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Incest: Sexual Politics or a Matter of Therapy and Recovery?

November 27, 1994|ROBIN ABCARIAN

A full-page newspaper ad--a public service announcement--is tacked to the wall next to my desk. Most of the page is taken up by a photograph of a little girl who looks strikingly like my own. This little girl, though, is dead; she was killed by a drunken driver in 1991.

The picture is there to remind me of several things: of the power of anecdote to illustrate truth, of the intolerance toward a particularly dangerous kind of anti-social behavior, and of the successful politicization of an issue by a group of people--mothers--who decided enough was enough.

It's not OK to drive drunk anymore. And if you get caught, you will be punished.

I wonder: Could you say the same about incest?

This question came up the other day in a conversation with Louise Armstrong, a writer with a biting sense of irony who sometimes refers to herself as the "World's First Walking, Talking Incest Victim." She also has a great sense of humor. Obviously, with these credentials, she has to.

In 1978, with great hope, Armstrong published a book called "Kiss Daddy Goodnight," a compendium of anecdotes about incest, including her own. She quoted--from letters and interviews--the stories of women who had been sexually abused as children, adolescents and teen-agers, almost always by their fathers.

No one denies that some mothers do terrible things to their kids or that fathers can also rape sons, but Armstrong argues forcefully against making incest a "gender neutral" issue since the overwhelming number of cases involve fathers and daughters. Mainly, she says, incest is a case of fathers acting out a misguided sense of male privilege, one that to this day plenty of people do not think is such a terrible thing. (As in, "You have to understand at the time, I thought I was doing my daughter a favor." As in, "If I would get angry with my wife, I would say hell with her, I've got my daughter.")

"Kiss Daddy Goodnight" lifted the lid. Or seemed to. But what Armstrong and others who dared speak had hoped would materialize--a true intolerance of what amounted to the sexual enslavement of children--never really occurred.

What happened instead, Armstrong argues outrageously and persuasively in her new book, "Rocking the Cradle of Sexual Politics: What Happened When Women Said Incest," was that incest veered away from the political, then went roaring down the therapy/recovery road. It became a mental health issue instead of a criminal justice/political issue. Incest became about adult women seeking to heal the wounds suffered in childhood.

"It is the switch from the feminist to the therapeutic ideology," Armstrong writes, "with its muzzy-minded focus on incest survivors as the neurasthenics of the 1990s--that has framed a lousy and truly destructive . . . experience as an individual disease, rather than as the result of an ingrained social disorder."

Too, she argues, there is no crossover between adults in recovery and children who are suffering from abuse now .

It is still very rough going for children who make accusations of incest. Often, they are put into foster care, subjected to years of court battles and forced therapy, and, as Armstrong documents, may even wind up in the custody of the very parent they claimed abused them.

Mothers have also found themselves involved in legal nightmares, alternately accused of not knowing what was going on when they should have or of making up allegations to gain custody in nasty divorce cases. Armstrong cites several studies showing that charges of sexual abuse are not more prevalent in custody and visitation cases than elsewhere. And, according to one law review article she quotes, "Mothers who make claims of sexual abuse in the context of divorce proceedings often lose custody as a result."

Already murky waters were further muddied when the issue of incest and child sexual abuse became entwined in the public imagination with claims of satanic ritual abuse, the burgeoning controversy over "recovered" memories and blanket assertions by authors of self-help books to the effect that "if you think you were abused, you were."

The issue became so convoluted, the claims so preposterous, Armstrong says, that "ordinary, household" incest retreated as an issue, overtaken by the carnival atmosphere that attended the freaky sideshows, which continue to play out, ad nauseum, on America's TV talk shows.

"People are sick of it," she says. "People wish it would go away."

A lot of people are going to wish Armstrong would go away--among them, I should think, the women who have worked hard with therapists and support groups to overcome the effects of sex abuse. Why, for example, can't healing and political activism coexist?

Whatever her flaws, though, Armstrong is impossible to dismiss.

Amid all the noise, she argues convincingly that incest is, fundamentally, a way some little girls are socialized to be women by submitting to the sexual demands of the men they trust most. That is why she calls incest "the cradle of sexual politics," why she rues its takeover by the mental health industry.

And she has a point: "Certainly, as a result of drunk driving, many, many people are wounded and maimed and many people are grievously bereft. However, no one felt the need to go on television 40 times a day displaying wounds. Instead, they organized as Mothers Against Drunk Driving and politically acted, and that is what we are talking about here."

It's what we should talk about anyway.

* Robin Abcarian's column is published Wednesdays and Sundays.

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