The Incest Diary, which was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on July 18, is an anonymously written memoir about a woman who was violently and repeatedly raped by her father as a child. The abuse continued into her teenage years and ceased, at least bodily, in her early 20s.
As the author writes in the second paragraph of the book, the characters in father-daughter incest myths were horrified by their father’s sexual advances. But the dark twist on her own narrative is that when she was old enough to run, she didn’t exactly want to.
“My father controlled my mind, my body, my desire,” she explains. And later on: “My father is my secret. That he raped me is my secret. But the secret under the secret is that sometimes I liked it. Sometimes I wanted it, and sometimes I seduced him and made him fuck me.”
The author’s desire for her father is only matched by her urge to kill him, a psychological drama she deftly summarizes: “My father still excites me and he still scares me… I need to be obedient to him and to make him laugh and smile and feel pleasure. I want him to be proud of me. I want him to think that I’m clever. I want him to think that I’m sexy. And I want to savagely mutilate his body and feed his corpse to dogs.”
Whatever face you’re wearing after reading that sentence is the face you’ll wear the entire time you read this 132-page chronicle of horror, should you endeavor to.
I hold no advanced degrees in psychology, but to victims of sexual trauma vulnerable to long bouts of depression following exposure to highly triggering content, I recommend approaching this book with caution. Or not at all.
When the author of The Incest Diary is not writing about her psychosexually disturbing relationships with other men, or about the many people in her life who wouldn’t believe her story, or about the many people in her life who believed her story but told her to shut up and to never tell anyone about it ever again, or about the therapists to whom she couldn’t confess her secret, or about her depressed and cold mother who knew about the abuse but apparently did nothing to stop it because of jealousy, she writes about her 18-year-long sexual relationship with her father using graphic, sexualized language.
The author’s use of pornographic language in the rape scenes—including in the child rape scenes—is only slightly less shocking than the fact that no one in her life helped her out of her situation. But it’s this language that sets her story apart from most chronicles of child abuse.
Though it’s shocking to read, her choice to use “cock” and “pussy” instead of their more medical corollaries makes sense from the perspective of a writer who claims to be aroused when she has sex with her father, when she’s thinking about having sex with her father, and when she’s writing about having sex with her father. Using “penis” and “vagina” in these scenes would distance readers from her lived experience, and since she doesn’t experience incest and thoughts of her own rape without feeling a mixture of arousal and self-disgust and rage, she won’t let her readers do so, either.
And though she admits to getting turned on when writing the sex scenes between her and her father, she tries throughout the book to understand her experience of pleasure as a form of survival, her mind’s way of protecting itself and its body from dissolution.
As a human being, while reading this book, I was in a functional state of shock from beginning to end. But as a critic, I was impressed by how well those horrific scenes were written.
Though the writer is anonymous, it’s clear she’s good. She’s trained. She’s organizing her story using the literary collage method recently perfected by Maggie Nelson and Claudia Rankine. She’s expertly employing metaphors and imagery to glue the shattered pieces of her memory together. She writes her sentences with a hot knife. She appears to be somewhere in her early 40s, and I wouldn’t at all be surprised if she’s been published in major literary magazines.
You can see her mastery of paragraph construction—the building blocks of literary collage—in the first story she tells about her father, which describes the last time they had sex. They’re on vacation for a week at a beach house with her brother. For the first two nights of the family trip, she can’t stop herself from masturbating while thinking about her father coming into her room in the middle of the night to have sex with her. On the third night, the night he pushed open the door and climbed on top of her, she writes: “I was naked and I was wet. I wanted his big hard cock deep inside me. I was very wet. I wanted him inside me all the way up. I had never felt sexier. My body was pure sex. My father had made himself a sexual object for me, too. I objectified him as I objectified myself for him. I had an orgasm bigger than any single one I had in my subsequent 12-year marriage.”
In this brief passage, the writer uses hurried, repetitious sentences to make you think she’s reliving the moment right in front of you, enacting in language the manic pleasure she feels when she thinks of having sex with her father. She also meaningfully reflects on the psychological mechanisms that enable her pleasure, and then dismounts with a detail that shows the devastating personal impact of the abuse she’s endured as well as its significant blast radius.
Throughout the book, her self-reflections are similarly straightforward but profound in nature: “Sex with my father made me an orphan,” she states plainly, exhibiting very little of the overdetermined psychoanalysis you find in Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss (a memoir about a woman’s incestuous relationship with her father that begins in her early 20s), and using none of the purple prose you find in fiction about the subject.
Without a doubt the book stands apart as a stark reminder of the human spirit's indomitability, and literature’s role as ballast. As the author of The Incest Diary writes: “Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote that the key difference between animals and humans is incest prohibition. What does that make me?” The creation of this book answers that question. She is, partly, this book. And what she or whoever wrote this thing has made is a book only as big but just as great and complex as the human self. This is the primary project of literature.
“Is this a love story?” the author asks at one point. “It’s a creation story,” she answers. This act of creating a human self on the page on her terms gives the author ownership of her own reality after it lived in the hands of her abuser for so long. We all at least share this ability, no matter how true or fictional we tell ourselves it might be.
But because the book was written anonymously, some will always wonder about the identity of its creator. What if it’s fake or some kind of literary hoax?
Already I can feel the old academic argument rushing into my body. So what if it’s fake? Even if the author didn’t endure this kind of abuse personally, this kind of abuse is real. According to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Child Maltreatment study, there were 58,105 cases of sexual abuse in the United States in 2014.
And even if the author didn’t endure this kind of abuse personally, her descriptions of the physical and mental responses that can result from this kind of abuse are real, too.
“Of those who report their rapes, around 4 to 5 percent also describe experiencing orgasm,” reports Jenny Morber in Popular Science. “But the true numbers are likely much higher. In a 2004 review paper, a clinician reports, ‘I (have) met quite a lot of victims (males) who had the full sexual response during sexual abuse… I (have) met several female victims of incest and rape who had lubrication and orgasm.’”
Morber goes on to remind us that arousal and “orgasm during rape isn’t an example of an expression of pleasure. It’s an example of a physical response whether the mind is on board or not, like breathing, sweating, or an adrenaline rush.” Though obviously “the mental and physical components of human sexuality often run in parallel and in agreement,” sometimes they do not. The autonomic nervous system governs arousal, and so we have about as much control over it as we have over crying and defecation. In short, just because our bodies respond to sexual stimulus doesn’t imply we’re consenting to that sexual stimulus.
But orgasm and lubrication during rape can confuse victims. Those responses can make them feel guilty, as if they must have wanted to be sexually assaulted. This writer’s account of experiencing pleasure and lubrication during her abuse, then, might empower others who have felt similarly to report their own abuse, despite whatever shame or confusion they may feel. Whatever justice or relief comes to those victims seems more important than the injustice of the anonymous writer only having partially or not at all lived this experience.
Moreover, in the book’s brief press release, the author is quoted saying she wants The Incest Diary in the world because “if she had read such book, it would have made her feel less alone.” Loneliness is a thing that kills. To the extent that this book might prevent that from happening, it deserves to be on the shelves.
Furthermore—and I reiterate my lack of advanced degrees in psychology or social work—it’s not inconceivable to believe that a victim of child abuse developed a form of Stockholm syndrome in order to survive. The author’s father forcibly formed the entirety of her sexual identity. He threatened her, intimidated her, and made her feel responsible for his desire. He essentially groomed her to be his sexual object for her whole life.
And though the writer’s experience of “liking it” might be her mind’s way of protecting itself, her body’s other reactions to the years of abuse align with behaviors that organizations like RAINN list as evidence of child abuse. Throughout the narrative, she mangles Barbies, washes her hands obsessively, assumes an extreme caretaker role over her brother, describes extremely gory dreams, and returns to her abuser, because where else was she going to go?
She also describes dissociation during sex, obsession with weight gain/loss, and a combined fearlessness and hypervigilance about the possibility of being raped again, all behaviors that match up with testimony from rape survivors who I know and love deeply. Thinking of them while reading this woman’s account intensified and refreshed the pain I feel for those women, the rage I feel toward their rapists, and the self-disgust I feel for not doing everything I possibly can all the time to prevent those events from happening to anyone else.
Though the book felt true enough for me, ultimately only the person who wrote it knows the truth.
But what will happen in the world of literary journalism? Inevitably, rumors will circulate. Someone will run this thing through some kind of literary forensics algorithm bullshit and start making guesses. Writers who didn’t write this book will be accused of writing it, and the whole thing will be a nightmare for them. Or maybe the writer who did write this book will be accused of writing it. In that case, their agency will be undermined and their world will blow up in precisely the way they didn’t want it to.
And if this book was written by some “fat guy lying on his bed,” in the words of the president who bragged about sexually assaulting women, then Farrar, Straus and Giroux would be accused of taking advantage of the special contract between reader and writer that exists with nonfiction in order to move copies. They’ll be accused of encouraging or pacifying pedophiles and rapists for financial gain. Publishing this book could amount to profiting off the stories of child-abuse victims at their expense, which would perpetuate the suffering of those who have already suffered so much. Therefore, the question must be considered.
To the question about the book containing pornographic material that pedophiles could use to please themselves or make them feel less guilty for feeling the way they do, I’d quickly remind the reader of the following sentence (and several others like it) in the book: “I want to savagely mutilate his body and feed his corpse to dogs.” And not to be crass, but there’s plenty of incest porn on the internet, plenty of images of sexualized children on television, and plenty of “Daddy” T-shirts on people that might serve to validate the sexual appetites of pedophiles, too. Digital and analog America swims in these taboo fantasies without spending as much time swimming in the psyches of people who actually live through them, and this book provides much more of the latter experience.
To the question of authenticity: In the curiously brief press release, Lorin Stein, longtime editor in chief of the Paris Review and editor of The Incest Diary, says that the book “is a difficult read” and “we at FSG are publishing it because we believe it is a work of art,” and “the author has chosen to be anonymous,” but says she decided to, as I mentioned earlier, “set down the truth about her life” because “if she had read such a book, it would have made her feel less alone.”
When I asked a publicist at FSG about how they fact-checked Diary, he would only add that the company “took all the necessary steps to satisfy [themselves] of the authenticity of the text.”
The Independent’s Sarah Young seems to have gotten more out of Stein and the publisher. According to Young’s report, Stein insists that FSG has confirmed details of the writer’s story with old friends, “and [FSG has] also seen medical records, which were unavailable to the author when she was writing, that match her recollections.” Later in the piece she adds that Bloomsbury’s publishing director, Alexis Kirschbaum, says Stein has known the author “for about a decade.”
That’s good enough for me, but maybe I’m just a sucker.
The anonymous nature of the book’s publication, though, isn’t artless. It forces readers to ask themselves why they wouldn’t believe this story. Obviously the author of Diary, if what she’s saying is true, would want to publish the story anonymously to protect herself from being stigmatized by the culture at large and from increasing her likelihood of being targeted for even more abuse. That said, not putting her name on the book reduces the credibility of her story. So she’s damned if she does, and damned if she doesn’t.
If nothing else, the very existence of the book, and the very existence of an inevitable controversy surrounding the anonymity of the author reflects the ridiculous uncertainty that surrounds reports of rape and abuse. Though false reporting is exceedingly rare in cases of child abuse and rape, people still reflexively disbelieve victims and “err” on the side of innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, never mind that an absurdly small number of rape cases ever make it to a court of law.
Part of what drives this disbelief, especially in the case of Diary, is that some people simply cannot believe that one human being could be so terrible to another human being. Such acts are too uncomfortable to consider, or are entirely outside their realm of experience.
I think of a line from Ariel Levy’s introduction to Andrea Dworkin’s Intercourse. On the subject of why readers wouldn’t believe all the abuse Dworkin suffered, she quotes Dworkin, saying, “Much of society is set up specifically to assist people in their process of ignoring the horrors of the world.”
The Incest Diary, no matter the veracity of the events described within it, certainly isn’t part of that society.
For those of us who cannot imagine such marginality, the book’s social function is simply to say that you think the world is parking tickets and infidelities and war on television, but really the world is more than that and often much worse. The world is fathers raping their own children. Every day.
However, since I have not been able to independently confirm the author’s identity, I’m guilty of profiting off this potentially sensationalized and exploitive material. The world is fathers raping their own children every day, and it’s also assholes like me making money from writing about it. After all, I could have tossed it aside and chosen one of the other books in my stack.
I admit I didn’t pick up The Incest Diary and read it because I knew I should eat my vegetables on the topic of child abuse and rape. I ripped open the mailer and found the slim, aggressively beige book inside. The straightforward title and the innocuous packaging seemed intentional, as if the designer was coyly going for a “salaciously chaste” cover. A paragraph on the back described a victim of incest whose account of abuse seemed different from any account of abuse I’d heard before in myth or in the memoir section. Was this book for real? Whatever the case, it’s going to be controversial. And since I’m a book critic, I will need to have an opinion on this controversial book.
When I read the first 14 pages, my psyche seized. Then it creaked. Then it screamed. I now judge myself for reading this book, and I suspect some other readers will, too. It was a decision that immersed me in as much trauma as the written word can transfer from one body to another. And that was before I arrived at the scene with the strawberry jam, and the scene with the blood in the tub, and the scene with the chair in the closet, and the scene with the green robe. I read the rest of the book in what felt like 45 seconds. I needed to know how she survived, I needed to know if anyone would come to save her, but I also needed the text to put limits on my imagination. I couldn’t really and didn’t want to imagine how this woman’s situation could possibly get worse than the events I’d already read about. But it did.
I didn’t want to keep reading, but I kept reading. I didn’t want to write this review, but I felt like I had to write this review to work through all my feelings about the book. I didn’t want to publish this review, but I’ve already spent so much time thinking about the book and writing about it that I must. I’m damned by some members of the public if I do; I damn myself if I don’t. I’ve fallen into the book’s trap, an approximation of the shame-pleasure-horror spiral the author of The Incest Diary describes as desire. This is the psychological price of invading someone’s privacy. I should have known better than to read a diary.
But now I’m essentially recommending the book to you, if you’ve got the stomach for it. Because in this work about a horror no one should ever experience, there is also something that needs to be experienced. The book forces the reader to reckon with all kinds of uncomfortable issues, a Pandora’s box of problems opened by one person overstepping a hard boundary in a way that caused another person, years later, to need to write about it, which will now, in the publishing of that survivor’s writing, perhaps empower some but titillate others who this reader would least want titillated by such a story. Though we’d love to turn away from all those problems, to turn away from this book and from the dark thoughts and images it burns into our brains, we must not. Unless we are comfortable being yet another person in her life who listens to her story and stays silent.