All in the Family

The Secret Trauma: Incest in the Lives of Girls and Women

by Diana E.H. Russell
Basic Books, 426 pp., $24.95

The Original Sin: Incest and Its Meaning

by W. Arens
Oxford University Press, 190 pp., $19.95

Forbidden Partners: The Incest Taboo in Modern Culture

by James B. Twitchell
Columbia University Press, 311 pp., $24.95

Incest is a strangely fashionable subject, as the number of articles, novels, research surveys, films, books, and television programs cited in these three books demonstrates. Partly, perhaps, it is just that the jaded press is on the lookout for anything that still shocks. Partly it is the outraged reaction of women writers to some comments on the subject that declare that incest or pedophilia can be harmless and, if left in peace, guilt-free. And social surveys are for the first time substituting facts and statistics for previous guesswork about the subject. Another dimension has been added by the controversy over Freud’s early change of heart about the reality of incestuous abuse in childhood. Meanwhile anthropology, in uneasy alliance with the new discipline of sociobiology, has continued to puzzle over the contradictions implied by the primal taboo.

Harsh facts come first; and Diana Russell’s The Secret Trauma gives a sad and shocking picture of the actual prevalence of intrafamilial abuse of young girls. To gain the facts interviewers questioned a random sample of nearly a thousand women of different races and ages in San Francisco; out of the total, 16 percent described some kind of sexual approach by a member of the family. Very few described the experience as wanted or even bearable, and a high proportion—higher than among women who had not experienced incest—went on to have problems in later life, such as divorce, sexual maladjustment, or further sexual abuse. Though father/daughter incest was relatively rare, its occurrence was especially traumatic; stepfathers were the most common offenders, and uncles, brothers, and brothers-in-law figured in many cases. A scrutiny of the ages of the women concerned suggested that incest is indeed on the increase, rather than just being more visible. Russell thinks that the greatly increased number of stepfamilies is relevant, and also the availability of pornography. The attention of the press has some basis in fact, therefore.

Twitchell’s and Aren’s books take one away from the sorry parade of hurt to more rarefied speculation, Twitchell’s from a literary point of view and Arens’s from the anthropological. Anthropology has always been preoccupied with the central and universal taboo. The nineteenth century, age of heroic energies kept in check by heavy prohibitions, assumed that the greatest prohibition was the very touchstone of humanness. In Arens’s words, we now see the Victorian armchair anthropologists as “repairing to their studies and conjuring up wistful images of both past and distant societies. These primal scenes served, in part, to afford an attractive antithesis of ideal Victorian social arrangements, rather than verifiable propositions.” Their obsession was with a primitive period or society where sexual behavior could be dreadfully but excitingly unbridled. Freud’s Totem and Taboo fantasy is quite of its time. Even today, when we know so much more about animals and about different social groups, anthropologists have tried dating the incest prohibition back to a specific date in prehistory. In fact, Arens paradoxically comes to argue, incest is more a mark of “civilized” man…

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