We didn’t exactly expect the world would say, “Oh. Glad you told us. We’ll just cut that out.” We didn’t know what would happen. But (watch out, world) we were going to give it our finest try.1 — Louise Armstrong
On October 23, 1990, in a speech delivered at the Republican fundraising breakfast in Burlingame, Vermont, George Bush countered the cries of antiwar protesters (“No Gulf War For Oil!”) by explaining that U.S. intervention in the Persian Gulf was not motivated by economic interests. Instead, he claimed, it was the result of a chivalric impulse to put a halt to “the rape and the systematic dismantling of Kuwait,” and event so terrible it “defies description.” The metaphor of rape runs consistently through Bush’s speeches on the war, braided neatly into his references to Hussein’s similarity to Hitler, and the need for the United States to move past the “Vietnam syndrome.” It is not the rape of the bodies of Kuwaiti women to which Bush refers, but the rape of the body politic, the foreign invasion (penetration) of a prostrate and feminized Kuwait by the brutal Iraqi military who are themselves an extension (an organ) of the demonic Hussein.
The evocation of rape as a justification for use of force against an enemy “other” (particularly as justification for vigilante action) is an American tradition so entrenched it barely needs to be described. One might nod in the direction of the early American captivity narratives (describing the experiences of white women abducted by Native Americans) and gesture at the literature of hysteria emanating from the American South (depicting an insatiable and lascivious black masculinity ever in search of virginal white maidens to despoil ( and tip a cap to the anti-Japanese propaganda pouring from the pens of the patriotic press during World War II, but one would be just barely scratching the surface of a preoccupation with rape metaphor so firmly embedded in the national psyche that it almost always goes without saying.
Bush’s speeches on Kuwait contain a litany of accusations of “rape, pillage, and plunder,” and “unspeakable atrocities” that evoked a knee-jerk response in his U.S. audiences.2 We respond to the notions of the violated “body” of Kuwait, but we did not expect to hear her voice. The story of the raped female body is quite literally assumed to “unspeakable.” Rape was originally conceived of as a crime against property — women were presumed to belong to particular men (fathers, brothers, husbands) who had an interest in their reproductive life and financial worth — and the raped woman was always spoken for. At issue in a rape case was a woman’s lowered value (as “damaged goods”) and the loss of face suffered by an owner who could not protect (or who could not control) his property.3 The claim that women have a right to be protected from rape as persons is a recent development in Western history. The notion that female voices are worthy of being heard and evaluated on their own merits, rather than dismissed out of hand, is also relatively new. The testimony of rape survivors undermines the basis of rape-as-property-violation metaphors (in which category one must include Bush’s reference to Kuwait — a country in which we appear to have strong economic interests), and is thus both threatening and politically subversive. Testimony of sexual abuse survivors differs from the other survivor testimonies examined in this book in an important way: The women who bear witness to these atrocities are still at risk, as all women are at risk, in contemporary America. As sociologist Anthony Wilden explains: “The ever-present threat of male violence against women is a ruthless assault on women’s freedom to think and do and be as they are, and run their own lives. The threat of rape makes growing up a recognition of subordination and life a state of siege.”4
The feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s created an atmosphere in which it was possible for some women to begin to talk about sexual assault among themselves, and to begin to connect that assault to political, racial, economic and social issues within the framework of the patriarchal system in which they lived. Susan Brownmiller’s pioneering work, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (1975) articulated the connection between sexual assault and political, racial and economic oppression.5 Three years later, the first mass market volume of incest narratives was published — Louise Armstrong’s Kiss Daddy Goodnight (1978).6 There are thousands of Holocaust narratives, and hundreds of Vietnam War narratives, but when I began my research on the subject of sexual abuse testimonial literature in 1989, I was able to turn up fewer than a dozen autobiographies that could be defined as self-conscious sexual assault narratives.7 Now the situation has changed: dozens of these narratives and shelves of self-help books are published by survivors and their supporters every year.
The first editions of incest and rape narratives were published in the mid- to late-1970s and the early 1980s. They were a product of the feminist consciousness which was fostered by the women’s movement, and their appearance marked a new stage in the production of personal narratives by American women. The narratives of female sexual abuse survivors bore witness to the fact that violence was perpetrated systematically and regularly by American men upon American women in a society that supported the oppression and subjugation of women.
The women who contributed to and edited the early sexual abuse survivor narratives were dedicated to revealing the atrocities committed in our midst. Determined to break the silence that shrouded incest and rape, they believed that if they spoke out, women all over the country would become enraged and empowered, and would move to challenge the laws and social conditions that protected sexually abusive men. Courageous and hopeful, they gathered together in small groups to talk to each other, to participate in writers’ workshops, and to publish their testimonies. They operated under a dual burden — first they needed to convince their audience that sexual abuse was a widespread and pressing problem; only then could they successfully testify to their personal experience as a sexual abuse survivor.
Like most of the participants in the women’s movement, the active members of the sexual abuse survivor communities were predominantly white and middle class. Their narrow perspective, combined with the thoughtless racism and ethnocentrism of much feminist activism of the period, resulted in a movement in which white women were over-represented. When the first anthologies of sexual abuse survivor testimony appeared, narratives by women of color were ignored, decontextualized or appropriated. Though this was arguably not the intent of the anthologizers, their exclusion of women of color as speaking voices served to reinscribe patterns of discrimination already present in the culture, marginalizing or “disappearing” the testimonies of these women at the same time they contributed to a “whitinizing” or de-racializing of the “normative” sexual abuse narrative.
When Worlds of Hurt was finished in 1994, there was, to my knowledge, only one book-length example of sexual assault literature by a woman of color — Carolivia Herron’s Thereafter Johnnie (1991). An introduction to this book and author sets the stage for the discussion of this chapter on sexual abuse survivor literature, because the reception Herron’s novel received was largely built upon the foundation laid by the (white) feminists who comprised the activist community of sexual abuse survivors. This particular excavation will be more fruitful if we have a look at the top floors and the roof before walking into the basement. The race issue, though far too seldom discussed, is at the heart of much of the feminist movement, of which the rape and incest survivor movement is a part.
Thereafter Johnnie is based in Herron’s own emerging memories of childhood incest. It is the first novel of an already accomplished scholar. By the age of 43, Herron was an associate professor at Mt. Holyoke, a Bunting Fellow at Radcliffe College, a fellow at both the Beinecke Library and Folger Shakespeare Library, a Fulbright Fellow and the director of the Epicenter for the Study of Comparative Epics at Harvard. Her edited collection of the letters of black abolitionist Angelina Grimké came out the same year as Thereafter Johnnie, published by Oxford University Press. After her novel was released, reviews reported that Herron’s three-volume work, African-American Epic Tradition, was forthcoming.
Despite Herron’s status as an African-Americanist scholar of epic tradition and despite her explicit claim that Thereafter Johnnie was based on “a classical epic structure of twenty-four books,” few reviewers made the connection between Herron’s work and an African-American literary tradition.8 The glaring exception to this rule was a thoughtful and careful essay by New York Times writer John Bierhorst, a folklorist and student of myth, who, in the one page allotted him, compared Herron’s work to a range of traditional literature, from Genesis and Revelations to the Odyssey and the Grail narrative, and to African-American folk tales such as “The People Could Fly,” and spirituals like “This Little Light of Mine.”9 A few other critics superficially compared Herron’s novel to classical epics, either favorably or poorly, but none entertained the notion that Thereafter Johnnie might mark a serious attempt on the part of an African-American lesbian survivor of childhood sexual abuse to revise the mythology that contributed to her oppression.
While examining the reviews of Thereafter Johnnie, I found myself turning again and again to Mary Helen Washington’s essay about Gwen Brooks’ autobiographical novel, Maud Martha. Washington suggests that the trivialization of Brooks’ novel — despite her renown as a poet — was due to the fact that
[I]n 1953 no one seemed prepared to call Maud Martha a novel about bitterness, rage, self-hatred and the silence that results from suppressed anger. No one recognized it as a novel dealing with the very sexism and racism that these reviews enshrined. What the reviewers saw as exquisite lyricism was actually the truncated stuttering of a woman whose rage makes her literally unable to speak.10
Reviewers of Thereafter Johnnie did focus on Herron’s “lyricism,” whether they saw it as contrived or “grandiose”11 or “swirling and terrifying”12 But in 1992, the notion that a novel by a black woman writer was about “bitterness, rage, self-hatred and the silence that results from suppressed anger” was common enough to go without saying. What surprised the reviewers of Thereafter Johnnie is the apparent “universality” of Herron’s tale, which Richard Eder called “a story for our times about a black family so exceptional as to have a story that might as well be that of a fashionably troubled upper-middle-class white family.”13
Herron explicitly locates her work in a continuum of testimony to atrocity, bearing witness to the crimes of rape and incest:
I am… a representative of 10 to 20 million people in this country — the adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse… We aren’t hiding anymore that we are victims. I think people should be asking any culture or people would want to hide such a thing… We’re going to keep talking until you believe.14
But she is also located in the continuum of black women writers described by bell hooks:
… cultural production can and does play a healing role in people’s lives. It can be a catalyst for them to begin the project of self-recovery. That’s how many readers experienced Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple, and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and/or Beloved. Certainly two books that really set me thinking about the ways in which black people can approach the issue of self-recovery are Paule Marshall’s Praisesong for the Widow and Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day.15
In an interview with Washington Post reporter Donna Britt, Herron said, “There is a connection between this text and my own life,” and explained that she was engaged in the process of “converting life into art,” and that “art has saved my own life.” The conversion of life into art is often the explicit task of the African-American author, and Herron, as both literary critic and creative writer, has self-consciously drawn upon the traditions established by generations of African-American story tellers, and particularly upon the texts produced by black women writers who, in the words of Susan Willis, “envision transformed human social relationships and the alternative futures these might shape.”16
Mainstream reviews of Thereafter Johnnie steadfastly refused to connect the work to the traditions of African-American women writing, despite Herron’s acknowledged interest and expertise in the African-American epic. Sally Emerson, of the Washington Post compared Herron’s work (unfavorably) to James Joyce’s distinctly Anglocentric epic, Ulysses. Richard Eder of the Los Angeles Times remarks that Herron draws upon a Biblical or “mystical tradition” without reference to a single other author to which her work might be compared.
Mary Helen Washington describes the invisibility of the black woman in the 1950s, using as her example critics’ failure to connect Maud Martha to a black, female literary tradition. Her critique can as easily be extended to include the reception of Herron’s novel, which was published in 1991: “Not one of these reviewers could place Maud Marthain the tradition of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), Dorothy West’s The Living is Easy (1948) or Nella Larsen’s Quicksand (1928).”17 Nor, apparently, could they place Thereafter Johnnie in such a tradition, or even make the connection between Carolivia Herron and other contemporary black women writers such as Walker, Morrison, Toni Cade Bambara, Marshall, Gayle Jones, or Naylor. But neither is Herron’s book placed into the tradition of white feminist writers such as Marge Piercy, Margaret Atwood, or Doris Lessing. Instead, she is isolated, discussed as though her work were a minor disturbance in the drawing room.
Michelle Wilson reminds us that defining a “tradition” is an exclusionary practice:
… to define a “tradition” that integrates black female critical voices is to be forced to confront the way in which such voices have been systematically excluded from previous notions of “tradition.” It is, in other words, a “tradition” of speaking out of turn. The reasons for this are not inherent in the nature of black women, but are, rather, structural; they derive from the “outsider” position we tend to occupy in critical discourse.18
Women of color suffer under the conditions of both sexism and racism and, for that reason, they may not view sexual assault as the traumatic event that shaped their lives. The sexual assault of a woman of color is inextricable from her assault as a black woman, a latina, or an Asian woman. The refusal of women of color to focus solely, or even primarily, on sexual assault reflects an awareness of the complex and interlaced character of race, gender, and class oppression. As Angela Davis explains, “rape is frequently a component of the torture inflicted on women political prisoners by fascist governments and counterrevolutionary forces. In the history of our own country, the Ku Klux Klan and other racist groups have used rape as a weapon of political terror.”19
White women, particularly middle- and upper-class women are threatened primarily by white men. Black women are threatened by black men; they are also threatened by white men. Since antebellum days, white men have considered access to black women’s bodies their privilege by virtue of their status and white and male.20 (White women, while they participate in the oppression of women of color, do not rape them.) Race and gender oppression combine to place black women in a double bind. If they speak out against rape and focus on gender issues they may begin to alleviate the problem of sexual abuse. At the same time, the contribute to the oppressive stereotype of the black male rapist. If they do not speak out, they will continue to be raped and assaulted by the men of their own community. (Though I use black women as an example, the problem is equally complex for the women of color.)
Women of color participate in the shaping of literature of trauma, but we must not make the mistake of thinking that they enter into the discourse on the same terms as white women. Women work in separate traditions that reflect their particular social, political and cultural location. Our oppression as women, though universal, is not identical. This fact has not, unfortunately, been recognized by most the editors and publishers of sexual assault narratives.
Perhaps it was this blindness that allowed the women who wrote and published the early sexual abuse survivor literature to believe that all they needed to do was to speak out against atrocity for it to cease. If these women had looked to the precedent set by African-American testimonial literature, they might have realized that testimony signals the beginning of a long process of struggle towards change, rather than effecting the change by itself. Instead of making connections between their own drive to testify to atrocity and the long tradition of antiracist and antisexist testimonial literatures that preceded their movement, they fell into the trap that some survivor communities cannot seem to escape: They insisted that their oppression was at once unique and universal. As we shall see, these led to inescapable problems and contradictions, as well as the exclusion of consideration of issues centrally important to women of color.
The early examples of sexual abuse survivor literature are both personal and documentary. Published in the early 1980s, these testimonies are directed both at a large audience ignorant of the extent and devastating impact of sexual abuse upon women and children, and to a smaller audience intimately familiar with the details of their own personal experiences of sexual abuse, but unaware that they share their pain and anger with many other women.
Early sexual assault narratives were frequently published by feminist presses, which suggests that the audience was understood to be predominantly female, largely feminist, largely white, and that it contained a number of lesbian and/or consciously women-oriented readers. Because the majority of the readers were women, it was likely that many — if not most — of them were also survivors of sexual assault. Reader and writer, in this case, belong to the same community. This community exists in more than simply an abstract sense. Many writers and editors of sexual assault narratives conduct self-help workshops for other survivors of sexual assault, or work with them as therapists, or teach writing courses aimed at helping other women to express their thoughts and feelings about the traumatic assaults they have survived. A number of the writers are also lesbians and women-oriented women — they have explicitly chosen the community of women over the traditional nuclear family.
Sexual abuse survivor literature, like other literatures of trauma, is produced as the result of an ongoing process. Thus, each work informs the next and comments upon the last, shaped by and in turn shaping the genre. Early works by sexual abuse and incest survivors were extremely influential, and many later works by survivors refer back to theme either implicitly or explicitly. This is one reason why the white and middle-class orientation of the “essential” incest experience constructed by the first published testimonials was so important in shaping later perceptions. Though the decision of a few brave survivors to speak out was indeed revolutionary, it was at the same time exclusionary: a double-edged sword.
Louise Armstrong’s remarkable Kiss Daddy Goodnight was the first mass-market publication that declared outright that its subject was incest and that its author was a survivor. Since many later sexual abuse survivor narratives refer back to Armstrong’s work, it is important to examine Kiss Daddy Goodnight in some detail. Armstrong, whose father was a journalist of some note, sets the tone for later discussion of incest by emphasizing the remarkable nature of a crime which is committed by “normal” men in “normal” (i.e., white, middle-class) families.
The first chapter of Kiss Daddy Goodnight is entitle, “My Father, Me.” As the title suggests, Armstrong views herself and her father as connected identities, and indicates that he is the primary, and she the secondary entity. She also hints that Kiss Daddy Goodnight is the story of disillusionment and separation: “During my early school years, I held an almost belligerent belief in the magical powers of fathers — all direct personal evidence to the contrary.”21 The next sentence, a new paragraph, opens with the observation, “Other girls’ fathers were shadowy figures.” In this way, Armstrong immediately defines the difference between her father and “other” fathers, and at the same time underlines the peculiarity of her assumptions since other girls’ fathers lived with their families and Armstrong’s own father was not a daily presence in her life until she reached the age of eleven.
By beginning her first chapter with a discussion of her illusions about her absent father, and the “unnatural” condition of being raised by a single working mother, Armstrong establishes the sudden recovery of her father as a disturbance in the normal pattern of life, as well as an event fraught with expectation. The actual event of his return is glossed over. Armstrong instead focuses on a trip he took alone with her to New Mexico when she was twelve years old. On this trip, he began to crawl into bed with her and fondle her breasts. She explains: “In completely unformulated discomfort, I wriggled away and feigned sleep. I wanted my mother. I flew home alone.”22 She never mentioned the event and quickly repressed it. The section ends with her decision to accompany her father on a trip to Pennsylvania a few years later: “At this time, I must say, I did not remember the New Mexico trip in its particulars. I simply didn’t.”23
The Pennsylvania weekend is the next focus. A sophisticated fourteen-year-old, Armstrong is excited to accompany her father, a famous newspaper correspondent. He purchases her clothes, features her in publicity photographs, takes her to dinner (they converse in French), and talks to her about her sex life “like grown ups.” During the course of the evening, Armstrong claims:
I knew what was in the air. A will-he, won’t-he charge. But did I know what was in my mind? What I wanted? No. Or at least I didn’t know then the important thing in my mind, which was that (at fourteen) I wanted to be held — by my daddy. The way six-year-olds are.
Nevertheless, what I got in the end, just as I was finally, definitely, decidedly in my own bed and drifting off to sleep, was oral rape.
But surely, at fourteen, I should have been capable of escaping, of preventing that… And I would have been, too, you bet, if I hadn’t so carefully preserved a portion of my kid-self, wrapped nicely in tissue paper. That portion which held as tightly to a belief in the magical powers of fathers as to a stuffed animal.24
As she introduces the scene of sexual abuse, Armstrong raises the questions that will concern her and the reader throughout the text. Do female children seduce their fathers? Was she at least partially responsible for her father’s attack? The last sentence of the quote is a reference to the opening line: she was deluded, a child clinging to a mistaken belief in “the magical powers of fathers.”
Only now does Armstrong attempt to explain her decision to directly address the subject of incest. “It was time,” she writes, “to face up to the fact that incest is not an American social taboo. Sexual abuse is frequent and generally goes unpunished. Talking about incest is the taboo.”25 At the end of this chapter, Armstrong describes exactly how she intends to go about breaking this taboo: “It was time to take a journey among other women who’d had an incest experience. It was time to talk.”26
She decides, first, to talk to her mother, who replies, “You know, dear — I never did trust that man.” A few days later her mother phones her back and says, “You know, after all — when you get right down to it, I suppose it goes on fairly often. I suppose, really, it’s a matter of control. And — I guess — some men just have more control than others.”27 Though her mother does not grow angry at her, or cry and scream, Armstrong is dubious. The chapter ends with her comment, “Still, I was uneasy. As it turned out, I was right to be.”28
Her uneasiness with her mother’s assessment is reflected in the title of the second chapter, “It’s Natural.” “Why did he do it?” Armstrong asks, wondering if “all little girls try out their charms on their daddies,” and if “all daddies are tempted to respond.”29 She discusses the subject with several male friends and acquaintances. One man explains that he believes that his adolescent daughter is testing him: “She’s testing me to see if she’s really a woman. And she’s finding out that she is.” He admits to being aroused by his daughter, and says that he has now become more cautious about coming into physical contact with her: “I don’t think it would be fair to suddenly change the relationship. That would be a rejection. But I’m just more aware that I’m the adult. I’m in charge of whether I control myself, control the situation.”30
Other men echo this assessment, claiming that their daughters behave seductively when they become adolescents. She concludes “It’s Natural” with a rejection of the “naturalness” of incest. The claim of seduction might hold up if men only had sexual relations with their daughters after they reached adolescence, but many female children are assaulted well before that time. We remember, though Armstrong does not remind us, that the first time her father assaulted her, Armstrong was a preadolescent, in New Mexico.
Armstrong placed an ad in papers and journals: “I am a woman writer doing a first-person, documentary book on incest. I am looking for others who have had an actual or near actual incest experience to participate in my ‘forum’…” Responses from many women convinced her that incest often began when the child was quite young, and at least occasionally when the child was still an infant. Her horror at this discovery was not matched by psychiatrists or health professionals:
… as I began to talk to psychiatrists and to poke around in the literature on incest, I began to feel like a witness at the tribunal called by the Red Queen. With a few reassuring exceptions, “they” seemed to feel that our survival was proof that we got what we wanted. And our failure to survive was proof that we were defective merchandise to begin with.31
Professionals often based their assessment on a paper entitled “The Reaction of Children to Sexual Relations With Adults,” published in the 1930s. She quotes from the survey:
The most remarkable feature presented by these children who have experienced sexual relations with adults was that they sowed less evidence of fear, anxiety, guilt or psychic trauma than might be expected… The probation reports from the court frequently remarked about their brazen poise, which was interpreted as an especially inexcusable and deplorable attitude and one indicating their fundamental inncorrigibility… [C]ertain features in our material would indicate that the children may not resist and often play an active or even initiating role.32
Since the title for the next chapter is taken from the above quotation, “Their Brazen Poise,” the reader assumes that Armstrong is most troubled by the implication that incest is a consequence visited upon girls who do not behave in a properly ladylike fashion. The idea that incest is both punishment and a contact that female children secretly desire (perhaps because they are “bad”) is reinforced by the Freudian notion that young girls, desiring their fathers, fantasize about having sexual relations with them. Armstrong notes that “Freud, himself, after all, had a daughter,” and that he had a vested interest in denying the reality of the stories of sexual abuse related to him by many female patients.33 Her feeling that the professional community simultaneously discounted and diminished the traumatic impact of incest is summed up in her conversation with one psychiatrist:
“Incest,” he said, “occurs at the onset of puberty.”
“But,” I said, ” so many of the women I’m hearing from — for them it began at four, five, six.”
“Did you call me as an expert?” he said. “Or did you call me to argue?”34
Armstrong is dedicated to proving the experts wrong. Kiss Daddy Goodnight is an impassioned and furious work and Armstrong’s honest admission that her writing is personally therapeutic does nothing to diminish the documentary impact of the book. In fact, it serves quite well as a case in point for many of her arguments about the nature of incest. Armstrong quotes Maddi-Jane Stern, director of Social Services at the Philadelphia Center for Rape Concern:
Those women who are functioning members of society — where the incest has gone underground — have a tremendous need to resolve it. A tremendous need to go back and expose it to their fathers. “Why did you do it? What was going on? Mother, why didn’t you stop this?” There are feelings of guilt. A lot of our survivors come to us unable to express their anger at their fathers. They do a lot of justifying on all scores and really internalize a lot of their guilt. There is a lot of anger there, and once that starts to surface, they want to confront… But the point at which I feel they’re getting well is the point at which they say, “I want to talk to my father.” Not, “I want to kill him.” But “I want to talk to him. I want to find out why.”35
Kiss Daddy Goodnight conforms to Stern’s model of healing, as Armstrong goes through the process of questioning her father’s motives, relating her discussion with her mother about the incest, and sharing her anger at a society that does not provide a support network for incest survivors.
Armstrong, as she so quickly admits, has succumbed to feelings of guilt and responsibility for her father’s incestuous acts. In order to overcome her internalized guilt, she must first establish that incest is real and damaging, and that it is inflicted on protesting children by powerful and dominating fathers. By relating tales of incest told to her by other victims, she can create a framework within which to examine her own experience. Therefore, much of Kiss Daddy Goodnight is devoted to reporting what Armstrong refers to as “The Grisly Details.”
It was a brown metal bed, [says Anna] and we had the lamps, the old bed lamps. And he was lying on it this way. Spread-eagle. His pants were open. And he made me go down on him. And I was crying. And I kept crying. I was about thirteen.36
[Pamela:] What he would do is I would lie on my stomach on a pillow and have my pants down. And he would be on top of me. And just rub his penis back and forth… And then he would ejaculate, but it would be onto a handkerchief or something… I wouldn’t allow myself to feel. He would do whatever he wanted. I would just cry during the whole time and say, “I hate you. Leave me alone. I hate you. I hate you. I hate you!” … and he would say, “Shut up. Shut up.” And he would do it until he was satisfied.37
[Maggie:] And I remember him showing me pornographic pictures. And making me sit on a chair with my left leg over the arm, with no clothes on and masturbate. It was totally foreign… And having him say, “You say this. I want you to say that. Now I want you to say it this way and then do this and do that.” … And then he would do cunnilingus… The hate, the hate was a living thing… At six years old.38
Armstrong is determined to place the blame for incest squarely upon the male relative who inflict the abuse. Approximately a quarter of the way through the book she inserts a chapter entitled “Mother’s Fault,” in which she cautions readers not to fall back on the age-old tactic of blaming the mother for her husband’s or lover’s behavior:
Suddenly, I noticed, authorities were springing up full-blown to pronounce on us; to explain the dynamics of each member of a family involved in the mischief of incest. And to lay it all on mom.
Here we are, world, five minutes into a conversation you’ve refused to have for a million-odd years, and we’ve already developed bromides and buzzwords. Things to recite in the dark… Mothers are “inadequate.” (Also, “passive,” “cowardly,” “domineering,” and “manipulative.”)39
Placing the responsibility on mothers is analogous to blaming young girls for being seductive. In neither case do men have to face the consequences of their acts, and in neither case is a modification of male behavior called for.
Two of the points Armstrong makes in Kiss Daddy Goodnight have been echoed and expanded upon in later survivor narratives: The damaging and life-altering effects of incest on young female children, and the role of masculine power in the incest relationship. Armstrong believes that incest is a traumatic event that changes a girl’s life forever. In her chapter, “The Psychic Center Violated,” Armstrong interviews June, who was incestuously abused by her stepfather from infancy. June married a man who battered her and her children. She feared male children, and felt she could not control them. She was afraid of her own emotions when she was around her infant daughter, because she had strong urges to beat and torment her. June’s second husband was also physically abusive to her and her children. She explains that because of her experiences she can’t deal with her feelings, and is unable to respond to anything beautiful or pleasant: “There’s a deadness there. Where I should feel.” In answer to Armstrong’s question she says that child incest “destroys you.” When Armstrong asks whether she sees herself as a survivor, she answers:
Oh, I’m a survivor. I don’t look at myself as being maimed because each day is gonna be a new day. I know my kids have been touched and scratched up. They may carry that through their lives. But they, just like me, have to take the day and mold it. And it can be done. And it’s OK, whatever has happened. Because you can try to erase it.40
Despite June’s optimism, the reader is left with the overwhelming impression that her childhood incest experience has changed her life forever, and not for the better.
In her search for an answer to the question, “Why do men sexually abuse their children?” Armstrong is inevitably drawn into a discussion of masculine power. Fathers, she argues, are powerful, and their decision to sexualize their relationship with their children is not without consequences. “Once you’ve eroticized the relationship, broken down the dividing lines between parent and child,” Armstrong asks, “where are you going to renegotiate the boundaries?”41 Her conclusion is that “when you sexualize a child to fulfill your adult, male needs, you are socializing her to subjugation.”42 In an interview with Armstrong, incest survivor Jill comments:
How does it go that a man can take advantage of a woman? Why does he feel he can take advantage of a two-year-old or a five-year-old or a seventeen-year-old or an eighty-nine-year-old? Why? It’s because the society says that men are better than women, and that if a man wants something he is entitled to it, and the women have to nurture men and take care of men.43
The dominance pattern manifests quite early in men, since older brothers frequently assault younger sisters. Attacks by male siblings seemed similar in character to attacks by fathers, step-fathers or other older male relatives. Armstrong records and interview with Barbara, who was assaulted by her brother:
I was six. He would have been twelve, thirteen. I remember it being terrible, painful, burning… Even then, though, I knew it wasn’t right. I didn’t know what it was. I knew it was not right because of the fact that he said I couldn’t say anything…44
Both adult male relatives and siblings were aware of, and played upon the young girl’s fear of retaliation (many men threaten that they will kill children if they “tell”), and on the fact that admitting one is a victim of sexual assault is humiliating, frightening, and likely to being on blame and punishment.
Men also sexually assault male children. The assaults of young children, whether male or female, are quite similar in nature. Armstrong places the emphasis on the unequal power relationship between adult and child, and the exploitation of a child’s weakness for an adult’s sexual gratification. The male survivors she interviews sound very much like their female counterparts. David, who was abused by his father, explains:
I got very resentful and felt very abused. Sort of mutilated, if you know what I mean.
That sort of feeling began when I was nine, tenish. I began to feel different. Like I knew my friends’ parents weren’t doing the same things to them. I mean I didn’t ever mention it. It wasn’t something to just drop casually into the conversation in the play yard. But I would just feel kind of bad about it.45
Armstrong concludes that “Implicitly, and explicitly we give men permission in this society to exploit others to soothe their sexuality.”46 Sexual abuse of children is merely one way in which men take advantage of that permission.
The final two chapters of Kiss Daddy Goodnight are “Bad Thoughts,” and “Recipe. Getting On With It.” Both are short, reflective and highly personal. In the first, Armstrong says that she survived by immersing herself in practicing the piano. Music provided her with a reasonable and ordered world, and a way to repress her unpleasant experiences. She became emotionally numbed, talented at voicing unpleasant situations, and an expert liar. At seventeen she left home and avoided further contact with her father, but she continued to be haunted by the memories and effects of his abuse. She concludes there is “no recipe” for curing her pain, and the thought of the abuse makes her “Sad. Very sad.” The last sentence of the chapter reads: “You don’t have to like it. You just have to live with it. Like a small, nasty pet you’ve had for years.”47
The last chapter seems to directly contradict the conclusion of “Bad Thoughts.” Its focus is Armstrong’s mother, recording, on the first page, a kitchen-table conversation in which her mother relates her fears and hesitations about Armstrong’s decision to write a book about incest. The final two pages of the book consist of a letter addressed from Armstrong’s mother to her:
“… I was born into a period when people did not reveal their personal problems… What would the world think of a girl who had an incest experience? Of me, the mother?
But during these last months my feelings changed. What triggered that? Maybe letters from among the many she received. Letters amazingly open, from all kinds of women, from everywhere… I came to realize that if it weren’t for women who were willing to open up, to talk, we’d still be hiding our maimed children.
My respect for these women is boundless. And for my daughter, whom I’d have been tempted to dissuade from writing this book… I have the utmost admiration.48
The contrast between the opening and closing of the text is dramatic. A book that begins with the chapter “My Father, Me” ends with the words, “Mom? Thanks.”49 Armstrong has taken us on a journey from self-destructive identification with her masculine abuser to successful acceptance of healing acknowledgment from her newly supportive sister/mother. Her adamance throughout the work that the blame for sexual abuse should fall squarely upon the abuser is consonant with her own need to regenerate her image of her mother and, thus, of herself. In Armstrong’s world, men abuse power and women and children suffer from it.
The word is Armstrong’s weapon. She believes that building a community of women to bear witness to incest will break the power of the patriarchy. Rehabilitating her mother is a necessity, for all women must stand united against sexual abuse.
Our work of the moment is not to criticize Armstrong’s arguments, but to understand the context in which she has chosen to testify. Kiss Daddy Goodnight broke the silence that surrounded incest and child sexual abuse, and suggested for the first time that sexually abused women might identify with a distinct and credible community of fellow survivors. Armstrong’s testimony was acknowledged. Kiss Daddy Goodnight was a successful book and evoked positive response from many readers. Her work had a real and lasting effect upon the self perception of many sexually abused women.
Four and five years after the publication of Kiss Daddy Goodnight, the first anthologies of sexual abuse survivor literature appeared. Both of the texts discussed here, Voices in the Night (1982) and I Never Told Anyone(1983) were edited and compiled by women who were, or worked closely with, incest survivors. A comparison of these anthologies is informative. Packaging and presentation combines with choice of authors and subjects to produce a particular look and feel for each book. Aimed at different markets, each anthology bears witness to incest in a distinct and identifiable way.
Voices in the Night was born out of a lesbian writers’ group to which both editors – Toni A.H. McNaron and Yarrow Morgan – belonged. Reflecting the concerns of these writers, this anthology is strongly woman-oriented,and many of the entries reflect a clear feminist consciousness and a distinct lesbian voice.
I Never Told Anyone, published by Harper and Row, is aimed at a more general audience. Although frankly feminist in its politics and also the product of a women’s writing group, I Never Told Anyone is more restrained than Voices in the Night, and the former is preoccupied with establishing the authenticity of its voices. I Never Told Anyone includes a number of well-known women writers (Billie Holiday, Maya Angelou, Kate Millet, Honor Moore). Four of the 33 women whose stories are featured in I Never Told Anyone are explicitly identified as lesbian (Voices in the Night features sixteen explicitly identified lesbian voices out of a total of 37 writers).
The editors of these anthologies act as filters through which the testimony of survivors passes; they can transform the act of bearing witness into a revolutionary challenge or a conciliatory bow. The editors create a context and shape it for the audience. Ellen Bass and Louise Thornton may have been under some pressure by Harper and Row editors to sanitize their presentation of incest, or at least to package it in a form that would mitigate the hostile responses of potential mainstream readers.
Cleis Press, the publisher of Voices in the Night, describes itself as a “woman’s publishing company committed to publishing progressive books by women.” Their unabashed declaration of feminist sentiment is reflected their graphic design decisions – bright blue for the anthology’s cover, the title printed in large orange letters in a black box. Underneath the main title, in slightly smaller black letters, is the subtitle “Women Speaking About Incest.” The back cover of the book announces:
Voices in the Night is the silence-breaking book read in incest survivors’ groups, and in women’s studies courses on women and violence, the family, psychology and literature. This is the tool used by therapists and women’s advocates in shelters for battered women and rape crisis centers. Voices in the Night is the simple powerful telling of a story that must be told.50
Excerpts from favorable reviews are also printed on the back cover. The reviews were published in Medical Self-Care, Off Our Backs, and Mom… Guess What? – all organizations that would be familiar to feminists and active members of a lesbian community.
Without looking beyond the cover, we can see that Voices in the Night is intended for an audience of incest survivors and feminist readers. The volume is described as “tool” that is used by professionals who deal with sexually abused women. Its therapeutic value lies in its mere existence – the book serves as an example of breaking silence. A “story that needs to be told,” Voices in the Night is not aimed at enlightening the general public, or even at raising the consciousness of the average woman. Instead, it is a work aimed at a community struggling to define itself.
Inside the front cover there is a table of contents listing the entries in the anthology, which are not arranged in any apparent order. A short preface follows, listing the “Women we wish to thank…” Each editor states her appreciation to her own therapists and incest counselors. In less than half a page, the editors have established the woman-oriented perspective of the anthology, and their own authority to speak as incest survivors.
The introduction begins in a single voice, and the first word is a qualifier:
Though incest may occur in every third woman’s life, there has been virtually no attention paid to it in writing until the last two or three years. Even now, books are few and tend to be either “studies of” or one woman’s story. Rather than add to this literature, we have collected pieces written by a number of women. These have the immediacy and potency of direct expression together with the form and distance that come from writing a poem or letter or short story or journal entry.51
It is no accident that this volume opens with a statistic. Statistics are woven through incest and rape literature, used again and again to show, to prove, to demonstrate irrefutably that sexual abuse is real, that women suffer from it in large numbers, that it is not just some irrational woman’s fantasy. But while many other books on sexual abuse footnote their statistics and rely on them to provide an explanation for their interest in the subject, Morgan and McNaron go on the offensive. They simply state that incest is a widespread problem and then ask the question, “Why has there been no attention paid to this phenomenon?”
For the incest survivor, the simple acceptance of the reality of her problem, expressed by McNaron and Morgan, must have come as a profound relief. This anthology creates an environment in which the survivor does not have to prove her case, but can focus on sharing her pain and suffering with her sisters. The survivor is not a subject to be studied. Instead, she is one in a multitude of voices raised to affirm her suffering. And that is how that anthology came to be created. As McNaron and Morgan explain, several women in a writer’s group discovered that they were in the company of other incest survivors. This mutual recognition stimulated a search for other survivors. They placed notices in newspapers, bookstores, and journals in the hopes of contacting other women who were interested in writing about their experiences as sexual abuse survivors, and were pleased with the number and quality of responses. The editors view this anthology as part of an ongoing process: “We see this book as one of many such anthologies. Every woman who can share her experience with this ugly reality surely gives increased permission to others still frozen in their terrorized silence.”52
Writing is therapeutic both for the author and her readers. Echoing Louise Armstrong, Morgan and McNaron believe that speaking out is the answer. However, Armstrong does not reach her conclusion that sexually abused women must join together and form a community until the last chapter of Kiss Daddy Goodnight, indicating that this revelation came at the end of a long journey. Morgan and McNaron, perhaps because Armstrong has led the way, choose to begin with this premise.
The contradictions inherent in bearing witness to a wrong that the larger society refuses to acknowledge are manifest in this short introduction. A woman who internalizes the blame for the abuse that she suffered is terribly self-destructive. Yet, speaking out may also fail to bring relief since “women speaking, the oral telling of truths, have also been treated as a kind of silence in our culture.”53 The authors believe their book represents an attempt “to redefine the parameters of our world,” creating a space in which women’s pain can be heard and attended to. Such an attempt, they admit, is hampered by the patriarchal power structure, which deprives them of the right to speak and resist.
At this point, the unified voice of the editors diverges into two voices, “I, Yarrow,” and “me, Toni.” Yarrow explains that her incest experience and her therapy have led her to make the connection between individual acts of incest and the social and political structure of society. Most striking among her observations is her claim that incest put her “in a stance of ‘other’ in relation to [her] family and the outside world.”54 She was split off from them, just as she was alienated from her body and her emotions, and from all women (“being a woman was synonomous with being an object to be used and abused”55). Yarrows description of her otherness is significant on two levels. It suggests that she suffers the sense of alienation from self and community that trauma survivors often report: numbness and distancing are both frequently reported symptoms of PTSD. It is also important on a symbolic, or metaphorical level. Vivian Gornick suggests:
In every real sense woman… is an outsider, one in whom experience lives in a metaphorical sense, one whose life and meaning is a surrogate for the pain and fear of existence, one onto whom is projected the self-hatred that dogs the life of the race… the wildness, grief, and terror of loss that is in us will be grafted onto her, and the strength of those remaining within that circle will be increased… that is what power and powerlessness are all about; that is what inclusion and exclusion are all about; that is what the cultural decision that certain people are “different” is all about; if only these… blacks, these Jews, these women will go mad and die for us, we will escape; we will be saved; we will have made a successful bid for salvation.56
Toni finds herself in a different position. “My issues are with my mother,” she explains, “contrary to most of the women in this collection and to almost all available literature on the subject of incest.”57 Even in a community of outsiders, she is an outsider. She connects this abuse to her subsequent alcoholism and to both her attraction to and terror of her female lovers.
These personal revelations are followed by the claim that all incest, whatever its form, has the effect of generating self-destructive behavior in survivors:
What begins as a way to endure the madness being inflicted upon the victim becomes at some point a force over which she no longer has any control. The behaviors most often “chosen” are alcoholism, and/or drug abuse, prostitution and/or sexual promiscuity with relationships unaccompanied by cash payments. The repetitive choosing of abusive relationships whether to friends and lovers, husbands or lesbian partners… Victims need to be shown that they were trained for abusive relationships by their fathers, brothers, uncles, grandfathers, more distant relatives.58
But breaking self-destructive patterns and placing the blame on the abuser are extremely difficult in a culture based on a patriarchal structure that condones incest: “Incest is an early and very effective behavioral training in powerlessness and subservience. By beginning to speak about it, we begin to threaten its continued, unacknowledged presence.”59
Like Armstrong, Yarrow disagrees with the opinion of male “experts.” Men, she believes, do not want to change a system from which they reap the benefits of power and dominance. Thus, the attempt to alter reality must be made by women. The first step in creating the new reality is to believe in “our own lives and the lives of other women as more accurate than literature, social proscriptions, statistics.”60
The testimonial process that Morgan and McNaron describe is familiar to a reader of the psychiatric literature on PTSD. By translating overwhelming and anxiety-producing memories into language, McNaron and Morgan believe that women transform their painful experiences into more manageable stories. The writing and rewriting process allows women to manipulate imagery and generate metaphors for their suffering, reframing their problems in a useful and creative manner.61
Morgan and McNaron feel compelled to defend these writings from the charge that they are examples of mere “confessionalism.” Male critics, they say, have too frequently insisted that when literature does not fit established “universal” (i.e., masculine)standards, that it has no artistic value. Instead, they affirm their commitment to women’s artistic work as “healing, enriching and affirmative…”62 “Incest,” they write, “… will surely be found distasteful to male-oriented critics or reviewers or publishers. It will be a rare man who can be ‘objective’ about a group of poems and prosaic pieces which at some level accuse him and his fellows of being child-molesters — this time, their own child.”63
There is no doubt that these women regard themselves as members of a traumatized community. Dedicated to bearing witness to incest, they seek the support of other women to publish and review their work, and they provide a support network for other incest and sexual abuse survivors. Writing about incest is an important part of a larger therapeutic process, at the same time i advances a larger political agenda. To eradicate incest, these women believe that they have to change the world. To change the world, they must first come together and speak to each other:
To tell orally is the first step, and in the incest program I, Toni, went through, the power of saying my story… cannot be overstated. Similarly, to witness while the other women told theirs confirmed as “like” them, not in surface details, but in basic feelings, reactions, and most of all, in the necessity for silencing our own voices… To write those same stories as narrative is a second and huge step because we put form around what has seemed so chaotic. We make public to strangers the most intimate truths about ourselves… When we write a poem or letter or story about the impact or center of that narrative, we take a third leaping step — we dare to make art out of our female experience — to fly in the face of all expectations for what is acceptable in such forms.64
There are 37 separate works anthologized in Voices in the Night, ranging from short poems to essays. The first piece, called “Et Cum Spiritus Tuo,” by karen marie christa minns, begins:
I want to tell you something. I want
to tell you something
that I’ve never told before…65
minns’ is the first “voice in the night.” Her poem initiates the process of telling and re-telling, envisioning and re-visioning that is so graphically portrayed in this anthology. “Et Cum Spiritu Tuo” intersperses minns’ emotional and personal commentary with statistics and quotes from the psychological literature. She uses a normal typeface for her first-person voice and placed the third-person voice in italics, indenting it slightly. Her structure generates two voices — inner and outer — and recreates the internal struggle of the incest survivor to articulate her pain and rage:
“This is fucking,” he says
his tongue an eel in your ear, whispering, snaking
its way deep into the brain
where it will live for years
“This is fucking.
“A common experience in the victim is to leave the body — to tune out —
to experience out-of-body consciousness. Results and symptoms of
incest occurrences include: distance, feeling different from one’s peers,
isolation, dislocation, inability to connect”
“58% under the of ten.”
I want to tell you what it is like…66
The desire to “tell you what it is like,” runs through Voices in the Night, the invisible thread that holds everything together. Cygnet cries:
Now from the mouth you stuffed
when I was two, three, four, five
now from my mouth I spit these words67
Terry Wolverton entitles her performance piece “In Silence Secrets Turn to Lies / Secrets Shared Become Sacred Truths,” and invites us:
to enter into this space, where secrets are spoken,
to share your secrets
by writing them in my notebook.68
I take our tangled strands,
lay them gently side by side,
and write this plain song whose forbidden key
eases the pain, replaces the noise
that kept us from each other.71
The words that close the volume speak directly to those that opened it. “I want to tell you something,” wrote karen marie christa minns. Yarrow Morgan, clear on what she wants to say, concludes the volume with the reason why:
I tell you because I know,
I tell you because I will not be silent,
I tell you because I will not be silenced72
All the women featured in Voices in the Night have felt the driving urge to testify. Their writings of hope and recovery are most frequently addressed to each other — sister survivors, mothers, women friends, and lovers.
The rage and hatred of the women in Voices in the Night is directed at their abusers, to whom they also bear witness. “Old father / fearsome liar / listen to me well,” writes Cygnet, “my mind forgot / my body remembers / how we rehearsed night by night.”73 McNaron, one of the few women abused by a female relative, writes furiously to her mother:
I raise my phantom knife
and bring it down, down into your fat flesh
I cut stomach, breasts, and thighs
to shreds, you hear me? shreds
so die, damn you, die;
no use to write before me
smiling through your well-kept teeth74
Donna Young describes her decision to survive at all costs, “For without breath you cannot live / to Avenge yourself.”75 Joanne Kerr corresponds with her stepfather:
I have lied to my own mother for years. Why? To protect you! Pretty absurd, isn’t it? Mother and I have suffered because of your cheap indulgence, pretty lying, stupidity, all of which is part of the incest game which places blame, guilt and insanity on the victim — me! — instead of on the adult male aggressor — you!
I want you to understand how terrifying and horrible that experience was for me. Remember? Remember?
Kate Mullerleile Darkstar accuses her brother: “Rapist, killer, abuser, traitor, brother… How I hate the shitty things your depraved humanhood did to me. YOU’RE JUST LIKE YOUR FATHER… I hated your sloppy, slimy kisses on my mouth — I hated your body on top of mine — I hated your hands on my yet undeveloped chest — I hated you. I hate you still…”77 Ran Hall rages:
he is a man
man is a cock
and a cock will fuck
he is a man is a cock
and a cock hates
he is a man and man hates me
and anything that is part of me — woman
free from his cock hates free women
lies as love
as truth, as natural
as need, as sharing
and giving, the face of hatred
shoves its way through
the face of hatred is a cock
cock is man.78
Because Voices in the Night is directed to an audience of women-identified women, Morgan and McNaron make no effort to soften the accusations which women survivors direct at the men who abused them, or at men in general. Though it is true that not all men abuse women, it is also true that all but a very few sexual abusers are men. Lesbian separatism as a reaction to male sexual abuse is not so different in nature and intent from the refusal of many Jews to deal with Germans or to purchase German products after World War II. Though not all Germans murdered and enslaved Jews, most Jews were murdered and enslaved by Germans (or those acting under German orders), and even those Jews who were not directly affected (such as American Jews) understandably identified with their oppressed brothers and sisters. The frank antipathy that many of the contributors to Voices in the Night feel for men is remarkable only because it is expressed in the midst of repression and attack. They are quite as isolated as the German Jews who spoke out in rage and hatred against Hitler in 1937. That these writers connect their incest experience to a larger political, social and economic system that oppresses women is inarguable. “T” states the case clearly:
I believe incestuous sexual assault is another of the vicious forms of initiation practiced on girl children to teach us our subservient place in the patriarchy. I know that only by talking to each other, sharing what has happened to us, trusting our dreams and memories can we open this assault to each other and bring it to an end… Not until mothers and daughters can grow into a healing of our crimes against one another and then turn toward the true enemy with united forces — once again the matriarchs and the amazons — will we be able to win back our world and care for each other and the earth as sisters and Lesbians free from male domination.79
The message of oppression and struggle inscribed in Voices in the Night is made powerful because of its apparent universality. All women, the authors emphasize, suffer the injuries inflicted by the patriarchy. McNaron and Morgan, by refusing to take the editorial privilege of contextualizing each selection, create a book where all voices carry the same authority. We speak for each other, they suggest, and each speaks for all in her own way.
Though the effect of such a claim is undeniably strong, it can be misleading. Voices in the Night identifies gender difference as the foundation upon which political, social and economic analyses of incest should be based. Racial difference is entirely and unselfconsciously ignored. The single, glaring exception is a short story called “Black Girl Learn the Holiness of Motherhood,” by Susan Chute.
The title of the Chute story emphasizes the primacy of race in this incest tale and, if we have missed that clue, the first paragraph also begins with the words “Black girl…” There are ten paragraphs in the story and five of them start with those words, including the first and last. Chute begins:
Black girl comb her dry wiry hair; pull it back in a ponytail jus by her right ear. Black girl look inta her chocklut face, steal a dab of her mamma’s rouge, rub it deep on her cheek. Black girl makin her lean face full and ready.80
Chute’s protagonist is an eleven-year-old girl who believes that she is ugly and that her blackness is part of what makes her ugly. Changing her baby sister’s diaper she notices that “her shit the same color as… the choklut face she waz fussin over seconds ago.”81 She wonders, at the same time, “who decided diapers should be white.” Chute leaves her protagonist nameless, simply a “black girl,” until the end of the third paragraph when her mother calls to her and names her Willa. Willa’s self-consciousness about her blackness is inseparable from her self-consciousness about her femaleness.
Willa is talking about more than simply gender oppression when she warns her younger sister Lana to be quiet and stop crying because “There gonna be things hurt worse than you hurt right now.” Lana, whose white diaper has been changed, is sprinkled with white powder to make her smell good. This is not accident either. The colors Chute uses in the story are black, brown, white, gold, red, orange, and purple. Gold represents her father’s prominent position in the society — his gold teeth flash when he delivers a sermon in the church. Red is the color of blood: red, orange, and purple are the colors of the labia and flowers at a funeral.
It is not until the fifth paragraph that the reader is given any indication that Willa’s life is any different that any other black girl’s. Chute describes her in the kitchen, how she “wink & giggle wid Daddy,” while she think, ‘I do more than mamma here.’ Black child Willa wonder, ‘Do he know it’s mamma’s rouge?'”82 Willa worries that her father is only pleased with her because her mother is pregnant again and “no good for mucha anything now.” The women are apparently interchangeable for Willa’s father; he will turn to one when the other is “no good.”
At church, Willa and her mother sit in the back holding the babies at evening services during a funeral for “the white lady” who used to sing in the choir. As Willa marvels at the flowers she reflects, “Bet her mamma wouldn’t get that many when she die. Willa thinkin of the pure cold skin of the white mamma & the delicate petals of the lilies & then she thinking of Lana’s live warm shit like her own hot brown face which she cover now wid rouge.”83 Blackness, a quality Willa shares with her mother, disqualifies them both from consideration as either beautiful or worthy of special attention, while the white woman, by virtue of her whiteness, will go “to bliss in heaven & streets & castles made a solid gold.”
Chute makes a bitter connection between the gold that belongs to white people because they are white, and the gold that flashes in Willa’s father’s mouth: “… her daddy open his mouth & show her his golden teeth, sayin it wuz god’s personal gift to him, and god spoke to him through the gold in his mouth, and that wuz how he preach.”84Reflecting on this outrageous claim the girl child Willa remembers “how many times she touch those teeth wid her tongue an it feelin smooth & cold & bitter. She fraid god gonna talk wid her tongue coverin the gold sometime, and daddy not gonna know what god is sayin to him.”85 In a single paragraph Chute graphically outlines the betrayal of black women by a black man who has sold his soul for white gold and white approval. If we have not gotten the message by now, Chute ensures that we grasp its implications in detail:
Her daddy up there still preachin but Willa not lissnin now. She watchin a spaghetti sauce stain on daddy’s suit, thinkin, “It the same color as the first nite when he touch me & the blood trickle & he call it the RED SEA OF MOSES & say god be very pleased cos we wuz lovin people.86
Willa’s father’s hypocrisy is unveiled — the spaghetti stain and Willa’s blood have exactly the same symbolic value. Both are spilled by his carelessness. His god, the one who speaks to him out of the gold in his mouth, is the father of lies and rationalizations, the god of deception.
Willa’s revelation comes after she hears her father say that the dead lady “a good mama.” The funeral flowers, “all white & orange & purple & red coverin & climbin the walls” smell so strongly they almost cause her to faint just “like when her daddy fill her deep inside, makin her body jerk & shake.” She watches her mother sing in the church and marvels that “her mamma’s teeth shinin white & brighter than daddy’s gold as her mamma sing, “Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus.'”87 The depth of her betrayal becomes clear as she realizes her mother’s simultaneous complicity in her own oppression and transcendence of it. The universal betrayal of all women by all men up to the very level of God, the Father, is apparent. This realization is inseparable from her understanding that, as a black woman, she will never be as valued a servant or sex object as a white woman:
Black girl know now. She understandin bout death. She know the dead white mamma goin far away to the heavenly kingdom where she run her tongue in the mouth of the Lord, fulla bitter golden laughter. Then that mamma be filled wid Jesus till she ache & shake. Cos Jesus probly need lovin like all daddy.”88
The inclusion of a single black “voice in the night” presents a real problem for the Yarrow and Morgan anthology. It effectively ends discussion about race while at the same time appearing to address the subject. McNaron and Morgan promote the idea that though there are differences among individual women and groups of women, we are all the same as women. Unfortunately, the women we are all the same as appear to be almost entirely white and middle-class. This problem has been thoroughly explored by Elizabeth V. Spelman in her book Inessential Woman: Problems of Exclusion in Feminist Thought (1988). Spelman argues that the feminist movement has too frequently adopted the position that, though differences between women exist, “It is not white middle-class women who are different from other women, but all other women who are different from them.”89 The decision to include a black voice implies the power to exclude them. As Spelman says, “Welcoming someone into one’s home doesn’t represent an attempt to undermine privilege: it expresses it.”90
Feminists must consider race, class, ethnicity, gender, nationality, and other identifiers as inseparable; Spelman argues for a feminist theory that is encompassing rather than exclusive:
The idea that gender is constructed and defined in conjunction with elements of identity such as race, class, ethnicity and nationality rather than separable from them helps explain why gender ought to be studied in connection with every academic discipline and not only in women’s studies departments. If we really could understand gender in isolation from race and class… gender would be less important than it actually is in our lives. For one thing, as long as we think both that gender identity is describable without reference to race and class (and is experienced and understood independently of them) and that feminism is centrally about gender and sexism, whatever else it might be about, then studies of race and class, racism and classism, have to remain peripheral to feminism. On the other hand, if gender is neither experienced nor describable independently of race and class, then race and class become crucial to feminism.91
The Morgan and McNaron anthology perpetuates the myth that “womanhood” is white middle-class womanhood, and that black or brown womanhood is merely a variation on the theme, rather than a kind of womanhood in its own right. Chute’s story is the same sort of variation on a theme, rather than an entirely new composition. Eliding issues of race and class may be convenient for white women survivors of sexual abuse, for they can then more easily see themselves as members of a larger community of survivors composed of all abused women. But it is a great disservice to women of color who are tired of hearing white feminists talk about racism and sexism as “something experienced by some women rather than something perpetrated by others: racism and classism are about what women of color and poor women experience, not about what white middle-class women may help to keep afloat.”92
Unlike Voices in the Night, which is printed in bright colors to attract attention, I Never Told Anyone is somber — the black cover is simply printed with a graceful serif typeface. The title is white, as are the names of the editors. Beneath the main title, the subtitle, “Writings by Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse” is printed in red. The back cover explains:
I Never Told Anyone is a deeply moving collection of first-person accounts of child sexual abuse. Here are stories and poems written by women of all ages and circumstances of the abuse they suffered either as young girls or as teenagers. In these compelling and poignant “life-refined” writings, we hear the long-repressed voices of sexually abused children. We learn of their fear, anger, pain, and love, and of their struggles to come to germs with the silence that allowed such abuse. Writing with courage and honesty, these women tell of experiences ranging from the most subtle overtures to repeated abuse. Introduced by brief biographies that place each woman in a past and present context, these pieces reflect a wide diversity of experience and emotional response and offer a powerful testament to all survivors of sexual abuse.
As a complement to the writings, Ellen Bass, both a well-known poet and experienced counselor, has written a moving essay that places child sexual abuse in a broad social context and speaks in a special way to readers who have shared this experience. The book concludes with a comprehensive listing of suggested reading and audiovisual materials. I Never Told Anyone not only recounts and illuminates; it offers real hope for change — and healing.
Excerpts from favorable reviews by Susan Griffin and Rod McKuen are included on the back cover. Griffin is undoubtedly quoted because of her well-deserved reputation as a feminist theorist concerned with issues of rape and domination. McKuen, interestingly enough, is included because of his status as fellow survivor; in his words, “a long-ago victim.”
These anthologies serve as an illustration of the very different ways women’s stories of survival can be packaged. The Morgan and McNaron book was boldly titled Voices in the Night. The voices are active and assertive, calling out loudly in the darkness. The message in the title is reinforced by the strong subtitle: “Women Speaking About Incest.” Speaking is also active, forceful. These women are speaking out in concert, and they will continue talking until they have been heard. In contrast, the Bass and Thornton anthology is titled I Never Told Anyone. Passive and introverted, the first-person voice isolates the survivors from each other, and suggests that the act of breaking silence is both frightened and furtive, a whisper rather than a shout. The subtitle continues in the passive voice: “Writings by Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse.”
While Voices in the Night is packaged as a “silence-breaking book,” useful in feminist therapy, I Never Told Anyone is a “deeply moving collection” that is “compelling and poignant.” The reader is invited to learn of the “fear, anger, pain, and love” of these women “and of their struggles to come to terms with the silence that allowed such abuse.” I Never Told Anyone is presented to the reader as a fascinating, emotionally involving look at the painful lives of other people — in terms not too terribly different from those that are used to sell romance novels, war novels, and other works of literature that allow readers to live through horrors vicariously.
Even a soft-sell presentation cannot strip away the dangerous implications of women writing about incest. The reader is informed that each story is safely contained within an editorial framework, a process that places “each woman in a past and present context.” The announcement that Ellen Bass is a qualified professional who will place “child and sexual abuse in a broad social context” further reassures us that the matter is under control. But just in case we are still worried, her work will speak “in a special way to readers who have shared this experience,” and point these damaged individuals to the “comprehensive listing of treatment and prevention programs” and “suggested reading and audiovisual materials” included in the text of the book. This is a far cry from Morgan and McNaron’s straightforward claim that “Voices in the Night is the simple powerful telling of a story that needs to be told.”
I Never Told Anyone features a Foreward, a Preface and an Introduction at the front of the book, as well as a listing of treatment and preventive programs, a bibliography, and notes on the editors at the back of the book. Altogether, these mediating sections take up 88 pages of a total of 278. If we include the editor’s introductions to each selection (an additional 25 pages), we find that more than forty percent of the anthology is composed of editorial “contextualizing.” (Voices in the Night has 24 pages of commentary, out of a total of 187 pages, less than thirteen percent.)
These calculations do not provide us with a reliable index of how good or bad an anthology may be. Rather, they suggest a particular set of narrator-interpreter relations. The Personal Narratives Group of the University of Minnesota argues that the production and dissemination of personal narratives is grounded in power relationships, and that both ethical and factual questions are involved in the process of packaging women’s personal narratives for public consumption.93 As feminist scholars, they take the following position:
In positing the centrality of the interpretive act, we recognize the possibility that the truths the narrator claims may be at odds with the most cherished notions of the interpreter. Personal narratives cannot be simply expropriated in the service of some good cause, but must be respected in their integrity. What are the rules governing their interpretation? Certainly the essays [included in the volume Interpreting Women’s Lives] have not provided simple answers, but many do suggest the need to recognize both the agenda of the narrator and that of the interpreter as distinct and not always compatible. And they once again remind us that feminist scholars, by simply criticizing the distortions inherent in disciplinary criteria for validation, have not released us from all institutional constraints upon our own use of these stories or from political agendas that shape our interpretation of them.94
We must recognize that the extensive editorial interpretation surrounding the pieces in the Bass and Thornton anthology reflect both a particular set of institutional constraints upon their use of incest stories, and a particular political agenda that shapes their interpretation of them.
The institutionalized constraints are obvious — mainstream publishing houses will not publish books they cannot successfully market. Thus, Thornton and Bass are required to seek a larger audience than the community of self-consciously feminist, woman-oriented incest survivors. There is a reason that incest testimony does not appeal to a larger market. In fact, a defining characteristic of incest is the fact that no one wants to talk about it or hear about it. To overcome this obstacle, Thornton and Bass — and the Harper and Row marketing department — must somehow make incest narratives seem both safe and appealing. Without doubt, this is a difficult task. The marketing department appears to have taken the soft-sell approach. These stories are human stories, “deeply moving,” full of the stuff pathos is made of: fear, anger, pain, love, struggle. The adjectives used in the back cover blurb are not so different from those used to sell other sad and painful tales. The Bantam paperback edition of Elie Wiesel’s Night describes his story as “penetrating and powerful,” “person,” “terrifying,” “shocking” and “unforgettable.”95 As the larger publishing houses have learned, Other People’s Trauma sells.
Thornton and Bass have a more difficult task than the marketing department. The marketing department is responsible for selling the book to the public. Thornton and Bass first had to the sell the book to a publisher. To mediate the essentially subversive message of these narratives by survivors of child sexual abuse, Thornton and Bass contain them within a structure that is both analytic and therapeutic. They divide the narratives into four categories: 1) “Survivors of Sexual Abuse By Fathers;” 2) “Survivors of Sexual Abuse by Relatives”; 3) “Survivors of Sexual Abuse by Friends and Acquaintances;” and 4) “Survivors of Sexual Abuse by Strangers.” The first two categories each contain seven selections; the last two contain nine and ten selections respectively.96 The number of entries in each category does not reflect the statistics on child sexual abuse: 47% of sexual abusers are members of children’s own families, an additional 40% are known to the children, and only eight to ten percent of the abusers are strangers.97Bass and Thornton downplay the frequency of abuse by family members and heighten the emphasis on assaults by strangers, diluting the challenge to rape and abuse mythology that these narratives raise. Furthermore, they divide victims into categories based on the identity of the abusers, rather than on the nature and impact of the abuse. Our perspective is shaped and determined by the manner in which information is structured.
The book’s therapeutic structure places abused women within the framework of mental illness. By making it clear that child sexual abuse had dramatic effects upon its victims, and by advocating that women seek counseling, advice and support from professionals and therapy groups, Bass and Thornton create the impression that the survivors are weak, harmless and “sick” — no threat to the status quo. Thornton and Bass emphasize that women need “healing.” They do not mention that many women survivors of child sexual abuse also believe that they need revolution.
Thornton and Bass are both committed feminists determined to bring the words of incest survivors to the public’s attention. Their success in publishing I Never Told Anyone is the result of hard work and dedication — even a strongly mediated message about incest cannot be gotten across without a tremendous amount of effort. It is possible they weighed the benefits of mass-market publishing against the drawbacks of softening their message, and decided that the survivor narratives would transcend the limits imposed by the market if only they could be read. The result, however, is an anthology that frequently compromises the integrity of the personal narratives, reducing and softening their impact while at the same time creating the impression that, within each category, all incest experiences are somehow alike. The latter is accomplished like most outsized feet are shoved into glass slippers — it takes a bit of judicious toe- and heel-trimming.
I Never Told Anyone opens with a Foreword by Florence Rush, identified on the cover as the author of The Best Kept Secret. The first words of her Foreward are, Of course, “I Never Told Anyone…” and she follows them with the question, Why? Quickly answering herself, she writes:
They never tell for the same reason that anyone who has been helplessly shamed and humiliated, and who is without protection or validation of personal integrity, prefers silence. Like the woman who has been raped, the violated child may not be believed (she fantasized or made up the story), her injury may be minimized (there’s no harm done, so let’s forget the whole thing) and she may even be held accountable for the crime (the kid really asked for it).98
Rush immediately de-genders the subject, explaining “they never tell for the same reason that anyone…,” arguing the universal nature of abuse, yet the only comparison she can come with is a woman who has been raped. The responses she suggests — “she fantasized,” “there’s no harm done,” “she asked for it” — are traditional male responses to female accusations of sexual abuse.
Rush goes on to describe the damage incest does to an abused child: lost self-esteem; the internalization of shame; repression of emotions. Once again, though she uses the female pronoun, Rush tries to suggest the universal nature of “the child’s” response: “When the offense remains hidden, unanswered and unchallenged, the sexuality, the very biology of the offended child becomes her shame.”99 This last sentence really makes no sense at all. “Biology” is all-encompassing and that is certainly not what Rush means. “The child” is not ashamed of her elbows or knees, or the way she metabolizes her food or produced new red blood cells. She is ashamed of her sex, of her female identity, and of the biological functions she associates with her sex — menstruation, orgasm, arousal. Why is Rush, an articulate woman, deliberately speaking in these fuzzy and inaccurate universals?
Diane Russell, who conducted the most extensive study on incest to the date of the publication of Worlds, explains that some mental health professionals and researchers are “ideologically uncomfortable” with the idea that the preponderance of sexual abusers of children are male:
In a cultural climate where feminists have called upon men to relinquish certain traditional modes of behavior, the fact that it is primarily men who commit sexual abuse bolsters feminists’ arguments and may thus create defensiveness in those who oppose feminist thinking. Some people find the problem of sexual abuse an easier cause to promote when it is not entangled in “gender politics.” Political support for issues of general “human” concern is much easier to mobilize than support for issues that appear to benefit one social group more than others — particularly when that group, women, is a stigmatized one of lower status…100
Having established the universal nature of child sexual abuse, Rush seems to abandon it with great relief in the third paragraph of her Foreward, and to launch more enthusiastically into a feminist analysis of the abuse of female children. “In the beginning of our Western civilization,” she explains, “the female, along with a house, ox, and ass, was man’s property. Specifically, she was a sexual property…”101 Her second explanation of the reason why incest is “the best kept secret” is much more sophisticated than her opening thesis:
The sexual abuse of little girls is predicated upon their presumed inferiority. A little girl can be used sexually because she is property, or because she is biologically imperfect, or because she is an enticing, sexy temptress. Simultaneously defined and degraded by her sexuality, she is constrained within a foolproof system of emotional blackmail. If she is violated the culturally imposed concept of her sexuality renders her culpable. Any attempt on the part of the child to expose her violator also exposes her own alleged inferiority and sexual motives and shames her rather than the offender. Concealment is her only alternative.102
Women, she goes on to argue, have more power than little girls, and are able to refuse to accept inferior status. By “pointing a finger at our abusers” women are made to “feel better about themselves because at last they have the courage to tell their stories.”103 She concludes, “The lesson to be learned from this testimony is to believe in and to protect the integrity of our children and to break the silence that endangers them.”104
Her analysis, though hopeful, is somewhat confusing. First of all, it cannot encompass the sexual abuse of male children by older male relatives. Though four times as many girls as boys are abused, the sexual abuse of male children is far from uncommon, and the abuse of male children is often more severe and of longer duration than the abuse of female children.105 Second, it suggests that all women have to do is speak out about incest and abuse, “break the silence that endangers them,” and the male power structure will crumble. Rush’s analysis does not adequately account for the difficulties historically faced by groups who seek to overthrow the rule of those who oppress them. Sensible folk would not claim that if only black slaves in antebellum America had spoken out against slavery and protected their children from slaveholders, they could have freed themselves. In The Wizard of Oz, Glinda the Good informs Dorothy that she had the power to leave Oz all along: “All you have to do is click your heels together and repeat three times, ‘There’s no place like home.'” Unfortunately, there are no magic slippers for oppressed people.
Thornton’s Preface is less idealistic than Rush’s Foreward, and makes fewer claims on behalf of the speaking subjects. Perhaps this is because of her experience in compiling the writings published in the volume. Like Voices in the Night, the Thornton and Bass book grew out of a women’s writing workshop (led by Ellen Bass). At one session of the workshop Jude Brister read aloud a story about an incestuous experience. The story had such a strong effect that Bass and several participants decided to edit an anthology of incest writings. These women made the decision to include writings by women who had personally experienced childhood sexual abuse, and they agreed to broadly define the term “sexual abuse” so that it encompassed any incident in which “an adult or near-adult takes away the child’s right to exclusive ownership of her body.”106 Thornton carefully acknowledges that boys are also sexually abused and includes mention of two particular instances where that occurred, but she does not include those stories in the anthology though she expresses the “hope that the experience of men who have been sexually abused as children will also be told.”107
Male survivors of sexual abuse are not the only missing voices. When they reviewed the submissions to the anthology they looked for “clear, strong, distilled writing, ‘life-refined,’ as Gwendolyn Brooks says about her poetry. We hoped to find writers who would take an experience as horrendous as being sexually abused as a child and, like Picasso with the bombing of Guernica, turn it into a work of art.”108 The editors had a set of definite aesthetic standards they wished their writers to meet. Though they also wished “to help give the sexually abused child a voice,” they seemed to exclude from consideration survivors of sexual abuse whose work was not “good” enough, as well as those who were politically opposed or simply incapable of turning the narrative of their childhood sexual abuse into an aesthetically pleasing work of “art.”
Thornton’s final point is that “telling” offers a kind of absolution for the survivor: “In this telling she can reclaim her innocence. She is innocent. She has always been innocent. Both the burden of the crime and the crime itself are lifted from her shoulders. She can tell.”109 Despite this brave assertion, many of the women published in this anthology have used pseudonyms, indicating that their courageous act of bearing witness to sexual abuse did not set them free. Thornton’s failure to acknowledge this makes her unable to ask a very important question: Which women are set free when they testify to an experience of sexual abuse?
Her implicit belief that the range of possible experience of sexual abuse is the same for all women is underlined when she quotes a fellow editor: “‘It doesn’t matter if you live in the city or in the country, if your family is together or apart, if you’re black or white, rich or poor; any child is vulnerable.'”110 That some women are more privileged to speak than other women is simply not considered. Echoing Rush, Thornton says:
The women in these pages have transformed themselves, like phoenixes rising from the ashes, through their own words. Ideally this anthology will unlock the power of the spoken or written word for the thousands of additional women who never told anyone.111
For her, it is our refusal to speak, to testify to abuse, that has kept us in chains.
Ellen Bass begins her introduction where Thornton’s Preface leaves off. Entitled, “In the Truth Itself, There is Healing,” her essay celebrates women’s decisions to speak the truth about sexual abuse. Divided into several sub-sections and making extensive use of footnotes and bibliographic citations, Bass’s essay appears more “professional” than the previous two introductions. She discusses the extent of child sexual abuse, quoting statistical evidence to support her case, and accuses many members of the therapeutic establishment of tolerating and even advocating the sexual use of children. Claims that incest is harmless or beneficial, she argues, are absurd:
When a man sexually uses a child, he is giving that child a strong message about her world. He is telling her that she is important because of her sexuality, that men want sex from girls, and that relationships are insufficient without sex. He is telling her that she can use her sexuality as a way to get the attention and affection she genuinely needs, that sex is a tool. When he tells her not to tell, she learns there is something about sex that is shameful and bad; and that she, because she is a part of it, is shameful and bad; and that he, because he is a part of it, is shameful and bad. She learns that the world is full of sex and is shameful and bad and not to be trusted, that even those entrusted with her care will betray her; that she will betray herself.112
A particularly interesting subsection of the Introduction describes Bass’s interaction with a man who advocated sexual contact between adults and children. Entitled “A Good Excuse,” the subsection introduces an anonymous critic, a “self-defined psychologist and sex researcher” who challenged Bass’s claim that all child-adult sex was effectively abusive. Thornton and Bass met with the man and spoke with him for two hours. Bass describes the meeting with the man as “frustrating and deeply disturbing.” This man was completely unconscious both of his own sexist attitudes (“he referred to girls as prick teasers”) and his desires to revise his sexually frustrated adolescence by sleeping with the thirteen-year-old girls who were denied to him in his youth. Bass was completely unable to communicate her feeling that, though he claimed the children “initiated” sexual contact with him, he had deceived himself “in pretending that their actions are autonomous, unrelated to what they sense we want of them.”113 She concludes, “Louise and I left the interview feeling we had said little of what we had really wanted to say and that very little of that had permeated his construct of how he wanted sex to be.”114 In this particular case, at least, “telling” was completely ineffective, failing even to make Bass feel better.
The possibility that “telling” might not solve the problem of sexual abuse is also suggested by Bass’s own attempt to tie contemporary child sexual abuse to the history of women’s oppression. She mentions arranged marriage, suttee, foot binding, genital mutilation, clitoridectomy, infibulation, witch burning, and rape, explaining that these horrors were perpetrated by men, whether or not women were involved in the process. Chinese women bound their daughters’ feet because that was the only way to ensure their survival in an economy in which unappealing, large-footed women remained unmarried and thus faced starvation. Bass compares contemporary mothers who refuse to confront their daughters’ abuse to the Chinese foot-binders, failing to realize that by doing so she fatally undermines her argument that women can put a stop to child sexual abuse by just saying no. In a culture in which, as Bass documents, all our institutions including movies, television, art, advertising and literature sanction the sexualization of children, a woman testifying is a voice in the wilderness.115
Though it is never articulated baldly, this all boils down to one problem: men. Men do terrible things — to other men, to women, to children, to the biosphere. Why do they do it? Bass believes they do it because they are ignorant:
He does not know why. He does not know his own mind or his own body. He is a stranger to himself. And because he does not know himself, does not feel himself, he has in effect given himself up. There is no self to withstand the onslaught of messages he receives from his culture, encouraging him to abuse children.116
This is a weak theoretical construct. Who controls the creation of cultural messages? Does she believe that the men who project these cultural messages don’t know what they want either? Does Bass believe that there are no men who know their own minds and still desire to abuse and oppress other people? And if men don’t know their own minds, can we claim that women do? Do women know the minds of men well enough to claim that men don’t know their own minds?
In Bass’s world, men may not know their own minds, but women must doubt what they know:
Working on this anthology has brought me into conscious struggle with the twisted, deep-rooted images of myself as a sexual female that I have absorbed from my environment through my life. Distorted, disturbing images I have suppressed have barged into my consciousness, upsetting me, forcing me to confront how I have been warped.117
Bass’s confusion leads her to draw some strange conclusions. Like gonzo journalist and combat correspondent Michael Herr, who concludes his surrealist journey through the Vietnam War with the chant “Vietnam Vietnam Vietnam, we’ve all been there,” Ellen Bass is reduced to muttering, “I was not sexually abused. Yet I was sexually abused. We were all sexually abused…” Herr and Bass are driven to share their versions of traumatic experience precisely because we have not all been there. The profound differences between those who have been sexually abused and those who have not been are obscured by Bass’s desire to universalize their pain. She ignores the special nature of survivor testimony when she claims that, male and female alike, “We are all wounded. We all need healing.”118
The problem with placing male and female wounds on the same plane is obvious if we simply refer back to the statistics with which Bass opened her Introduction. Ninety-seven percent of child molesters and rapists are men. Ninety percent of sexually abused children are female. From this angle it’s a one-question IQ test: Who needs healing and who needs restraint? Bass argues for a “restoration of consciousness where the rape of children — as well as the rape of women, forests, of oceans, of the earth — is a history.”119 “Restoration” implies that this kind of consciousness existed in the first place, and Bass, in her own historical overview, never suggests that we once existed in this state of grace. In the final analysis, Bass places her faith in a mythology of spiritual transcendence, based on little but hope and desire.
Despite the thickness of the wrappings, the drive to testify in the writings of incest and sexual abuse survivors still shines through in the anthology itself. Jude Brister’s child character Carrie wins respite from her battle with her father over her right to her own body, and retires to her own bed in triumph. Maggie Hoyal describes a child fighting back after her father rapes her, her brave outcries: “No, get off me! Get off me!“120 A mother comes to the rescue of an abused child in Jean Monroe’s “California Daughter / 1950.”121 As in Voices in the Night, there are those writers who describe in graphic detail the abuse they suffered. R.C. writes:
My father is crying and telling me to be good. He pulls down my pajama bottoms and tries to put something too big inside my vagina. I think about shitting. How this is almost like shitting. Only it’s not coming out of me and it is not quite the right place. I am terrified that my father is crying. I won’t mind the hurt if it will make him stop crying. The big thing won’t go in, though, and I am still crying. He stops and tells me I must love him. I lie still and he puts that big thing into my mouth. He is holding my nose. I can’t breathe. He won’t stop and I feel guilty for fighting it. He needs me. My mouth fills with stickiness and I am throwing up all over.122
And there are authors who rage and accuse, as Marty O. Dyke does in “Yeah I’m Blaming You”:
Yeah I’m blaming you
You prickhole prick fuck flap jack
I’m blaming you
And I’m blaming you good.
Yeah, I’m telling you
You’re full of shit, your “innocence”
All the drivel snivel slime grim semen-webbed
WHAT YOU DONE
AND YEAH I’M BLAMING YOU.
You prick fuck flip fuck dick duck…123
Six of the entries in I Never Told Anyone were excerpted from longer works or full-length books. One of these is Yarrow Morgan’s “Remember,” which appeared in its longer form in Voices in the Night. Another is Jean Monroe’s short story, “California Daughter / 1950,” which won the Martha Foley’s Best Short Stories Aware in 1976 and was published in complete form in Aphra magazine that same year. A third is excerpted from a cycle of poems by Lynn Swenson, and the fourth is a short chapter from Kate Millet’s Flying. All of these voices have inevitably been compromised in the excerpting process, but none suffer more than the last two, by Maya Angelou and Billie Holiday. Both I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Lady Sings the Blues are black women’s autobiographies, rooted in tradition of black women’s literary and oral culture, and deeply concerned with issues of race and gender. Strongly black-identified in their writings and their art, both authors have served as role models for other creative black women. Yet, Thornton and Bass carefully sidestep the issue of race.
Neither the introduction to Angelou’s, nor Holiday’s narratives mentions the fact that either woman is black. An observant reader might guess that Angelou is African-American because she is described as the northern coordinator of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, but such a conclusion is difficult to confirm, particularly since Bass and Thornton describe her as one of the few women members of the Directors Guild”124 — her race would also have made her one of the few black members of the Directors Guild. The emphasis on her status as woman, and the complete disappearance of her race indicate either a conscious or unconscious decision on the part of the editors to “disappear” the question of race in their text at the same time they claim to be representative.
In the introduction to the excerpt from Holiday’s autobiography, Holiday is described as a woman “inspired by recordings of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, ” who “began to sing professionally in a Harlem nightclub.” Again, those familiar with black history and music would identify HOliday as a black singer, but for the uninitiated, conclusions might be difficult to draw. Though Holiday played and recorded with many well-known black musicians, the editors feel it only necessary to mention that she made her first recording with Benny Goodman in 1993. She was known, Thornton and Bass write, “for the unique, bittersweet quality of her voice, her striking beauty, and the gardenia she usually wore in her hair;”125 they neglect to comment on her work as one of the premier black recording artists of her day, or on the fact that throughout her life she was an outspoken critic of racism.
Bass and Thornton have, in effect, appropriated the writings of these black women and used them to further their own (white) political agenda, albeit in the service of a good cause. In so doing, they have compromised the integrity of both autobiographies, simplifying their complex messages and diluting their power. Neither Holiday nor Angelou writes about her experience of surviving child sexual abuse outside of the context of life as a black woman.
The excerpt from Angelou’s I Knew Why… that Bass and Thornton chose for inclusion in the anthology interprets her experience through the lessons she had been taught as a child in the black church, internalizing her guilt as sin. Her abuser, a black man named Mr. Freeman, is murdered by her uncles in retaliation, since the white institution of a court of law failed to provide justice. Angelou believes she is responsible for Mr. Freeman’s death:
In those moments I decided that although Bailey [her brother] loved me, he couldn’t help. I had sold myself to the Devil and there could be no escape. The only thing I could do was to stop talking to people other than Bailey. Instinctively, or somehow, I knew that because I loved him so much I’d never hurt him, but if I talked to anyone else, that person might die too. Just my breath, carrying my words out, might poison people and they’d curl up and die like the black fat slugs that only pretended.126
Her revelations about sexual abuse, like those of Susan Chute, are intimately involved with her racial identity. Angelou’s power to harm others does not extend to white people, though she knows that she can harm her own black people by talking to white people. Likewise, she understands that black people are not protected by law. The white policeman — “taller than the sky and whiter than my image of God” — who informs her family of Mr. Freeman’s death, has no mission beyond the delivery of the news. In Angelou’s childhood world, white people do not mete out justice, they simply pass judgment. She says of the policeman, “Although he looked harmless, I knew he was a dreadful angel counting out my many sins.”127
The three-page excerpt from Holiday’s memoir is a particularly abrupt abridgement, providing no context at all in which to examine her experience of sexual abuse. Holiday’s life was filled with traumatic experiences, and her brief discussion of the sexual abuse she suffered is a clear indication of her belief that they were not the most notable wrongs inflicted upon her by a society that was both racist and sexist. As a child, Holiday was attacked by a neighbor, “Mr. Dick,” who attempted to rape her with the assistance of a female accomplice. “I’ll never forget that night,” Holiday writes:
Even if you’re a whore, you don’t want to be raped. A bitch can turn twenty-five hundred tricks a day and she still don’t want nobody to rape her. It’s the worst thing that can happen to a woman. And here it was happening to me when I was ten.128
She is acutely aware that the callous treatment afforded by the police is a result of the combination of her status as black and female. A white woman attacked by a black man would not be treated in the same fashion:
When we got [to the police station], instead of treating me and Mom like somebody who called the cops for help, they treated me like I’d killed somebody. They wouldn’t let my mother take me home. Mr. Dick was in his forties, and I was only ten. Maybe the police sergeant took one look at my breasts and limbs and figured my age from that. I don’t know. Anyway, I guess they had me figured for having enticed this old goat into the whorehouse or something. All I know for sure is they threw me into a cell. My mother cried and screamed and pleaded, but they just put her out of the jailhouse and turned me over to a fat white matron… Mr. Dick got sentenced to five years. They sentenced me to a Catholic institution.129
Holiday declared that she refused to recreate the hierarchy of domination in her own life, rejecting men who were not understanding and sympathetic about her anger and hurt at being sexually abused. Thornton and Bass end the excerpt on this note, suggesting that Holiday had the power to take control of her life and that she used it positively. Such a conclusion also ignores the many other hierarchies of domination that Holiday could not successfully escape, the racist laws and attitudes which continued to humiliate and oppress her; the economic difficulties faced by a black artist; the physical and psychological needs that drug addiction both satisfied and created.
The editors’ deliberate decision to erase race issues from the text is also reflected in their discussion of Hummy’s short story, “A Totally White World.”130 Though the short story describes a racially motivated sexual assault, the editors chose to focus on Hummy’s miraculous recovery from her injuries, and her current status as a “successful businesswoman,” rather than on the questions of race and gender Hummy raises. Hummy herself underlines the importance of race in her choice of a title for her story, but this seems to escape them:
I think to myself, what is that awful smell? It’s like old Prestone, antifreeze. I groggily try to open my eyes. Oh, this is a totally white world. I can’t seem to move my right arm. It’s all painted white and seems to be in cement… I guess I must be dead. I wonder what I did of? I never though it would be all white with the Sky People.131
Like Susan Chute and Maya Angelou, Hummy draws parallels between the idea of a white god and white-ruled secular world. Told she is in a hospital by her beloved friend, Spring Flower, she asks what has happened to her. Spring Flower tells her she fell out of a tree:
You fell so hard that you tore yourself open. Part of your bowels were out of your body and your pelvic bone was crushed. Besides all that, you broke your jaw in four places. That’s why your mouth is wired shut. Along with that, you broke nine ribs, your right arm is broken in three places, and the big bone in your left leg is broken. You have five cracks in your skull, and so many bruises.132
In this listing of her injuries the consensus is that Hummy is responsible for hurting herself. She tore herself open, she broke her jaw, she broke her ribs. This catalogue of wounds appears excessive, even for a child who has taken a terrible fall from a tree, but Spring Flower relates it as if it is a documented truth. However, our belief in the accuracy of this assessment is undermined when Spring Flower reminds Hummy:”
It’s important that you speak in the white tongue so that the nurses and doctors can help you with what you need. Besides, I have told you before, it’s not polite to speak in our tongue when the people around can’t understand what you are saying. You are in the white world now, so speak the white tongue.133
Hummy, even at five, is sensitive enough to understand her situation. She thinks, “Somewhere deep inside of me, I really didn’t want them to know what I was saying.”134
Hummy refuses to speak English and tells her story only to Spring Flower. Two white men kidnapped her and took her into an old shed. They beat her, and one of them broke her arm over his knee. They tied her between two posts by her wrists and ankles, “spread out like you would stretch a hide to dry.” When she fought them they beat her some more and knocked out her teeth. They raped her and urinated and defecated on her body. Then they beat her some more, breaking bones and causing internal injuries. Though the story is told through the child’s eyes, it is clear to the reader that both men use Hummy as an object to excite each other — the homo-erotic quality of their violence is brought to the fore by Hummy’s description of “Ernie… doing something to Floyd. You know, like dogs do,”135 and by her relation of Floyd’s comment, “Go come in her face so I can watch.”136 They refer to Hummy only as “Indian,” “Toots,” “cunt,” “heathen,” “slut,” and “pussy,” making it clear that her racial and sexual status makes her less than human in their eyes.
Hummy’s decision not to tell her story in English is reasonable, given her position. She overhears Spring Flower speaking angrily to the doctor, demanding that the men be brought to justice. The doctor replies, “She would have to identify them. It would be her word, a five-year-old Indian child against two adult white men… I don’t think you could ever bring it to trial.”137 Spring Flower’s answer suggests that Hummy’s story will have a conclusion similar to the sexual abuse incident in Maya Angelou’s autobiography:
“Doctor, you’re misunderstanding me,” Spring Flower said. “I definitely do not want her involved in any way. I just want to know where they can be located. You can help me or not. These men will be found and will be treated accordingly. We, too, have our justice.”138
Though the law does not mete justice out to most men who sexually abuse women, communities of American minorities suffer an additional burden of discrimination within the justice system. Women of color are rarely aided by white-controlled courts and police when they are sexually abused. Men of color are most likely to be prosecuted for the crime of sexual abuse when they are accused of abusing white women. Many people of color have learned that it is safest to avoid the U.S. court system entirely, and they often rely on community-based moral and ethical codes, as well as community-enforced systems of punishment for infractions to solve their legal dilemmas. Such codes are often sexist, yet the offer more useful guidelines than the dominant white practice of law and order.
Incest and sexual abuse survivor literature written by women of color reflects the complex interplay of gender and race within minority communities, and between the minority community and white mainstream culture. The elision of these differences in the early sexual abuse and incest survivor literature is an indication of the power hierarchy that exists in the community of women who produce such literature. bell hooks warns us that we must question our motivations, and be aware of the uses to which we put women’s personal narratives. Otherwise, we run the risk of misunderstanding and misrepresenting them:
Feminist thinkers in the United States use confession and memory primarily as a way to narrate tales of victimization, which are rarely rendered dialectically… We must… be careful not to promote the construction of narratives of female experience that become so normative that all experience that does not fit the model is deemed illegitimate or unworthy of investigation. Rethinking ways to constructively use confession and memory shifts the focus away from mere naming of one’s experience. It enables feminist thinkers to talk about identity in relation to culture, history, politics, whatever and to challenge the notion of identity as static and unchanging… In early feminist consciousness-raising, confession was often the way to share negative traumas, the experience of male violence, for example. Yet there remain many unexplored areas of female experience that need to be fully examined, thereby widening the scope of our understanding of what it is to be female in this society.139
hook succinctly sums up the problems with the early attempts to publish and promote literature by sexual abuse survivors. Kiss Daddy Goodnight, Voices in the Night, and I Never Told Anyone do embody a “normative” narrative of female experience of sexual abuse. Each of these books either omits stories that deal with racial identity, or includes such stories in an abridge or carefully decontextualized manner meant to prevent them from interfering with the explicit “message” of the volume.
As Louise Armstrong found, much to her dismay, the publications of these normative narratives have been ineffective in altering the patriarchal structure. They have, in fact, raised a new set of problems, which Armstrong describes in the introduction of Kiss Daddy Goodnight: Ten Years Later … a 1987 reissue of her landmark publication with a new foreword and afterword.
[I]t was not our intention merely to start a long conversation. Nor did we intend simply to offer up one more topic for talk shows, or one more plot option for ongoing dramatic series. We hoped to raise hell. We hoped to raise change. What we raised, it would seem, was discourse. And a sizable problem-management industry. Apart from protective service workers, we have researchers, family treatment programs, incest offender programs, prevention experts, incest educators… It was not in our minds, either, ten years ago, that incest would become a career option.140
Armstrong believes that while making incest a topic of public discourse has not reduced the number of children who are incestuously abused, it has resulted in the “medicalization” of incest and the “creation of an incest industry.”141
Medicalization has reduced incest from crime to “disease”: a psychological illness that involves the whole family. Contemporary psychology, Armstrong claims, places an inappropriate amount of responsibility for incest on the mother of the abused child:
From the outset, all the heavy artillery was aimed at this mother. The entire construction of the “family disease” model depended on her existence… Without this abstract “her,” we would have been forced to confront the political/power abuse as we had posed it. We would have had to hear the peculiar harmony between the victims’ testimony and that of the offenders. We would then have had to confront head-on the moral dilemma: How wrong is it to molest your own child, within the context of our value system today? Worse than molesting the neighbor’s kid? … Less bad?142
By looking at incest as a “family” problem, the status quo could be preserved — the problem could be explained so that it lay in the dysfunctional nature of a particular family, rather than in the abusive behavior of one man, or of many men towards many female children. In the classic Freudian tradition, family problems stem from the “neurotic mother,” neatly repackaged as the “incest mother.” Incest mothers caused their own problems by choosing husbands over children, being fearful of abandonment, and denying that abusive relationships existed in their families. Armstrong explains:
[I]t pointed to an unfortunate (but apparently acceptable) assumption about family life: that mom’s main job was to control pop’s behavior. It suggested the need for a beady eye trained on the nursery door. It suggested that health was a lack of trust in the person you’d married.143
Laws were passed that criminalized the behavior of these mothers: “failure to protect” clauses, and statutes that punished mothers who “knew or should have known.”144 At the same time, a “pro-incest lobby” (which included a number of researchers, psychologists and academics) began to state publicly that “Incest between children and adults can sometimes be beneficial,” and that its very prevelance made prohibition impossible.145 Disheartened, Armstrong says:
Our voices, by now, had been almost entirely drowned out. It was becoming more and more unfashionable to appear to notice the fact that every study showed the perpetrators to be almost universally male, whether the victims were small boys or small girls. Indeed, by the time of this writing, even to mention the fact is to set off an explosion against such obvious retrograde feminist man-hating. As one Highly Placed Personage in the sexual-abuse-expert chain bellowed at me recently: “I am sick and tired of hearing about this as a gender issue!”146
Armstrong also mentions the male obsession with the notion that women use cries of incest to somehow oppress men. Just as the courts protect men from false accusation so enthusiastically and with such dedication that cases of “simple” rape are almost never prosecuted, so the mechanisms of law protect husbands and fathers from accusations of incest and child sexual abuse. Such accusations are often thought to be merely a tactic in divorce and custody cases, a ploy used by a bitter wife to “get back” at her husband. Armstrong concludes, “Speaking out was a first step only.”147
There are tremendous forces working against real change. A limited, but apparently constant portion of the male population obviously enjoys acting on the tacit privilege to molest children who are “theirs.” Whether in open advocacy of children’s “rights” to sex with adults, or behind the cant of family privacy, preserving the family, and traditional values, or by counter-accusation when they are caught, those forces will continue to wage war.148
Armstrong’s new ending for Kiss Daddy Goodnight is not nearly as strong and optimistic as the thanks she uttered in her first edition. Driven to frustration and despair, she concludes the book with an inarticulate wailing. The last word in the book is a scream, not so different from an infant’s cry: “Waaagh.”149 In a society where violence against women is supported and condoned, excused and rationalized, the testimony of survivors of sexual abuse is silenced, ignored, drowned out by the thundering voices of the patriarchs.
Susan Brownmiller wrote in 1976, with a certain irony, “Man’s discovery that his genitalia could be used as a weapon to generate fear must rank as one of the most important discoveries of prehistoric times.”150 Anthony Wilden concurred, and added that “Male control over women and their bodies is the oldest form of private property; the division of productive labor by sex is the oldest form of class distinction; male monopolies of myth, ritual, and religion are the oldest forms of ideology; male supremacy is the oldest form of imperialism.”151 Andrea Dworkin suggested that the male sexual act is inevitably a dominance ritual, that the urge to penetrate was inextricably tied to the urge to conquer and rule the penetrated, and that the one penetrated is inevitably feminized: “Fucking requires that the male act on one who has less power and this valuation is so deep, so completely implicit in the act, that the one who is fucked is stigmatized as feminine during the act even when not anatomically female.”152 Robin Morgan argued that to save the planet from certain destruction we must transform ourselves completely, refiguring “all forms of perception, including remembering, imagining, intuiting, hallucinating, dreaming, and empathizing.”153 Biologist and naturalist Irene Elia observes:
[I]t now appears that in order to fundamentally alter any systems in which men dominate women, the rule of perpetuation of the successful (or natural selection) would have to be denied, contravened, manipulated, or abolished. While religions may deny (“transcend”) this rule, utopians try to contravene it, and science manipulate it, nothing, it seems, will abolish the rule of natural (including social) selection short of that which would abolish differential reproduction and differential death.154
We bear witness not simply to individual crimes of abuse and brutality, but to an entire system of oppression that keeps women and many men in thrall, subject to the whims and desires of a privileged masculine class — a system in which maleness and violence are closely linked. Our testimony challenges that system, though it does not overthrow it. Bearing witness, we have learned, is just the beginning.
The change we have wrought is a change in consciousness. The actual condition of rape continues, as do all the conditions of women’s lives which cannot be separated from rape… Yes, we do not yet have the end of rape. All we have is the feat of naming rape a crime against us.155
2. See Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: George Bush, 1990, Book II — July 1 to December 31, 1990 (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office) 1991; “Remarks at a Republican Campaign Rally in Manchester, New Hampshire,” 23 Oct 1990; “Remarks at a Republican Fundraising Breakfast in Burlington, Vermont,” 23 Oct 1990; “Remarks at a Campaign Rally for Gubernatorial Candidate Pete Wilson in Los Angeles, California,” 26 Oct 1990; “Remarks at a Republican Party Fundraising Breakfast in Burlington, Massachusetts,” 1 Nov 1990; “Remarks at a Republican Reception at Cincinnati, Ohio,” 2 Nov 1990; “Remarks at a Reception for Gubernatorial Candidate Pete Wilson in Thousand Oaks, California,” 3 ov 190; “Question-And-Answer Session With Reporters Following Discussions With President Václav Havel in Prague, Czechoslovakia,” 17 Nov 1990; “The President’s News Conference,” 30 Nov 1990. My thanks to Nancy Kendall for locating these citations for me, and for kindly supplying me with copies.
7. By “self-conscious sexual assault narratives,” I mean narratives in which the authors have taken as their primary subject the specific incident(s) os sexual assault that traumatized them, and then attempted to describe and contextualize the assault for the reader.
10. Mary Helen Washington, “‘Taming all that anger down’: Rage and Silence in Gwendolyn Brooks’s Maud Martha,” in H.L. Gates, Jr., ed., Black Literature and Literary Theory (New York: Methuen) 1984: 249-250.
33. “[I]t is not surprising that Sigmund Freud had to conceal his surprising discovery of adults’ sexual abuse of their children, a discovery he was led to by the testimony of his patients. He disguised his insight with the aid of theory that nullified this inadmissable knowledge. Children of his day were not allowed under the severest of threats, to be aware of what adults were doing to them, and if Freud had persisted in his seduction theory, he not only would have had his introjected parents to fear, but would no doubt have been discredited, and probably ostracized, by middle-class society. In order to protect himself, he had to devise a theory that would preserve appearances by attributing all ‘evil,’ guilt and wrongdoing to the child’s fantasies, in which the parents served only as objects of projection. We can understand why this theory omitted the fact that it is the parents who not only project their sexual and aggressive fantasies onto the child but are also able to act out these fantasies because they wield the power.” Alice Miller, For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence (New York: Farrar, Straus,Giroux) 1983: 60. Originally published in German under the title Am Anfang war Erziehung (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag) 1980.
60. Ibid.: 16. Here the editors renounce their claim to all “literature” and “statistics.” I assume that they believe the new writings are something different, but I am troubled by this wholesale renunciation of the past, which included a great many useful writings by women.
61. This is similar to the process of art therapy for Vietnam veterans. See Deborah Golub, “Symbolic Expression in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Vietnam Combat Veterans in Art Therapy,” The Arts in Psychotherapy 12(4) 1985: 285-296.
96. Thornton addresses the decision to divide the sexual abuse pieces into four categories in her Preface. She explains that sexual abuse by fathers is unique “in terms of betrayal and devastation.” She describes the last category, sexual abuse by strangers, as important because it breaks down sinister stereotypes and suggests that an abusive stranger can come from any part of society. (Thornton, “Foreward,” Thornton and Bass, eds.: 21.
115. This metaphor is more apt than one might expect. Bass explains: “Our forests, our rivers, our oceans, our air, our earth, this entire biosphere, are all invaded with poison — raped, just as our children are raped… To stunt a child’s trust in people, in love, in her world… to desecrate children so is consistent for people who desecrate all life and the possibility of future life.” Ibid.: 42-43.