Father-Daughter Incest – Judith Lewis Herman

I didn’t originally plan on reading this book. I was actually wanting to read Herman’s Trauma and Recovery, which I’ve heard spoken of as one of the go to books about trauma. I’m not sure if this is a geographical problem or not but when I went to buy a Kindle copy of that book I discovered it didn’t exist. I then decided to see what else Herman had written and came across this book, which was available on Kindle. Thinking there’d probably be significant overlap between the two I decided to dive right in. Without having read Trauma and Recovery yet I can’t say for sure but I’m guessing they’re quite different books.

Although I’ve read quite a few fiction and non-fiction books about sexual assault, I haven’t read a great deal specifically about incest. I often feel as though the gears move almost imperceptibly slowly where sexual assault is concerned, from the attitudes that surround it to practical help for survivors and reforms to the legal system.

I usually read recently published books that explore sexual assault so to encounter things I take for granted as revolutionary ideas was a whole new experience. At once a history lesson and confirmation of how important early studies into taboo subjects are in shining light into the darkness, this might not have been the book I was expecting to read but I still took a lot away from it.

Much of the information I came across in this book, which was groundbreaking when it was first published in 1981, read to me as either common sense or confirmation of information I’ve already come across. I found that encouraging because it proved we are actually making progress, even though it doesn’t always feel that way.

This book came about as a result of two women, Lisa Hirschman and the author, speaking in 1975 about the patients they’d both encountered who had disclosed a history that included incest. Both women contributed to the research but it was Judith Lewis Herman who eventually wrote this book.

Since nothing satisfactory seemed to have been written about father-daughter incest, we were finally driven to write about it ourselves.

This book is divided into three parts:

  1. Using “survey data, clinical material, anthropological literature, popular literature, and pornography”, the author takes a look at the history of how society has dealt with incest. Spoiler: not well at all. From Freud lying about his own findings to pretty much anyone who could have have a positive influence on the lives of survivors instead discrediting, disbelieving and downright pathologising them, it’s a wonder survivors have had the courage to speak at all.

I know I don’t want to hear it. I have no idea what to do with these cases. And I don’t think I’m unusual.

Quote from a therapist
  1. The author and Hirschman conducted their own clinical study, interviewing forty survivors of incest and twenty women whose “fathers had been seductive but not overtly incestuous”. Yes, I cringed every time I read the word ‘seductive’ in this context.

Consumed with inner rage, they nevertheless rarely caused trouble to anyone but themselves. In their own flesh, they bore repeated punishment for the crimes committed against them in childhood.

  1. Dealing with the “social responses to discovered incest”, this section explores crisis intervention, family treatment and prosecution. This section also talks about prevention.

As long as fathers rule but do not nurture, as long as mothers nurture but do not rule, the conditions favoring the development of father-daughter incest will prevail.

The studies referred to throughout the book are mostly from the 1970’s and those discussed in the afterward, which was written in 2000, were predominantly published in the 1990’s. I’d be interested, now that another twenty years have passed, to find out what else has been learned, confirmed or disproven.

Although I’m cautiously optimistic that we’re still moving in the direction of more openness and less stigma for survivors of incest, I’m also very much aware that this topic remains taboo. It was telling for me when I compared the Goodreads statistics of this book and Herman’s Trauma and Recovery.

At the time of writing this review, Trauma and Recovery has almost 11,000 ratings and over 450 reviews. This book, in contrast, has just over 100 ratings and about a dozen reviews. I wonder if so few people have read this book, which was first released about a decade prior to Trauma and Recovery, or if many readers have chosen not to add this book to their Goodreads shelves, not wanting to admit they read a book about this topic…

The abuses have gone on for too long. Too many survivors have disclosed their secrets. It is too late now to go back to silence.

Content warnings include mention of abortion, addition, alcoholism, death by suicide, domestic abuse, foster care, mental health, neglect, physical abuse, self harm and sexual assault.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Through an intensive clinical study of forty incest victims and numerous interviews with professionals in mental health, child protection, and law enforcement, Judith Herman develops a composite picture of the incestuous family. In a new afterword, Herman offers a lucid and thorough overview of the knowledge that has developed about incest and other forms of sexual abuse since this book was first published.

Reviewing the extensive research literature that demonstrates the validity of incest survivors’ sometimes repressed and recovered memories, she convincingly challenges the rhetoric and methods of the backlash movement against incest survivors, and the concerted attempt to deny the events they find the courage to describe.

3 thoughts on “Father-Daughter Incest – Judith Lewis Herman

  1. This must have been such a difficult book to read, and important too. We definitely need more openness about this subject.

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    • It was really hard to read. I found it helped reading the statistics and mentions of previous studies. It gave it the feel of a textbook so I was able to spend some of the time thinking about it intellectually rather than entirely emotionally.

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  2. Pingback: Book Haul – June 2021 – Schizanthus Nerd

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