking about ... those perverted sins for which the great God in Zion, Almighty Jehovah rained down fire and brimstone on those ancient cities of iniquity, Sodom and Gomorrah, leaving only Lot and his daughters alive'" (79-80). That the preacher goes on to discuss philos or "brotherly love" and agape, "divine love," as well as eros has apparently escaped Chris, whose attention a week later is still riveted on the salvation of Lot and his daughters. When the hobo interrupts his reverie, asking," `Hey, kid, are you ok?' "Chris is terrified and pleads," `Oh, I'm lost please don't chain me to an island. Please don't burn me, let me be saved like Lot and his daughters'" (82).
Having mistakenly endowed the hobo with godlike powers, Chris bargains for his life: "`No, no please don't burn me, I want to be saved from the fire like Lot was saved'" (82). The hobo agrees, and John Christopher believes his fate is sealed. Many years later, he stumbles across his daughters dancing in the snow at Howard University in Washington, D.C.:
... the ancient curse that follows you
out of the south arrives again tonight.
That thing you have most feared has
come upon you. Tonight. As in the
beginning ... the abomination of desolation
is already with thee and the torment
long foretold is engraved on the
chapel window, dark-stained window
glancing with oblique light a muted
last judgment, Woe to the Inhabitants
on Earth! (49)
Moments later, the fire that the child Chris feared begins, but with a horror different from that anticipated in his youth: "... you felt the terrifying warning of that power in the fire that stirred upon your thigh.... You could not escape because you desired them ..." (50-51). Since the child Chris only knew Lot's story up until the moment of his escape from Sodom, the ramifications of his asked-for fate have not been present in his conscious mind. However, his conviction that his deliverance depends on breaking the circle of his daughters' power combines with the lustful "fire" he now feels to suggest that Lot's later incest with his daughters has taken on unconscious salvific connotations.
Herron's equation of fire with lust allows her to connect the language recalling the hobo's curse with Babylon's destruction by fire and earthquake in The Revelation of St. John the Divine. Her prose echoes the Biblical text--"Woe, woe, woe, to the inhabiters of the earth"--combining the stories of the wrongful patriarchs Lot and Macbeth with Biblical prophecy in a way that adds a new, terrifying meaning to the story of Patricia and John Christopher (Rev. 9:13).(8) When Herron likens the incest Johnnie witnesses to the Biblical flood, she is foreshadowing an even more extensive use of New Testament allusions. In Revelations, the earth is destroyed by fire and earthquake; Herron's alternate choice of the womb-associated sea emphasizes that this story of destruction rests on the sexual exploitation of a woman. When God promises Noah that "the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh," he implies that future destruction will be fiery (Gen. 10:15). We can also read this covenant as a repudiation of the feminine in favor of a more phallic destructive force.
Eva's rape reinforces John Christopher's identification with Lot, even though her rapist is not her father. The intertext surrounding Eva's rape is complicated, because she functions both as Lot's second daughter and as a prophet of the family's doom. Herron challenges Western devaluations of raped women by attributing Eva's visionary abilities to the sexual abuse she experiences. When Patricia visits Eva in the hospital, Patricia asks, "`Would it have been worse for you ... if Dad had slept with you instead of me?'"
Eva stares quietly into Patricia's
face, stares and thinks and waits, her
mind flinches stumbles and carries on
obliterating an almost memory that
thus loses its only chance to arise, she
does not move. "No, Patricia, that
wouldn't have been worse, I probably
would have enjoyed sleeping with
Daddy, but I don't know why." (194-95)
Eva does know why, at least unconsciously. What almost surfaces in response to Patricia's question is a memory of early sexual abuse by her father, repressed in the same way that Patricia's memories of his manipulation of her genitals is repressed.
Having primed both daughters to desire him as Lot's daughters desire their father, John Christopher abandons one in favor of the other. The family mythology is so strong, however, that its members conform to the Biblical texts with which they identify as closely as possible. Eva's feeling of abandonment focuses on her sisters rather than on her father, but her loneliness compels her to wander the midnight streets of Washington. She frequents bars, has sexual encounters with strangers, and "would never have a way to get home" (101). This admission suggests not that Eva unconsciously sought the rape that completes the family's use of the Lot myth, but rather that she is somehow incapable of preventing it, frequently finding herself alone late at night yet unable to plan safe transportation in advance. The texts her father imposes on his family are strong enough to compel her completion of her role, even without the seemingly conscious consent that Patricia gives him. That Eva's rape occurs on the same night that Patricia and John Christopher consummate their relationship indicates the extent to which Eva's white rapist is a surrogate for her father, completing the fate that he has ordained but is too neglectful to accomplish.
Eva establishes herself as a prophet by reading her rape through two incidents in which God chooses Jacob as the recipient of divine attention and by likening herself to the visionary John of Patmos. She compares her assailant with the angel who wounds Jacob's thigh and notices sadly that, whereas Jacob's experience indicates divine favor, hers issues from a curse. Eva's knowledge that her fate is a sacrificial one prompts her to distinguish herself from her Biblical counterpart by refusing even to attempt his heroic struggles. She accepts her rape as an already accomplished fact and waits miserably for her rapist "to beat her into the stone and mutilate her" (114).
In the hospital later on, she resists reading herself as God's chosen one, insisting instead that God should have provided her with the protection he afforded Jacob on his first night alone in the desert:
I lay my head upon a stone to rest, I
want sleep.... I don't want to look up
at the stairway to heaven in the midst
of a desert. I don't want to go upstairs
into that room. I don't want to wake
on holy ground. I don't want to wrestle
with the angel. (127)
In Eva's reading of herself, the stone on which she is raped parallels the stone that Jacob uses as a pillow and then anoints to memorialize the location of his divine vision: "To me Washington is a stone, the particular stone upon which I was raped" (97). Her revisionary insistence that Biblical culture is maleficent combines with her reversals of divine prophecy to contend that the rape of a female child has widespread ramifications that cannot be ignored. Like the failure of the marigolds in The Bluest Eye, Eva's inversion of messianic prophecy links familial events to a wider community: "Perhaps a black boy will be born in Harlem to raise the true black nation. No, I said, it will be a girl, and she won't be in Harlem, and she won't raise it, and the nation will not be true black" (98). Her negative prophecy, denying every expected feature of the messianic arrival draws extensively on the vision of John of Patmos, whose prophecy of the world's end underlies much of Herron's imagery.
In order to ensure that her readers know that the consequences of the sisters' dual rapes are the destruction of the city from whence their rapists come, Herron interlaces Eva's narrative of her assault and hospital stay with the destruction of Babylon as told in Revelations. This passage begins by establishing the eagle, an iconic American symbol, as the "beast" who "gave unto the seven angels golden vials full of the wrath of God" (Rev. 15:8). Like John of Patmos, Eva hears a voice commanding her to "pour out the vials of the wrath of god upon the earth" (127). In an italicized narrative that alternates with passages in standard type, Herron echoes the Biblical passages as different characters "pour out" their vials. Like the fourth angel for whom he stands in, John Christopher pours his on the sun, appropriately enough given the sun's equation with the paternal, and Patricia, the "sixth angel," pours out hers on the "great river Euphrates," whose corollary in America is Washington's Potomac River. The "darkness" mentioned in the Biblical passage eventually takes shape in the war that reduces Washington to rubble. And lastly, "... Johnnie, a very black female child, poured out her vial into the air, and there came a great voice out of the temple of heaven, from the throne, saying, It is done" (130). In a final ironic touch, Herron replaces the "thunders, and lightnings" that destroy Babylon with the arrival of Patricia, freshly back from San Juan and her father's bed, in Eva's hospital room while Janie is visiting: "... Jane and Eva start back from the happy figure in the doorway as if she were a vision" (130; Rev. 16:18). Although doom may be evident to Patricia's sisters, her salvific version of the earth's latter days figures her as God's lover and mother of the messiah.
John Christopher, Patricia, and Johnnie parody the Holy Family in several ways. Not only does Patricia believe her child "embodied the city's lost soul," but she names her "Kristen Dolores, meaning `she before whom Christ suffered,' that is to say, Johnnie" (133). "Johnnie" is, of course, John Christopher's name, a nickname/ patronym that obscures her more complicated given name and parallels Patricia's own. "Patricia" is a version of pater, or father, signifying how completely Patricia is controlled by her father's desires; she is so much his creation that she does not have her own, individual name but, like her daughter, is known merely by a variant of his. That "Patricia" can also be read as patria reminds us that the fate of a country depends on how its daughters are treated by their fathers. John Christopher's nickname for Patricia is "patPat," mimicking the sound of a beating heart; this indicates that John Christopher's control over his daughter's life is as complete and proprietary as is his power over the patients who depend on him to save their lives.
Eva's name provides an additional example of Herron's manipulation of canonical language because it reworks the traditional Eve/Mary parallel to show that both women are sexually victimized by male-dominated religion. Since Eve has been interpreted as foreshadowing Mary, Eva's name suits both her prophetic functions and her status as her father's second raped daughter. By relating Eva's rape before Patricia's, Herron maintains the Biblical chronology that allows Patricia to view herself as a second Mary.
The chapter that details "the first time" that Patricia and John Christopher have sexual intercourse ends as the long-repressed memory of earlier abuse surfaces in Patricia's mind: "`... did your finger put a fire on me Daddy?'" (120). The text completes its recounting of this memory by detailing the effect of this memory on the seventeen-year-old, just raped Patricia: "... her body stiffens into a catatonic X of horror, violation violently enforced pleasure and pain..." (121). The X image recurs when Camille remembers the day that she first knew something was wrong with Patricia:
She was catatonic. Perhaps the thunder
had frightened her so.... I couldn't
bend her arms and legs at all and
when I picked her up she went into an
X shape and wouldn't come out of it.
... It's as if she had been raped by a
Janie adds another layer to the image when she mentions Patricia dancing "with her arms spread out in an X" (200), but the final touch is added by Camille who, about to elope with John Christopher years earlier, spots a large black cockroach on her white pillow and beats it, "leaving it crushed ... flightless wings and senseless antennae misshapen into a pulsing X" (230).
This X, this crucifix on which Patricia writhes, unable to control the feelings that course through her body, equates her with the Christian messiah even more intimately than the birth prophecies that he and Johnnie share. However, just as Johnnie is not the messiah because she is born of the sin that causes apocalypse, Patricia cannot save either herself or the world because her torture, although caused by an external source, has been internalized. Perhaps this crucial difference is one of gender--Jesus's torture is done to his body whereas Patricia's is her body. She is herself her own crucifix.
Herron continues to destabilize meaning even here, however, when Eva tells us that John Christopher's "Finger and Penis form a high glorious X in the sky" (124). In language that suggests a parody of the Lacanian valorization of the paternal phallus that initiates the symbolic order, Herron reminds us that, no matter how much Patricia's agony, obsession, and deviant behavior are internally motivated, their ultimate source is still external because she hangs on a cross made of the two parts of her father's body most implicated in her abuse; his law frames her symbolic universe. Like Jesus, Patricia is racked by a torment of her father's choosing and, like him, she can only look to death for relief. That her death is wasted rather than salvific emphasizes once more the dangers and contradictions inherent in patriarchal mythology.
The novel's final chapter attempts to transcend the limitations of Western thought by rereading the lives of the Snowdon family through African and Native American narratives about white American racism. Although a full discussion of this complex chapter is a project for another time, it is worth noting here that these alternative cultural readings reinforce Herron's claim that the damage done by racism and sexism renders the destruction of our families and culture inevitable. The cultural forces that teach Patricia and Eva to internalize the pain and powerlessness engendered by incest liken them to the cockroach Camille crushes into the white pillowcase of sexuality and Western culture, black against a white background and unable to fly.
(1.) Other writers of significant contemporary incest novels are Walker, Jones, Smiley, Allison, French, and Woodson; incest autobiographers include Angelou, Danica, and Wisechild.
(2.) Although mostly dormant throughout the 1980s, the debate over the veracity of incest claims continues today. My work presupposes that those who claim childhood sexual abuse are generally telling the truth, although there is evidence that memories can be inaccurate. For a variety of perspectives on this topic, see Armstrong, Loftus and Ketcham, and Ofshe and Wafters.
(3.) See Herman. Other books about incest that are written from feminist perspectives include Bass and Davis, Blume, Courtois, and Westerlund.
(4.) Wilson discusses I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, The Color Purple, Buchi Emecheta's Gwendolyn, Joan Riley's The Unbelonging, and Opal Palmer Adisa's Bake-Face and Other Guava Stones.
(5.) On a certain level, of course, the Snowdons are not misreading at all. Instead, they highlight those parts of canonical texts that traditional criticism has ignored or used covertly, making explicit the structures on which patriarchal culture depends. As a result, it might be more accurate to say that John Christopher and his family are seduced by canonical depictions of taboo sexuality.
(6.) Judith Herman's discussion of the stereotype of the Seductive Daughter who colludes with or invites her father seems relevant here: "Children do have sexual feelings, and children do seek out affection and attention from adults. Out of these undeniable realities, the male fantasy of the Seductive Daughter is created.... it is the adult, not the child, who determines the sexual nature of the encounter, and who bears the responsibility for it" (42).
(7.) For the purposes of clarity, this paper does not consider the complex interactions of the Biblical texts with African-American religious traditions or African culture. Such a discussion would consider the Snowdons' immersion in the texts of Western culture in terms of their African heritage and American slavery, and is beyond the scope of this essay.
(8.) All Biblical quotes are from the King James version.
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Elizabeth Breau teaches at Vanderbilt University. She is currently working on a book about representations of incest in contemporary American fiction by women.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1997|
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