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I met Tom* through his psychotherapist, who is a friend of mine, but he didn't want to meet me in person. He was worried I would judge or insult him. That's how others have reacted when he's told them about his life. He does want to talk, though—he says he wants to get the truth off his chest. So we arrange a Skype interview. He turns up in dark sunglasses and a hat to protect his identity. He promises he'll tell me everything as long as I don't reveal his personal details. If I did, I would be putting his freedom at stake.
Tom's profile picture shows him and his girlfriend, Lena. She hugs him from behind, lovingly kissing him on the neck. He is smiling, twining his fingers in her long, brown hair. Strictly speaking, nothing is wrong with this photo. It shows two people who love each other—a relationship based on mutual attraction.
But Lena is Tom's sister, and for most people this changes everything; the photograph actually becomes criminal evidence. "I'm scared of people finding me disgusting," says Tom. He looks away from me and claws at his fingers. He's been in a committed relationship with his sister for 20 years, and the couple has a child together. "There's nothing that I haven't heard before. People have called me a desecrator, sister-fucker, or simply retarded. And all that's come out of the mouths of people who were at one time my friends. Even if society won't recognize us, we exist and there are more of us than you think."
Rotraut Perner is a psychotherapist who has worked, among other things, on various incest cases since 1975. "In most cases, my patients were very shy toward strangers," he says. "They clearly exhibited social anxiety and tended to stay at home. This of course was often linked to their backstory: Most of them weren't allowed to meet up with other people as children because their parents were either very jealous or very stern—limiting their children's movements."
Tom and Lena grew up in a small Austrian village. They lived in a huge, white fairytale house with a dog on the front lawn. Their mother was a housewife and their father a civil servant. The kids were well-behaved, went to school, and did their best not to attract negative attention. In their family there were no quarrels, and smiles were obligatory. Otherwise, what would the neighbors think? At some point Tom realized that he wasn't perfect. Lena felt the same way. "I started getting real feelings for her when we both entered puberty," said Tom. "She was blossoming. Sometimes I would watch her getting dressed in her room and always felt ashamed of myself afterwards."
"I was relieved to find out she felt the same about me," said Tom. "We could be happy together. But of course that was a kind of utopia. In reality, our love was a curse—it still is."
Tom reassured himself that curiosity about the female body is normal. He wasn't attracted to his sister but to women in general. But his feelings kept growing stronger. Then, at 17, Lena got her first real boyfriend. "That was hell for me," Tom confesses. "I hated each one of her boyfriend's guts. Lena used to cry because I wouldn't get on with them. Today, I know that it was pure jealousy."
After a three-year relationship, Lena's boyfriend cheated on her. In the middle of the night she stumbled into Tom's bedroom. He was already asleep and was woken by her sobbing. To console her, he fetched some wine from the cellar. After the first glass, came the second, and then the third in quick succession. Intoxicated in the moment, Lena cuddled up to his shoulder.
In Rotraut Perner's view, this is not abnormal per se. "From my professional experience, it's not true that people don't find their siblings attractive," the psychotherapist says. "Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't. More importantly, relationships between siblings are defined by envy, rivalry, and admiration, along with the need to cuddle or have secrets from the rest of the world. All those things are linked to certain fantasies—some of them induced by pop culture and the media, others by their upbringing and family situation. Whether or not you make those fantasies a reality, depends on how good you are at evaluating that reality. People in incestuous relationships often lack that skill."
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In the case of Tom and Lena, their fantasy soon came to life: "I can still remember it like it happened yesterday," says Tom. "She looked up at me and asked why other men can't be more like me." That's when it happened; Tom felt sure that he and Lena were not just siblings. But before he could make a move, Lena leaned in and kissed him. Tom pushed his sister away. "What the hell are we doing?" he screamed. Lena started to cry.
The following days were torture for Tom. Of course they could have just blamed it on the alcohol, but was it really a one-off? His thoughts just wouldn't leave him alone. He begun to remember specific situations. "It became clear to me that Lena and I were always flirting," he said. "I always used to take it as a joke but it couldn't have been. All these strange situations suddenly became crystal clear."
He now knows that he used to watch Lena getting dressed because he was keen on her. He wasn't just aroused because she's a woman, but also because he had feelings for her. Lena and Tom have since spoken about that a lot. Lena's told Tom that she would leave her door open on purpose so that he could observe her. She was trying to seduce him—yet that only became clear to her after their kiss. "I was relieved to find out she felt the same about me," said Tom. "We could be happy together. But of course that was a kind of utopia. In reality, our love was a curse—it still is."
"It was then I realized that we're criminals."
The type of relationship that Tom and Lena have would be taboo in nearly every culture, and it's also illegal. In many countries around the world, including most of Europe, sexual relationships between close relatives are prohibited. In Austria, where Tom and I are from, incest between parents and children is punishable by up to a year in prison, and incest between siblings can result in six months behind bars.
When Tom slept with Lena for the first time, it wasn't just an act of love but also a criminal offense. "It was then I realized we're criminals. But Paragraph 211 [of the Austrian criminal code] punishes consenting adults for entering relationships with other adults. We're not forcing each other into anything."
For Tom, this paragraph is a huge, black cloud hovering above him. He can't understand why he should be sent to prison. "Since when is disgust a reason to imprison others?" he said. "Nobody would make someone serve time for having sex with a cake, just because someone else found it disgusting."
Of course, there's also a biological dimension to incest bans.
"Relatives share a common gene pool that becomes more and more similar the closer the blood relationship is," Franco Laccone, a doctor from the Institute of Medical Genetics at the Medical School of Vienna. "Of course, everybody carries what we call 'silent mutations,' which are completely harmless. The problems start only when you carry the same mutations, in the exact same genes. The risk for this increases significantly between relatives. If the parents are first cousins, the probability for recessive genetic defects increases to 6 percent, while healthy non-related parents have a risk of only 3 percent for handing down such defects."
For mothers, getting pregnant from incestuous intercourse is approximately as dangerous as getting pregnant as someone with trisomy, according to Laccone.
Not surprisingly, Tom has been preoccupied with the legal status of incest for years. When Patrick Stübing, who had four children with his sister, challenged Germany's incest laws in court a decade ago, in 2008, Tom rejoiced. He really believed that the law could be repealed. But the appeal was rejected in 2008 by judges who cited several reasons the law should stand, including:
- Maintaining a diverse gene pool is in the best interest of public health
- Laws against incest can protect vulnerable people from trauma that could arise even from consensual sexual acts.
- Decriminalizing incest law could send the "wrong message" to the public
For Tom the third reason is based on arbitrary societal norms. And though his cause is a long way from the mainstream, he's not alone. Hans Jörg Albrecht, director of the Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Criminal Law in Germany, has tried to disprove the most common rumors surrounding incest in a lengthy analysis. Albrect's writings are Tom's Bible. "The majority of people think that Paragraph 211... serves children who are yet to be born," says Tom. "They are just so wrong. They assume that 100 percent of children who arise from incestuous relationships are handicapped."
"What kind of person is in love with his sister? It's unbelievable what a taboo can do to your feelings of self-worth."
In general, the children of related couples are more likely to have certain kinds of genetic conditions, but according to the Genetic Alliance, a UK-based group that works to improve the lives of people with genetic conditions, "most related couples have healthy children."
"I would understand it if you told me, 'You are going to prison because you are endangering your child,'" Tom said. "But my child is healthy and my wife and I love each other voluntarily. Therefore all good reasons for punishment do not apply."
Tom and Lena kept their relationship a secret for several years. "For a long time, we thought that we were sick. What kind of person is in love with his sister?" Tom said. "It's unbelievable what a taboo can do to your feelings of self-worth." Tom became depressed.
At one point, Tom became depressed, separating from Lena and trying to kill himself. Lena found him unconscious in the bath with sleeping tablets beside him. That was a moment of self-realization for him: "Something had to change. I felt like I lived in a bubble."
So, Lena and Tom decided to move out of their parents' home and far away from anyone who knew them. Today they share an apartment in Germany. Their new friends think they're married. When Lena gave birth to their daughter, Tom said, she declared the father to be unknown.
"We didn't want to risk anything. There's no way I'll let them put me in prison and take me away from my family."
*All names have been changed.