Deeply disturbing to read, disquieting to have lying about in the house, but a hugely important book in terms of serving the women who have held their incest secrets for far too long. What are you going to do if/when someone close to you tells you their incest secret? This book will help you decide on an appropriate response. "Denial has always been the incestuous father's first line of defense" Herman notes. Will you believe the father or the daughter?
The author met Lisa Hirschman first in 1975 when they were beginning their clinical practice and saw multitudes of women who had experienced incest. Most of those women patients had remained silent. Herman and Hirschman credit the women's liberation movement with finally having changed our cultural bias to favor the victim. There are two traditional beliefs at play which favored the abuser: 1. He did no harm, he says, and 2. He was not to blame.
On the question of harm, sociologist James Ramey writing in a 1979 SIECUS newsletter, expressed more concern for the harm of official recognition and punishment of incest than for the act itself. Men's magazines continue to make this point as do those few psychoanalytic holdovers in the field of psychiatry. These arguments ignore the question of power in the parent-child relationship.
The authors do a good job of explaining the culture in terms of patriarchal domination. The homes studied were very traditional homes with full-time mothers. These mothers had spent a significant period of time being ill, were often separated from social supports, had larger families than average (3.6 children each), and experienced very little power in the domestic relationship. Often the fathers abused alcohol. Mothers and daughters were alienated. Almost all the fathers were feared in their homes; but viewed outside it, they were seen to be good-tempered, amiable, if not downright meek. These men knew they were least likely to be opposed in their own homes by their own daughters and exploited that reality. They were often charming to their daughters who felt like "Daddy's little princess."
The author discredits the psychoanalytic bias which had portrayed daughters as seductive. Homes with overt incest as well as homes with covert incest--seductive fathers who stopped short of intercourse--were often homes where rivalry existed between mothers and daughters for father's attention. Mothers and daughters were deeply alienated. My own reflexive response had been, `How could a mother not know?' which turns out to be the question the victims had as well. Herman came to the same conclusion as Karen Horney in stating that only when the women had overcome their bitterness towards their mothers could they respect women including themselves.
Read the book to learn how to get through the crisis of disclosure and help to restore families.