By Mary Hamer for WOMEN = BOOKS

Posted on May 31, 2010

“So what’s it about, this book you’ve written?” asked the friendly clerk in our local Post Office.

I swallowed. “Incest,” I said.

“Insects?” she quavered hopefully.

We all know that we’re not even supposed to mention the word, let alone start trying to think about incest.

I used to be under that spell as much as anyone. But a seemingly innocuous invitation to write an academic essay on incest in literature drew me to this forbidden topic. I came to it as an outsider, with no direct experience of incest, though I was in no doubt that sexual abuse does serious lifelong damage.

Later, when I was asked to write a whole book about incest, I didn’t foresee how challenging it would be to think my way into the subject. I found myself caught in a web: compulsively repeating the conventional wisdom, incapable for a while of analyzing, of confronting the nonsense we’ve been taught to believe.

Why do we claim our culture is founded on the incest taboo, when now we know that it is taking place all round us?

I turned back to the work of artists, comparing novels and films with the reports of therapists. A picture began to emerge, like an old-fashioned photograph in the developing tray.

I came to see that incest and sexual abuse are not the aberrations we’ve been led to believe but the direct products of our culture. Patriarchy burdens mothers with excessive responsibility and power over their children: absolute power corrupts absolutely, as the man said. Don’t let’s forget this—mothers abuse, too.

Patriarchy also sets value on a masculinity in which the natural human urge for close relationship is repressed, with dangerous consequences.

I don’t believe that all the priests who abuse are freaks and pedophiles. Absurdly elevated and isolated, endorsed by acts of magic, even more than other men, these priests have been trained to deny the human tenderness and intimacy that is essential to us all. Needs that would otherwise have been healthy become deformed into compulsive acts of abuse.

Dismissing them all as pedophiles—a specific diagnosis that I explain in my review of Unspeakable: Father-Daughter Incest in American History in the May/June 2010 issue of WRB—just indulges a taste for condemnation, isolation, and punishment.

It closes down questions about the etiology of abuse, its relation to structures of power and authority, not only in the state but at home, in school, and at church.

Starting out to research my book on incest, I thought I was entering alien territory. In writing it, my eyes were opened. I saw that no frontier stood between the world of abusers and the ordinary, everyday world. That to understand the meaning of incest and sexual abuse—which are by no means interchangeable terms—you need to situate them on the wide map of human affairs, and to connect them with all activities that produce trauma.

Thinking about incest taught me to read my own life differently, too. I came to understand my indoctrination as a Catholic girl as intellectual abuse. Taught to accept mystification and magic, blinded to commonsense reality, we were systematically confused. Drilled in parroting the answers to the catechism, we were deafened to questions of our own.

Today I place that education on a continuum with other forms of violence, including sexual abuse.

Let me repeat the question I posed earlier: Why do we claim that the foundation on which our culture rests is the incest taboo, when now we know that incest is taking place all round us?

When I began to dig more deeply into our culture, I uncovered something different: a demand for silence and separation.

Mary Hamer is an Associate of the W.E.B. DuBois Institute at Harvard University and a member of the Clink Street Writing Group. She is the author of Incest: A New Perspective (Polity, 2002), and her essay “The Blind Face that Cries and Can’t Wipe Its Eyes: Kipling and Dreams” appears on the Kipling Society website.

Read Mary Hamer’s review of Unspeakable: Father-Daughter Incest in American History in the May/June issue of WRB.


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