Incest: a new perspective

Writing about Cleopatra, a while back, I’d noted that there wasn’t an incest taboo in Roman Egypt. Not many people say anything about incest, we tend to avoid the subject, so after that I got asked to say a bit more. When I was commissioned to write a whole book I had to begin trying to think systematically. Clarity on this topic proved strangely elusive.

According to the evidence, incest is widespread in societies throughout the world. So why do we go on claiming that the incest taboo is the foundation of civil society?  

What has kept us blind? 

With Incest: a new perspective I set out to confront this confusion. Instead of turning away from a forbidden topic, I invite readers to think and to raise questions concerning this critical issue of public health.

I ask what kinds of damage are linked with incestuous acts and relationships? What drives lie behind them?

Attempting to respond to these questions, I begin with the testimony of therapists and of their patients, drawing on the work of Judith Herman, Estela Welldon, Ian Suttie and Sandor Ferenczi.

I move outside the consulting room, to situate incest and abuse in its wider context, exploring stories around incest created by film-makers and novelists, by Bergman, Tennessee Williams, Nabokov, Toni Morrison and Arundhati Roy. 

Reading these sources alongside each other, a new picture of the human world and of the place of incest within it begins to emerge. From that angle, incest looks more like a direct product of civilisation than a breach of it:

Under civilisation, discouraging the wish for tenderness in boys is common, like keeping fathers apart from their children while giving mothers total responsibility and unique power over their children in the home. 

But by denying the fundamental human need for loving intimacy, these arrangements go against nature and lay the ground for violent reaction. Incest and sexual abuse are only one of the forms this reaction can take: another is the abuse of power by mothers and teachers who terrorise children with the threat of divine punishment. 

Having once named these dangers, when I began to research Rudyard Kipling’s life some years later, I was able to see his childhood experience and that of his younger sister, Trix, as part of a wider pattern, separated as they were from their parents and helpless in the power of a sadistic foster-mother, who was also pious. 

I asked myself whether the pain they suffered in those early days played out as damage in their later lives. Those questions led to my next book, my novel Kipling and Trix.