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Anonymous 'Incest Diary' Is a Brutally Honest Account of Paternal Rape

From ages 3 to 21, a woman was raped and abused by her father. Her new memoir examines the trauma and its aftermath in unprecedented detail.

by Lauren Oyler
Jul 18 2017, 3:53pm

Photo by Lyuba Burakova via Stocksy

What does it mean to want? It's fashionable, lately, to talk about "desire," (particularly "female desire") but the romance of that word obscures the visceral confrontation of the sensation, the ways it is both direct and confounding. Desire creates an atmosphere of airy suggestion, sensual and vague; want is a bold straight line. Or at least it seems like one. But what feels like a straightforward emotion—there is no simpler word I can use than want—often sprouts tortuous complications. When you want things that are "bad for" you. When you want two opposing things at the same time. When you can understand why you want things you know are bad for you—when you can parse the psychological and sociological inputs that gave rise to the desires you should not have—but continue to want them nevertheless.

The Incest Diary, an anonymous memoir published this week by FSG, raises these questions but, in its steadily calm, clear-eyed, and brutal way, does not attempt to answer them. Slim and featuring a sickly taupe cover, the book consists of a nauseating series of vignettes about how the author's father raped and abused her from ages three to 21, but its most uncomfortable moments are not the horrific, often violent descriptions of rape. Rather, they are the author's insistence, over and over again, throughout her painfully straightforward account of the physical and psychological torment that was inflicted on her, that she "wanted" her father. Discussing "fairy tales about father–daughter incest" at the beginning of the book, she sets up the problem that she will go on to illuminate but never solve: "The daughters are all as you would expect them to be: horrified by their father's sexual advances. They do everything in their power to escape. But I didn't. A child can't escape. And later, when I could, it was too late. My father controlled my mind, my body, my desire. I wanted him. I went home. I went back for more."

Read more: 'Why Can't I Consent to Sex with My Brother?' On Genetic Sexual Attraction

From there, the narrative moves back and forth in time, but the author is always purposeful with her graphic details; each moment is worth recounting in a review. She describes "the last time I had sex with my father," at the family beach house: "The first two nights I couldn't stop masturbating, thinking about my father being so close… I couldn't help it. I wanted and I didn't want him to come in and fuck me. On the third night he did." She describes many of the times her father threatened, hurt, and raped her, but she also describes the emotional and physical consequences. She describes her father tying her to a chair and locking her in a closet and feeling grateful when she is let out. She describes seeing her father fuck her mother and feeling envy. She describes drawings she'd make of little girls being impaled by buildings; having to be rushed to the hospital for abdominal pains; teachers being concerned but never really doing anything about it; her mother, who was depressed and obsessed with horses, doing nothing either. She describes feeling lonely around the family of a childhood friend, "a father who was a father and a daughter who was nothing more than a daughter." She describes her mother saying she wished the author had never been born. She describes an affair she has with a much older man while spending a year abroad in Chile, a situation also steeped in family and secrecy that she calls "returning to the scene of the crime." She describes how she knew "how to leave my body behind" when she was date-raped by a colleague. She describes how, during her 12-year marriage, she tried to cultivate a "sexless home." She describes, finally, a kind of redemption, but it too circles back to the incest, a thing she can't escape.

More than once, the author alights on a hopeful moment of confession—with a family friend, with her mother, with her grandmother—only to have the person in whom she's confiding ignore her. Other times, she tells someone about it, but withholds details, making it seem less severe than it was. (The failure of the euphemism molest is obvious at these moments.) Near the beginning of the book she confronts her father, and he apologizes repeatedly and cries. Then he calls her.

He said that if I was going to persist in my allegations about him having raped me, then I was no longer his daughter. He told me that I was dead to him. I can only assume that he'd spoken with a lawyer, and that this is why he started using the word allegations, and why he no longer admitted to our incest, but denied it.

He goes on to tell family and friends; the author's grandfather tries to get her committed to a mental institution, and her brother has a breakdown for which she feels responsible. Eventually she takes the "allegations" back, saying it must have been someone else who raped her.

The account that follows would render this claim laughable if it were not so sad. In a note at the beginning of the book, editor Lorin Stein describes FSG's decision to publish it: In addition to being a "work of art" and, hopefully, a "source of hope and validation to others," he writes, "the situation it describes (though a perennial subject of art and myth) has rarely been described this way, from within." Indeed, The Incest Diary bears many similarities to other narratives about incest—the secrecy, the shame, the specificity of the psychological and social repercussions—but the author's relentless focus on the incest and its aftermath distances The Incest Diary from other works. Incest is often a theme, an underlying motivation or explanation, but it is rarely the point.

There are, of course, reasons for that. The incest taboo is real, and the author's choice to remain anonymous is not surprising; in a note introducing the text, she writes, "I have changed many specifics in order to preserve my anonymity. But I have not altered the essentials. I ask the reader to respect my wish to remain anonymous."

Nevertheless, early reactions to the book have been disappointingly conservative, emphasizing the potential scandal or harm it could cause. One headline reads, "Harry Potter Publisher Set to Launch Memoir of Girl's 18-Year Abusive Relationship with Her Dad" (Bloomsbury is publishing the book in the UK, but beyond that it has nothing to do with Harry Potter). Referring to Margaux Fragoso's "disturbing" 2011 memoir Tiger, Tiger, a writer for the Globe and Mail notes, "Critics blasted [Tiger, Tiger] for being tantamount to child pornography and rightly wondered who would be reading. It's very likely some readers will have the same visceral reaction to The Incest Diary: The book is highly graphic, which is problematic." In Newsweek, Lisa Schwarzbaum called it "a highly marketable addition to the lucrative business of healing-and-recovery memoirs. And it carries the extra publicity oomph of being something a reader may want to hurl across the room, then pass on to others for the dirt and shock of the experience."

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These assessments read as slightly absurd, if not insulting. For one thing, FSG seems to have a very minimal marketing plan, nonexistent beyond letting the work speak for itself. (I heard about the book because a galley showed up at my apartment about a month ago; I received none of the pestering press releases that usually accompany a new book, particularly a woman's memoir of trauma.) More importantly, though, these concessions betray the author's effort to honestly examine what happened to her—and has happened to many people—in favor of decency or covering one's bases. They make it clear that few people know how to talk about incest—as well as why a book like this is so necessary.