Incest: the Other Valentine's Day Massacre
Julianne Moore and Barney Clark in 'Savage Grace,' 2007, directed by Tom Kalin
The recent story about a 17-year-old who was reunited with the father she hadn't seen since she was 5, their subsequent intense attraction, intimate physical relationship, and their intention to marry and have children instantly set off every bell and whistle that plays to the mother of all taboos: incest. She even lost her virginity to him. The girl is now roughly the same age as her father when she was conceived, reportedly on his high school prom night—no protection? a broken condom?—for which he may well have boasted to his buddies the next day about having "gotten lucky." At the risk of alienating miracle-of-lifers, there's no special talent involved in getting pregnant or in impregnating someone. The birds do it, the bees do it, even semi-educated teenagers on prom night do it, let's do it, let's bring even more new humans onto a planet that is doomed, with overpopulation threatening its potential demise. Lest we forget the great triumph of heterosexuality, barebacking the future, and another billion blessed events.
Whether practiced in church, temple, or remote compound, religion represents yet another plague of angels with an abundance of randy, unrepentant devils, and wholly against contraception for many obvious, self-serving reasons. Where would the money come from to support their tax-free businesses if not from a steady stream of faithful parishioners and followers, including many who are eligible for government assistance, not to mention the unmentionable—a continuous supply of innocent, supple bodies to abuse, in the Name of the Father? (That incest can be found among insular religious groups, from Mormon fundamentalists to Amish and Hasidic communities, has long been known.) Clearly, improper relations between close relatives are non-denominational as well. And now, 17 years later, our dubious prom king is what? Getting lucky all over again? Many of those who read and commented on the New York magazine interview with the girl have their doubts as to its veracity.
Daddy's Little Girl
The case of this woman, having turned 18 and now of consenting age, includes the fact that intercourse occurred a year prior, when she could not claim the status of an emancipated minor. Setting aside for the moment a retroactive charge of statutory rape for her father/fiancé, in addition to legally being able to make her own most intimate decisions, she asserts having science on her side, something identified as GSA: genetic sexual attraction. The designation, dating back to the 80s, identifies a particular occurrence between relatives who reunite after being estranged for lengthy periods of time. These attractions are not always acted upon but, according to researchers, are frequently experienced by children and parents, as well as separated siblings who are brought back together, often adopted children seeking each other out in adulthood. One wonders to what degree these reactions are chemical and to what extent they may be psychological? After all, one factor related to incest is a fear of abandonment, whether on the part of the initiator or their intended. Now very much together, the girl revealed that once vows have been exchanged, the happy couple plan to move to New Jersey, where consenting adults aren't prosecuted for incestuous relationships. This was news to legislators and residents in the Garden State, not to be confused with the Garden of Eden, though incest seems to have been around for as long as marriage and divorce, unwanted pregnancies, immaculate conception, questions of paternity and child support, and the dogged determination of royal families to maintain their bloodlines, purebred all the way.
For those who believe that the institution of marriage needs to be defended, who define marriage as the sanctified union between a man and a woman, wouldn't this girl and her long-lost father qualify? Wouldn't clerks in the great state of Texas, for example, issue them a certificate to marry? After all, they may not share the same last name, and fornication would be of the wholesome boy-girl variety. Well, of course not, because even if the protectors of traditional marriage aren't biology majors—and homozygous zygote sounds more than vaguely gay—they could never conceive of consanguinity in exactly these terms:
Blood Is Thicker Than Water, but Semen Is Thicker Than Blood
The thought would likely repulse them, since nothing disgusts people more than talking about anything vaguely incestuous or bodily fluids. Even if this particular essence of life is not a liquid but rather a viscous protein, squeamishness readily applies. On either side of the fake bi-polarity of political life in America, whether left or right, nothing is more repulsive than incest. And yet hardcore right-to-lifers seek to prohibit the termination of pregnancies resulting from coerced sexual relations, even between fathers and daughters, as well as involving grandfathers, brothers, cousins. They don't seem much bothered by the horror of forced relations between relations—as if the notion of innocence lost only applies to the unborn.
The Kornegay Family
For many, incest hits too close to home. Nearly concurrent with the publication of the New York Magazine interview was a news story about a 15-year-old girl in White Springs, Florida, Misty "Ariel" Kornegay, who murdered her 16-year-old brother after being psychologically and sexually abused by him and, previously, another family member over many years. The girl had suffered sexual abuse by an uncle when she was 11, for which she received no counseling, and later attempted to take her life. At 12 she was caught by her mother having sex with the brother—for which she, and not the brother, was punished. Punishment included being locked in a room with only a blanket and a bucket in which to relieve herself. The longest period of her confinement is reported to have been twenty consecutive days—nearly three weeks.
Clearly, this girl had plenty of time to become enraged, enough to imagine her brother out of the picture. Permanently. She has now been charged with premeditated murder. But what about the premeditated sexual abuse at the hands of her uncle and brother? And what of the pattern of sadistic imprisonment she endured as part of her parents' discipline? The murder took place when they were away from home for three days (and possibly not for the first time), leaving the teenagers behind to care for their 11-year-old and 3-year-old sisters. This points to another contributing factor for incest: a shift in responsibility, children taking on adult roles within familial structures that have been disrupted. Following the murder, which was committed with a pistol kept in the parent's bedroom, the two girls fled, leaving the three-year-old alone in the house with the dead body. The parents were charged with child neglect, while prosecutors decided against trying the older sisters as adults. With any sense of mercy, a jury will spare the 15-year-old from prison after already serving hard time, enslaved and dehumanized in the jailhouse of her childhood home.
Lily van der Stokker, drawing, 1994
Mommy Knows Best
If the more widely known stories of familial sexual relations involve fathers and daughters or brothers and sisters, particularly where abuse and trauma are reported (and some would insist that in every instance they are abusive), this is not only because men and boys are more actively aggressive perpetrators. With examples of relations between mothers and sons, there is the possibility of underreporting, less likelihood of children being produced, and a matter of cultural perception, that while these relations are wrong, they may be seen as non-traumatic. The extent to which this is true for male participants/victims is not easily qualified, but on the part of the public and the media it's possible that trauma is generally understood as particular to women, as if boys and girls are not equally coerced and damaged, as if "boys enjoy sex and girls are violated," or "boys have sex and girls have babies."
One noteworthy case involves a young man who had a multi-year relationship with his mother, beginning when he was 14 and she was 37, and continuing until he went away to college. Three years ago on a Reddit page, he candidly answered questions and graphically described their relationship, while claiming to have emerged from it unharmed, saying that for both himself and his mother he would "characterize the experience as positive."
From his description of its inception, it's possible to infer that he broke his arms in an accident and, unable to masturbate (going, he says, from his usual teenage twice a day to zero), he began to act out at home, to the extent that his mother stepped in to 'lend a helping hand.' This was apparently done with the approval of her husband, with an understanding that the problem needed to be directly addressed. The boy wrote that he is "not an advocate for incest. For whatever reason, it worked for us," and coolly asked readers "not to use use my experience as a template. I am here to relate my experience, not debate incest as a subject."
"It started with her masturbating me. Progressed to her giving me oral and eventually we had sex/made love. It was a slow progression. She never rewarded or threatened with sex. Over the years my dad had seen us together but he never watched per se. The first time we had intercourse, I was lying in bed getting oral from her. In the middle of it, she stopped, climbed up my body, pulled her panties aside and sat on me. She was wearing a long Tshirt. She told me not to cum and she rode me for about a minute and came. She then finished me with her mouth. My head was spinning."
When asked by a reader if there was any "dirty talk" between them in bed, he said there hadn't been, and elaborated, "At the beginning, she could be clinical in her description of what she was doing and I would get turned on, but not dirty dirty. At orgasm, there could be the 'Oh Shit' or 'Oh Fuck.' Sometimes it was discussed at the table but not with my dad around." He added, "I would never tell anyone I know. I have an older sister that was unaware and not involved." As to its culmination, the boy is matter-of-fact. "It just started to slow down and then eventually stopped. There wasn't an event that ended it. I have talked to my mother and father about it over the years. The subject is not off limits. I don't think that either of us wishes it to start up again."
From the often mocking comments and probing of his readers, the obvious question remains: Did it really take four years for his broken arms and hands to fully heal? Why did the sexual relations continue and even progress to the full extent of intimacy? And how did the husband/father allow this to go on over an extended period of time, well past the point of the initial problem? Clearly, mother and son derived pleasure from their couplings, with the son overcoming his initial confusion and guilt. But how was he able to separate the realities of the woman who was both his mother and his occasional sex partner? And how was the father able to share his wife with the boy, and still see them as his son and his wedded wife, the mother of his children? While children often come between parents as natural rivals for affection, maneuvering is primarily psychological and, with the exception of mostly harmless play-acting, rarely occurs "between the sheets." Kept within the family, was this a sanctioned and controlled infidelity? Entirely free of jealousy and shame? Much is missing from this story, and much, despite the boy's insistence that "it worked for us," will remain baffling for those who attempt to reconcile the incredible narrative.
A far less happy ending, if the conclusion of an extended mother/son affair can even be described in these terms, resulted from one of the more famous cases of maternal incest, that of Barbara Daly Baekeland and her son Anthony.
Their story served as the basis for the movie, Savage Grace (2007), starring Julianne Moore and Eddie Redmayne, which prompted a lawsuit, and extra publicity, from one person depicted, the art curator and social gadfly Sam Green. One would expect that for an aging gentleman who helped define the swinging 60s, the revelation of certain conquests would only add to a hedonistic reputation rather than detract. But his complaint was most certainly pursued on the basis of a particularly steamy scene in the movie, where Green is shown in bed between both Baeklands, an incident which he says never occurred. Here a greater horror than "bi-polarity" rears its ugly head—that he may have participated in the Baeklands' incestuous relationship. The suit asserts that his representation in the movie "induced an evil opinion of him in the minds of right-thinking persons, and deprived him of friendly intercourse in society." Or, as Savage Grace would have it, implicated him in frisky intercourse with mother and son.
The Baekeland's tragic story is one fueled by Oedipal/chemical imbalance on either side. Tony was Barbara's only child, and in the years after her divorce he simultaneously discovered his homosexuality and LSD, and began to display schizophrenic behavior. His mother's attempts to "cure him" of being gay, first by hiring women to sleep with him, a failure, and then, if the story is to be believed, sleeping with him herself, concluded with Tony stabbing her to death in London in 1972. He had made a previous attempt for which she had declined to press charges (he tried to push her in front of a passing car), and his own psychiatrist had alerted her just over two weeks before the murder that Tony had spoken of it, and she was in mortal danger—a warning she chose to ignore. She had on a number of occasions tried to take her own life, and it's possible that what occurred was not merely the result of a mother's inability to conceive of her child being able to kill her. The ending of her life could be seen as an extreme "death by misadventure," as no less than "death by schizophrenic son." She had, in a sense, used her son as the weapon to end her life, a death which, given the particularly twisted circumstances, and its likely trigger, could be ruled "incesticide." Tony Baekeland would serve seven years in an English hospital prison before influential friends managed to secure his release.
After traveling to New York to live with his 87-year-old grandmother (apparently rather generously forgiving of his crime), and, no longer taking his meds, less than a week would pass before Tony violently set upon and stabbed her eight times with a kitchen knife. She only managed to survive the attack because every thrust had struck bone. Not only had he attempted to kill the woman who had given birth to his own mother, he reportedly told police that he had wanted to have sex with her. Sent to Rikers Island and months of psychiatric evaluation, Tony was found, on a spring day in 1981, dead in his cell with a plastic bag wrapped around his head. A murder? A suicide? Never to be determined. And why bother? In a story of damage upon damage, sweeping bodies under the rug is always preferable to an accounting of their messy, fucked up passage. Even Sam Green didn't live to see whether he would prevail in his lawsuit against the fictionalized account of the Baekeland saga, and what would otherwise have been a common he said/she said duel, tantalizingly enmeshed to include the prodigal son, will never be known. As the saying goes, and then there were none.
Princess Vicky and her son Wilhelm, the future Kaiser
Purebreds, or All in the (Royal) Family
Well worth noting is the fact that Barbara Baekeland had maneuvered her wealthy future husband into marriage by claiming that she was pregnant when she was not. The conception of little Tony was, on the happy wedding day, more of a con-de-ception. For Brooks Baekeland, there was perhaps as much a desire to do the right thing, to make an honest woman of his deceitful lover, as to spare the family name from scandal and dishonor, as well as to keep the dynastic ball rolling. The child would be his heir, and where a fortune is concerned it's always best to keep wealth in one's pockets. While it's fairly common for inter-family marriage and inbreeding to be considered as the province of "backwards hillbillies," the most common of folk, the opposite turns out to be true. As the young woman at the center of the Genetic Sexual Attraction story remarked, when asked if she worried about birth defects that might result in producing children with her biological father, "That happens when there's years of inbreeding, like with the royal family." It's a hilarious take-that swipe on her part, particularly when you consider how throughout history more than a few heirs to the throne have not only appeared freakishly formed but, on occasion, not in any way resembling their claimed sire.
Where the history of so-called inbreds and purebreds is concerned, how insurmountable is the distance between an insular religion's compound and an old drafty castle? If we think of the family as an island or surrounded by a moat, a similar siege mentality is common to both. When dipping into a shallow gene pool over and again, isn't everyone equally at risk of genetic drift? Cultish and tethered to the same DNA chain, the mating of those closely related, particularly over many generations, often proves disastrous. While harmful mutations are weeded out as a result of natural selection, they can be thought of as virtually cultivated within the aristocracy—from the hothouse to the most splendid formal gardens—when genetic drift occurs, as with incest. Arranged and coercive marriage may here be thought of as unnatural selection, a kind of pseudo-science which gave rise to the term "throne clone." During the reign of Queen Victoria, unions that were orchestrated for financial and political advantage resulted not only in nearly all the royals of Europe being interrelated, but sparked the family infighting and sibling rivalry that led directly to the first world war, the first leading inevitably to its horrific sequel. (When Prince Harry created a scandal by choosing the uniform of Rommel's Afrika Korps, complete with Swastika armband, as his costume at a 2005 Halloween party, and only two weeks prior to Holocaust Memorial Day, he might have been acknowledging the fact that Kaiser Wilhelm II was Victoria's eldest grandson.) A notorious anti-semite, the Kaiser eerily foretold the future when, after his forced abdication in 1918, he insisted that the best thing for "the tribe of Judah ... would be gas." Wilhelm is said to have had an "unnatural love for his mother," bordering on incestuous but unrequited desire, which ultimately led to his complete contempt for Britain. But extending and exploiting spheres of influence across the land, a programmatic "sleeping with the enemy" to keep the peace while maintaining the bloodline—its purity!—extracted an exorbitantly high price: the near exsanguination of the continent. And not only. For with the first world war came the invention of biological weapons. That we might in any way equate them with the biological promiscuity encouraged at the time may seem in itself promiscuous. And yet modern times demand the discovery of new and ingenious ways to eliminate one's enemies, whether on the battlefield or in the bedroom.
Even if the sexual repression we associate with the Victorian era has proven to be a myth, we acknowledge that the perpetuation of myths—romantic love, ruling "by divine right"—enables the continued enforcement of supposedly sacred law, primogeniture first of all. Within paternalistic culture, every man is a first-born son to whom all inheritance shall pass, while hereditary prejudice requires the care and maintenance of the dominant narrative. The story thus far can only serve to remind us that marriage is a merger, conceived in terms of business and commerce. Until now, marriage has traditionally been defined as the legal union of man and woman as husband and wife. (Lest we forget the particular pecking order of the species.) Certain entitlements and federal protections are associated with marriage and its dissolution, which can be seen in terms of pros and cons, including tax and health benefits, pensions, property, assets—and their division—parental custody, alimony, and so on. Whether the definition of marriage officially shifts, these rights and protections will still be applied. Marriage, no matter who its participants, no matter how deeply in or out of love humans may fall, will forever remain an abiding form of social control. And if good Christian neighbors continue to view same-sex couples as sodomites living in sin, a piece of paper and wedding bands aren't likely to dissuade them. Even so, the forward motion of a society will not be denied.
AP Photo/Rick Bowmer
The End of Their World.
That these recent incest stories are surfacing at a time when the highest court will decide, country-wide, on the issue of same-sex marriage is only coincidental. But those who oppose marriage equality have in the past equated it with incest, child abuse and polygamy, as if allowing marriage between people of the same gender would open the floodgates to anyone being able to marry whomever they want—even close blood relations—partners of any age, and as many times as they want. This is entirely unfounded. While same-sex marriages cannot possibly produce offspring whose DNA triangulates them with both parents, those who oppose it fear that these couples will have or raise children, whether through surrogacy or adoption, and pervert them. And yet children being "turned gay" is really not their true and greatest fear. What scares them more than anything is that these children may grow up to think for themselves and, in families that stress respect and have had to fight for it, populate a more tolerant world. For social conservatives, this above all else is entirely intolerable.
Here it's easy to be reminded of the opposition to marriage between the races, of those horrified by the prospect of the children that would result, just as many before them bitterly mourned emancipation and denied evolution. The fact that certain groups within the species have not fully evolved is in no way contradictory. Quite the opposite. And if one considers bondage purely as the expression of a power dynamic, one can see a correlation between slaveholders—with the perceived right to do as they please within an extended "family," their property—and those engaging in incestuous relations—within their private harem. The lord and master, as if he were the head of a cult, expects and demands obedience and subservience from his followers. Is incest more common within families that emphasize sin and damnation over forgiveness? And if it is, how surprising would that be?The incest taboo is an integral element in human development because it opens the door to the individual's independence, to leave home and engage intimately in outside relationships. Looking back upon the history of hetero-conservancy in this country, on its insularity, its need to strengthen the family ties that bind, there has always been a determination to find new ways to incite all the old battles lost. In this there is a particularly dangerous form of incest, an inbreeding of fear among "their kind," a fear that breeds contempt, a relentless need to demonize and destroy anything perceived to threaten their way of life—as if life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness belong to them alone, a God-given right.