Reviews — From the March 2018 issue

Silent Treatment

The troubling response to a memoir of incest

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Discussed in this essay:

The Incest Diary, by Anonymous. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 144 pages. $18.

The Incest Diary is not an abuse memoir, though it is an account, a true one, of sexual abuse. Its anonymous author was first raped by her father when she was three years old; they last had sex (“consensual” sex, for what it’s worth, though one thing the book shows is just how little that sometimes is) when she was twenty-one. During that final encounter, at her childhood beach house, after gin and tonics on the porch, she “had an orgasm bigger than any single one I had in my subsequent twelve-year marriage.” Abuse memoirs usually begin with childish innocence, descend into a dark adult world of sexuality and violence, and end with some small, scrabbling hope, a puncture of light. The Incest Diary begins and ends in darkness. There is for its author no self that preexists the abuse, no self to be recovered or redeemed. She comes into existence as an object of her father’s lust and sadism. She is, she tells us more than once, his “creation”; she was “born for him.” (Her father’s diary entry from two days after her birth ends, “Some day this kid’s gonna fuck.”) There is no redemption, only the cycling of desire and loathing, a sickening repetition that plays out across generations — her father, we learn, was abused by his grandfather in turn — and within a single life. Near the end of the book, we are given a description of Carl, the author’s current partner. He is charming and soft-spoken, wears threadbare cardigans, reads Kleist aloud to her on the porch, and has a cock “just like my father’s.” He gets off on physically threatening her, and the more she fears him, the more aroused and in love she feels. He ties her up and puts her in the closet, just as her father did, and then lets her out and violently face-fucks her. “We are most who we are in bed,” Carl explains.

On the whole, reviewers have not known what to make of The Incest Diary. Mistaking it for an abuse memoir (Newsweek called it a “highly marketable addition to the lucrative business of healing-and-recovery memoirs”), they have said that it raises a perennial question of the genre: namely, whether it might titillate perverts — or worse, us. In the Telegraph, Allison Pearson wrote that “the reader who would like it best” is a pedophile. David Aaronovitch, in the Times of London, said he could not bring himself to read the book while sitting in front of a man and his young daughter on the train, “not wanting those thoughts and images in my head.”

There has also been much fretting over the book’s graphic language. In the New York Times, Dwight Garner claims that it uses “porn lingo of recent vintage,” most of which, he said, “cannot remotely be quoted in a family publication.” (He then goes on to quote these lines, which precede the description of the last time the author has sex with her father: “My body was pure sex. My father had made himself a sexual object for me, too. I objectified him as I objectified myself for him.” Admittedly these are not the most explicit lines in the book — there is plenty of “cock” and “pussy” — but is this really “porn lingo”?) Most of all, reviewers have wrung their hands over the author’s admission that she sometimes enjoyed being raped by her father; that she craved and, despite herself, continues to crave sex with him; that, as a small child, she sometimes “seduced” him. Might this not vindicate the old pedo chestnut that the kids like it?

It is hard to recognize The Incest Diary in these reviews. It is a controlled, exquisitely written book, it disturbs and disgusts, but it also mesmerizes and, at certain moments, charms in its quiet brutality. This is how the author describes her youthful efforts to rouse her mother from her denial about the abuse going on in the family:

I show her pictures of the slain beauties at La Specola, the natural history museum in Florence. The eighteenth-century figures of pretty murdered women with their innards exposed — intestines and livers and stomachs, hearts, kidneys spilling out of their perfectly made, peeled-open, and glowing wax skin. Their faces are peaceful; they wear pearls; they lie on beds of lace.

The Incest Diary is itself like a book of pictures, 144 pages of small, crushing vignettes, organized not chronologically but according to a logic of association and disassociation. Tastes and smells and sounds, acutely remembered — the “sweet and slime” of strawberry jam on her father’s penis “mixing with the sweet and slime of the man”; the “smoky canvas” of the mattress on which she is raped; the rustle of clothes falling to the floor; the comforting perfume of her mother’s Nivea bottle, which she carried around while sucking her thumb — are what remain from the author’s childhood flights from her besieged body. When she thinks of the day her father raped her in the bathtub, leaving her in a pool of her own blood, she “can only see it either from above, watching the two of us, or from my father’s perspective.” Of another rape, she says she “went up into the sky. Up, up, all the way up, and I looked down and saw a little girl and her father.” The girl, she says, was “maybe eight or nine.”

When the sculptor Richard Serra was a boy, the author tells us,

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.

It is a platitude that everything a survivor of childhood abuse goes on to do is in some way or another about that abuse. But the author’s point here isn’t about childhood abuse as such but about the kind of abuse that comes so early as to precede the child’s ability to express it, to others or to herself — when the only telling to be done is in the form of pictures, not words. This is a book not simply about childhood rape but about the way in which the rape itself sets the parameters for how it will be described: in sensory fragments, almost totally devoid of affect, cool little abstractions of trauma. The author remembers being called into her teacher’s office in the eighth grade to discuss her daily journal; the teacher wants to know why she never writes about herself, only about the weather and the Gulf War. The answer, surely, is that words risk betraying as much as they convey. When the author remembers her father asking her, in a baby voice, whether she wanted to fuck, her “palms sweat.” “Yes,” she would respond, in her child’s voice, “let’s fuck.”

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teaches philosophy at University College London and is a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford.

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