YOU can always count on a murderer, Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert declared, for a fancy prose style. As a corollary, you can usually count on the murdered (that is, the grievously harmed) for sentences that are laconic and cool to the touch.
In war stories, as in memoirs of abuse and genocide, a recitation of facts will suffice. In a new memoir, The Incest Diary, an anonymous writer tells the story of being raped by her father, starting when she was 3.
This prolonged sexual abuse continued throughout her childhood until she began, in a dire form of Stockholm syndrome, to crave it. Her father maintained this power over her until she was in her 20s. The author sugarcoats nothing about her ordeal and the damage done. But her memoir seeks to evoke, in a way few before it have, the transgressive rush some might find in taboo sexual behavior.
The author makes the link between speaking about war and speaking about rape explicit, but not in a way you might expect. In a car, her father asks her for a sex act while they’re looking at colleges. She recalls, “I did it and it excited me. Is it the same as Vietnam veterans getting excited when discussing the violence of war? I’m excited writing this, the way a man is excited talking about battle.”
This is a book about heat rather than coolness. It is about incandescent libido and the charring that is a result. Among the many disturbing things about The Incest Diary is a sense that the author is working to turn the reader on, too.
Twenty years ago, novelist Kathryn Harrison published The Kiss, and a debate began about whether the American memoir had finally gone too far. Harrison’s book recounted her obsessive affair with her once-estranged father, a minister, which commenced when she was 20.
A thousand deadline think pieces were dispatched. How could she compose this when her father was still alive? Didn’t she have young children at home?
I reread The Kiss recently and was struck by its high-literary artiness and gauzy restraint. Next to The Incest Diary, a grindhouse dive into the abyss, Harrison’s memoir reads like a Jorie Graham poem.
The horror scenes in The Incest Diary make a vertiginous pile. The author recounts how, as a young girl, the sex would make her bleed copiously in the bathtub. Her father tied her to a chair and put her in the closet. He choked her while her brother watched—and worse, much worse. Her mother knew, and did nothing. In fact, this book is filled with wealthy, cultured, seemingly morally agile adults who knew and did not act. You wait, in vain, for a hero to appear and take her by the hand.
Into these torments are tucked moments of sexual obsession, many of which are written in porn lingo of recent vintage and cannot remotely be quoted in a family publication.
A typical moment, from when she’s 21: “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. I had an orgasm bigger than any single one I had in my subsequent 12-year marriage.”
The author does not, for the most part, analyze her own experience or place it in a cultural or literary context. Incest has been a steady presence in post-Homeric literature, from Oedipus Rex and Shakespeare’s Pericles through Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and pulp classics such as V.C. Andrews’s Flowers in the Attic.
You can’t swing an umbrella in the celebrity memoir section of your local Books-A-Million without hitting one that recounts sexual abuse at the hands of a father, a brother, an uncle or a stepfather. Incest is a fact in many lives; it must be written about.
The prose in The Incest Diary is clear and urgent. This is not a major book, but it has genuine intensities of thought and feeling.
I was never happy to be reading it. You may feel that your face is being rubbed too repeatedly in a certain kind of mud.
The author is apparently (there are a few clues) a published writer. Anonymity combined with extreme events: never a happy combination. About this book’s veracity, its publisher’s editor at large, Lorin Stein, who also edits The Paris Review, told the book’s potential foreign publishers in a statement, “I have no doubt about her honesty or clarity of mind. We interviewed old friends to whom the author confided the fact of her abuse years ago.”
In one of this book’s most revealing moments, the author finds herself looking at Fernando Botero’s paintings of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, restrained and blindfolded. The images excite her.
She reads a book about torture and learns that “the more a captive is raped, the more likely she is to experience pleasure,” she continues, “Pleasure as a means of survival. The more she is raped. The more pleasure. Does this mean I have felt the most pleasure in the world?”
She comes to think of sex as her superpower, the sole way to ward off those who would harm her. “I wasn’t afraid of hijackers on airplanes the way my mother was,” she writes, “because in my mind, I would just have sex with them, and they would stop hijacking the plane.”
The author, who appears to be about 40, stopped having sex with her father when she was 21. She confronts him—he is apparently still living—about the years of abuse. His response, and the response of her family members, is surprising and not worth giving away here.
This book offers more sensation than perspective. The author’s scalded and mixed emotions are best summarized by these two sentences: “I want him to think that I’m sexy. And I want to savagely mutilate his body and feed his corpse to dogs.”
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